Photos Sydney Brownstone
On September 17, 2011, Mike Andrews, along with two other proto-Occupy Wall Street organizers, chose Zuccotti Park as the place to host a general assembly. Little did Andrews anticipate that the team’s decision would snowball into a full-fledged occupation. The L sat down with Andrews, who was organizing direct action for May Day at the time, over a beer in Fort Greene to reflect on how far Occupy Wall Street has come—and where it’s going. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
The L: How did you get involved with Occupy?
MA: There was the whole financial crisis in 2008, and there was a kind of sense that “Okay, this is really bad. Now, finally, people are going to have to get angry and do something, right?” But nothing seemed to be on the horizon. So in the summer, last summer, and this is a story that’s been told countless times…
The L: To journalists?
MA: Well, yes. But not always by me. Essentially, Adbusters put out the call for an occupation of Wall Street. They, however, didn’t plan on doing any actual organizing. So folks in New York, sort of local radicals or anarchists or organizers kind of got together and said, “Okay, should we do something? Okay, what should we do?” And then on August 2, a group of these people started having weekly meetings. I wasn’t there at the first meeting, but at the second.
That was what effectively became the first meeting of Occupy Wall Street.
We met for six weeks in general assemblies and formulated a plan to have a general assembly on Wall Street. It was not necessarily to have an occupation. We were going to have a general assembly and encourage people to stay and sleep on the sidewalk if they wanted to. So, September 17 came around, and we had our general assembly, which was big and inspiring and great. I helped facilitate the general assembly. And people just stayed. And they stayed another night and another night. It’s a well-known story at this point.
The L: Had you anticipated that at all? Had you made any efforts for people to stay in the park?
MA: No. We were frustrated that Adbusters had made a call for people to sleep, bring tents specifically. And Adbusters were in Vancouver, Canada. They had no idea that in New York there’s a law that says erecting structures is illegal. But there’s also another law that folks have been using, were using, at the occupation at Federal Hall. So we were going to try to use that law and simply say, “Okay folks, if you want to stay over there’s this law. You can sleep on the sidewalks in political protest as long as you don’t block more than half the sidewalk and erect a tent.” We were sort of positioning ourselves to inform people of this law, and inform them of what they could do, but we weren’t positioning ourselves to actually organize an occupation.
The L: Talking to Occupy people, what I hear often is that there is no hierarchy in the movement. And then you have other people saying ‘Yeah there is, it has to be organized somehow.’ So, when you say “us,” who are you referring to?
MA: I’m referring to the New York City General Assembly, that’s what we called ourselves. That’s just the folks who would meet once a week, who usually met at Tompkins Square Park. Throughout August and into September. Decisions about holding the general assembly, about advising people where to sleep, all that was consensed [sic] upon by us in the park, we call ourselves New York City General Assembly.
The L: A huge turning point in the story was November 17th, the eviction from Zuccotti. Where were you then, what were you doing?
MA: I never slept in the park. Not one time. I didn’t sleep the first night, because that day I had been, I along with two or three others had been in charge of sort of technical aspects. We chose Zucotti Park as the place to stay.
The L: You chose Zuccotti Park?
MA: Me and two other guys.
The L: Part of the New York General Assembly?
MA: We were called the “tactical team.” Yeah I know, it sounds all militaristic. The assembly had decided that we would hold our general assembly in Chase Manhattan Park, which is the plaza two blocks east of Zuccotti Park, barricaded since September 17th. But the general assembly also consensed [sic] that if Chase Manhattan Park was blocked that day, then that the “tactical committee”—which turned out to be three of us, simply because we came to every meeting—that we were empowered to speak amongst ourselves to choose an alternative location and not announce it until an hour before the general assembly.
