#OWS: We are ALL leaders!

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What is the difference between saying none of us is a leader and saying all of us are leaders?

At first glance these two phrases may seem like two ways of saying essentially the same thing. We believe in organizing in a way that is more horizontal than vertical. We believe in equalizing participation and resisting social hierarchies.

But the word leadership can mean a lot of things. There are things we associate with leadership that have nothing to do with hierarchy. Taking leadership can mean taking initiative on moving a project or task forward. It can mean looking for what is needed in a group, and stepping up to do that thing.

These positive group-serving associations with leadership are the reason why there’s an important difference between the idea of “no leaders” and the idea of “all leaders”.

If we are part of a group that talks about having no leaders, this phrase can inadvertently make us overly hesitant about stepping up to take initiative. It can create a group culture where as individuals we become reluctant to be seen as moving something forward &#151 because our peers might see us as a “leader”, which would be a bad thing.

But if we really want to change the world, we will need a lot more people stepping up to take initiative. The more initiative we each take in our work together &#151 the more skills we learn and hone &#151 the greater our collective capacity will be. Building our capacity means increasing what we are capable of achieving together. It means building our collective power. And building up our collective power is one of the most important challenges of grassroots organizing.

We need to build a culture where we’re all invited to step up. That means stepping up in ways that also make space for others to step up &#151 where others feel invited to step up and take initiative too. Stepping up can mean actively listening and learning from others. Stepping up can mean taking time to reflect on how different people can be socialized differently around leadership. For reasons that often have something to do with socialization around our genders, “race”, age, economic class, or other aspects of our identities, some of us are predisposed to speak confidently and to take on more visible leadership roles. While others are often predisposed to speak less in the group, or to take on less visible roles. So, stepping up can also mean recognizing and valuing many different forms of leadership in the group. And it can mean looking for leadership potential &#151 for strengths within the group that are latent, waiting for the opportunity to become active.

If we’re all leaders, we can also take leadership by stepping up to support each other and hold each other accountable in our work together.

But if we stay in the framework of thinking we should have no leaders, why would we be inclined to seek to develop more leadership in our movement? If all leadership is viewed negatively, we may develop a “circular firing squad” group culture, where we tend to cut each other down and we hold back because we’re afraid to stick our heads up.

We need a movement where we are constantly encouraging each other to step into our full potential and to shine as individual leaders who are working together collectively for a better world.

So, let’s all be leaders. Let’s step up and do this.

#OccupyWallStreet & the Political Identity Paradox

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Strong group identity is essential for social movements. There can be no serious social movement&#151the kind that challenges the powerful and privileged&#151without a correspondingly serious group identity that encourages a core of members to contribute an exceptional level of commitment, sacrifice and heroics over the course of prolonged struggle. This kind of group identity is clearly emerging right now among core participants in occupations across the country and around the world, and that’s a good thing.

However, strong group identity is also something of a double-edged sword. The stronger the identity and cohesion of the group, the more likely people are to become alienated from other groups, and from the broader society.

The Political Identity Paradox states that while social change groups require a strong internal identity in order to foster the level of commitment needed for protracted struggle, this same cohesion tends over time to isolate the group; and isolated groups are hard-pressed to build the kind of broad-based power needed to achieve the big changes they imagine.  

Strong bonding within a group tends to create distinctions between groups &#151 that’s true to an extent for all kinds of groups. However, it tends to have particular consequences for groups involved in political struggle. Consider a sports team that defines its group identity partly in distinction from rival teams. The team is likely to play all the harder against rivals as a result of the distinction. No problem there. A group engaged in challenging entrenched power, on the other hand&#151as the occupy movement is doing&#151has not only to foster a strong internal identity; it also has to win allies beyond the bounds of that identity, if it is to build the collective power it needs to accomplish its goals.

And, because of the nature of oppositional struggle, the tendency toward isolation can escalate very quickly in politicized groups. Oppositional struggle triggers an oppositional psychology, which can do a real number on a group.  Movements that meet the kind of brutal resistance that the Civil Rights movement endured, for example, have a tough row to hoe. On the one hand, participants need to turn to each other more than ever for strength and support. They feel a compelling cohesiveness to their group identity in these moments of escalated conflict. On the other hand, they need to keep outwardly oriented, to stay connected to a broad and growing base. This is difficult to do even when leaders (we are all leaders) are fully oriented to the task, let alone when they are unprepared, which is so often the case.

