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Occupy Wall Street: The Future And History, So Far


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Last September 17th, a few hundred protestors camped out in a previously obscure corner of Lower Manhattan. Within a few weeks, Occupy Wall Street spread beyond Zuccotti Park to dozens of cities across the country and to college campuses, as well.

Most of the encampments have since been dismantled, but in the space of just a few months, Occupy changed the conversation and many people's lives. This month's issue of Vanity Fair collected some accounts of the Occupy movement. Today, we're going to get some oral history with three guests. Obviously, no individual or small group can speak for such a large movement that by its nature had no hierarchy and no leaders.

So we want to hear from other occupiers, as well, too. If you participated, what happened that you're going to remember? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, spin-tweets, and see if you can send us a review of a classic album in 140 characters. Tweet us @totn or send us an email. The address there again is talk@npr.org.

But first, Kalle Lasn is the editor and founder of Adbusters, the reader-supported Canadian magazine that ignited the idea for Occupy Wall Street, and he joins us by phone from his home in Vancouver. Nice to have you with us today.

KALLE LASN: Yes, hello.

CONAN: And give us some help: How did the name originate?

LASN: You mean Adbusters?

CONAN: No, Occupy Wall Street.

LASN: We were inspired for years by the anarchists in Greece and then later on by what happened there in the (foreign language spoken) of Spain, and then when Tunisia and Egypt happened, then we thought that it was the right moment to have kind of a soft regime change in America, as well, and we came up with this hashtag Occupy Wall Street and then a few posters, that famous poster of the ballerina on top of the bull with that cut line above it saying what is our one demand?

And then we chose that 17th of September, and after that, it just had a life of its own. And in addition to what you said in your intro, I mean, it wasn't just in America. It crept across the border to Canada, and in the middle of October last year, it was happening in over 1,000 cities all around the world.

CONAN: And to the degree that it was your brainchild, it must have, well, blossomed.

LASN: Well, you know, this - I remember 1968, that was one of the really great moments of my life, when a small uprising in the Latin Quarter of Paris suddenly exploded into hundreds of campuses and protests around the world. And I must admit that what happened in New York and especially Zuccotti Park last year felt like 1968 all over again but this time in much more serious and critical times.

CONAN: You are there in Canada. Did you ever visit Zuccotti Park?

LASN: Well, the occupation, after a few weeks, came here to Vancouver. We had an Occupy Vancouver, and I got a first - you know, a hands-on taste of what it's all about.

CONAN: You mentioned 1968, and of course those were - I'm old enough to remember 1968, too.


LASN: Are you?

CONAN: And those were indeed dramatic times. But in the end, 1968 did not fundamentally change things.

LASN: Right, right, right, yeah, but it was a moment when it was really cool to be a leftie, and I have a feeling that right now we're also at the beginning of a moment when it's really cool to be suddenly on the political left, and I think we'll be strutting our stuff in a way that the people back in 1968, with their more vertical models of how to protest and how to get things down, compared to this much more horizontal model that the young lefties of today have with their social media.

And I think that this time, you know, we fizzled out in '68, and I think to a large degree we fizzled out in - after the battle in Seattle, as well. But this time, I predict that we are not going to fizzle out.

CONAN: Soft regime change, this clearly off the precedent of Tahrir Square in Egypt.

LASN: Yes, and of course in Egypt, I mean, they had a dictator, and he was torturing his people in police stations around Egypt, you know, for years. And the regime change that happened there was a kind of a hard regime change, I guess you could call it.

But in the United States, I mean, there is also a kind of a regime, and it's kind of an oppressive regime, you know, it - certain very rich people and financial-type people on Wall Street who control much of the economy, and in Washington, D.C., you have corporations and lobbyists somehow controlling a lot of the laws that are passed and the policies that are implemented.

