A founder of ‘Occupy Wall Street’ talks about movement’s origin and what comes next
By Vivian Giang
Phil Arnone [pictured, below] is a one of the leading forces behind Occupy Wall Street — and happens to also be a New York University graduate student.
He was involved with Occupy before they were even called that and was one of the 700 protesters arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Business Insider sat down with Arnone for the inside scoop behind the how and why Occupy started and where it’s eventually heading.
Tell me about the beginning.
The original proposal was put forward by Adbusters which is a magazine headquartered in Vancouver. It comes out of the anti-consumerist movement from the ’90s — culture jamming they call it — but they’ve had no real activity when it comes to actual organization. So what happened was mostly folks from the traditional activists or organizing community — people who you would tend to see involved in various progressive causes over their lives and mostly young folks — attended the first general assembly which started in July and happened periodically over the summer…eventually leading up to the initial rally on September 17.
A few people got arrested that day and it wasn’t really until we had the chance for the occupation to develop a little bit more and really make its presence felt. The fact that the protest didn’t just occur on one day and one day only — it’s every day, all day, every single day of the week, and it’s going on indefinitely — is giving people the chance to actually take notice of it, whereas if it happens on one day, by the time you learn about it, the moment to get involved has already passed. So I think that that tactical change — that we have to make this protest be indefinite and 5n the present and that’s what’s really enabled us to grow fundamentally since then.
Why did you guys start meeting in July? Was there a tipping point?
Well, there were a lot of things that were happening. We were all very inspired by the Arab Spring. I think also a lot of us have been disappointed by what’s happened with the Obama Administration. I know I can speak for myself that I was really hopeful that we would have some change. I knew it wouldn’t be perfect, that not every dream we’d have would be answered, but that we wouldn’t really be seeing the man who promised to close Guantanamo, keep it opened indefinitely, extend wars, give tax cuts to the rich, you know, do all these things you’d expect Bush to do.
I feel like I’m not really alone and that’s one of the things that we’re finding out is that there are really a lot of people who are feeling this way about the situation our country is in, and saw some incredible changes that happened in countries we never thought, and we’ve always been told, could never have these incredible changes happen. And the fact that it happened nonviolently in Tunisia and Egypt — Libya was clearly an extreme case. And we’re definitely not facing what the people in Libya, or the people in Syria or the people in Yemen are facing. I wouldn’t even compare us to the repression in Egypt, but having seen people nonviolently challenge their government; and even though the changes are ongoing and not perfect, the fact that people are trying and taking an active role is really inspiring to all of us.
What happened on the Brooklyn Bridge the day police arrested more than 700 protesters?
When we were between one-third and half of the way across the bridge, the police blocked the front of the column. To me the sudden halt to the march was surprising, I had expected we would be allowed across the bridge once we were on the bridge, even if we wouldn’t be allowed to cross back over it. I was not at the very front, though, in the first quarter of the column, and I could not see or hear what was going on between the marchers and police at the front.
Then all of a sudden there was a surge of people back from the front away from the police, and at the time I had no idea why that had happened. It wasn’t until later I saw video that showed that moment was when police began attacking and arresting protesters. The police continued to do this, picking out people at random with no regard to their behavior, and then very forcefully arresting them. I saw people who were just standing still with nowhere to go, be taken by police officers and thrown to the ground before being handcuffed.
The actions of the police caused a panic because many people did not know what was happening. Those farther back didn’t know people at the front were being arrested until quite a few had been detained. At one point it felt like there might be a stampede because the crowd was getting scared, but we chanted “calm” over and over as we tried sitting down so we could maintain our cool. I am very impressed by our collective self-discipline. If it wasn’t for the fact that we kept one another calm something bad could have happened.
By the time the police came for me, we all knew we were going to be arrested so the feelings of panic had subsided somewhat. I was threatened by a white-collared officer because I did not volunteer myself for arrest, and instead waited until the blue-shirted officer who handcuffed me moved my hands into position. The blue-shirted officer was polite, and told me as I was being led away that I wouldn’t disappear. My arresting officer was polite as well, as were all blue-shirted officers I dealt with personally during my time in jail. As in other cases throughout this protest movement, the violence on the bridge was led and instigated by the officers wearing white shirts who are ranked Lieutenant or higher.
