An Introduction

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of updates from Occupy Wall Street, written by Hannah Chadeayne Appel, a postdoctoral scholar at Columbia University’s Committee on Global Thought. Photo by Matt McDermott.
Ethnographic Observations from Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street’s numbers have swelled to thousands here in New York City, not to mention the Occupy Together Movement across the country. At the October 10th General Assembly meeting–held every evening at 7pm–the kitchen announced that it serves 2000 people free food every day. The Occupied Wall Street Journal is in its second edition, with the first also translated into Spanish. 

As these details intimate, there is a highly and horizontally organized working structure to the occupation. Moreover, contrary to some media coverage, there is also shared message among the thousands. The message is articulated differently, from anarchists to church ladies, union members to homeless youth, but it is shared. A widely circulated leaflet described the movement as “an otherwise unaffiliated group of concerned citizens who have come together with the general purpose of holding Wall Street accountable for their fiscal recklessness and criminal perversion of the democratic process.” Citizens at OWS are raising their voices against the rapacious excesses of the financial system, and the aiding and abetting of that pillage by our elected officials. For those who believe that language sounds excessive, consider the 14.2 million home foreclosures that have occurred between 2006 and 2010. Think of dwindling pension funds, California’s education system, the lavish executive bonuses juxtaposed to the noose tightening around public services and working people across our country. In response, Occupy Wall Street offers citizens a space where “the 99%” can begin to imagine and enact a reinvigorated democracy and a more equitable financial system. 
With this openly shared message in mind, is important to push back against the rhetoric of “disorganization,” or “a movement without a message” coming from left, right, and center. Occupy Wall Street is practicing an ethic of radical democracy: every voice counts and every action is meaningful. Eschewing hierarchies of charismatic leadership, narrow messaging, or sound bites, the movement makes room for multiples, and asks that disagreements make room for one another. The thousands of voices, bodies, minds, and hearts on Wall St. everyday do not have to agree in any constricted sense in order to be effective. Indeed, space for multiple voices and multiple concerns defines the movement. It is stronger in its multiplicity. 
The process of “occupation” (hundreds of people camped permanently in Zuccotti park) is modeled explicitly on the occupation of Egypt’s Tahrir Square. Zuccotti Park has been renamed Liberty Park. The movement is overtly international in its influences and scope, and routinely invokes similar occupations of public space not only in Egypt, but also in Spain, Greece, Senegal, and elsewhere, where citizens have also been demanding less precarious lives: affordable education, food, shelter, and health care; the right to a fairly-remunerated livelihood. 
Some of the more specific goals of the movement are recognizably liberal and achievable within our current political economy: 
  • more progressive taxation policies including a definitive end to the Bush tax cuts;
  • new regulation, and renewed enforcement of existing regulation of large banks; 
  • regulations on the mis-allocation of capital toward speculation and fictitious investment vehicles, steering it toward productive uses in infrastructure, the arts, and other paths that will create employment and the greatest good for the greatest number.
  • banning of private campaign finance 

Some of the more specific goals require imaginative work:

  • How can we end the false scarcity created in this moment of global financial panic? We CAN afford to build an inclusive society in which all citizens have affordable access to their basic needs. What would that require?
  • What would popular control of the financial system look like? How can we democratize
    economic analysis
  • What would it look like for credit unions and cooperative businesses to play a larger role in our economy? 

What can you do? 

  • If you’re in New York, come! Talk to people! If you have any flexibility in your schedule, come to New York!
  • Wherever you are, please express your support for the movement. Please start conversations about the economic and political environment you would like to live in, and how we can realize that together.
  • Donate! Again, the movement is well organized and the Finance Working Group is taking donations to pay for the free food, free medical care, art supplies, and media campaign they prepare and distribute every day. For information on donating money, go to:  
  • You can also donate goods. As of Tuesday October 11th the items needed most urgently were: sleeping bags; tarps; large umbrellas; first aid; and warm clothing. Please see for mailing details

Hannah Chadeayne Appel