Take, for example, Students for a Democratic Society (the original SDS that fell apart in dramatic fashion in 1969, not the contemporary SDS). At the center of the epic implosion of this massive student organization&#151underneath the rational arguments and accusations that leaders were slinging at each other&#151there was the political identity paradox. Key leaders had become encapsulated in their oppositional identity (or, rather, a few factionalizing identities) and they became more and more out of touch. They lost the ability and even the inclination to relate to their broader membership&#151a huge number of students at the moment of the implosion&#151let alone to broader society. Some of the most committed would-be leaders of that generation came to see more value in holing up with a few comrades to make bombs than in organizing masses of students to take coordinated action. This is the tendency toward isolation taken to the extreme. Dedicated radicals cut themselves off, like lone guerrilla fighters in enemy territory. It might have felt glorious, but it was a suicide mission.

The political identity paradox speaks to the need for political groups to develop both strong bonding and strong bridging. Without strong within-group bonding, group members will lack the level of commitment required for serious struggles. But without strong beyond-group bridging, the group will become too insular and isolated to be able to forge the broad alliances that are even more necessary for achieving big changes.

Good leaders have to perform an extraordinary balancing act between the conflicting imperatives of building a strong sense of identity within their groups and connecting with allies and potential allies beyond the group. This balancing act will be more and more critical as the occupy movement grows, as the core develops its own culture, and as our opponents attempt to drive wedges between the movement’s most active participants and the broader society.

#occupyWINNING: what I’m up to at Occupy Wall Street

The past ten days have been amazing. I took the train down to NYC last Wednesday, to see if I might lend a hand to the Wall Street occupation for a few days. There is so much going on. I don’t even know how many working groups there are, but today I heard that there are at least a few dozen. There are so many moving parts. I feel like a pebble in a volcanic eruption, and it’s a wonderful feeling.

Before coming down, I had talked with some friends here on the ground who I used to work with back during the global justice movement days (aka “antiglobalization movement”). They encouraged me to get involved with the press working group and the training working group. Sh!t hit the fan the day after I arrived with Bloomberg’s backhanded eviction attempt, and so I’ve been doing much more press work than training. The press work has mostly been helping to write and edit press releases, helping to prepare folks for interviews (to get their message out through the filters of the mainstream corporate media), helping reporters find the folks they want to interview, and I’ve done a handful of interviews myself too. Here’s one from NY Daily News:


A longer print version of the interview can be read here.

I’ve decided to stay a while longer &#151 probably at least a few more weeks. I’m hoping to stay involved in the press working group, but to concentrate more of my time on training and leadership development. It’s amazing how many new folks are pouring into this social change effort right now. It’s hard on the ground to not to get caught up in almost continuous crisis/triage mode, but it’s so important that we seize this moment to help some of these great young folks become long-term leaders.

I’m trying to carve out a little time each day to write up or adapt a new one-pager covering a particular #occupy-related skill or strategy concept. Two days ago I set up a basic WordPress site called #occupyWINNING (@occupyWINNING on Twitter), which will house this project. I plan to format most of the materials into PDFs too, so that people can easily print and distribute at occupations if they find any of the tools useful. I’ll be cross-posting everything here too.

In addition to what I post at #occupyWINNING, I’m hoping to soon start collaborating with other trainers.

I’m excited and grateful to be here.

#OWS: Welcome Visitors & Plug In New Participants

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Three Tips for Plugging People In

Bringing in new participants and volunteers is essential to an occupation-or any group or organization-that wants to grow in size and capacity.  The momentum of the Occupy Wall Street movement has quickly attracted a lot of people to occupations across the United States and around the world. But attracting or recruiting new people to your occupation or group is only the first step.  Getting them to stick around is a much bigger challenge.

The good news is that there are tried-and-true methods you can use to plug new participants and volunteers into tasks and roles that will build their investment and leadership in the collective effort, and will increase what you all are capable of achieving together.

