Interview: The Magazine Editor Who Launched the Occupy Movement on "Soft Regime Change" in America
"It did feel like there was this kind of a soft regime that was controlled by the power of finances and by the power of lobbyists and by the power of corporations to get their own way. And it felt like some kind of a soft regime change was necessary..."
Editor's Note: This story by Vancouver journalist Sam Eifling, originally appeared on TheTyee.ca on October 7, 2011.
Since Sept. 17 the streets of south Manhattan have been chockablock with people protesting -- what, exactly? At times not even they seem sure, perhaps because their cause for being there is so vast and miasmic that they can grab hold of any part of it and make a credible claim for anger. Banks too big to fail. Soaring college costs (and debt) in a time of jobless youth. Cronyism, lobbyism, corporatism, deregulation. It all falls under a hashtag that began far from the pepper spray and mass arrests, in the offices of Vancouver's own Adbusters magazine, as #OccupyWallStreet.
The movement has been at turns derided by Republican presidential candidates ("I think it's dangerous, this class warfare," Mitt Romney said) and by major media (quoth a New York Daily News editorial: "This bunch ought to get down on their knees in thanks that America's capitalist Founding Fathers saw fit to protect the privileges of the dumb and obnoxious along with everyone else"). Nonetheless it has mushroomed from a few die-hards in the early going to a pulsing micro-city of thousands and has spawned smaller protests around America. Unions and student groups have joined in solidarity, and on Oct. 15, Toronto and Vancouver will see their own "Occupy" demonstrations.
Although it was inspired by the methods and successes of the Arab Spring, the original expectations were more muted. When Vancouver-based Adbusters presented the idea to the world, it did so in the form of a poster that featured a dancer posed on the shoulders of the Wall Street bull statue, a foggy clamour of demonstrators behind her. The poster asked the question, "What is our one demand?" Activist groups seized on it, as did the hacktivist group Anonymous, and a collective began to form. The arrests of 700 demonstrators on the Brooklyn Bridge on Oct. 1 pushed the event to the fore of media coverage.
To hear tell from Adbusters founder and editor Kalle Lasn now, the question of that one demand still needs to be answered concisely and directly. But as the movement overspills Wall Street, he describes it as the most successful in the 22 years he and his magazine have been advocating "culture jamming," which originally sought to subvert consumerism. I sat down with Lasn in the office of Adbusters -- south of False Creek, with a fine view of downtown Vancouver -- to address that singular demand, his renewed faith in the left and the soft power of ballerinas.
On the ballerina atop bull imagery of Adbusters' original #OccupyWallStreet poster:
"To me it was a sublime symbol of total clarity. Here's a body poised in this beautiful position and it spoke of this crystal-clear sublime idea behind this messy business. On top of the head it said, 'What is our one demand?' To me it was almost like an invitation, like if we get our act together then we can launch a revolution. It had this magical revolutionary feel to it, which you couldn't have with the usual lefty poster which is nasty and visceral and in your face. The magic came from the fact this ballerina is so sublimely tender.
"There's some idea there, and the power of it comes from the fact that most of the time you'll never be able to answer what it is. It's just there. It's just a magic moment that you can feel in your gut that it's there, and you're willing to go there and sleep there and go through the hardship and fight for it. Once you start answering it too clearly then the magic is gone."
Adbusters posters that helped incite Sept. 17 action in New York.
On the revolt's many parents:
"We have a network of 90,000 culture jammers who are tuned into us at various levels. The biggest brainstorms happened between myself and Adbusters senior editor Micah White, who lives in Berkeley. We were the two key people who got excited, and more and more excited, morning after morning, and eventually decided on that hashtag, #OccupyWallStreet. When we launched that hashtag, the twittering came on so hard and fast that it drove us. We suddenly said, 'Hey, this could actually happen.'
"Anonymous gave us that -- I don't know what you call it, that sort of anarchy cred. All of a sudden this organization that has this strange mystique to it, they're saying, 'Yeah, occupy Wall Street!' That first video of theirs was quite a delightful little piece of videomaking, and at that moment I could feel that we got a mighty boost forward.
"We always thought of ourselves as the catalyzers, the people who set that meme, as we like to call it, in motion. And right from the start we decided that we're not going to play a part on the street, that if our meme flies, if people love it, then we're happy to come up with posters, and we did send them all kinds of handbills and we sent them corporate America flags. So we left it pretty well up to them.