And every day in our lives, you know, the food we eat and the medical attention we get, and every aspect of our life is somehow controlled by megacorporations. And certainly brainstorming with occupiers in America, I have this feeling that, you know, a soft regime change in America is something that a lot of people feel very strongly about.

CONAN: We're talking with Kalle Lasn, editor and founder of Adbusters based there in Vancouver, where he joins us by phone, one of the groups that helped organize and inspire the Occupy Wall Street movement.

And there was a moment when the domain name was taken. How did that happen?

LASN: It's - I mean, we came up with #OccupyWallStreet, and then we registered occupywallstreet.org, and then after that, of course, it exploded into all kinds of Twitter feeds and into all kinds of websites. But this is just something that came out of our brainstorming sessions.

CONAN: And when you say our, how many people were involved?

LASN: Well, you know, AdBusters, we only have 10 fulltime people working for AdBusters Media Foundation, but then we have a few hundred people who are artists and writers and campaign managers and so on, people who feed into our system.

And then we have a culture-jammers network on our website, which has over 90,000 activist members all around the world. So when we put out one of our tactical briefings or call for some sort of a big bang in New York on September the 17th or like we're doing now calling for a big bang in Chicago in the month of May, you know, then we really, we can get the word out, and we can put these memes out into the world, and the memes will propagate, and sometimes they propagate wildly.

CONAN: We'd like to hear from those of you who occupied wherever, a little oral history today. What is it you're going to remember? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Carl's(ph) on the line calling us from Oakland.

CARL: Hi, Neal, how are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

CARL: Basically, my story, really quickly, is - a lot of my friends, we're in our mid-30s, we were watching this sort of from the news, and we weren't really involved, although we supported it because we've been affected strongly by the economy.

But what happened for a lot of us in Oakland is when the young Marine got hurt by the police escalation of violence, we were galvanized to go down there because we believe that there's a sort of a - almost an idiotic reverence for the police in a way that, in a way that there's a general consensus among the population that they should be able to do whatever they want to in order to quell a movement, which we felt very strongly about.

So me personally and some of my friends, we've been involved in various standoffs with the police, basically to show them that they don't rule it. And it has sort of degraded into like a cop-versus-us sort of situation. But at the end of the day, we feel like we need to get past that in order to make our statement, sort of no, and in order to make people pay attention to things like, you know, credit-default swaps and the way that the repeal of Glass-Steagall has affected us, et cetera.

So there's a lot of - and corporate personhood, all these issue that we have. But it's been downgraded to the police versus us because we feel like we need to get, we need to kind of get past that, and we need to - we need to voice something like hey, you can't be a cop and just attacking innocent people.

CONAN: No, I understand that, but Kalle Lasn, to the extent that in Oakland, and a few other places, as well, we should point out the great majority of these occupations were entirely peaceful, but in Oakland and some other places, and from time to time in New York, as well, it became the protestors against the cops.

LASN: Well, you know, I think the movement now is having a lot of dissention within it about demands, about leaders, about where to draw the line between violence and non-violence. And I think that what's happening is that the movement is becoming like a full-blown rainbow kind of a movement, with the Gandhian pacifists on the left and the people that want to continue the old model of sleeping in parks and doing that thing.

And then in the middle we have a growing bunch of people who, you know, and groups and myriad projects that do have leaders, that do have demands, and I think that's sort of one of the futures of the movement is to come up with a real positive program of political and social change.

And then on the righthand side of the rainbow, we have these militant people, these black-block people, the Oakland types who are really angry at the way the authorities are behaving. You know, the archetype of that, of course, is Bloomberg, who basically took out Zuccotti Park in the middle of the night while the occupiers were sleeping in a military-style operation.

So our movement now is becoming a full-rainbow movement with room for everybody.

CONAN: Let's go next to Alita(ph), Alita's with us from Jacksonville.

ALITA: Yes, hi, how are you?


