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As Occupy Enters Third Month, a Look at How Protesters Are Building a Global Movement

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As the Occupy movement approaches its two-month anniversary, we’re joined by two guests who are studying its strategies and successes. Author Jeff Sharlet helped found the group Occupy Writers and is assisting efforts to reestablish the evicted library at Occupy Wall Street. His recent article for Rolling Stone is “Inside Occupy Wall Street: How a Bunch of Anarchists and Radicals with Nothing but Sleeping Bags Launched a Nationwide Movement.” We also speak with Marina Sitrin, who is researching global mass movements from Spain to Egypt and has just returned from Greece. Sitrin says the Occupy movement’s assemblies offer a “radical, if not revolutionary, way of organizing… When we’re in our neighborhoods and come together and relate in that way, it’s more like alternative governance.” [includes rush transcript]

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StorySep 26, 2011Occupy Wall Street Protest Enters Second Week; 80 Arrested at Peaceful March
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on Occupy Wall Street and similar movements around the country and the world, we are joined by two people. Here in New York City, Marina Sitrin is with us, postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Globalization and Social Change at the City University of New York, author of Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina. She is researching global mass movements from Spain to Egypt and has just come back from Greece.

We’re also joined by Jeff Sharlet, contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine and Rolling Stone, also the author of a number of books, including the bestseller The Family and, most recently, Sweet Heaven When I Die. Jeff Sharlet is an assistant professor of English at Dartmouth College. His most recent article for Rolling Stone is called “Inside Occupy Wall Street: How a Bunch of Anarchists and Radicals with Nothing but Sleeping Bags Launched a Nationwide Movement.” He is also one of the founders of Occupy Writers.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jeff, OK, how did this group of what say are anarchists and radicals have launched a nationwide movement?

JEFF SHARLET: Well, I should say that that is the judgment of my editor at Rolling Stone, in his wise judgment, who chose the subtitle.

But, you know, in fact, it was actually sort of talking to Marina that I got a lot of insight into the early origins of this movement, which I wasn’t there for, you know, and especially those meetings, I think, that you would really go back to in August. And one of the things that I found most fascinating was a woman named Marisa Holmes, who I think has been on the show before and said, you know, at those early meetings, a lot of the traditional left groups walked out, and they weren’t there, and it left artists and media makers and writers and people who just were sort of thinking in terms of imagination rather than kind of very strict, you know, policy 10-point programs. And I think that’s key to what happened, is that imagination.

AMY GOODMAN: Occupy Writers, what are they?

JEFF SHARLET: Occupy Writers are late to the party, as writers usually are. And it was—grew out of precisely that sort of feeling, like, why aren’t—you know, seeing musicians and artists down in Zuccotti Park, why aren’t writers here? And some were, of course. And I kept thinking, you know, at least someone will start a letter, and I’ll sign that. And no one did. So it’s really through Twitter—and I don’t know Salman Rushdie, but I saw he was on Twitter, and one night I said, “Would you care to sign a letter if we had such a thing?” And he wrote back immediately with ideas and names and so on. And from there, it took on its own life. And now it’s 2,000 writers in support of the occupations. But they’re also going down there with their bodies, bringing books and writing new works—new poems from Alice Walker; Lemony Snicket, the children’s writer; writers famous and not famous. And that’s key, because the idea was to democratize literary culture, not reproduce one of those—those sort of, you know, sometimes sort of snooty pen letters that has, you know, just big names. Anyone can sign this letter. And you’ll be on there next to five U.S. poet laureates, but your book about the vegan zombie revolution, which is an interesting title—it’s on our list—will be right there in there, as well.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And the Occupy Wall Street library had something like over 5,000 books, but a number of them, if not all of them, were either confiscated or discarded in the raid day before yesterday. And now, apparently, there’s an attempt to reconstruct the library or reclaim it in some way?

JEFF SHARLET: It’s already happening. It was happening last night, you know. And as I understand it, Democracy Now! had the sort of the seed volume in that Brave New World that Amy found there. But when I was there last night, it was sort of growing. I mean, when I left at 3:00 a.m., it was up to about a hundred volumes. And there was another box off site. Now, they might be able to get the original collection back, which the city has been sort of cagey about. You know, it’s released a photograph of about 200 books, said they couldn’t release them because there was needles amongst them—you know, this kind of sort of silliness. Even if they don’t get them back—

AMY GOODMAN: And the tent, the shelter for the books, which was provided by—

JEFF SHARLET: That was destroyed.

