The battle for the soul of Occupy Wall Street

Mark Binelli writes: In early February, Marisa Holmes, a 25-year-old anarchist who had been one of the core organizers of Occupy Wall Street, was contacted by an assistant of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield – yes, that Ben and Jerry – looking to set up a conference call. Over the course of Occupy’s long winter hibernation, when friends and foes alike wondered if the movement, not even six months old, had already lost its way, Ben and Jerry decided OWS needed a professional fundraising arm. The pair calculated that it would be possible, with help from fellow liberal activists like former Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg, to infuse nearly $2 million into the movement, in the form of grants to various Occupy projects around the country and a permanent headquarters for OWS in New York.

But Ben and Jerry heard that Holmes and other members of Occupy had been expressing concerns. Holmes grew up in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, in a liberal, upper-middle-class family not so different, sensibility-wise, from the world of the ice cream moguls. Her father is an attorney; when Holmes was 14, she helped work on his campaign for city council. But since then, she’d become far more radical than her parents. For a while, she lived in a communal house in Detroit; last May, enthralled by the Arab Spring, she decided to travel to Egypt by herself, mere months after the uprising in Tahrir Square, to shoot a documentary, though she didn’t speak a word of Arabic. In September, she bedded down in Zuccotti Park from the very first night of the Occupation, invited down by her friend David Graeber, the brilliant anarchist academic who has been credited with coming up with the slogan “We are the 99 percent.”

Holmes herself is tiny, sleepy-eyed and temperamentally uncompromising. The latter trait can be tedious, like when she facilitates Occupy meetings and has people go around the room and state their names and gender-pronoun preferences, but also awesome, like the time Russell Simmons stopped by Zuccotti Park and wanted to be bumped up on the speakers’ list and Holmes told him, “Are you crazy? You’re number 12. Get used to it!” The conference call, suffice it to say, did not go well. Ben and Jerry seemed confused by her objections. “They said, ‘What’s the problem? Don’t you want our money and support?’ ” Holmes recalls. Occupy had been founded on anarchist principles of “horizontalism” – leaderless direct democracy, most poetically embodied in the People’s Microphone. “They didn’t get that it was a problem to create a hierarchical nonprofit institution and pick out leaders,” Holmes went on. “I was nice to them at first, but finally I said, ‘I know that’s how you’ve done things in the past, but that’s not how we’re doing it.'”

Holmes was especially wary of the offer because money had already proved so divisive within Occupy. The group had been flooded with donations in the wake of the police actions of the fall, but soon found itself consumed with squabbles over how to spend it. And petty bickering over things like subway MetroCards had highlighted not only tactical questions about what Occupy’s next move should be, but a more existential crisis. Having so suddenly and unexpectedly captured the world’s attention, now the question arose: What, exactly, would Occupy become? [Continue reading…]

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