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

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. 

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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."

***

Fewer than 200 supporters were on the West Lawn of the Capitol at 9 a.m. to kick off Occupy Congress. Per Zucker's negotiations with the Capitol Police, protesters had a demonstration permit until 11 p.m. A light rain had dampened the grass to mud, but the masses arrived once it subsided. Inclement weather is like kryptonite to Occupy Wall Street, as strong attendance is typically contingent on clear skies and warm air.

Within minutes, there was a dispute with cops: The permit didn't include use of the pavement in front of the Capitol and a large swath of officers were attempting to clear it. But the Capitol Police aren't like the punch-happy authorities in Manhattan or tear-gas frequenters in Oakland. They're trained to handle agitators whether they're rushing up the Capitol steps or hopping over the White House fence. About 2,000 protesters of the anticipated 5,000 actually showed up -- a real drop in the bucket for Washington standards. Supporters lined the sides, with some standing on the cement barriers to clamor for a better view and shout "Fuck the police!" They watched as daredevils played "red rover" by dashing across to the other side and escaping the officers' grasp. Murphy darted once and wanted to do it again. He was giddy, like a kid who had just gotten away with disobeying his parents.

"You think I can make it?" he asked. No chance.

Fearing arrest, he stood down. "I get really, really fucking jittery when it comes to doing illegal stuff," he'd said the night before. "Like, I can do it, but all I think about is going back to jail, and I really do not like being in jail."

Zucker was nearby. He was pleased with the turnout despite a failed attempt to garner "official" support from the General Assembly in New York. Murphy was Zucker's point man in Manhattan, and during a visit three weeks earlier, they'd presented a joint proposal for Occupy Wall Street to express solidarity for Occupy Congress. As the first and initially largest encampment, New York is where smaller occupations turn for money, supplies, and guidance.

After spending four hours outside on what felt like the coldest day of the year, and after being forced to move by police and rain, the group had been whittled down to one facilitator, a minutes-taker, a few livestreamers, and a dozen supporters. They decided to stop making decisions for the night and tabled the proposal. In a nearby pizza shop afterward, Zucker said he wasn't surprised that only 75 people had shown up, given that it was winter, but Murphy thought it was meetings like those that were making the cause "a big fucking joke." 

Poor attendance had become too routine and self-destructive. "I don't see Occupy Wall Street as being sustainable," he said. A continued refusal to articulate clear demands or name official leaders had taken a visible toll on the appeal of the movement. Not that he wanted those things, just the energy that could materialize with them. "Unless some things are altered, it's going to fizzle. People are going to get burned out."

Two days later, Zucker was gone and it was Murphy's job to see the proposal through. But as he spoke, a man to his right, Tim, crossed his arms above his head, which signaled a "block," and passionately argued against the motion. A block is used when a protester is so ethically opposed to a proposal that he or she would consider leaving the movement if it is passed.

"We don't have a structure, nationally, that we can actually use direct democracy to make events like this happen yet," Tim told the crowd. "And that doesn't mean you cut corners, it doesn't mean you do it anyway. It means you don't do it until we build these structures." Others raised their hands and wiggled their fingers upward, an indication of agreement. Murphy thanked him and weighed in: "It's difficult for me to respond because I identify with what he's saying." That got a few laughs. He wasn't in a position to change the proposal, so the block stood and it was voted down. Murphy smirked.

Tim wasn't wrong. Winter had cut attendance of the meetings to the point where a few dozen protesters were representing the interests of thousands. The structure for building a nationwide event like Occupy Congress needed complete organization and it wasn't there yet.

New York was well represented at the demonstration, but the lack of solidarity was apparent. After four non-symbolic arrests and a loose 1,000-person General Assembly, the crowd dispersed to attend various teach-ins, have lunch at the makeshift "kitchen," or simply take a break from the schedule. 

Two hours later, most of the supporters had walked over to Rayburn House Office Building for a quick show of force. Officers halted traffic as hundreds of protesters shuffled across the street, bombarding the main entrance. At one point, dozens of them bolted up the two sets of steps to the balcony, moving faster than the cameras could capture them. Authorities were too far back to suppress them as they cheered, posed for the media, and basked in an unexpected victory. A minute later, they rushed down. Some entered the building while others began a march. Zucker and a small group from Occupy DC went into Longworth House Office Building, instead, to meet with their representatives.

At the first stop, the office of Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, two staffers met the protesters and told them the congressman was unavailable, but gladly listened to their concerns. Zucker brought up campaign contributions while another sat down to pen Hoyer a note. The group then went next door to Representative Chris Van Hollen's office, where they asked a college-aged man at the front desk to extend a "Thanks!" to the congressman for his "No" vote on the National Defense Authorization Act, which had passed anyway. The protesters then decided to find the Rayburn office of Representative Darrell Issa, a main instigator of the investigation into why Occupy DC was allowed to live on federal property for so long. (The National Park Service would finally evict the encampment on February 4.)

Each time they asked to speak with a representative, staffers told the group they were not aware of their boss' current locations. The protesters didn't seem to realize they were being avoided. On the way out, they found Representative Louie Gohmert's office, where an earlier group had been told he would not come out to acknowledge them. This delegation had something else in mind. They crowded into the tiny office with one purpose: a loud disruption that Gohmert would overhear. Seconds after shuffling in, a young, short woman with dyed orange hair and a purple bandanna around her neck screamed "mic check!" and demanded an explanation for his "Yes" vote on NDAA. One staffer politely asked the group to leave as another called for security. The protesters chanted "We. Are. The 99 Percent!" as they left and relished in their simple win.

