The Occupiers: A Liberal and a Radical Struggle for the Soul of a Movement

More

Last fall, Daniel Murphy and Ben Zucker devoted themselves to Occupy Wall Street for very different reasons. Today, they represent two forces that threaten to pull the group apart. 

murphy-top.jpg

Demonstrator Daniel Murphy is arrested in New York on March 17, 2012. (Photo by Andrew Katz)

"Am I really going to have to be the one to fucking do this?" Daniel Murphy asked. It was January 17 and the 25-year-old fringe member of Occupy Wall Street was seated in the House Visitor's Gallery on the third floor of the U.S. Capitol, gawking as hundreds of U.S. Representatives filed into the Chamber that evening to elect a new sergeant-at-arms. 

The day marked the opener of the second session of the 112th Congress and the four-month anniversary of the initial occupation of Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan. Murphy turned to the young woman seated next to him -- a protester from a college in New Jersey -- then looked over his shoulder to the three guys a few rows back. He knew none of them would have enough courage to do it.

A guard standing behind him had just scolded a young congressional page for carrying a packet of photos matching politicians with their names. What Murphy hoped to do was far more significant.

Hours earlier, he had grabbed two Gallery passes from the office of his former boss, Representative Pete Stark of California. The rules for entry were clear: no reading, no writing, no electronic devices. Murphy didn't need any of it. He intended to interrupt the vote by shouting "mic check" -- the movement's trademark means for disruption -- and then sailing through an impassioned speech about how the country's widespread economic disparities are rooted in politically motivated corporate greed. 

Murphy paused to consider the consequences. If he spoke out, he would likely be grabbed, cuffed, and detained for questioning. Maybe even jailed for a bit. He'd been in jail before. He didn't want to go back.

House Speaker John Boehner entered the Chamber, sauntered to the podium, and struck his gavel, calling the floor to order. His bright orange tie matched his famous tan. Murphy looked at Boehner as if he were everything that was wrong with America. If Boehner had looked up at Murphy, a young, white troublemaker dressed all in black, he might have thought the same. The 15-minute sign-in for the quorum began.

Murphy paused to consider the consequences. He'd been in jail before. He didn't want to go back.

Asked if he planned to still go through with it, Murphy sunk into his blue and gold flip-up seat and said, "Probably not. It's not worth it."

He seemed drained after nine hours of playing cat-and-mouse with police on the West Lawn and roaming Capitol Hill. He didn't want to define the next stage of the movement based on whatever words he would have shouted out.

Minutes later, Murphy and the young woman stood up and walked out. They planned to catch the hundreds of protesters who had just left the Capitol on a four-mile march. The new sergeant-at-arms was sworn in soon after and the politicians moved on without realizing that Murphy and the others had ever been there. And despite weeks of preparing for Occupy Congress, the most comprehensive effort in two months to repaint Occupy Wall Street as the romantic yet realistic solution for transforming the country's economic system, most of the country moved on, too.

***

At 5:30 p.m. on January 16, Ben Zucker was in full planning mode. Zucker is a key organizer within Occupy DC in McPherson Square Park, which at that time was the movement's largest and longest-running encampment, and Occupy Congress was his baby. Organizers had put out the call for thousands of supporters to come greet their elected officials and raise the public's awareness of corporate influence in government. And after two and a half months of bad press and in-plain-sight hibernation, this was a chance for a fractured Occupy Wall Street to win back mainstream America.

"We are protesting the influence of the 'one percent' on our society and no better way to do it than take it right to the doorsteps of power," Zucker said, wide-eyed and beaming. It had to be organic, symbolic, and structured, he thought, since it was disorganization, a muddled message, and clashes with police that had damaged the movement's reputation and stunted its growth. His dark sweater and black jacket seemed too large for his frame, but along with his overgrown auburn beard, they helped protect him from the biting cold. The next day promised to be warmer.