AMY GOODMAN: —the National Book Award winner, rocker Patti Smith.

JEFF SHARLET: Yeah, yeah, that was destroyed. You know, this institution, this—and, you know, it’s important to recognize that that was the library for that part of the city. There’s not a library very close by there. Even, you know, oe of the protesters you quoted, saying—talking about going into Borders, not even Borders is there anymore. So you would see just families from the area bringing their kids to get children’s books. They might not be involved in the protest, but that was—this wasn’t—this was no longer even a parallel insitution. The main institutions had failed so completely, this was the institution.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Marina Sitrin, I just want to ask you what you think. You’ve just come back from Greece. You’re familiar with movements elsewhere. Given the raid, day before yesterday night, on Occupy Wall Street in New York, what do you think the trajectory of the movement should be now? How should they deal with this?

MARINA SITRIN: Yeah, I mean, these raids we’ve been seeing across the United States, and around the world, similarly, as the movements grow and grow in the plazas and the squares, the police come in and repress, and it doesn’t deter the movements. And, you know, similarly as in Greece, where I just was, I think the movements here will start to go more into neighborhoods, which we’ve already started to see happening. So, continuing to occupy a plaza or a park, that’s really significant and symbolic, but then, also, for example, in Athens, there are many, many neighborhood assemblies now dealing with local issues.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting you should say that, because last night at the general assembly, which was remarkable to see—I mean, well over a thousand people, and it went on for hours at Occupy Wall Street—one of the people in the stack—you know, they’re just sort of making announcements in the “stack,” is what they call it—got up and said, “Occupy your block.”

MARINA SITRIN: Exactly. I mean, that’s—exactly. And they’re actually finding, in Greece, for example, that by being more community-based, local-based, they can address specific needs more. So, for example, electricity is being taxed, so they’re working on making sure people don’t have their electricity cut off, preventing people from being evicted from their homes. So, similarly in Harlem, people have been working with Occupy Harlem in preventing people’s heat from getting cut off; in Occupy Bronx, it’s about preventing people from getting expelled from their homes—so, more and more kind of reterritorializing, but at the same time keeping a space where we can have our assemblies and exchange experiences from around the city. And I think, actually, it’s a much more radical, if not revolutionary, way of organizing, because when we just come to one plaza, we come to a plaza and have a gathering related to that space. When we’re in our neighborhoods and we come together and relate in that way, it’s more like alternative governance, which is I think what we’re seeing to a small extent in Greece now and in Spain, as well, similarly.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You’ve talked a lot about the horizontal nature of these movements. Can you explain a little bit what exactly that means and what some of the disadvantages might be of organizing in that way?

MARINA SITRIN: The horizontal nature—and this is something that people are speaking about all over the world, and the word “horizontal,” as well, so when I was in Greece, I was with someone from Argentina from the social movements, and they started talking about horizontalidad after their crisis in 2001. So, horizontal is relating to one another in, you know, this flat way, and people say not in this way, not—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, in other words, not hierarchical, but equal.

MARINA SITRIN: Not hierarchical, not usually using the language of hierarchical, but meaning we don’t want to have power over each other. Let’s think of a way of thinking differently about social relationships and creating power with one another, which doesn’t mean there’s not sometimes leadership or people with different experiences, but it’s not having power over one another. Some of the challenges to that can be, people come in, and we’re not heard in our society. We don’t have a real democracy. And that’s true globally. So people want to talk and want to talk a lot. And so, we have to think about structures to make sure everyone’s voice actually does get heard, which is why we have facilitation groups and different structures for these assemblies, so that everyone can get heard as equally as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, Jeff, another of the speakers last night at the general assembly said—as everyone talks about moving out from Zuccotti Park, from Liberty Plaza, I guess sort of the idea is “You can take us out of Liberty, but you can’t take liberty out of us.” One young man made the point, that was repeated over with the people’s mic, and over, “Let’s also keep this plaza because, otherwise, the police win. They see it as a very strong symbol. The world sees it as a symbol. It’s a place the world can come to, and so we shouldn’t let it go.”