ALITA: Well, for me it was very much an intergenerational thing. My nine-year-old and 12-year-old, I wanted them, as African-Americans, to see that even though in Jacksonville there aren't too many African-Americans, their history of civil rights movement, it has to occur that the youth also take ownership.

So my daughter played a role. She started to feel comfortable to get to the mikes, and she asked Jacksonville Occupy to start an education group, and they did. And I told Yaya(ph), you know, this is why we do this. If it's working-class, we are in this movement, and it's not about those in the '60s, it's about what needs to be enforced today.

So even that, we gave our blankets, they gave their book, "Here I Stand" and Malcolm X and of course "Time for Outrage" by Stephane Hessel. So my kids can say they take ownership, and Yaya's only 12 years old. And she knows that she has to - she played a role in that.

LASN: You know, I think that the core impulse behind this Occupy movement is this feeling that young people all around the world, I would guess that there's hundreds of millions of young people around the world who feel that their future does not compute, that their future is one big, black hole full of ecological and climate change crisis and a financial crisis that could well morph into a 1929-kind of a scenario and above all political crisis where the people who are supposed to fix all this are thoroughly corrupted by money.

And many, many, hundreds of millions of young people around the world feel that if they don't stand up now and fight for a different kind of a future, then they're not going to have a future. And that's why I think that this Occupy movement has long legs, and it will fragment into this whole rainbow that will then wash over the world.

CONAN: Alita, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it. And Kalle Lasn, thank you very much for your time today.

LASN: Oh, my pleasure.

CONAN: Kalle Lasn is editor and founder of Adbusters, a Vancouver-based magazine that helped inspire Occupy Wall Street. We're talking about the evolution of Occupy Wall Street from an idea born of frustration to the streets of New York and Oakland and many, many other places. We'll hear from Occupy Oakland in a few minutes.

If you participated, what happened that you are going to remember? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Five months after it began in an empty square in Lower Manhattan, most of the Occupy encampments across the country have been dismantled, many by police. Organizers point to spring and its promise of better weather as a chance to regroup.

At what appears to be a juncture(ph) for the Occupy movement, we're looking back at how it evolved, an oral history of Occupy Wall Street thus far. Vanity Fair recently published a fairly comprehensive history of the movement. You can find a link to that at our website. Go to npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

It's impossible to identify any one person or even any small group that can speak for such a large movement. By its nature there were no leaders, no hierarchy, so we want to hear from occupiers. If you participated, what happened that you're going to remember? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Sandy Nurse joined Occupy Wall Street in Manhattan on day one, September 17, 2011, and she joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

SANDY NURSE: Hi, how are you?

CONAN: I'm good, thanks. What can you tell us about that first day?

NURSE: Well, the first day was really interesting. I participated at the Bowling Green rally in downtown Wall Street, and then we went on a march and ended in Zuccotti Park, where there was a very large general assembly with about - a little over 200 people. They had different breakout groups about what this day meant to them, and what could it possibly mean to occupy.

And then there was a decision made for people to stay, and about 100 people decided to stay the night.

CONAN: And had you brought a sleeping bag or anything like that?

NURSE: I actually did not. The first night I didn't. We actually had a friend of ours run to Yonkers and go grab us some stuff.

CONAN: So there had been no premeditation, as it were?

NURSE: Well, I was skeptical. I was really skeptical.

CONAN: And what made you change your mind and stick around?

NURSE: Well, just seeing the amount of people come together and the conversations that were going on in the park, it really felt very vibrant and energetic. It was very interesting to me to see how many people had left their homes, their families, their jobs, their friends, their apartments. And it seemed to be this very colorful energy, and it was very - it was really seductive.

And it was really amazing to stay the night and wake up and see everyone come together and have a general assembly and talk about what we wanted to do moving forward.

CONAN: Do you know who picked Zuccotti Park?

NURSE: The way I understand it, and I'm speaking for myself only, is there was a small group of about three individuals who had several contingency plans, and Zuccotti was the third one.

CONAN: Plan C, as it were.

