The post-Zuccotti era of Occupy Wall Street began for Max Berger just after 1 a.m. on November 15, when he learned via text message that a forcible eviction of the park was close at hand. At 26, Berger is a redheaded Reed College alum and professional activist; his employers have included the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Van Jones’s outfit, Rebuild the Dream. By hard-core standards, he had come late to the OWS action, not visiting the park until a week after the protest got going on September 17. But Berger found himself sucked in and became one of its central players. Now, with Zuccotti under siege, he raced to the park and fired off a series of frantic tweets—before being put in handcuffs. “People singing Marley!” “Press not being let in. This is gonna be some Tiananmen shit.” “They can take this park, but they can’t stop this movement. This will backfire. We will win.”
Berger’s optimism was shared by his OWS cohorts. Upset as the organizers were about losing the symbolic value of the encampment at Zuccotti, the way it happened—in a late-night raid by police in riot gear, with reporters denied access and even arrested—had its own symbolic oomph. The organizers thought, too, that the eviction would confer another benefit: catalyzing turnout for the next major OWS demonstration, which was scheduled to take place two days later. And although the “day of action” on November 17 failed to shutter the stock exchange, the demo’s marquee goal, the show of force in Gotham was impressive—and replicated on a smaller scale in cities around the country.
When histories of Occupy Wall Street are written, those days in November will no doubt be seen as a watershed. In just two months of existence, OWS had scored plenty of victories: spreading from New York to more than 900 cities worldwide; introducing to the vernacular a potent catchphrase, “We are the 99 percent”; injecting into the national conversation the topic of income inequality. But OWS had also suffered setbacks. The less savory aspects of the occupations had provided the right with fuel for feral slander (Drudge: “Death, Disease Plague ‘Occupy’ Protests”) and casual caricature. Even among some protesters, there was a sense that stagnation had set in. Then came the Zuccotti clampdown—and the popular perception that it meant the end of OWS.
It’s perfectly possible that this perception will be borne out, that the raucous events of November 17 were the last gasps of a rigor-mortizing rebellion. But no one seriously involved in OWS buys a word of it. What they believe instead is that, after a brief period of retrenchment, the protests will be back even bigger and with a vengeance in the spring—when, with the unfurling of the presidential election, the whole world will be watching. Among Occupy’s organizers, there is fervid talk about occupying both the Democratic and Republican conventions. About occupying the National Mall in Washington, D.C. About, in effect, transforming 2012 into 1968 redux.
The people plotting these maneuvers are the leaders of OWS. Now, you may have heard that Occupy is a leaderless uprising. Its participants, and even the leaders themselves, are at pains to make this claim. But having spent the past month immersed in their world, I can report that a cadre of prime movers—strategists, tacticians, and logisticians; media gurus, technologists, and grand theorists—has emerged as essential to guiding OWS. For some, Occupy is an extension of years of activism; for others, their first insurrectionist rodeo. But they are now united by a single purpose: turning OWS from a brief shining moment into a bona fide movement.
That none of these people has yet become the face of OWS—its Tom Hayden or Mark Rudd, its Stokely Carmichael or H. Rap Brown—owes something to its newness. But it is also due to the way that Occupy operates. Since the sixties, starting with the backlash within the New Left against those same celebrities, the political counterculture has been ruled by loosey-goosey, bottom-up organizational precepts: horizontal and decentralized structures, an antipathy to hierarchy, a fetish for consensus. And this is true in spades of OWS. In such an environment, formal claims to leadership are invariably and forcefully rejected, leaving the processes for accomplishing anything in a state of near chaos, while at the same time opening the door to (indeed compelling) ad hoc reins-taking by those with the force of personality to gain ratification for their ideas about how to proceed. “In reality,” says Yotam Marom, one of the key OWS organizers, “movements like this are most conducive to being led by people already most conditioned to lead.”
And so in coffee shops and borrowed conference rooms around the city, far from the sound and fury in the park and on the streets, the prime movers have been doing just that—meeting, planning, talking (and talking) about the future of OWS. The debates between them have been fierce. Tensions have been laid bare, factions fomented, and ideological cleavages exposed—all of it a familiar recapitulation of the growing pains experienced by protesters of the past, from those in favor of civil rights and against the Vietnam War in the sixties to those fighting for workers’ rights in the thirties.