JEFF SHARLET: Yeah, and I think that’s a feeling—that’s why there was people there through the night. And remember, they couldn’t lie down, they couldn’t have sleeping bags. You know, it was sort of people walking and trying to catch, you know, a few bits of sleep while they’re leaning against a tree or something like that. And they were there throughout the night. And it didn’t take a huge number, though, to keep occupying it. Just a few people still, you know, maintains that space.

But, you know, the one thing — and with complete respect for that individual who said, “and lest the police won” — my personal feeling is that that’s not as important, whether or not the police won. And I think, you know, that was the thing you saw at that general assembly last night. Here was this day of great police violence and brutality, you know, the rule of law completely forgotten, and the dominant emotion was not anger, it was happiness. That was one of the happiest general assemblies I had witnessed. It was joy. And so, there wasn’t so much of that, you know, squaring off with the cops. It was, we are creating our own thing here.

AMY GOODMAN: And there’s also a difference in who’s in charge now. Now, while there were a number of police, and especially as you walked away from the plaza, there were many, many police vehicles, actually surrounding the general assembly and Zuccotti Park last night was Brookfield Properties security. It’s now corporate security that is standing there, not clear exactly where they come from. But the Mayor has made very clear now they are in charge.

JEFF SHARLET: But when you talked to those guys, that was interesting, too. You know, you had guys who were ex-military. You had a lot of guys whose experience was as bouncers. You know, there’s that popular—I mean, the police are 99 percent, as well. Those guys are really—I mean, they don’t have any of the police protection—you know, any of the pension, the union, all that kind of stuff that police. And they were sort of, one by one—there was, you know, the angry guys, but there was a lot more of them who did not feel like doing this job. And you saw that break down. They had been ordered to sort of search bags as people came in, and they just stopped doing it. And, you know, so there was just that kind of nice sort of on-the-job resistance to even what they were being ordered to do.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Marina, you don’t have any—just to turn back to an issue that you brought up earlier, that if Zuccotti Park—people can’t stay there overnight any longer, and if the movement disperses to neighborhood assemblies, that somehow it will become more diffuse because of the lack of, I don’t know, physical solidarity?

MARINA SITRIN: I think, not at all. I mean, I think, absolutely, people are starting to organize more in neighborhoods. At CUNY on the 17th, there is going to be a massive action. In workplaces, people are talking about different kinds of actions—but still coming together.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yeah, apparently Columbia University last night, as well. There was Occupy Columbia.

MARINA SITRIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So both schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, but then, yes, coming together, as well, just like in Athens. I mean, learning from the experiences in Athens, it was both going to the neighborhoods, but then coming back to Syntagma Square and having assemblies of assemblies. So we had gatherings—I participated in gatherings from many different neighborhoods coming together to share experiences, learn from the Argentine experience, talk about New York.

So, in New York and all over the U.S., if we’re more in our neighborhoods, but then we also do come together—we have to—whether it’s in general assemblies or spokescouncils or whatever directly democratic form to reflect on our experiences and generalize out, I think that’s actually more powerful. But yes, holding—Liberty Plaza has become so important to people around the world. When I travel around the world, talk to friends in Argentina, everyone says, “You’re in the heart of the empire. Hold it.” So, whether we sleep there or not, I don’t know that that’s as significant, but that we have assemblies there, that we continue to make it a space that’s actually public, not the Brookfield Property private park, whatever that even means, but we continue to open spaces and make them more public spaces and commons for people, I think is what’s most important.

AMY GOODMAN: That actually is interesting, “whatever that means.” They say it is a public park that is owned privately. I wonder has anyone asked them to produce the note? You know, the whole idea with foreclosures, that you ask the bank to produce the note, and how often it was found, in fact, if you trace it back, no one actually has the actual documentation of who’s in charge.

JEFF SHARLET: Let’s foreclose on Brookfield? Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Talking about the different Occupy movements, among those supporting the Occupy Cal—California—movement in Berkeley is Pentagon Papers whistleblower Dan Ellsberg. He spoke to Democracy Now! correspondent John Hamilton last night about how he’s pitched a tent on the Mario Savio Memorial Steps at Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley. Last night, Robert Reich spoke, winning the Mario Savio Award, and he was addressing thousands. Yes, UC Berkeley, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I’m Dan Ellsberg. I’ve been arrested a few times before, but I’ve never seen a scene like this. Hard to believe that the police will try to shut this off, but we’ll be standing here to see if it happens. Some people were kind enough to bring me into one of their tents on Mario Savio Steps here in front of Sproul Hall. So I’m really honored to be with them for this.

