By Alexander Reed Kelly
NEW YORK CITY—At 6 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 21, I got a text message from a confidential source who worked closely with Occupy Wall Street for the past two months. Within 45 minutes the two of us were seated in a Tribeca coffee shop just a few blocks north of Zuccotti Park. There, over a pair of steaming coffee cups, I was told that a secret faction has developed within New York City’s Occupy movement, made up of a coalition of big-name celebrities and would-be leaders, some of whom look determined to steer the movement in a direction of their choosing, including into the hands of traditional political forces.
It’s not easy getting things done at Occupy. Since day one the group has paid faithful allegiance to the ideal of direct democracy, working to ensure that all major decisions—especially the allocation of funds—are made through a consensus process at nightly general assemblies in which anyone may participate. As you might guess, this means that things move slowly, and it is mounting frustration with this challenge that my source believes has motivated a small group of Occupiers to split away from the main body and begin making decisions on their own.
The story seems to center around a young man named Thorin Caristo. Caristo is an early Occupier who started his own media operation within Liberty Park and who in an early interview appears exhausted but level-headed and thoughtful. He has played a foundational role in organizing major events and has pushed without success for an occupation of Central Park. I’d heard his name before, mostly in conversation with people from the end of the plaza where the occupation’s lower-income contingent had gathered, some of whom claimed Caristo said disparaging things about them. Others from the better-to-do side of the park have paused and tensed up when I mentioned his name.
My source accused Caristo of holding secret meetings with an elderly New York-based activist named Jean-Louis Bourgeois. If a bizarre audiotape posted on YouTube last Sunday by an independent OWS media team is to be believed, then Bourgeois is Caristo’s private benefactor, providing him with the cash, connections and other resources needed to cast their opaque agenda as the movement’s own. My source asserts that a number of other now visible figures within the movement have worked or are working closely with Caristo, many of whom are alleged to have met or exchanged messages with celebrity supporters and possible financial and publicity sponsors of OWS, including Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons; documentary filmmaker Michael Moore; civil rights attorney, former director of the New York branch of the ACLU and political aspirant Norman Siegel; and actor and possible New York City mayoral candidate Alec Baldwin.
Transparency and accountability kept surfacing as my source’s main concerns. Repeated attempts to understand what their colleagues were up to while out of view were met with curt dismissals and claims that they were too busy to explain. “This is a group that is supposed to represent everybody,” the source said. “If they’re raising money and organizing independently of the group, and representing themselves as leaders to celebrities and other business people—which they’re not—that alone is a giant conflict of interest. There are no leaders like that. We’re all leaders or the group doesn’t exist. Nobody should have anything to hide.”
Bloomberg’s eviction of the Occupiers from Zuccotti Park made it easier for organizers to work literally behind closed doors, especially at a new office space on the 12th floor of a building at 50 Broadway that is being funded by an unnamed sponsor. If my source is right, then Zuccotti Park and its nightly showings of democracy in action may be at risk of becoming an elaborate front for a political operation directed by an ambitious, however well-intentioned, few. In the days ahead, I’ll try to confirm whether Occupy’s supporters have any reason to be concerned.
Truthdig reporter Alexander Kelly has been reporting on Occupy Wall Street from New York City. For more, visit truthdig.com/occupy
Brennan Cavanaugh (CC-BY)
Occupy Wall Street protesters rally in New York City last week. The writing projected on the wall reads: “This revolution will not be privatized.”