By Daniel Immerwahr, September 20, 2021
Protest speaks a language of forceful insistence. “Defund the police,” “Build the wall”—the unyielding demands go back to Moses’ “Let my people go.” So it was curious when the July 2011 issue of the Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters ran a cryptic call to arms: a ballerina posing atop the famous Charging Bull statue on Wall Street, with the question “What is our one demand?” printed above her in red. The question wasn’t answered; readers were only told, “#OccupyWallStreet. September 17th. Bring tent.”
In retrospect, it’s astonishing that such a vague entreaty worked, especially since Adbusters declined to organize the action. After issuing the call, the magazine had “almost nothing to do with it,” its cofounder admitted. Instead, an unaffiliated group called New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, composed largely of socialists, announced a planning meeting the next month at Bowling Green in Manhattan’s financial district. The meeting was tacked on to a protest the group had organized against Republican attempts to enforce the federal debt ceiling and gut social services.
“They were going to make speeches, and then we were going to march under waving banners,” said the anarchist David Graeber, who attended the meeting. “Who fucking cares?” Graeber and some like-minded thinkers defected to the other side of the park, sat in a circle, and discussed less hierarchical possibilities. “We quickly determined we had no idea what we were actually going to do,” he recalled. And yet it was this freewheeling collection of anarchists, Zapatistas, and squatters that formed the organizational seed of Occupy Wall Street, an explosive movement that held Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan for two months, made headlines, and set off more than 200 occupations globally.