1. Greet and get to know newcomers.

When someone shows up at your occupation, march, rally, or action, they are indicating an interest. Greet them!  Find out about them!  And don’t just invite them to come to your next meeting.  Even the most welcoming and inclusive groups tend to develop their own meeting culture that can unintentionally make new folks feel like outsiders.  To increase your new participant retention rates, take a few minutes to stop and talk with new folks.  Get to know the person.  Find out about what attracted them to your effort.  You might ask about what kinds of tasks they enjoy doing, what they are good at, etc.  If that goes well, you might ask them how much time they have.  You can tell them more about what’s going on with the effort – and discuss with them what their involvement could look like.  While this level of orientation requires some time in the short-term, it saves you time in the long-term – because more people will plug into the work faster, and stick around longer. It may make sense a working group to take on the ongoing task of greeting, welcoming, and orienting new folks.

2. Accommodate multiple levels of participation.

In short, some people can give a lot of time, and some can give a little. Organizers with more time on their hands should avoid projecting their own availability as an expectation onto others. A foolproof way to drive new folks away from your occupation or group is to consistently ask them to give more time than they are able to give. Instead learn what kind of time commitment is realistic and sustainable for them. Help them plug into tasks and roles that suit their availability. Check in with them about how it’s going. Are they feeling overextended, or would they like to take on more? Take responsibility for helping new folks avoid over-commitment and burnout.

3. Make people feel valued and appreciated.

If you want to inspire people to stick with this burgeoning movement for the long haul, make them feel valued and appreciated. It’s basic. People like to be around people who respect them, and who are nice! If we want to compete with the myriad of often more appealing options for people’s free time, then we have to treat each other well and take care of each other. Notice and acknowledge new folks’ contributions, however small. Make time to check in with them outside of meetings. Ask their opinions often: What did they think about the meeting? the event? the action? Bounce your ideas off of them and ask for their feedback.

Occupy Tactic Star

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Occupation of a space is itself a tactic. It is an action intended to help us build momentum and to move us a step closer toward our goals. And it’s been wildly successful so far!

But an ongoing occupation of space is also more than a tactic. An occupation serves as a base camp from which we launch many different tactics. Right now occupation movement participants are deploying different actions and making complex tactical decisions every day.

Choosing or inventing a successful tactic typically involves some intuition and guesswork – and always risk. But the more we think critically about our particular contexts, the better we can become at judging how to act strategically. Projecting and measuring our success is complex, but we shouldn’t let the murkiness of these waters deter us from diving in. Patterns do emerge. We can learn a great deal from our experiences when we critically analyze them. This tactic star (see PDF) names some key factors that change agents can consider when determining tactics. The same tool can be used to evaluate actions together after they have been carried out.

Strategy: How will the tactic move us toward achieving our long-term and short-term goals?

Message: What message will the tactic communicate? How are our actions likely to be interpreted? How will we use the tactic to connect with people’s values? How will the tactic carry a persuasive story?

Tone: Will the action be solemn, jubilant, angry, or calm? Will the energy attract or repel the people we want to engage? How?

Timing: Can we leverage unfolding events and new developments as opportunities? What potentials does the political moment hold for us? How are our opponents vulnerable right now?

Audience: Who do we want to reach with our tactic? What response do we want our action to inspire in them?

Allies: How will the tactic affect our allies or potential allies? How will they receive it? Will it strengthen our relationship with allies or jeopardize it?

Resources: Is the action worth our limited time, energy and money? Can we get more out of it than we put in? Do we have the capacity to pull it off effectively?

Target: Do we want to influence particular decision-makers? Who? For what end? What message will the tactic send to those we’re targeting? Will it pressure them to capitulate to our goals, or will it enable them to dismiss us, retaliate, or turn public sentiment against us?

#OccupyWallStreet: Perfectly Coherent

General Assembly in Iowa City

Much has been made by some news outlets and pundits about the supposed “incoherence” of the Occupy Wall Street protests. “The protesters” don’t have a coherent message, we are told. They can’t even agree on any solutions. What the heck are they proposing?

This angle is wrong-headed. The strongest and most successful social movements in history have always tapped into multiple concerns that are important to different swaths of society, and often articulated in different ways. It’s not typically the responsibility of a broad movement to propose specific policy solutions &#151 at least not at this stage in the process. It’s on us to create pressure to move society in a direction. When we do that successfully, windows will open to fight for this or that specific change. The bigger a movement we grow, the more pressure we create, the more substantial and meaningful those windows for measurable gains become.