JOHN HAMILTON: And Daniel Ellsberg, you’ll be staying here tonight on the steps of Sproul Plaza?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I’ll stay here tonight. When I heard the people had voted—by the way, I’ve never seen a group process like the general assembly tonight. They were—actually were voting, thousands of people here. It was an inspiring sight. I wouldn’t have thought it could happen. And I’m very pleased. It takes me back to the Rocky Flats Truth Force on the tracks. That was a place where we had a chance to sit on those tracks, because they didn’t take us off, except when the train was coming with nuclear material from Rocky Flats plutonium production facility. So we could have a continuous action, and we were able to stop the trains every time they came around for a year. Well, I haven’t seen anything like that since—that was 1978.

But this Occupy movement is an invention. I’m tempted to say it started here, but actually it came right from Egypt, and that from Tunisia. And actually, an inspiring thought to me is that the man who’s accused of putting out the State Department cables to WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning, who’s sitting in Leavenworth right now, one of his cables—in fact, several of his cables—was a major inspiration to the uprising, the nonviolent uprising, in Tunisia. So, one person can make—speaking out, can really make a very big difference. And, of course, Tunisia led directly to Tahrir Square and the occupation, that I think is the inspiration for all of these programs in America and around the world.

Frankly, it’s been a while since I’ve felt as much hope as I feel tonight. I’ve almost been reluctant to speak in public and let people know how hopeless I was—I felt at some times. And that mood has changed tonight. I don’t think it will go away. The young people are recreating the youth movement of the '60s, and the youth movement changed this country in the ’60s. And we haven't seen it really like this since then. So I have great, great hope for what’s coming out of this.

JOHN HAMILTON: Now, Daniel Ellsberg, you are, of course, well known for being the person who leaked the Pentagon Papers.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: That’s right.

JOHN HAMILTON: And you are a defender, therefore, of the right to free speech and the right to publish in this country, freedom of the press. We certainly saw the University of California last week lash out against students who were trying to express their opinions here on campus. Your thoughts about the behavior of the University of California towards the attempts of students to occupy their university?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: You know, I think the point that Mario Savio made so long ago was that an institution like this, and like the executive branch of the United States and the police and the Berkeley police, really can’t help themselves when it comes to being confronted with dissent like this. Their instinct to repress it is just irrepressible. You know, a new device of repression in this country in the last 10 years has been the zone of dissent at conventions and other places. The police mark off a particular street or put people behind a cage somewhere, you know, or behind fences, say, “You have your dissent here.” Well, this is our zone of dissent here, and we’re going to stand in it. That tent, where I’m spending the night, is a very nice zone of dissent, one that I’m proud to be in. And I’m not feeling constrained at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg helped to end the war in Vietnam, along with a major movement, as he released the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam. Nermeen?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Marina, can you talk a little bit, as we’ve just seen this clip from Occupy Cal, about how it is that different Occupy movements across the U.S. and globally are working together now?

MARINA SITRIN: It’s wonderful. I mean, the positives of globalization is how much we’re meeting each other around the world. So when I was in Greece with someone from Argentina, there were other people there who were from Egypt, who were exchanging experiences, and really concretely, talking about, “OK, well, in Argentina, how did you take over workplaces?How are they still horizontal? What does that look like? How do you keep your electricity on when the government tries to cut it off?” And similarly throughout the United States, I’ve been meeting people from all over who come to Occupy Wall Street. In Spain, there are people from Portugal. In France, there are people from London. And so, people are really exchanging concrete experiences, in particular in both what they’re creating, the forms we’re using for democracy, but also how to relate to the state.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you see these movements succeeding? For example, in Greece, where Greece stands right now?

MARINA SITRIN: I do, actually. I mean, it depends how you define success and what the goals are of the movements. So, most of these movements are not saying, “We want to take over the government right now.” It’s “We want to create alternatives and create better lives for ourselves, to create kind of the seeds of that alternative that we will be in the future.” And I do see that happening, yeah.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Do you see the resignations of the heads of state of Italy and Greece as a kind of victory for the protesters?