By 6 p.m., hundreds of supporters had gathered at the bottom of the Capitol for the march around Washington. The West Lawn resembled a torn-up football field with all the players standing off on the sidelines. Protesters traipsed over to the Supreme Court, where they got their joie de vivre moment after filling its steps, then "took the streets" to the White House. They shouted, drummed, and danced up Pennsylvania Avenue as police kept their distance. 

Customers in sandwich shops along the way crowded the windows to get a better view. Some clapped and flashed peace signs and others stood with no reaction. After reaching their destination, they hoisted an "Occupy Wall St" banner and chanted "Obama, come out! There's things we want to talk about!" Some even tied heart-shaped notes to the wrought-iron fence for the president, who was at a nearby restaurant celebrating the First Lady's birthday.

Three days later, Murphy moved up to "Occupy Farms" in East Calais, Vermont, outside Montpelier, in search of a new scene and new people. He said "nothing material happened" at Occupy Congress but that it had proven that the group could organize regional, if not national, events quite well. He still thinks the movement won't be sustainable if it remains explicitly nonviolent, but he enjoys participating, believing he can help ensure that Occupy Wall Street keeps doing what it is doing. "Arguably nothing," he chided.

Walking down the sidewalk these days, it's not uncommon to hear people ask each other what happened to Occupy Wall Street, in the same way they might ask, "What ever happened to so-and-so from way back? She had so much potential." The answer is almost always that the person never reached the level others had believed she would -- that she'd failed and was now a waitress at the diner in the town she'd never left. That's not exactly what happened to Occupy Wall Street, but it's close. The movement didn't fail, but rather fell short, stalled, and is now battling internal obstacles as preparations for a second phase get underway.

Just as millions of Americans banked on Obama's "Change You Can Believe In" rhetoric four years ago and thought he could erase eight years of damage overnight, some people thought Occupy Wall Street could create instant change. And now, six months after the movement began, it's clear that a lack of organization caused it to plateau. Protesters chose to gather before figuring out what they wanted and decided to organize themselves around parks rather than issues. They aimed their anger at unrealistic targets instead of tackling specific issues, amassing simple wins, and building a following based on a track record of success.

Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia University and author of Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, said things might have played out that way for any number of reasons: a refusal to acknowledge leaders, a failure to demand complete nonviolence, and even an inability to control the media's portrayal of the movement's intentions. "They now have a very serious problem of maintaining momentum and developing some kind of structure, which is conducive to next steps, and they're not there," he said. "And they might not be able to get there." But Gitlin, a former leader of the 1960s activist group Students for a Democratic Society, acknowledged that Occupy Wall Street is still nascent, and that movements go through this as they seek to mature, though sometimes die in the process.

The protesters' immediate impact is undeniable: Large public unions of blue-collar workers have been emboldened, hundreds of thousands of Americans have moved their savings from big banks to smaller ones and local credit unions, and there is now more discussion about resolving wealth inequality. But the movement's actions over the next month and a half are viewed as key for its survival ahead of the General Strike on May 1 and G-8 and NATO summits later that month.

On March 17, in commemorating their six-month anniversary, hundreds of protesters staged a day of action in Zuccotti Park that culminated with an attempt to reoccupy the space and a swift eviction in an evening police raid. More than 70 protesters were arrested, including Murphy -- his second time in three days -- but while the mayhem kicked up mainstream news coverage and an energy they hadn't seen since November, it's unclear whether it will initiate the "radical spring" they're convinced will occur.

A movement based on warm weather, overtaking privately owned public spaces, and battling police isn't sustainable; some have realized this. One method that supporters are trying out is more localized organizing. "You need people who are pushing for the long-term and you need people who are at the same time working to achieve short-term goals," said Molly Katchpole, an activist with Rebuild the Dream in Washington. 

Katchpole, 23, is proof that targeting smaller issues works. Last fall, her Change.org petitions against Bank of America and Verizon fees both gained hundreds of thousands of signatures, and ultimately led the companies to retract the dues. Katchpole said Occupy Wall Street initiated the conversation that gave her petitions the push they needed, but with that support gone, a community-based approach might be more effective.

Zucker is planning smaller efforts around Washington, too, and acknowledged that regaining the momentum Occupy Wall Street had in October will be crucial to its future. "It'll be hard to bring that sort of spontaneous, grassroots energy back to the movement," he said. "It's going to take energy and organizing and intention."

Murphy has a different plan. In April, he's heading out to Oakland; protesters there know how to have a good time and aren't afraid of a little confrontation. But despite his frustrations, he thinks Occupy Wall Street is perfect right now -- not too organized, not too destructive. "It's above ground, it's legal, it's nonviolent. It's the ideal front organization for a revolutionary movement," he said. "You can filter in money to this place, you can get volunteers, you can start vetting people to make sure they're not cops, all in a very above-ground manner."

He won't go into details, but he's brainstorming. Something along the lines of a group, conceivably within Occupy Wall Street, organizing itself for actual regime change and using the demonstrations as a disguise. But should the movement sputter out, Murphy said he'd reluctantly find a college in New York and finish the last few credits of his political science degree, then get a job. He would again become part of the system that he intends to destroy. He would have no choice.

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

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