NURSE: Right.

CONAN: OK, or Plan Z, as it turned out. How were decisions made? From those first hundred people who stayed, it grew and grew and grew.

NURSE: Right, so Occupy Wall Street has kind of adopted the general assembly, which is just a type of public forum where people can come together and use a direct, a form of direct democracy and consensus to decide how they want to move forward on different issues or logistical things, about how to maintain the camp or to have conversations about larger political ideas.

And that's pretty much the model we've been using. There's also - later on there was a spokes-council formed which kind of worked to deal with kind of the day-to-day operations of the camp but is still functioning right now.

CONAN: It was interesting talking with Kalle Lasn just a minute ago. He said it was a moment when it was cool to be a leftie. Would you agree with that?

NURSE: I guess. It kind of made me laugh to hear that.


NURSE: I don't know if I'd call myself a leftie per se. But I think it felt really great to be in a space that was very intentionally - where people worked really hard to get rid of class and race and sexism and talk to each other in a way that was so inspiring, people from all walks of life, people who entered this space very much wounded from society and were all interested in talking to each other and sharing our experiences.

So it didn't necessarily feel like I was being a leftie. It just felt like I was being a human being who was relating to other human beings.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Jesse(ph), and Jesse's on the line from Columbus.

JESSE: Yeah, Columbus, Ohio, solidarity.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JESSE: Occupy has been a great thing for me. Here in Columbus, Ohio, we've been around for 122 days. I've been around for about 108 of those. We've done a lot here in Columbus, working hard to keep our occupation going in front of the state house. But I think the highlight for me was going down as part of a delegation to Occupy Congress and being able to occupy all three branches of government in one day.

CONAN: All three branches of government in one day?

JESSE: Yeah, we went from the Capitol Building to the Supreme Court to the White House on January 17.

CONAN: A banner day, no doubt. Congratulations, Jesse, thanks very much for the phone call.

JESSE: Thank you.

CONAN: Sandy Nurse, as we talk to you, there was a moment when celebrities started coming down to Zuccotti Park.

NURSE: Right, and I mean it was a real moment where we felt, wow, this thing is getting really big. We had, you know, Russell Simmons, Kanye West. There was the infamous day where Radiohead was supposedly going to show up. We had Roseanne, Naomi Klein. Tons of people came out. And that was great, and it was great for a lot of, you know, intellectuals to come and do teach-ins and share their thoughts about where they think this could go.

But it was also, you know, a platform, a stage. The park became a very, very large stage where a lot of people came and used that to be seen. But a lot of celebrities also were amazing in providing resources and not necessarily taking up a lot of space with their voices, which are normally heard, but really finding a way to allow other voices to be heard. So it was an interesting experience.

CONAN: Were you there when it was shut down by the police?

NURSE: The night that it was shut down by the police, it was actually the only night I had went home before 1:00 in the morning and turned right back around and got back on the train and got out of the subway station with some of my close friends having been pepper-sprayed in the face and not being able to reach the park because it had already been blocked off.

So it was a really sad day. It was a very violent day, where we couldn't see each other, and we couldn't help each other out.

CONAN: And where does it go next?

NURSE: Well, I mean that remains to be seen. But right now there's a flurry of activity around the country. Different occupation cities are working on different things. Here in New York, occupiers are still working around the clock, organizing a ton of things. There are different activities such as pop-up town squares, where people are going to public spaces and having teach-ins and skill-shares.

There are people organizing for re-occupation in the spring. There are people organizing for May 1, which is a day without the 99 percent. There's a ton of activity, and a lot of people are looking to the next few months to really come back strong.

CONAN: Thanks very much for your time today, appreciate it.

NURSE: Thanks.

CONAN: Sandy Nurse joined us from our bureau in New York. Let's go next to David, David on the line with us from Fairbanks in Alaska.