We arrived there on September 17, and we from the “tactical committee” saw that Chase Manhattan Park was blocked. I expected that to happen. We said, “Okay, let’s go to Zuccotti Park,” only because it was the next closest location. And so we made that decision and kept it to ourselves for several hours, until the end of the rally, until just thirty minutes before the general assembly was about to start. And then I got up in front of the rally—at this point we had passed out all the maps—and I said, “We’re going to hold our general assembly at location two on the map.” We did it that way so we could announce to everyone what was happening, but so that the police wouldn’t hear. Only people who had the map—and we made sure not to hand them to any police—knew where we were going. And it ended up working well.
The L: Since then, what stands out in your mind as your proudest moments—the successes of Occupy?
MA: Well, I think the Brooklyn Bridge. On October 1, when the mass of people was crossing the street, some people stopped and started chanting “Take The Bridge, Take the bridge!” And other people joined in, and a bunch of people, me included, started marching the bridge. And that was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life. It was just so amazing to be where you weren’t supposed to be with 700 of your friends on a beautiful bridge.
I remember turning to a friend as we were walking across the bridge and saying, “There’s no way they’re going to keep us on this bridge, there’s no way they’re going to arrest us on this bridge. At least we’ll make it to the other side.” That brought a lot of attention with the headline “700 Arrested on The Bridge.”
The L: How long have you been organizing for May Day?
MA: Since January. There was Thanksgiving and then the Christmas break, which sort of just became public consensus became that this is the time for Occupy to reflect and reevaluate.
The L: Or end, right?
MA: Or end, maybe that, or think about long-term strategy. And even though nobody in OWS consciously decided, we didn’t collectively say ‘Okay, let’s reflect.’ That just sort of had its effect on us too. So we did do that. And as soon I got back from California after visiting my folks, the idea in the forefront of my mind was we had to do something big for May 1.
The L: For May 1? Because of the traditional labor demonstrations?
MA: It’s a big day in Europe, usually. And also I thought that we had all of this momentum, here was this emerging social movement, and all sorts of constituencies on The Left—labor, progressives—felt like a part of it and also were looking to partner with us. Sort of set the tone in a way. And so I thought, “Okay, we’ve got a window of opportunity here. There’s no telling if we’ll still be around next May 1. Let’s really be ambitious, like crazy ambitious.” And I was delighted to learn that some of my other closest friends in OWS were thinking the exact same thing. It was like we showed up after Christmas break and said, “Okay. May 1st, right?”
The L: I think after the eviction, you got a lot of average, non-radical New Yorkers on your side. I think a lot of people absorbed that the point was awareness—just to draw attention to problems was, in some ways, enough. But now that Occupy’s become a household name, after May 1, what will change?
MA: I mean the funny thing is, is commentators, journalists, progressive writers write about this issue of OWS not having any demands or stated aspirations, as if all of OWS came to consensus not to issue demands. And that’s not true. It’s simply that there’s so much disagreement about it that OWS will never agree on issuing demands. It’s more of something that’s the result of a deadline.
Some people are opposed to demands on principle. Other people want to transform the system but believe that issuing demands still has a certain strategic advantage. I do identify as an anti-authoritarian, but I’m not vigorously opposed to any kind of demand. I think there are such things as demands in the service of revolution.
The L: Let’s talk about that idea of revolution. Do you think you’re working towards one, with Occupy?
MA: I’m under no illusions that a revolution will happen in my lifetime. I think it’s about advancing a sort of historical struggle, or a world that is a bit more humane and a bit more livable, a bit more sustainable. It’s a struggle that’s been going on for as long as human beings have been around. It’s about trying to advance that just a tiny bit while you’re alive. It’s about developing ideas and tactics that are new and effective and that you can pass off to people who will engage in that struggle after you.
The L: What do you think is the most valuable tool this movement has delivered to people who might continue to carry the struggle?
MA: The notion that in the face of a political system, an economic system, that so obviously serves the interests of the ruling class—that in the face of that you don’t need to retreat into cynicism or give up, but you can self-organize. You find each other and you do things like talk about what vision or more livable you like. And when that happens at a mass scale, it’s really threatening. So I think that collective self-organization and direct democracy—I think that’ll be one of our most important legacies, although that sounds way too…I don’t want to talk about Occupy Wall Street as history.