And historical perspective is not all that’s wrong with the “incoherence” frame. There’s a pretty damn clear coherence to Americans’ anger at Wall Street right now. If it doesn’t upset you that the top 1% is still making record-high profits and paying record-low taxes while the rest of us struggle just to survive, then I don’t know that I’ll be able to explain it to you. But I think most people feel it in their gut. That’s why us being here is resonating with so many people. That’s why this movement is drawing so much attention, and why I think it’s going to continue to gain momentum over time.

The momentum is really starting to spread beyond the “usual suspects”. It’s important to emphasize and encourage this. For example, while coastal occupation actions have drawn the most media attention so far, actions are also happening all across “Middle America”, from Ashland, Kentucky to Dallas, Texas to Ketchum, Idaho.

I just heard a first hand report about four hundred Iowans marching in Des Moines, Iowa today as part of the October 15 international day of action. I’m working on the press team here at Occupy Wall Street, and I just got the chance to talk on the phone with Judy Lonning a 69-year-old retired public school teacher who participated in the Des Moines action today. Here’s what she had to say:

People are suffering here in Iowa. Family farmers are struggling, students face mounting debt and fewer good jobs, and household incomes are plummeting. We’re not willing to keep suffering for Wall Street’s sins. People here are waking up and realizing that we can’t just go to the ballot box. We’re building a movement to make our leaders listen.

Cheers to that.

What a day at #OccupyWallStreet!

Hundreds participate in Occupy Wall Street General Assembly

What a morning! Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to frame Occupy Wall Street participants as dirty and unsanitary and to use the slander as a ruse to evict us from Liberty Plaza failed miserably. Not only that, in classic political jujitsu, organizers used the ploy to catalyze even broader popular and political support.

With the threat of eviction, yesterday local and national organizations put out the call to come to Liberty Plaza this morning and to call the Mayor. By 6am this morning the crowd had swelled into the thousands. By 6:30am the Deputy Mayor had announced that the “cleanup” was off &#151 at least for today. And the prospect of trying something similar anytime soon probably doesn’t look very appealing either to Bloomberg or to Brookfield Office Properties, the owner of the park (the park’s usage is public). Brookfield’s involvement in the subprime market is starting to generate some attention since their decision to mess with the anti-Wall Street occupation.

This is the perfect build-up for tomorrow’s actions in NYC and the international day of action. This thing is really building, and who knows how far it will go. Time Magazine just conducted a poll that found “54 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of the protests, while just 23 percent have a negative impression.”

That’s certainly better than the Tea Party has ever performed.

I keep having these “wow this is really happening” moments. I took the train down to NYC on Wednesday morning and plugged into the press team here. I’ve been swamped with that and too busy to write much here, but I’ll be tweeting (follow me here) when I can, and I hope to write more soon. I’ll be here for at least the next week or so.

Towards an Economy Worth Occupying

Cross-posted at Organizing Upgrade.


While it is self-evident our economic system is collapsing, it is perhaps less evident what to do about it. This is in part why so many critics of #occupywallstreet are calling on the protestors to create demands summing up the systemic change we require. The liberal Left has a laundry list—everything from reinstituting Glass Steagall to a corporate personhood amendment–but while many reforms would curtail some of the harm our communities are experiencing, they would not foster a new set of economic relationships. Profit would still rule, just in greater moderation, and we would ultimately be subject to the same excesses and abuses the system engenders. I am hopeful we will get many of these reforms as the Democrats scramble to co-opt the occupation movement, but I believe focusing on corporate accountability and electoral politics is a mistake, and misses the transformative potential of the current rebellion. Now is the time to begin building a solidarity economy, and along with it, new models of organizing.

Solidarity economy practices support values of justice, ecological sustainability, mutualism and cooperation, and democracy. It is a way of naming what is already happening and linking a diverse array of practices into coherent chains of production, exchange, consumption, finance, waste, etc. Sometimes the models are new, utilizing economic innovations, and other times they are a return to traditional survival strategies kept alive within subcultures. Solidarity economy models and practices include credit unions and community development banks; housing, food, and worker cooperatives; barter networks and time banks; participatory budgeting and community land trusts; really really free markets and tool shares; community gardens and CSAs; and so on, ultimately touching every sector of our economy and our lives.