DAVID: Hello, how are you doing?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

DAVID: Yeah, I'm from Occupy Fairbanks. A couple weeks ago, we had a cold snap that was really horrible, it got down to 50 below. And I'm going to always remember staying in the tent. You know, we have a small wood stove in there, and, you know, we have to - people donate firewood, and that's the only way we could really keep this 24-hour vigil going, is because we have this tent with a stove.

Otherwise we would literally be getting frostbit and dying.

CONAN: At 50 below, you're continuing - even a tent with a wood stove, that's going to get pretty cold.

DAVID: Yeah, it gets a lot warmer at the top of the tent than at the bottom, and you have to rotate a lot to make sure that, you know, the side on the wall doesn't get cold. But, you know, you can do it. And we've had people donate winter gear, and, you know, I make sure to wear layers.

CONAN: How many people there in the tent?

DAVID: It's a one-person - it's about a one-person wall tent. You could fit three people if you tried sitting, but you usually have one person there at a time at least, and so you can lay down in it. We have a sleeping bag. So you know, you can use that too.

CONAN: OK, and how long are you planning to stay?

DAVID: As long as we need to. I mean, we've been out here - we put up the tent in November. We were in the park in October. So I mean, we're well into the summer, hopefully.

CONAN: Well, continued good luck, stay warm.

DAVID: All right, thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks very much. From Wall Street, Occupy across the country erupted, among other places, in Oakland. Nichola Torbett is director of the Seminary of the Street, a member of the interfaith tent at Occupy Oakland and joins us now from Youth Radio in downtown Oakland. Nice of you to be with us today.

NICHOLA TORBETT: Great to be here, Neal, thank you.

CONAN: And I understand you were in the first planning meeting in September, 2011. What was the first thing you did for Occupy Oakland?

TORBETT: I attended that meeting really just to see who was there and what it felt like, and it was the craziest thing. I remember, I think it was the Tuesday afternoon in a park that is usually pretty deserted at that time, and people kept coming and coming, and before the end we had 100 people just for a planning meeting in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon.

And I thought, well, something is happening here. So I just kept going back to the planning meetings, and then we actually kicked off here - we had chosen Indigenous People's Day, sometimes called Columbus Day, October 10th - as the launch, officially, of Occupy Oakland when we set up the tents.

CONAN: And it has been a tumultuous, at times, occupation.

TORBETT: It has. It's been the most fascinating ride of my life. I think I've learned more in the last four months than I have certainly in my adult life, just from the conversations and arguments and struggles that we've had while sticking together and maintaining our solidarity. It's been pretty incredible.

CONAN: There were moments when the police and the protesters - as somebody else called earlier and said - and sometimes it just became an issue of the protesters against the police.

TORBETT: It does appear that way from the outside. But, you know, even at that first planning meeting, we were talking about the police as part of the 99 percent, certainly as individuals, but, as institutionally in service to the 1 percent. So it's really about a confrontation with the violence of the status quo.

You know, we - the media likes to make much of somebody throwing a tear gas canister back at a police officer, but we don't talk much about the toxins that corporations are leaking into our groundwater, for example, as a form of violence, or of the manufacture of nuclear weapons that people are profiting from immensely as a form of violence. So I think the conflict with the police brings that conflict with violence into stark relief, and that's happened here.

CONAN: There was also outreach to labor unions, and in some respects, they supported the movement. In others, when, for example, some marched down to the port to try to close that down at various points, there was, well, at best, mixed success.

TORBETT: You know, I think that we mostly had the rank-and-file members of the union with us. There was some distancing from that move by leaders of the ILWU, which is the union that - it's for the dock workers - at the port because they, in their contract, are forbidden from striking. So they weren't able to say they were in solidarity with the general strike. But for the most part, we had many dock workers who were right out there with us, thanking us for being there.

CONAN: And what particular - the Seminary of the Streets. What's the interfaith group's role?