The L: So what happens after May 1?
MA: I take a long vacation. [laughter] Yeah, I don’t know. I just learned last week that there were folks in OWS already planning something for May 12 and May 15, which I was delighted to hear. And I think that’s one great thing about OWS, that you don’t just have a handful of people who have to do everything—that other people will see a need and take responsibility for it.
In terms of big picture, I haven’t been involved in any conversations about that. What happens this year, what happens with the election—whether we take a stance on the election. Given what I know, we’ve been so absorbed in May Day planning we haven’t looked far into the future, but I have some ideas that I think we should do.
The L: Do you think you guys will get involved in the election?
MA: My personal opinion is that in OWS it’s thought of a bit too simplistically. It’s thought of we can take one of two positions—we can endorse President Obama, which of course we will not do, not that that is a position anyone advocates, or we can say nothing about it. We can completely ignore it. I don’t think those are our only two options. I think it would be a perfect opportunity to launch a long-term campaign that exposes the inadequacy of representative democracy, how fundamentally corrupt it is, especially in the United States.
For me, the presidential election every four years is an incredibly depressing exercise. It’s just a charade and a farce, and I think it would be foolish for Occupy Wall Street to say nothing about it, because it’s going to be what everyone’s paying attention to. I think it would be a real opportunity to advance one of our principles is that voting is not how fundamental, radical change happens anymore.
The L: Say someone’s grandmother in Ohio was to turn on the TV and see there was a May Day protest with Occupy Wall Street. What would you want that person to take away from that experience?
MA: Well, I would want that person, old lady in the Midwest, what would I want her to come away with? A sense that there is still pervasive outrage about our fucked up economic system. And a sense that there are people organizing on mass scale with long-term objectives to combat that fucked up economic system. And, I mean, historically May Day is a day where the workers withdraw their cooperation from the circulation of capital and demonstrate that the circulation of capital depends on them. In conditions—neoliberal capitalism is very different than industrial, Keynesian capitalism that came before it, where it was easier for workers to really disrupt the circulation of capital, it’s much harder these days. But I guess I would like someone watching on May Day to get the sense that the system doesn’t run without your cooperation. I mean, maybe if this person’s retired that’s not true. But in general, the system does not run without our cooperation and that there are ways to collectively withdraw our cooperation and think about other ways of organizing.
The L: I asked you earlier about your proudest moments of Occupy, so now I’ll ask the opposite. When have you been most disappointed?
MA: I remember most of my moments where I feel ashamed where it feels like Occupy Wall Street has gone from something that was explosive and new at the beginning to something that’s become a settled habit, where we’ve sort of abandoned our principles of always pushing the boundaries and rethinking and remaking how to do politics, horizontal politics, and instead we fall into a couple of patterns. I was in a meeting once where there were 15 of us and people insisted on using the people’s mic. And it was like, we were all close enough to hear what people were saying. [laughter] It was comical. It was laughable. Yeah.
I think we have really suffered from not having a central space where we can meet and organize. Zuccotti Park served that purpose for a while. I don’t think we should reestablish an occupation where people sleep. I don’t think we have the capacity to deal with that, and the police will never allow it.
Having a place, be it an outdoor park, an office space, somewhere, which is kind of like the hub of the movement, where people can come and know they’ll run into someone they know, a place to have meetings. I think that’s really, really important. People have been looking into having that and haven’t been having success. I think we’ve suffered from not having that. We’re incredibly fragmented right now. May Day has been, in a way, a way to bring us back together a bit, because it is one day where all hands are going to be on deck. But after May Day we won’t really have a forum for bringing everyone together, any kind of project that we’re all working on. But good people, people I trust, are working on providing the general assembly, and making it about that it has nothing to do with decisions about money, which is what killed us. Because we have our little meetings and our working groups every week, but we need to come back and be in the same space as people we’re supposed to be in the same movement with. When we don’t have that it just feels like you have 80 working groups doing different things, showing up to do a ra-ra day of action once in a while.
