11.17.11

Occupy Wall Street Spawns Its First Books

As prominent writers are arrested on the streets of New York in reinvigorated protests, others are putting their stamp on Occupy Wall Street through new books. Jimmy So reviews the movement’s first written accounts.

How will Occupy Wall Street be remembered? It ought to be to the advantage of OWS that some of the world’s best writers are supporters of “the 99 percent.” A number of staffers from the journals n+1 and Dissent, among them Keith Gessen, Kathleen Ross, and Sarah Leonard, were arrested along with dozens of other protesters on Thursday (which marks two full months for the movement)—The Day of Action.

Yet progressives are often disillusioned by their own causes—in hindsight. Give them enough time and their unwillingness to be delusional sometimes works against them in this age of maximal American confidence. In the beginning of the book The Sixties, author and activist leader Todd Gitlin (who’s on the board of Dissent) tells his readers that the question he’s most often asked is what that decade has accomplished, besides giving us tie-dye shirts. Through more than 400 pages, Gitlin, now a journalism and sociology professor at Columbia University, shows us that the years were filled with “wrong turns and missed opportunities.” “The riptide of the Revolution went out with the same force it has surged in with, the ferocious undertow proportionate to the onetime hopes,” he writes—not exactly a ringing endorsement. And those were the days of the civil-rights breakthroughs and the antiwar movement!

Does OWS stand any chance to be looked on favorably in the long tail of history?

Those who can’t handle acid trips but still wish to understand the ‘60s should turn to the defiantly clearheaded assessment written by Gitlin, who, as president of Students for a Democratic Society in 1963 and 1964, probably couldn’t be bothered with mushrooms. Drugs or no drugs, most of us can’t quite grasp the full measure of OWS until we read about it in a book. But The Sixties came out in 1987, almost two decades after the ‘60s ended.

We no longer have to wait long in this age of iPhones and e-books. Today, two months after a group of protesters answered the magazine Adbusters challenge to bring their tents to Wall Street, comes This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement, the first substantial book about the OWS cause, which will receive all royalties from the sales. (And just in time to coincide with a possible rebirth; 500 copies will also be distributed for free at occupied sites.) Edited by the staff of YES! Magazine, an ad-free quarterly based out of Bainbridge Island, Washington, This Changes Everything is a collection of spirited if uneven essays, by writers both affiliated with and not connected to Yes, the two big names that stand out in the latter group being Naomi Klein and Ralph Nader.

Most of us can’t quite grasp the full measure of OWS until we read about it in a book.

Klein’s chapter is the now classic “The Most Important Thing in the World,” a speech the Shock Doctrine and No Logo author gave Oct. 6 at New York’s Zuccotti Park, using the “human microphone,” her every few words repeated by hundreds of protesters until the address was completed. It is an affectionate letter to the activists, and begins, “I love you. And I didn’t just say that so that hundreds of you would shout ‘I love you’ back.” It is also a powerful indictment of early criticism of the movement. “Here are some things that don’t matter,” Klein says, “what we wear” and “whether we can fit our dreams for a better world into a media sound bite” being two of them. (The text will be familiar to readers of The Occupied Wall Street Journal, the official newspaper of the protests, and The Nation, which might as well be the official magazine. The speech was printed in the two publications last month, and in a shorter form in The Guardian.)

This Changes Everything by Sarah van Gelder

The highlight, however, comes from Yes! cofounder and editor Sarah van Gelder’s introduction, which puts the achievement of the “99 Percent” into sharp psychological focus, for the demonstrations have transformed the way much of the world sees itself:

The shame many of us felt when we couldn’t find a job, pay down our debts, or keep our home is being replaced by a political awakening. Millions now recognize that we are not to blame for a weak economy, for a subprime mortgage meltdown, or for a tax system that favors the wealthy but bankrupts the government. The 99 percent are coming to see that we are collateral damage in an all-out effort by the super-rich to get even richer.

There are moments of utter clarity like this in This Changes Everything, but the book is still a basket of journalism pieces, after all, and one can’t help but imagine a greatest-hits version. Such a mix tape will have to include the two Naomis—Klein’s speech, and also Naomi Wolf’s account of her arrest on Oct. 18. The Occupied Wall Street Journal stands as a serious primary document of history, and n+1 has also put together two gazettes that are worthy companions in their descriptive detail. (Leonard’s observations are included in the first edition, while Gessen’s is in the second one.) The likes of Lemony Snicket (a.k.a. Daniel Handler), Alice Walker, and Jonathan Lethem have also contributed original pieces after signing a petition to form the Occupy Writers group.

occupying-wall-street-writers-99-percent-bookcover

I can go on and on, yet what we yearn for is not a mish-mash but a cohesive account, a sort of People’s History of the occupation.

To that end, the 200-page-long Occupy Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action That Changed America, will be released as an e-book or a print-on-demand hard copy one month from now (with all profits also going to the movement). It comes courtesy of the publishing house OR Books, whose collection Going Rouge: An American Nightmare helped render Sarah Palin irrelevant once again. Occupy Wall Street will still be a collaborated effort. About 20 writers active in the protests have been conducting interviews, and some of them are beloved, famous authors. The publisher, Colin Robinson, is so far keeping mum about who’s involved. He doesn’t want the media, and their hunger for name recognition, to hijack the project from the (larger) percentage of writers who aren’t well known. But the book will be in the form of one long narrative, the end product shaped and written through by one or two final editors. The emphasis will be on everyday details of the occupation—a recreation of texture, in all its unfiltered smells and brain-bursting sounds.

Now that the honeymoon phase of OWS has come to an end—no more tents, generators, kitchens, or libraries at Zuccotti Park, and one protester described the next step as OWS 2.0—it seems as good a place as one can find to offer a recap of sort. The early books will not be definitive assessments, but first drafts of history written on the spot can offer eyewitness testimonies that later researchers can’t match—they can only draw on such a sensory report.

OWS is a movement that, as some have pointed out, hasn’t accomplished much. But skeptics say the same about the ‘60s to this day, prompting Gitlin to preface his history with bullet points on some of the decade’s greatest achievements made in the name of equality and awareness. “To start with, the irreversible entry of blacks, women, and their concerns into American politics and professional life,” he writes, which ought to be enough to silence critics. In the occupation’s case, nothing like this has happened yet, but the book is still being written. Most likely this is just the first chapter. “This is the moment when we realized we would have to act for ourselves,” Van Gelder writes in This Changes Everything. Whether that action can deliver the book title’s promise is still up in the air. The answer is blowing in the wind.