Tahrir on Wall Street

Saturday evenings, on the south side of Tompkins Square Park in New York City, there has been a meeting happening. About a hundred people are clumped in an ovular mass around a banner, spray-painted with the words “NYC General Assembly.” Some have been coming for weeks, and others are there for the first time. Still more are the ones who, while passing through the park, stop to collect around the edges and ask someone, in a whisper, just what is going on.

These meetings began in early August—further downtown, originally—in response to a call put out by the anti-consumerist group Adbusters, taking the form of a Twitter hashtag: #occupywallstreet. Adbusters also set a date, September 17th, and made a poster, depicting a female dancer atop the Charging Bull sculpture, with riot police half-visible through tear gas in the background. It also offered a practical suggestion: “Bring tent.” (Actually, perhaps don’t, if you want to stay within the law.)

Beyond that, though, it’s up to others to make something actually come to pass. And that’s why these meetings started—together with a family of Facebook pages, websites, and posters that have sprung up more or less independently, with their sights set on bringing the revolutionary spirit of 2011 to the United States. Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Libya, Greece, Spain, Israel—and now here.

The regulars at the General Assembly are mainly young, or young-at-heart, with more than a quorum of artists, students, and various stripes of long-haul activist. They’re maneuvering with a cumbersome consensus process, which has so far inhibited every effort to state what exactly they stand for. They’re united mostly by an aesthetic: occupation, then transformation. So on goes the preparation for the downtown sleepover trip in mid-September. They hear reports from working groups responsible for food, tactics, websites, outreach, and art. There’s word of solidarity statements from the Indignados of Spain and the hacker network Anonymous, as well as stories from the streets of Athens. Drunken revelers in polo shirts pass by; one plays Duck-Duck-Goose with assemblers seated cross-legged on the ground, and another wields a broken beer glass and extolls the Now at the top of his lungs.

There is, it seems, something in the air these days. Lots of us aren’t so persuaded that what passes for politics on cable news lately—revivalist primary candidates and a program-slashing super committee—has the common good at heart. The neediest continue to suffer cutbacks, polluters get tax cuts, and what’s left in the pot, together with a generation of tired soldiers, gets shipped off to fight in endless wars. In the coming months, as budget cuts roll down and the War on Terror turns 10, groups like the General Assembly are out to take politics back.

Earlier this month in front of the White House, environmental activists and committed others undertook the largest act of civil resistance in decades, trying to stop the construction of a massive oil pipeline from Canada. Meanwhile, I’ve also been sitting in on planning meetings for a group intending to occupy DC’s Freedom Plaza, beginning October 6th. They’re older, more practiced, and better-organized than the General Assembly, besides having had a head start and more time to grow. They’re trying to ensure that each action builds on each other over the next few months, gathering momentum into a movement.

Even Al Gore said in early August that we need an “American Spring.” It looks like he won’t have to wait; we seem to be headed for an #AmericanAutumn.

Adbusters' original July call for #occupywallstreet.

In the fashion of Egypt’s Tahrir Square, where the demand to unseat Hosni Mubarak united feminists with the Muslim Brotherhood, and internet kids with labor unions, each of these groups is trying to bring out the hidden unity beneath the habitual partisanship of American society. “What is our one demand?” the Adbusters call asks.

The General Assembly doesn’t plan to decide on this until Wall Street. Alexa O’Brien, who leads a group called US Day of Rage, is hoping to get big money out of political campaigns, and she’s orchestrating protests around the country to do it. At the August 20th meeting, a man using the well-worn activist pen name “Luther Blissett” circulated a series of detailed taxation proposals in photocopied packets. But for many there, such demands are beside the point. The point, instead, is to create a new system entirely, to simply hold an ongoing General Assembly like this one on Wall Street, and to replace the rule of skyscraper boardrooms and exchange floors with the rule of ordinary people, on the ground.

“This is not,” explains Athens-born artist Georgia Sagri, “a single act in order for us to have a single demand. This is about how we can create open, horizontal political conditions for everyone.”

As the Assembly was embroiled in an especially wrenching dispute about infighting in the internet working group, Ellen Davidson and Tarak Kauff arrived to see how it was going. They’re both longtime activists, now chief organizers of the October 6th occupation, and they’d just come from an afternoon of coalition-building up in Harlem. Kauff was one of the eldest people in sight, an army veteran from the early 1960s who can still do a hundred pushups. He wore a black, tight-fitting shirt that said “we will not be silent” in Arabic and English. Exasperated, I updated him on what had been going on for the past few hours: plodding, hurt feelings, and a few loudmouths dominating the discussion. I was almost ready to scoff the whole thing off. But none of this seemed to surprise or trouble him.

“It’s really, really hard,” he said, in an old New Yorker’s accent, with a knowing smile and not a hint of cynicism. “I think it’s just great what they’re trying to do. They’re doing fine.”

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.