By John Heilemann
The post-Zuccotti era of Occupy Wall Street began for Max Berger just after 1 a.m. on November 15, when he learned via text message that a forcible eviction of the park was close at hand. At 26, Berger is a redheaded Reed College alum and professional activist; his employers have included the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Van Jones’s outfit, Rebuild the Dream. By hard-core standards, he had come late to the OWS action, not visiting the park until a week after the protest got going on September 17. But Berger found himself sucked in and became one of its central players. Now, with Zuccotti under siege, he raced to the park and fired off a series of frantic tweets—before being put in handcuffs. “People singing Marley!” “Press not being let in. This is gonna be some Tiananmen shit.” “They can take this park, but they can’t stop this movement. This will backfire. We will win.”
Berger’s optimism was shared by his OWS cohorts. Upset as the organizers were about losing the symbolic value of the encampment at Zuccotti, the way it happened—in a late-night raid by police in riot gear, with reporters denied access and even arrested—had its own symbolic oomph. The organizers thought, too, that the eviction would confer another benefit: catalyzing turnout for the next major OWS demonstration, which was scheduled to take place two days later. And although the “day of action” on November 17 failed to shutter the stock exchange, the demo’s marquee goal, the show of force in Gotham was impressive—and replicated on a smaller scale in cities around the country.
When histories of Occupy Wall Street are written, those days in November will no doubt be seen as a watershed. In just two months of existence, OWS had scored plenty of victories: spreading from New York to more than 900 cities worldwide; introducing to the vernacular a potent catchphrase, “We are the 99 percent”; injecting into the national conversation the topic of income inequality. But OWS had also suffered setbacks. The less savory aspects of the occupations had provided the right with fuel for feral slander (Drudge: “Death, Disease Plague ‘Occupy’ Protests”) and casual caricature. Even among some protesters, there was a sense that stagnation had set in. Then came the Zuccotti clampdown—and the popular perception that it meant the end of OWS.
It’s perfectly possible that this perception will be borne out, that the raucous events of November 17 were the last gasps of a rigor-mortizing rebellion. But no one seriously involved in OWS buys a word of it. What they believe instead is that, after a brief period of retrenchment, the protests will be back even bigger and with a vengeance in the spring—when, with the unfurling of the presidential election, the whole world will be watching. Among Occupy’s organizers, there is fervid talk about occupying both the Democratic and Republican conventions. About occupying the National Mall in Washington, D.C. About, in effect, transforming 2012 into 1968 redux.
The people plotting these maneuvers are the leaders of OWS. Now, you may have heard that Occupy is a leaderless uprising. Its participants, and even the leaders themselves, are at pains to make this claim. But having spent the past month immersed in their world, I can report that a cadre of prime movers—strategists, tacticians, and logisticians; media gurus, technologists, and grand theorists—has emerged as essential to guiding OWS. For some, Occupy is an extension of years of activism; for others, their first insurrectionist rodeo. But they are now united by a single purpose: turning OWS from a brief shining moment into a bona fide movement.
That none of these people has yet become the face of OWS—its Tom Hayden or Mark Rudd, its Stokely Carmichael or H. Rap Brown—owes something to its newness. But it is also due to the way that Occupy operates. Since the sixties, starting with the backlash within the New Left against those same celebrities, the political counterculture has been ruled by loosey-goosey, bottom-up organizational precepts: horizontal and decentralized structures, an antipathy to hierarchy, a fetish for consensus. And this is true in spades of OWS. In such an environment, formal claims to leadership are invariably and forcefully rejected, leaving the processes for accomplishing anything in a state of near chaos, while at the same time opening the door to (indeed compelling) ad hoc reins-taking by those with the force of personality to gain ratification for their ideas about how to proceed. “In reality,” says Yotam Marom, one of the key OWS organizers, “movements like this are most conducive to being led by people already most conditioned to lead.”
And so in coffee shops and borrowed conference rooms around the city, far from the sound and fury in the park and on the streets, the prime movers have been doing just that—meeting, planning, talking (and talking) about the future of OWS. The debates between them have been fierce. Tensions have been laid bare, factions fomented, and ideological cleavages exposed—all of it a familiar recapitulation of the growing pains experienced by protesters of the past, from those in favor of civil rights and against the Vietnam War in the sixties to those fighting for workers’ rights in the thirties.
Where OWS departs from precedent is in the breadth of support from the get-go for its overarching critique in the electorate at large. A November NBC–Wall Street Journal poll found that more than three quarters of voters agree that America’s economic structure unfairly favors the very rich over everyone else, and that the power of banks and corporations should be constrained. “It took three years from the start of the anti–Vietnam War movement to the point when the popularity of the war sank below 50 percent,” observes Columbia professor and social-movement historian Todd Gitlin. “Here, achieving the equivalent took three minutes.”
Capitalizing on this support is the central issue facing OWS, and its ability to do so will depend on myriad factors, including the behavior of plutocrats, politicians, and police. (In terms of presenting shocking and morally clarifying imagery, the recent pepper-spraying incident at the University of California, Davis, struck many as reminiscent of Bull Connor’s goons dousing civil-rights protesters with fire hoses in 1963.) But it will also depend on which of two broad strains within OWS turns out to be dominant: the radical reformism of social democrats such as Berger, who want to see a more humane and egalitarian form of capitalism and a government less corrupted by money, or the radical utopianism of the movement’s anarchists and Marxists, who seek to replace our current economic and political arrangements with … who knows what? “My fear is that we become the worst of the New Left,” Berger says. “I don’t want to live in a fucking commune. I don’t want to blow shit up. I want to get stuff done.”
