Back in July, an idea by Kalle Lasn and his colleagues at Adbusters, a nonprofit magazine run by social activists, had started to come together.
For months, Lasn had noticed among his 120,000 readers an unresolved anger that wasn’t finding expression. He observed that young people were starting to say they worried about having a “black hole future” ahead of them, and it suddenly felt, he said, “like a Tahrir moment in America was eminently possible.”
So the Adbusters team tried something out. They put out feelers for a small protest on Wall Street on Sept. 17. They started a hashtag to go with it, the catchy-sounding #OccupyWallStreet. They ran a poster in the magazine to advertise it (see above).
And before they knew it, the protests had taken on a life of their own:
Adbusters’ idea of protesting corporate greed and what they saw as the United States’ corrupt political system struck such a chord that the demonstrations have now spread to dozens of cities and towns across the country. Unions, students, rights groups and others have joined in. The national media cover the protests daily.
But as winter sets in, Occupy Wall Street is at a pivotal moment — will the protests grow larger and bring about real change, or will they fade with the fall?
We spoke to Kalle Lasn, editor and founder of Adbusters, by phone Wednesday to get some perspective from the man who started it all.
Below, our interview:
Q. The protesters on Wall Street have expressed a lot of different demands. What do you think is really at the heart of this movement? Why now?
A. I think what fueled this in part is this sense of fairness Americans have always believed in. There is something about the financial speculators on Wall Street that brought us this mess, that not a single one has said, ‘I’m sorry for what I’ve done,’ and that they all got away with it while we the people are suffering. This sense of suffering, I think, is what generated the rage.
But the larger perspective is this sense of despondency that young people around the world and in America have.
They look at the future and see just one big black hole. They look at a world with climate change that will be much hotter when they get older, at a political crisis and corruption in Washington, at the American democracy not working any more at a time when America is in decline, and at a financial crisis in which the Dow Jones could plummet tomorrow. If we don’t stand up and fight for a different kind of future, they realize, we won’t get one.
Q. Do you see the protests in a way as similar to the movement of the 1960s?
A. Absolutely. I lived through the 1960s, and I was part of that movement which erupted in hundreds of campuses around the world. These protests are very analogous. There’s suddenly a strange, magical occupation in Zuccotti Park, and it inspires occupations around the world, and it’s inspired by people who look into the future and think it doesn’t compute.
But the difference is in the 1960s it was people bored to tears with their parents running the world in a boring, banal way. They wanted to live their live their life to the hilt. They wanted to live without “dead time.” This time it’s much more serious, the consequences are much heavier, and the stakes higher.
Q. Do you see Occupy Wall Street having the same kind of social impact as the 1960s counterrevolution did?
A. In 1968, it was almost a global revolution, but then it fizzled out. I’m hoping that young people, armed with the Internet and its tools, and without the manifesto-driven needs of the 60s, have a real, magical possibility of a global mindshift, a global revolution.
Q. How do you think such a global revolution would play out?
A. The initial phase of the revolution, what we are seeing right now, is leaderless, and the protesters are not hopping into bed with any party, even the Democratic party. Everyone is trying to second-guess what they’re after. But nonetheless, they’ve launched a national conversation. As the winter approaches, I think there will be different phases and ideas, possibly fragmentation into different agendas. I think crystal-clear demands will emanate.
Q. What kind of demands?
A. I think people want a Robin Hood tax on all trades, they want to bring back the Glass-Steagall Act, to ban high-frequency flash trading, implement banking reform, clean up corruption in Washington, and down the road, a third party may spring up.
Q. Why do you think a third party is possible at this moment in history?
A. We [the left] haven’t really had our act together. The tea party has had all the fun. This is about the political left having some fun. The political left wants a fundamental change in our political system and economy, in the way we drink and eat and buy things and get around. This movement can bear a lot of fruits, and I think a third party is one of them.
Q. What do you make of the clashes between protesters and police?
A. I think it’s just a distraction. Police brutality actually helps the movement. One of the greatest moments was when 700 people were arrested on Brooklyn Bridge. They had a great time. That was the moment when suddenly the mainstream media couldn’t ignore us anymore.
Q. The movement has been criticized for being leaderless and for having no focus. How do you respond to that?
A. A lot of that criticism is sour grapes, or put out by people that don’t understand. The messy, leaderless, demandless movement has launched a national conversation of the likes that we haven’t had in 20 years. That’s as good as it gets! Not every one needs to have a leader with clear demands. That’s the old way of launching revolutions. This revolution is run by the Internet generation, with egalitarian ways of looking at things, and an inclusive process of getting everyone involved. That’s the magic of it.
Q. But still, the timing — why do you think these protests happened now, as opposed to a year ago, or a year from now?
A. Every movement has a certain amount of luck going for it. It was that sort of deep-down feeling of a black-hole future building up, it was a certain number of months after Egypt and Tunisia, and it was fueled by the fact that people are losing their homes and jobs and some 30 percent of young people can’t find a job even if they have a PhD.
It dawned on young people that President Obama won’t be able to fix this problem. While young people can’t articulate what they want, I think what they want is a soft regime change — to depose the corporate-driven state and, ultimately, to reinvigorate American democracy from the ground up.