Many in the #occupywallstreet movement are already practicing solidarity economics by utilizing open source technologies, using a Manhattan community development credit union for Liberty Square’s banking needs, and employing direct democracy and horizontal structures to exchange goods and services internally. We’re building the system as we go, and there is a path forward for building a movement for transformative economic justice at the intersection of a participatory democratic culture and existing economic alternatives.

It is also vital that our organizing continue to insist on a culture of participation, where to occupy means to actively engage with each other as people rather than as political commodities. Many are drawn to the #occupy sites because they share a widespread acknowledgement and bubbling critique that the lifestyle of the vast majority of the 99% isn’t ecologically, financially, or spiritually sustainable. People are not coming out merely because of foreclosures, student debt, or corporate tax dodging, and we have to keep that in mind. Transformative economic organizing can and should fuel people’s desire and willingness to imagine, and increasingly to fight, for an alternative system

Photo by David McGee

While there are substantial limitations and obstacles, there are certainly opportunities emerging for existing campaigns and organizations to plug into this work. The values and structures of the current movement—including autonomous working groups, the desire and insistence on transparency, universal access to the people’s mic at General Assemblies, and the insistence that anyone can participate in a way that meets their needs—lend themselves easily to most forms of community organizing. While I appreciate the vast critiques which have been offered of this action, it is also clear that the people sleeping out on Wall Street are not going to organize us or build a movement for us. We can be real about limitations and still organize ourselves according to our own needs, which is exactly what this opportunity presents.

In keeping with the #occupy tactic, many organizations will find ways to participate in transformative economic organizing that fits into existing campaigns. Occupying spaces that are also sites of solutions, like foreclosed homes or abandoned buildings that could be made into housing coops, or vacant lots that could become democratically controlled farms, would allow groups to embed the #occupy culture and structure in spaces our communities need. These spaces could placed under the authority of the General Assembly, for example, and in the same vein so could vacant storefronts which might be sites for grassroots job creation strategies. We might occupy spaces of power, like corporate offices or Congressional halls, but I would hope we would do so to win concessions for participatory budgeting, financial support for solidarity economics initiatives and education, to push institutional money into community development financial institutions, or any number of creative intersections between immediate material needs and systemic change. We’ll learn what works as we build together.

This is all independent of what is likely to happen: the co-optation of a limited set of demands by Democrats for their own 2012 electoral campaigns, winter pushing #occupywallstreet into homes and community spaces, and a settling into business as usual by hierarchical organizations for whom the protest was nothing more than a way to advance specific advocacy agendas. More of us must get arrested to even complete the fight for basic reforms, but my interest is whether this moment can become a turning point for the social justice movement. Will we learn to adapt our organizing to build a movement and a new system? If we develop new economic practices that in turn can lead to new funding strategies, we can free much of the Left from the well-documented limitations of the nonprofit industrial complex. It’s ambitious, but the fact that #occupywallstreet has already succeeded in engaging the radical imagination, in creating a place where people want to occupy their own thoughts instead of dissociating, gives me great hope that now is an opportunity to build an economy worth occupying.

To learn more check out:

SolidarityNYC and Grassroots Economic Organizing

(Thanks to Annie McShiras and David McGee for use of their photos.)

Radicals, Liberals & #OccupyWallStreet: This is What a Populist Alignment Looks Like

Glenn Greenwald asked yesterday whether Occupy Wall Street “can be turned into a Democratic Party movement?”. He discusses how the tone of establishment Democrats has quickly shifted and how many in the Party&#151including the White House&#151are now clamoring to figure out how to ride the anti-Wall Street populist wave.

Judd Legum of the Center for American Progress even told the New York Times that “Democrats are already looking for ways to mobilize protesters in get-out-the-vote drives for 2012.”

After detailing the hypocrisy of a Party that is deeply in the pocket of Wall Street, Greenwald concludes:

So best of luck to CAP and the DCCC in their efforts to exploit these protests into some re-branded Obama 2012 crusade and to convince the protesters to engage in civil disobedience and get arrested all to make themselves the 2012 street version of OFA. I think they’re going to need it.