At 23, Zucker has the organizing gene. He's a fresh graduate of Tulane University, where he studied public health to get a foot in the door of social justice work, and his family lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, just inside the Beltway. He once spent a semester running a health program in Senegal, and upon his return, he got involved with a protest by dining services workers. Zucker, who was hooked after first swinging by McPherson in early October, represents the liberal side of the movement. He wants universal health care and federal takeovers of big banks, and he thinks Occupy Wall Street is a good way to make it all happen.

That's a sharp contrast with Murphy, a Long Beach native who earned his high school diploma in 2004 but never graduated. At 17, he was sentenced to more than two years in the California Youth Authority for stabbing three people at a coffee shop after his friend was punched. 

Murphy was released in February 2006, then enrolled at a local college and found work with United Parcel Service. Two years later, after transferring to another university, he landed an internship through the Panetta Institute for Public Policy in Representative Stark's congressional office. It was a thankless position that allowed him to walk constituents through marble hallways during the day and then liven up with hotel parties at night.

After the internship, Murphy went back to UPS in California and stayed there until early 2011, when he set off for some travel. He first heard about Occupy Wall Street last fall when he was with his then-longtime girlfriend on Utila, the third-largest Bay Island off the coast of Honduras. He initially thought it was another leftist demonstration that wouldn't go anywhere, but grew excited when he saw it lasting for months. 

Murphy booked two tickets to New York and arrived on November 29. His views had gradually become more extreme, and by the time Occupy Wall Street rolled around, he was like a live grenade with the trigger half-pulled, waiting to be set off.

The evening of January 16, Zucker and a small group walked down to the Washington Monument for a General Assembly, where more than 400 supporters from occupations around the country were crowding around a team of facilitators to discuss logistics for Occupy Congress. He had spent weeks coordinating with local authorities, planning activities, and arranging donated supplies for the newcomers. The crowd listened intently as he spoke, and seemed hopeful the next day would redefine the movement. On one side of the gathering was a clear shot of the Lincoln Memorial, and on the other, a view of the Capitol. The white dome shone against the night sky.

Afterward, a few dozen Direct Action protesters piled into the top floor of a nearby McDonald's to finalize the agenda, map out the march route, and make a request for nonviolence. Since the media had portrayed Oakland, California, as the tinderbox of the movement, protesters were divided on whether violence should be tolerated or outlawed. Besides, any property damage traced back to Occupy DC could have influenced their neighbors to push for an eviction.

Murphy disagreed with the call for nonviolence and went outside. Occupy Congress was pointless, he said, lighting a cigarette. By taking a pacifist approach, Occupy Wall Street would join past movements that lost influence after choosing speech over confrontation. Back inside, he brought up three phrases from the General Assembly and said each showed how Occupy Wall Street was screwing up.

The first was "This shit is going to be fucking tight!" It made Occupy Congress sound like a party, Murphy thought. or like a Macy's Parade. At most, a precursor to reform, not revolution. "We're not taking it seriously yet."

Murphy didn't like "Power to the People" either. The phrase had deep roots in earlier protests, but Murphy said echoing it now could mean repeating history's mistakes. "I don't see any benefit from anything that's ever happened in the past. I think it's only served to just reaffirm the system." In Murphy's view, all systems are bound to fail; he'd rather scrap the economy and the government altogether and move back to primitivism. He recognizes that Occupy Wall Street is itself a system, but says he joined because it was the first real sign that his vision could one day become reality.

His third complaint was about the phrase "Occupy Everything." It illustrated his concern that the movement's rhetoric didn't match its actions. Protesters gather, yell, and march, he said, but they usually end up where they began, and Occupy Congress was setting itself up to do the same thing. Earlier that night, walking back to McPherson, a young woman had chatted with Murphy about her hopes to see action the next day. "I'm willing to get out of my armchair, too," he'd told her. "Somebody just lead me and show me the way."

Jump to comments
Presented by

Andrew Katz is a New York-based journalist who has written for The Guardian, Men's Health, and The Brooklyn Ink.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

Just In