In the beginning, the idea that what became Occupy Wall Street would amount to much at all, let alone become a vehicle for getting stuff done, struck Berger as unlikely—and he was not alone. One of the unifying sentiments among many of the prime movers was skepticism about the protest in the weeks leading up to it. After a call in July by the Canadian magazine Adbusters for a “Tahrir Moment” in lower Manhattan on September 17, a series of general assemblies were held in places such as Tompkins Square Park to plan the occupation. But the early gatherings were dominated by antiquated far-left fringe groups, such as the Workers World Party, and marred by internecine squabbling.
Vlad Teichberg was one of those in the crowd turned off by what he saw, at least at first. “It was problematic,” Teichberg says. “The groups wanted to control the process. But no consensus could be reached. So eventually a lot of the groups dropped out, but individuals stayed. When I came to the last two or three GAs before September 17, it was actually amazing, because suddenly you had a group that was easily finding consensus.”
Today, Teichberg spends much of his time in a small, dark, second-floor room in a clapped-out building on Lafayette at Bleecker. (His neighbors include the War Resisters League, the Socialist Party USA, and the Libertarian Book Club.) This is the original home office of globalrevolution.tv, which channels vérité video from occupations around the world through hosting sites such as Livestream.com.
Teichberg is a 39-year-old Russian immigrant with stooped shoulders and a mop of brown hair who grew up in Rego Park and is so jacked in to the electronic grid that he comes across like a character out of Neuromancer. But what makes him so interesting is that you could just as easily imagine him making a cameo in The Big Short. A math prodigy who was a Westinghouse Science Talent Search finalist before matriculating at Princeton, he left college (temporarily) after his sophomore year and went to work for Bankers Trust, the first in a string of Wall Street gigs at firms including Deutsche Bank, Swiss Reinsurance Corp., and HSBC. And what did he do in those places? He created, modeled, and traded derivatives, including some of the first synthetic CDOs. As he told the London Times, he was “one of the people [who] built that bomb that blew up the whole economy.”
Teichberg’s time in the Wall Street armament factory gave him a close-up view of everything wrong with the place: the culture of greed, the insane levels of risk, the corruption of the credit-rating agencies. “By 2001, it was obvious to me it was going to blow up,” he says, “and I wanted to be nowhere near it.” But he didn’t leave. Instead, hopping from job to job, he tried to put brakes on the process, devising new ways to value risk more accurately, only to be rebuffed by his bosses. At the same time he starting taking the money he was making on Wall Street and funding ways to undermine it.
And not just undermine Wall Street. Teichberg had never been terribly political, but the Iraq War and what he saw as the exploitation of 9/11 awakened his inner activist. He co-founded a media collective and started staging guerrilla actions: filming the protests at the 2004 GOP convention; staging a flash mob at ground zero on the fourth anniversary of the Iraq War. He moved out of his Tribeca apartment and decamped to Bushwick, eventually taking up residence in what he describes as “a hard-core anarchist punk house.”
This past April, Teichberg went to Madrid, where he worked at the media center of the Spanish anti-austerity protests. Upon returning to New York, he started building what he calls “Hackintoshes” (gussied-up used Dell laptops) and distributing them, along with modified handheld video cameras, to teams of OWS protesters. Since then, he and his people have shipped laptops and cameras to countless other occupations. “Two hundred stations were streaming by October 15,” the day that OWS went global, Teichberg says. “Suddenly we’re sitting in front of a badly managed TV network.”
The centrality of Teichberg’s shop to OWS can’t be overstated. “The live stream is, in a way, the central nervous system of the entire operation,” Berger explains. “Because in moments where the police have tried to fuck with us, it’s our first line of defense. And it’s been a big part of how we disseminate our information, raise the money, everything.”
Over coffee one day around the corner from his office at the Yippie Museum Café, I ask Teichberg what kinds of changes he hopes to bring to the financial system. “I think you’re assuming that, for me, Occupy Wall Street is about Wall Street,” he replies. “Of course, it was a huge mistake to bail out the banks in 2008. If you did a proper analysis of how much money was lost when the bubble burst, it was north of $50 trillion. So pumping a trillion dollars into that system is giving Band-Aids to a corpse. We could have used that money to create an entirely new financial system, and the super-upper class would’ve taken a huge hit.
“But this really isn’t about having a few demands for reform of the Fed or the transaction tax,” he goes on. “We’re talking about changing our society, so we no longer measure each other in terms of money, but based on fundamental things. What makes us special is not what we are against but what we are for: equality, unity, mutual respect. Those are very important elements of this new human system we want to build.”
Vlad Teichberg’s résumé—his experience of having been in the belly of beast, getting a gander at its guts, and recoiling in horror—is unusual but not unique within the OWS core. Here and there I found penitent or apostate Wall Streeters and other former corporate tools now railing against the system that once kept them flush. Like Teichberg’s, their criticisms of that system are more sophisticated and precise than those of many of their comrades. But their politics, also like Teichberg’s, are the opposite: earnest and idealistic, for sure, but also vague and half-formed.