MARINA SITRIN: I think it’s because of the movements, but when I was in Greece, it was not the conversation. The conversation was about the neighborhoods and about real democracy. It was actually less about the government.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Sharlet, as all of these movements are taking place around the United States, you also have the Republican presidential campaign playing out, with every week, it seems, at least, a presidential debate. You wrote C Street. You wrote The Family. Talk about the Christian right. Talk about Tea Party activism, in relation to what we’re seeing now with the Occupy movement and what’s happening.

JEFF SHARLET: You know, the Christian right and Tea Party are sort of two different things, and the Tea Party is already sort of dissipating. It just didn’t—it wasn’t true that it was just astroturf; it really was a social movement. But they were eager to be co-opted. They were—you know, they were knocking on the door of the Koch brothers and saying, “Give us money.” And that’s what happened to them.

The Christian right is a bigger, broader social movement that grew, really—I mean, you can—wherever you date its beginning, that grew up, in large measure, in response to movements like Occupy Wall Street of the past, this sort of real fear of a kind of direct democracy, of people taking things into their own hands, and forgetting about the invisible hand of God on the market, you know, free market fundamentalism. And they’re still there. And I think we don’t see them very much right now, but as much as we get excited about this, I think we should understand that there is another big, broad, powerful and genuine social movement, in America and internationally, that’s as globalized, in many ways—you know, Christian right activists say, you know, “We’re teaming up with our allies in Ukraine and Nigeria and Uganda and so on.” I don’t want to present it as, you know, now these two duke it out, but they’re there. And, you know, what that means for the future, I think, is hard to say.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does it mean for Republican presidential politics? You had Texas Governor Rick Perry almost launching his presidential campaign at a prayer meeting.

JEFF SHARLET: Yeah, Perry’s, you know, he’s sort of like George Bush’s, a belief as a kind of sort of default, practical setting for Texas politics. It wasn’t very deep and wasn’t very aware. And he picked all the wrong characters. So, nobody sort of wanted to say it at the time, that, you know, you align yourself with an outfit like the American Family Association, where people have actually, you know, endorsed, or practically endorsed, the killing of gay folks, you’re really outside of even the mainstream of the Christian right. And so, it didn’t go—I mean, none of these candidates really have the ability to seize onto the Christian right. My guess is that they will sit out this election in a way that they haven’t in a long time.

AMY GOODMAN: And the effect on Democratic presidential politics, the Occupy movement?

JEFF SHARLET: Well, the Occupy—you know, I’m sort of with Marina like that. I think, you know, you spend enough time in the park, I think people don’t care.

AMY GOODMAN: But the effect it’s having at the highest levels, I think they, to say the least, care what this means, because they’re raising the very issues that make the Democratic Party as vulnerable as the Republican Party: the capturing of these parties by Wall Street and by the banks.

JEFF SHARLET: Yeah, absolutely, but the Democratic Party is just not in a position to respond to that. If anything, the Democratic Party right now is in a position to respond more to Christian right, so we see, you know, characters like Heath Shuler, who’s a very conservative Democratic congressman from North Carolina, who’s very prominent now in all these sort of budget negotiations, who lives at the C Street House, run by The Family.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain the C Street House.

JEFF SHARLET: The C Street House is a house run by the sort of oldest and arguably most influential Christian conservative political organization in Washington. They provide subsidized housing for congressmen. I mean, you know, it’s beyond ethics. It’s beyond good and evil. So there’s a number of these—you know, they can’t—these Democrats just can’t turn. They can’t respond to the Occupy Wall Street movement. They haven’t been able to in decades, to respond to something like that. I think you might actually, more surprisingly, see the rise of more of these conservative family values Democrats.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Jeff Sharlet has written a number of books. He also is contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine and Rolling Stone. This latest piece is in Rolling Stone; it’s called “Inside Occupy Wall Street.” And Marina Sitrin, postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Globalization and Social Change at City University of New York, author of Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina. In fact, at the stack, as well, a young CUNY student from Hunter—that’s City University of New York—stood up and said, “Don’t forget, November 21st, we want people to walk with us, with the students,” in addition to what’s happening on the second month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street here in New York on Thursday, when major protests are expected. We’ll be back in a minute, talking about the “new military urbanism,” Cities Under Siege. Stay with us.

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