The L: Do you see Occupy Wall Street being absorbed by the labor movement, or existing groups?
MA: I don’t think Occupy Wall Street will be absorbed by the labor movement or community based organizations, or the Democratic party or Moveon, or progressive groups. I think a lot of those groups like to benefit from our energy, from whatever notoriety we have for now, but they don’t necessarily share our horizontal principles.
The L: Do you think Occupy will disappear?
I think a lot about ‘what is occupy wall street” what is it? And it’s hard to define. It’s this nebulous, heterogeneous thing. It’s an assemblage of people, but it doesn’t depend on a certain identity. You don’t have to be a worker who works for a certain industry, you don’t have to apply for a position.
I think occupy is actually not a group of people. It’s a tactic and it’s a set of principles, implicit principles mainly. And that if you implore that tactic and adhere to those principles, then you’re part of the occupy movement. That’s why after September 17 when this whole thing caught on, you had people in dozens, if not hundreds of cities across the nation, set up camp in a square or have a general assembly. They are part of Occupy Wall Street. They didn’t call us and say “hey, can we be part of this movement?” they didn’t have to apply for membership or anything. They just did the same thing we were doing. OWS is also not just people who come to the meetings. I have lots of friends who don’t like to be in meetings with liberals, as they say, but who very much consider themselves to be part of the occupy movement. And they’re organizing in other, smaller ways. I think it’s going to be around for a while.
Occupy Wall Street itself, and by that I mean the working groups, and the general assembly and the spokes council and the meetings—I don’t think those will disappear completely, but if there are fewer and fewer people getting involved in those particular things, I don’t think that means Occupy Wall Street will be gone. I think it means that energy will be transferred to other activities. I sometimes have been tempted to stop going to these working group meetings and join other friends who are organizing in smaller ways, doing things that aren’t quite possible within occupy wall street, whether it’s a broader diversity of political persuasions where you have to collaborate and compromise a lot. So, Occupy Wall Street, it’s a tactic, it’s a principle, it’s also a certain kind of energy. It’s not going to disappear any time soon.
The L: You brought up cynicism earlier—do you see that retreat into cynicism happening again? How would Occupy deal with that? Is combating cynicism, perhaps, why you protest?
MA: I think I personally do it to stave off a sense of hopelessness. You do it in the face of really long odds. If you’re honest with yourself you probably say, “Eh, we’re probably not going to change much.” I think this Occupy thing that has changed something is an anomaly and comes along very rarely, and I feel very lucky to have been involved in it. I didn’t expect anything like this in my whole life.
None of us were deluded to think what happened would actually happen. Because it was totally irrational to think what happened would actually happen. Most people are people like me who thought that we would never be able to remain in Zuccotti Park, and if we did we’d be kicked out in a few days. But the action turned out to be a turning point because there was this well of despair and anger in the American public, and I think a lot of people were asking the question, a question that my mom always asks me, “Why aren’t people getting in the streets?”
We can really credit the capitalist class and the ruling class for what happened at Occupy Wall Street. Because they created certain conditions that people were angry enough and hopeless enough that when they saw something that looked like resistance and refusal they felt encouraged to go out and occupy a park too. What happened was an accident of history. What happened at Zuccotti Park was an accident of history.
I’m not going to lie—if the economy got worse, that would be good for the Occupy movement. Not that I wish the economy would get worse--that would be pretty terrible. I think eventually this window of opportunity will close. People who know better than I predict that the economy will turn to growth, steady growth about a year from now, and I think the vast majority of the public will accept that this is the new normal, an eight percent unemployment rate is the new normal. And they’ll stop paying attention to people marching in the streets. And I think we need to push this as far as we possibly can until then and then when that happens, we need to rethink our strategy. My thinking on how to do this is just to push this as far as we can until the window of opportunity closes.
A look back at the first eight months of the movement, culminating with the events of May Day.
May 9, 2012