Occupy Wall Street, Re-energized: A Leaderless Movement Plots a Comeback

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Justin Lane / EPA

Occupy Wall Street protesters gather in New York City's Union Square during a "Day of Action" on Nov. 17, 2011

Excerpted from What Is Occupy? Inside the Global Movement, a new book from the editors of TIME. To buy a copy as an e-book or a paperback, go to time.com/whatisoccupy.

In a society in which we're used to taking direction from Presidents and CEOs, captains and quarterbacks, Occupy Wall Street's leaderless structure seems like a formula for chaos. And yet nearly a month after protesters were evicted from the movement's birthplace in Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan the exercise in organized anarchy is still going strong. On Tuesday, Occupy Wall Streeters in 20 cities across the country marched in neighborhoods that have been hardest hit by foreclosures. In East New York, Brooklyn, about 400 protesters broke into a foreclosed vacant property and moved in a family that was homeless after losing their house to a bank.

Since the Nov. 15 eviction, much of New York Occupy Wall Street group's day-to-day activities have moved inside. Occupy Wall Streeters have moved in to a donated small office space in downtown Manhattan, with desks for about 50 workers. Crowds have dwindled, particularly at Zuccotti Park, where protesters are allowed to gather, but no longer sleep. Organizers say a smaller but more dedicated group is now doing much of the work of planning marches and deciding Occupy Wall Street's next moves.

Nonetheless, as it has been since the beginning of the movement, the leaderless structure appears to be working. Crowds come together on cue. Messages go out to the media. Lawsuits are filed. Funds are raised (more than $500,000 by the end of November). And the silliest ideas, like building an igloo city in Central Park, get voted down. "There have been challenges, but generally the group has been effective," says Marina Sitrin, a sociologist who has written a book on leaderless movements and is an active member of Occupy Wall Street. "The lack of leadership has been able to get more people engaged in the process, which I think shows how effective it has been."

So how does Occupy Wall Street make all this happen with no titles and no corner offices? By organizing as a network of dozens of working groups, Occupy Wall Street keeps its participants focused on particular tasks they can perform with autonomy and attention to detail. A look at the division of labor:

Idea Generation
The only power at first was the power of suggestion. Kalle Lasn, editor of the Canadian anticonsumerist magazine Adbusters, coined the name Occupy Wall Street and called for protesters to fill the streets of lower Manhattan. Catchy idea, but how to organize this? In August 2011, about 100people showed up in lower Manhattan to talk about it, on the same day that Washington faced a government shutdown deadline because of gridlock over the federal budget deficit. Activists gave windy speeches calling for a list of demands, like a massive jobs program. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, David Graeber, an anarchist and influential activist, didn't like what he heard. He and a few others broke off from the group, formed a circle and started organizing the Sept. 17 march on Wall Street. Graeber proposed the slogan "We Are the 99%."

By the end of the afternoon, nearly everyone had abandoned the original rally for Graeber's less formal discussion group, which became the model for Occupy's governing system. Meanwhile, untitled leader Lasn maintained the flow of ideas from up north. In early November, Lasn told a Canadian radio program that it would be a good idea for the Occupiers to leave the park before frustration and violence erupted. "Now that winter is approaching, I can see this first wild, messy, crazy Occupation phase kind of slowly winding down." He was right about the Occupation phase ending, but not slowly.

The People's Congress
Occupy Wall Street makes its decisions by consensus at what started as a nightly meeting called the general assembly. The group now holds general assembly meetings every other day, which are sometimes in Zuccotti Park or in an indoor public space on Wall Street. Attendance, though, has significantly shrunk to around 100 people a night, from as many as 1,500 before the police cleared the park. Facilitators run the meetings, but anyone is allowed to sign up to make proposals. Crowd members show approval by holding their hands up and wiggling their fingers. Downward wiggling fingers means you don't approve. Anyone can raise a finger to make a point. Rolling fingers means it's time to wrap it up. Since no bullhorns are allowed, the crowd repeats everything every speaker says, a technique dubbed the "people's mic," which has become a signature of the movement.

While the general assembly gets decisions made, a by-product is recruitment. At a time when many people believe government isn't working, the general assembly gives a sense of true democracy. A bit too much, in fact, as the group grew larger, the meetings began to drag on and become more about fund distribution than what the movement was about. "General assemblies need to go back to what they first were, which was a movement-building body," says Chris Longenecker, an original member. "They get people excited." In October 2011, when the general assemblies were pared back to every other night, a smaller spokescouncil was created to make some of the group's decisions.

Getting the Word Out
The revolution has not only been televised; it has also been tweeted, Tumblred and streamed. The Occupiers, mostly in their 20s, have been heavy users of social media to get their message to friends and the rest of the world. By November the group's Twitter account had more than 125,000 followers. Occupy Wall Street has two main websites: one that makes official statements, and another devoted to the group's meetings and day-to-day activities. The latter features a calendar of events and a list of Occupy's dozens of working groups, along with chat boards. According to that website in November, the media working group had 310 members and the Internet group 365.

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