Mon, Sep 24, 2012 - Page 12 News List

Things fall apart

Infighting, a loss of focus and an inability to make decisions — Occupy Wall Street has become a combustible microcosm of the society that they tried to change

By Meghan Barr  /  AP, New York

An Occupy Wall Street protester holds up a mock debt note at a protest on Sept. 17 in San Francisco.

Photo: AFP

Occupy Wall Street began to disintegrate in rapid fashion last winter, when the weekly meetings in New York City devolved into a spectacle of fistfights and vicious arguments.

Punches were thrown and objects were hurled at moderators’ heads. Protesters accused each other of being patriarchal and racist and domineering. Nobody could agree on anything and nobody was in charge. The moderators went on strike and refused to show up, followed in quick succession by the people who kept the meeting minutes. And then the meetings stopped altogether.

In the city where the movement was born, Occupy was falling apart.

“We weren’t talking about real things at that point,” says Pete Dutro, a tattoo artist who used to manage Occupy’s finances but became disillusioned by the infighting and walked away months ago. “We were talking about each other.”

The trouble with Occupy Wall Street, a year after it bloomed in a granite park in lower Manhattan and spread across the globe, is that nobody really knows what it is anymore. To say whether Occupy was a success or a failure depends upon how you define it.

Occupy is a network. Occupy is a metaphor. Occupy is still alive. Occupy is dead. Occupy is the spirit of revolution, a lost cause, a dream deferred.

“I would say that Occupy today is a brand that represents movements for social and economic justice,” says Jason Amadi, a 28-year-old protester who now lives in Philadelphia. “And that many people are using this brand for the quest of bettering this world.”

On Monday of last week, protesters converged near the New York Stock Exchange to celebrate Occupy’s anniversary, marking the day they began camping out in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan’s financial district. Marches and rallies in more than 30 cities around the world commemorated the day.

About 300 people observing the anniversary have marched over the past few weeks, and at least a dozen were arrested, mostly on charges of disorderly conduct, police said.

But the movement is now a shadow of its mighty infancy, when a group of young people harnessed the power of a disillusioned nation and took to the streets chanting about corporate greed and inequality.

Back then it was a rallying cry, a force to be reckoned with. But as the encampments were broken up and protesters lost a gathering place, Occupy in turn lost its ability to organize.

The movement had grown too large too quickly. Without leaders or specific demands, what started as a protest against income inequality turned into an amorphous protest against everything wrong with the world.

“We were there to occupy Wall Street,” Dutro says. “Not to talk about every social ill that we have.”

The community that took shape in Zuccotti Park still exists, albeit in a far less cohesive form. Occupiers mostly keep in touch online through a smattering of Web sites and social networks. There are occasional conference calls and Occupy-affiliated newsletters. Meetings are generally only convened to organize around specific events, like the much-hyped May Day event that ultimately fizzled last spring.

The movement’s remaining US$85,000 in assets were frozen, though fundraising continues.

“The meetings kind of collapsed under their own weight,” explains Marisa Holmes, a 26-year-old protester among the core organizers who helped Occupy rise up last fall. “They became overly concerned with financial decisions. They became bureaucratic.”

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