Meet the Man Behind Occupy Wall Street

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — When he’s not busy brainstorming how to tear apart and rebuild America’s democratic system, David Graeber prefers to think about simpler things, like why we still don’t have flying cars.

Graeber, a professor at the University of London and a widely respected anthropologist, has achieved a new level of fame in recent weeks for his early influence on the Occupy Wall Street protests that began in New York City and have since spread around the world. The Wall Street Journal declared Graeber to be “the single academic who has done the most to shape the nascent movement,” while Bloomberg Businessweek declared him to be the “anti-leader” of Occupy Wall Street who generally abstains from the limelight even as his writings, including a new book on the history of debt and the influence of money, serve as an “intellectual frame” for the protesters.

Indeed, when MainStreet managed to reach Graeber by phone, his focus was light-years away from the protests, as he was busy working on an article about his disappointment that the world doesn’t yet have technology like flying cars, robots and other futuristic technology that one might have hoped would exist by the 21st century. As Graeber puts it, “I have arrived at a point where I can write about whatever I want.”

Flying cars probably aren’t the future that protesters are marching for around the world, but then again few can say for sure precisely what the demands of each protester in Manhattan and Oakland and Rome actually are, not even Graeber, who is based in London and shuttles between protests on a fairly regular basis.

“I’m really a conduit, it’s not my ideas,” he says before going on to explain just how much his ideas are engrained in the movement. Graeber, a long-time anarchist, joined the protests in the very beginning on a whim and quickly set it on a new course to make government less corrupt. If there is an endgame to the protests, he says it’s to “delegitimize” the current political system in order to make way for the kind of radical change that would create a more open and fair democracy unshackled by the interests of big money. Still, to imply the protest is a means to an end misses much of what Graeber considers to be the big point of the movement today.

“I think that our political structures are corrupt and we need to really think about what a democratic society would be like. People are learning how to do it now,” Graeber says. “This is more than a protest, it’s a camp to debate an alternative civilization.”

In this interview, Graeber tells MainStreet how he overhauled the message of Occupy Wall Street, why he wants to keep the list of demands as broad as possible and what he would say to those politicians who want to use the protests to their advantage.

MainStreet: How did you first get involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement?

Graeber: I happened to be in the right place at the right time. There was a meeting on Aug. 2 for a general assembly to plan the Occupy Wall Street action based on an idea thrown out by Adbusters. Me and some friends showed up at this movement and sure enough there was a workers rally and we thought it was stupid. We said, ‘Let’s not play along, let’s see if we can have a real general assembly.’ So we started tapping people on the shoulder asking if they wanted to do a real general assembly and my friend jumped on stage saying we need to have a real general assembly and they chased her off. There was a tug-of-war, eventually we formed a circle, but it was back and forth and finally after a couple hours we managed to bring everyone away from their meeting into our meeting.

At that point, we decided on working by consensus process and we formed working groups and we decided to meet regularly afterwards. Then a couple days later we came up with the idea to call ourselves the 99% movement. I remember being the first to suggest this and was definitely the first to put it out on a list, though it was probably floating around at the time. That was really my key involvement.

MS: What was the movement like before you took control of it that day in terms of its goals and strategy?

Graeber: I think the coalition showed up on Aug. 2 and said they would do a rally and then show up on Wall Street with a list of demands that were total boiler plate – a massive jobs program, an end to oppression, money for us not for whatever. They were nice people, but it wasn’t very radical, just the usual demands.

Adbusters, when they originally threw the idea out there, they were basically marketing guys who changed sides. They thought like marketers and one of their schticks was to come up with one single demand. That makes perfect sense from a marketing perspective, but it doesn’t make sense from an organizing perspective. You need to organize people around a list of grievances.


MS: Obviously, many have criticized the movement for not putting out a single demand or list of demands. If the incentive to keep it vague was to make it easier for people to join the movement, why not make the message more specific now that the protests have gained steam?