Tell me about the march against Chase Bank.
It’s part of this ongoing campaign, ‘Move Your Money,’ and really the theme behind ‘Move Your Money’ is that we spend a whole lot of time really articulating the problems in a more abstract way and right now, we need to target the arch super villains so to speak — Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citibank, Wells Fargo — they’re the big four banks in America. All of the major big financial industry practices that we are critiquing, they’re all guilty of — whether it’s foreclosing on homes without documents, engaging in speculative trading, predatory lending — you name it, they do it.
So we had a march of about a 1,000 people who did a quick picket fence around the bank. We had about, I think, it was 15 or 20 who were involved in taking their money out and were successfully able to close their accounts. There were some people who didn’t fully close their accounts, but withdrew down to their minimum balance level so that way they can make sure their direct deposit checks get through and everything.
But the symbolic action was still there; that we are pulling our money, we’re taking back our money from these people who are using it to profit off of us.
It wasn’t until we got up to Times Square that we started to take control of the streets and actually walk on the streets. And that was where we had the bigger clashes with the police that day. The police have never failed, so far, to attack us while we walk on the streets. I saw people being hit, the police brought in their horses. I was at the front line so to speak. I got kicked in the face by an officer on a horse amongst other things. I believe our final count was 74 arrests total throughout the day, mostly in Times Square.
People criticize you for your numerous goals and messages. What is the main message in this movement?
What this protest is about is an opposition against the fundamental inequality in society — social, economic, ecological — and we want to change the ways that our society is structured and run so that way, the vast majority of people — the 99% — have their interests accounted for, their voices heard, their needs represented. And that’s just simply not the way we feel our society works now. It’s a society run for and by the 1%.
Are you thinking about eventually getting involved in politics?
Right now, we don’t have any plans to endorse any specific political candidates or political parties. A huge reason as to why we’re here is because we view the political process to be corrupt and broken. Both political parties are bought and owned by the 1%. So we don’t really have the desire to cooperate with either of them. I don’t think we would turn away anyone who has political aspirations and really want to work for the 99%, but at the moment we have no plans to run candidates in the 2012 elections or anything like that.
How many people do you think are marching with you now on a daily basis?
We have at our general assembly close to 1,000 people or more on any given weeknight. I heard that we had 10,000, some as high as 20,000…I heard one say that we had as many as 50,000, but I don’t think we had 50,000 out there, but somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 20,000.
There was a Time Magazine poll released earlier that said we are apparently the most popular political movement in the country — 54% of Americans support Occupy Wall Street at least somewhat and view it at least somewhat favorably and that makes us really happy. Even though only a few thousand people can show up on any given day so far, we still have the spirit of a whole lot of other people with us.
How do people donate to you?
They can go to nycga.net or occupywallstreet.org…we also handle physical donations. There’s an address on the Web site that will tell you how to do that. One day I got drafted to help bring over some packages. I thought I’d be carrying over some boxes. Turns out we were wheeling four of the big dollies just piled high with boxes from the UPS store because people are sending us so much stuff. We actually now have a working group that’s formed entirely around receiving and storing our physical bulk goods that people are sending us like blankets, sleeping bags, Sharpie markers, paper, cable to plug our computers in, generators, all kinds of things.
Where is Occupy headed?
The symbol of the movement might be here in New York, but the movement itself is everywhere and we need it to spread it everywhere.
The best moment — one night while we waited for our eviction that never came — was listening to people take turns reading letters of support that folks had sent us. It really reminded us as to why we stood in the rain and got soaking wet for hours that night; that there are people all over this country who needs us to stand up for them.
None of the people from the beginning thought it would get this big. We didn’t even think we’d make it to the first Tuesday. And when we made it to the second Saturday, I was in shock that we had survived that long. And when I heard that 54% of Americans support us or at least think of our movement favorably, that also shocked me and that really gives us hope.
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