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Pre-Occupy, post-Occupy

An Occupy protester wears a Guy Fawkes mask on the back of his head during a demonstration at the UC Davis campus in Davis, Calif.

Kai Ryssdal: For all that's been written and said about the Occupy movement the past two months, there's been remarkably little coverage of how the thing actually started beyond vague mentions of a Canadian magazine called Adbusters.

For this week's issue of the New Yorker, Mattathias Schwartz did the legwork digging into the origins of Occupy and to talked to the guy who runs Adbusters.

Mattathias Schwartz: There's this older fellow, Kalle Lasn, who publishes a magazine called Adbusters in Vancouver, Canada. And then he collaborates very closely with a much younger staff -- one of whom is by the name of Micah White. He lives in Berkeley, Calif. And the origin of the Occupy Wall Street meme was exchanges by phone and by email in the daily brainstorms that Micah and Kalle have.

Ryssdal: So what was the original germ? What was this seed? Was there a precipitating moment that Kalle Lasn said, "All right, I got to do something."?

Schwartz: In the beginning, there was not a whole lot to distinguish this Occupy Wall Street idea from the other ones that they bounced back and forth -- like boycott Starbucks. So it just started off as another hashtag or another possible strategy that they were going to sort of toss out provisionally to their email list and see whether it took or not. And this one took, it took very quickly.

Ryssdal: So that first day though, the 17th of September, for all the Twitter and -- you know -- electronic revolution that we've seen in the Arab Spring and all that stuff, these guys were out there with paper maps and it was decidedly and intentionally low-tech.

Schwartz: That's right. They choose to keep it off of Twitter and off of email. And to just select the location by number on paper maps, which they distributed immediately before everyone before everyone went up to Location 5 -- which turned out to be Zuccotti Park.

Ryssdal: And they sat down and started having -- as you write -- peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for lunch.

Schwartz: It would have been a late lunch. It would have been the afternoon. They had been salting away food for at least a couple of weeks and they'd sort of thought through all these different contingencies. So you kind of have the idea guys in Vancouver and in Berkeley just sort of throwing these things out there and spitballing. And then you have these more hard core organizers here in New York who take it up, who actually show up and who figure out ways to make it work on the ground.

Ryssdal: One of the really interesting things, one of the other really interesting things -- 'cause there were a whole bunch of great tidbits in this piece -- but one of them is that you quote either Kalle Lasn or the guy from Berkeley -- younger guy -- saying, "We got to have a message. We really need a specific message." And yet that's sort of what Occupy became known for -- at least in the early days and even still which is -- just the amorphousness of its message.

Schwartz: Yeah, that came from Micah White of Adbusters. At one point, he and Kalle sat down and came up with a list of demands to give to President Obama. But the folks in New York did not want that -- you know -- that's part of the point: is being so disorganized as to be unco-optable. And how does that spread out further? That's the trickiest question right there.

Ryssdal: Have you talked to any of these guys -- to Kalle Lasn, or to Micah White in Berkeley, or anybody of the folks you were on the ground within Zuccotti Park about how it's been cleared out now and they're no longer really occupying things and they are going to have to come up with another strategy?

Schwartz: A little bit. You know, I talked to Kalle about that. He was kind of cooking up possible ideas or memes for phase 2, which would be, he said, like an escalation or more swarming disruptions of what he calls "business as usual." I was at Zuccotti Park last night. There were 50 people there. And the occupation of Zuccotti Park -- so far as I can see for all intensive purposes is over. So there are probably a great deal of people who are meeting and wondering and trying to figure out what to do right now.

Ryssdal: As are we all. Mattathias Schwartz wrote about the origins of Occupy Wall Street in this week's New Yorker Magazine. It's a piece called Pre-Occupied. Thanks a lot.

Schwartz: Thank you Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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