Graeber: We don’t want to give up the broad-based appeal. I do think every Occupy group has brainstorming groups coming up with this stuff, so there is a very long process of how we are going to come up with alternative visions democratically. That’s being done. But people have been trying to put out demands and protest since the 2008 collapse and no one shows up. We say the system is f---ed and suddenly we get hundreds of thousands of people.

I think that people are much more interested in radical change. People really don’t like the way things are arranged now. Yes, they have to actually get food for their children and that’s a priority and if there is an immediate [political] measure that can do that then they want it, but there is an anger at the way things are structured. It’s not a matter of how far people want to go as it is how far people think they can go.

MS: Given that, is there any issue you think the Occupy Wall Street protesters should avoid talking about, or is everything fair game?

Graeber: Antisemitic banking conspiracies and pretty much anything that’s racist or sexist. Basic human decency applies. There are certain times that people say something that is offensive and people stop repeating it in the human microphone. But we have working groups on anything else, where you can discuss monetary reform, where you can discuss transgender issues. It’s a community with all sorts of concerns.

MS: You seem to have a clearer sense of the purpose of these protests than most and you’re certainly credited enough as being the architect behind them, so why not take charge of the movement more?

Graeber: I didn’t want to do press stuff in the beginning because I was involved with promoting my book [Debt: The First 5,000 Years] and it seemed like a conflict of interest. We didn’t have demands, and I had this book about debt, and I didn’t want to make it seem like that’s what we were pushing for. But I did do a lot of work with facilitation – facilitating the first really long meeting at Tompkins Square Park, working with the outreach committee, getting together a training group for legal and medical training.

MS: And what about now? Clearly you are willing to do more media appearances, why not take your place as the face of the movement?

Graeber: I think the movement has many faces and that’s as it should be. Sure, I’ll be one of them, but when people ask, ‘Was I one of the creators of OWS?’ I say, ‘Yeah, me and 100 other people.’ It’s the same with being a spokesman. I don’t think I’m in any kind of privileged position. The last time I was in Zuccotti Park was 10 days ago, though I was in Austin [Texas] just a few days ago.

MS: Does it bother you, then, to see celebrities like Michael Moore and Cornel West appear front and center at many of the rallies, garnering much of the media attention?

Graeber: I don’t think it’s a problem that Michael Moore comes at all and I don’t think that he has tried to become the face of the movement, but I do think if someone or some organization like MoveOn.org does try to become the face of it, that’s a problem. I think these people are not trying to take advantage, they are trying to help, and I think it did help. NPR didn’t cover this at all for the first two weeks and someone asked them why not and they said we would need to have tens of thousands of people, or we’d need to have more violence or we’d need to have celebrities.

MS: Was it really that hard to find a way to get exposure early on?

Graeber: We were in a trap because we knew that if you want media attention, you’d have to break some windows, but none of us wanted to endanger people or engage in violence. We all decided that would not be an appropriate tactic, but we knew the media would not cover us if we didn’t. Then the NYPD obliged.

MS: You’re referring to the scuffles between cops and protesters, I assume. Do you think the protesters did anything to incite those incidents or was it entirely the fault of the cops?

Graeber: The NYPD was absolutely given orders to intimidate people through random force. The very first day, four people were arrested for chanting in front of a bank. Another time, two people were arrested for writing with chalk on the sidewalk.

MS: Going forward, are you concerned that Democrats – or politicians in general – will make an effort to take over the movement and use it for their own advantage?

Graeber: I’m willing to believe that the Tea Party wasn’t just Astroturf in the beginning, that it eventually got subsumed by Republicans. We won’t let that happen. But I’ll put it this way: If Nancy Pelosi is suddenly inspired to put out a call for a debt jubilee, that would be great. Nobody is going to say that’s bad because it’s backed by a government we consider to be illegitimate. That won’t change our long-term visions. As long as you are on the same path, what we are really arguing for is what’s possible so there’s no reason we can’t work together.

MS: And what exactly is that path you and the other protesters are working towards?

Graeber: That path is one towards autonomous organization. What this movement is about is that even the democratic institutions we do have now have been corrupted by big money, and in the same way our movement would be corrupted if we were subsumed into that same political system. We have to maintain the integrity of this experiment.

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