An oral history of Occupy Wall Street

Vanity Fair: On September 17, several hundred people marched to an empty square in Lower Manhattan—a place so dull that the bankers and construction workers in the neighborhood barely knew it was there—and camped out on the bare concrete. They would be joined, over the next two months, by thousands of supporters, who erected tents, built makeshift institutions—a field hospital, a library, a department of sanitation, a free-cigarette dispensary—and did a fair amount of drumming.

It was easy to infer from the signs protesters carried what the grievances that gave rise to Occupy Wall Street were: an ever widening gap between rich and poor; a perceived failure by President Obama to hold the financial industry accountable for the crisis of 2008; and a sense that money had taken over politics.

The amazing thing about the Occupy Wall Street movement is not that it started—America was full of fed-up people at the end of 2011—but that it worked. With a vague agenda, a nonexistent leadership structure (many of the protesters were anarchists and didn’t believe in leaders at all), and a minuscule budget (as of December, they’d raised roughly $650,000—one-eighth of Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign haul), the occupiers in Zuccotti Park nevertheless inspired similar protests in hundreds of cities around the country and the world. What they created was, depending on whom you asked, either the most important protest movement since 1968 or an aimless, unwashed, leftist version of the Tea Party.

Occupy Wall Street quickly attracted intellectual celebrities—and, eventually, actual celebrities—but its founders were an unlikely assortment of stifled activists, part-time provocateurs, and people who simply had no place else to turn. There was Kalle Lasn, who ran an obscure Vancouver-based magazine called Adbusters with just 10 employees and an anti-consumerist agenda. Another key organizer, Vlad Teichberg, was a 39-year-old former derivatives trader who spent his weekends and evenings producing activist video art. David Graeber, an anthropologist at the University of London, quickly emerged as the movement’s intellectual force. If he was known at all, it was not for his anarchist theories or for his research into the nature of debt, but for being let go by Yale in 2005—in part, he believes, on account of his political leanings.

It is unclear whether the impact of Occupy Wall Street will be lasting or brief. But the story of how these unlikely organizers—and the activists, students, and homeless people who joined them—managed to seize control of the national conversation is remarkable, miraculous even. This is how it happened.

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