Greenwald is right, I think. Very few of the committed folks who are sacrificing time, safety and comfort to make these occupations happen are going to switch uncritically into re-elect Obama mode.

However, the fact that establishment Dems are clamoring to figure out how to co-opt this energy is a serious victory for genuine progressives and Left radicals. This is what political leverage looks like. Radicals haven’t had it in this country for a very long time, and now we’re getting a taste of it.  

Having leverage is perhaps the most important thing in politics. Without leverage, all you have is a political analysis. Trying to engage in political struggle with an analysis but no leverage is like coming to a gunfight armed only with the truth. Good luck with that!

Having leverage allows us to frame the national discussion and to pull forces to the left. How often are genuine progressives and radicals in a position where the major political parties are reacting to them? I think I can count the number in my lifetime on one hand.

Now, here’s what not to do. Don’t make these occupations a “radicals only” space for fear of co-optation. Radicals never have and never will have sufficient numbers to go it alone. We have to muster the courage and smarts to be able to help forge and maintain alliances that we can influence but cannot fully control. That’s the nature of a broad populist alignment. Will some parties to this fragile populist alliance try to stab radicals in the back, throw us under the bus, and claim all the credit first chance they get? Likely so. The thing to do about that is to organize better, to make it so you can’t easily be disposed of &#151 because you are too connected to too many people who will throw down for you. That’s good organizing and that’s real politics.

This is why I find Steve Horn’s piece at Truthout yesterday so unhelpful. His article titled MoveOn.Org and Friends Attempt to Co-Opt Occupy Wall Street Movement argues that “the liberal class is working overtime to co-opt a burgeoning social justice movement.” First, I think the piece is unfair. I think that MoveOn and Van Jones are legitimately interested in doing whatever they can to support this movement, and I appreciate the capacity that they add. But even if you concede his main point&#151that liberals want to co-opt a more radical agenda&#151so what? Sure, let’s not have any illusions here, but does Horn seriously not want to involve liberals in this effort? Do any progressives and radicals seriously think we will be able to achieve the kind of change we imagine without engaging large member organizations that aren’t as radical as us?

This isn’t a moment to draw rigid lines. It’s a moment to beat the crap out of Wall Street, and to encourage as many people as possible&#151including people we may not particularly like&#151to do the same.

Occupy Wall Street Is You.

A week into the Occupy Wall Street actions in New York, I wrote a short article with perhaps an overly harsh title, Occupy Wall Street: Convergence of a Radical Fringe. I have to admit that I was not very hopeful about the prospects of this mobilization. The rhetoric of the initial call to action seemed out of touch (except for reaching radicals). As inspired by the Arab Spring as I have been this year, I didn’t think&#151and still don’t think&#151you can neatly transplant a tactic from one context to a radically different context. Indeed, history is littered with tragically failed attempts to do so. More to the point though, it looked to me like the brave radicals who kicked this thing off were doing the usual thing of putting their counter-cultural foot forward first, and dooming the action to be locked onto that lonely path, where so many Americans who agree with our populist sentiments are inoculated against us as the messengers.

But grassroots movements for change are more often than not rife with all kinds of clumsy missteps. And thankfully the factors that I pointed to have not been enough to stop the growth of this audacious and persistent movement.

This weekend House Majority Leader Eric Cantor decried the “growing mob” of Wall Street protesters, while House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi expressed her support, and the New York Times also endorsed the protest. Overnight, a political force is being born; one that has the potential to frame the national debate and finally create real populist pressure, a counter force to the formidable power of conservatives and big money.

This thing has, no doubt, gone big. It needs to go bigger. And it needs all of us who are sympathetic to help it to go bigger. If you’re waiting to join the perfect action, where you have no critique of any of the visible actors, you will wait forever. History will pass you by. Social change is a messy enterprise. Now is the time to dive into the wonderful mess. Bring your skills, your time, your money &#151 even your critiques.

Most importantly, bring the people you know &#151 not just the “activists” you know. These issues resonate with most Americans. So let’s challenge ourselves to have uncomfortable, unpredictable conversations with the people we know, from our workplaces, our families, our places of worship, our neighborhoods &#151 not just the self-selectors who we meet in explicitly “activist” spaces.

It’s up to us to make sure Occupy Wall Street’s growth trajectory continues. See you in the streets.