TORBETT: So I - my own organization is called Seminary of the Street, but I'm part of a larger coalition called the Interfaith Tent at Oakland. And we got really involved, I would say, after that first outbreak of police violence on October 25th at that point, and leading up to the general strike. We put up a tent. So we had people sleeping there overnight. I stayed there a couple of nights.

And we're sort of a place for activists who are involved to come and be nurtured, to come and touch in with their spiritual center. We did Bible studies. We did yoga. We did meditation. We were sort of inspired by the biblical idea of the tent of presence and meeting, the place where the Israelites, when they were wandering in the wilderness, would go to consult with the divine, and thought of ourselves sort of in that capacity.

And we've continued to maintain a presence - even after the camp was taken down a second time - on the plaza, where, you know, we can be available to meet with people and talk with people, and had an altar there to be sort of a spiritual safe place for people to come and talk.

CONAN: Well, Nichola Torbett, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

TORBETT: Thank you.

CONAN: Nichola Torbett, a member of the Interfaith Tent at Occupy Oakland, director of Seminary of the Street, with us today from Youth Radio in Oakland. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And let's go next to Bill, and Bill's on the line from Pensacola.

BILL: Yes. Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

BILL: Yes. I would say - I'm 54 years old. I consider myself politically a centrist. I got involved as an original facilitator with Occupy Pensacola with a lot of other people, along with my children. And I would say the most amazing thing to me was that being in an extremely conservative city of Pensacola - it's in Northwest Florida. It's...

CONAN: Home to a major naval air station.

BILL: Exactly. It's very military, very, very, very right wing. I was surprised at the support that we had. Our first gathering, we had over 500 people show up. And as we started to occupy and put up the tents, we had businesspeople showing up with food, money for tents for the homeless, and we had so much support. It was amazing. Even the police would privately say to us how much they support what we're doing. They couldn't do that publicly, though.

CONAN: Couldn't do it publicly. Bill, thanks very much. Let's see if we can go next to Tim, and Tim's on the line with us from Spokane.

TIM: Hi, Neal. Living on the red side of the blue state, I was really impressed that we actually beat Seattle with our Occupy movement in Spokane.

CONAN: A little rivalry there, but tell us about the first night there in Spokane.

TIM: It was a great conversation. We didn't have the numbers that a lot of other cities you've had on today had, but it was very peaceful. We were all there in solidarity. And to be honest, I was there at night, and we've had a lot - not a lot, but a little bit less turnout at night, but great people day and night.

CONAN: And is the encampment still going?

TIM: It is going. We actually moved up north. We found a little bit easier way to get the message out and a little bit more exposure.

CONAN: All right, Tim. Thanks very much. Appreciate it.

TIM: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's see if we get one more caller in - Brandon, Brandon with us from Charleston, South Carolina. We just have a few seconds, Brandon.

BRANDON: Hey, how are you doing?

CONAN: Go ahead.

BRANDON: Well, we had an occupation going here. It was broken up after the second night. We were arrested. But since then, we've kind of transformed into sort of a people's lobby. We've gotten involved with Charleston City Council. We go and speak about issues in underprivileged communities. Charleston's a very conservative town, and it's a place with great economic disparity. And a lot of people really feel like they haven't had a voice. And this is really - this movement has really provided a way for people to have a voice.

CONAN: And you're going to have another opportunity. I believe the Democratic Convention will be nearby.

BRANDON: That will be in Charlotte, North Carolina. It's a few hours away from here, but we will be participating in that, also. We stay very connected with the groups in North Carolina, in Georgia, and across our state, as well.

CONAN: Brandon, thanks very much.

BRANDON: No problem.

CONAN: Thanks to everybody who called from all the Occupy areas around the country and emailed us, as well. We're sorry we couldn't get to everybody's call. Coming up, can you really review an album in 140 characters or less? Spin magazine wants to give it a shot. We're going to put it to the test. Send us your review of a classic album in 140 characters. You could tweet us @totn, or send us an email: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.