Just more than two months after Occupy Wall Street burst into our collective consciousness, it's become a serious force in this region and California.
If you didn't think that after Sacramento officials dealt with illegal camping downtown and violence broke out in Oakland, you most surely did after the videos of UC Davis police pepper-spraying campus protesters were posted online and went viral. The video made the university and its chancellor the subject of widespread scorn and became a national symbol of the tension between protesters intent on provoking action and authorities grappling with how to respond.
For those of us at The Bee, Occupy changed from a story across the country that we edited as part of our national coverage to one in our backyard reported by many in the newsroom. It's been fascinating to watch the power of the word "Occupy" grow as it has been attached to all kinds of protests around the country.
Yet as the movement grew, so did criticism of media coverage. I heard complaints that Occupy Wall Street wasn't getting enough media attention – and that it got too much. I heard we were too focused on the violence and not on the message. After the confrontation on the UC Davis campus, I heard we were too easy on the cops and also that we framed our coverage to unfairly portray the police as aggressors when the protesters were the problem.
Our coverage has grown with the story. But such polarized criticism reflects the breadth of the public debate. Here in California almost two-thirds of voters surveyed by the Field Poll support the sentiments of the Occupy movement even if they don't want to protest themselves. It's a sign of the enormous economic challenges still facing this country and the very real personal hardship many continue to endure. The "we are the 99 percent" refrain has meaning to many.
Against this backdrop of support and emotion, there's been too big a vacuum of hard facts.
Plenty has been written about the amorphous nature of the protest, the lack of specific demands, the problems with sanitation and sometimes violence. But it's only in the past week that reporting has become more available about the origin of Occupy Wall Street.
As Mattathias Schwartz reported in a lengthy piece in the New Yorker last Monday, Kalle Lasn of Vancouver and Micah White of Berkeley are the two main brains behind the start of the movement.
Schwartz revealed the strategy developed in conversations between Lasn, founder and editor of Adbusters magazine, and White, his senior editor. They picked the name, OccupyWallStreet.org, in June, created the Twitter hashtag #occupywallstreet, and soon combined forces with a group called New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts in their bid to occupy lower Manhattan.
Lasn founded Adbusters in 1989 and used the magazine to skewer corporate America with "subvertising" campaigns such as "Joe Chemo," which went after the Joe Camel cigarette ads, according to a New York Times story published last week.
Lasn and White are professional rabble-rousers of sorts, skilled in the art of public protest. They saw and grabbed an opportunity to turn widespread economic disillusionment into a national movement. "World wars, revolutions – from time to time, big things actually happen," Schwartz quotes Lasn as saying. "When the moment is right, all it takes is a spark."
It's key that we all understand the origin of the movement – and that the movement itself has grown into a more amorphous and uncontrolled version of that orchestrated start. As cities have worked to dampen the protests and accompanying problems, the most passionate of those involved are planning strategy to take it to the next level, not to fade quietly into the winter fog.
So what, exactly, do protesters want?
Economic justice, most certainly, but how? And what else? As much as Californians and others might relate to "we are the 99 percent," there's a reason initial reporting was fuzzy about motive: The phrase doesn't elucidate demands.
Lasn and White wrote a piece published in the Washington Post on Nov. 18 explaining why the Occupy fight will continue. The two contend that "America, too, needs its Tahrir Square moment and its own kind of regime change."
They wrote that Occupy will move into a second phase as cities take down their encampments, a phase with "marked escalation of surprise, playful, precision disruptions – rush-hour flash mobs, bank occupations, 'occupy squads' and edgy theatrics." They predicted articulated demands including a "Robin Hood tax" on financial transactions and a ban on high-frequency "flash" trading.
Yet Occupy has moved beyond its creators, so it's not clear whether they speak for the group or are one voice within it. On the West Coast, some members announced last week that their next step will be to organize a coordinated blockade of West Coast ports from Seattle to San Diego, what they are calling an "economic blockade of the 1 percent." On Monday, activists in Nevada County will launch Occupy Our Homes to protest home foreclosures.
If you read regularly, you saw many stories on Occupy this past week. Within The Bee's newsroom, we're gearing up for even more.