An exclusive Q&A with Occupy movement founder Kalle Lasn

Jake Whitney | Boulder Weekly

With winter arriving and crackdowns on protests across the country becoming more aggressive, the Occupy movement has reached a crossroads.

Kalle Lasn, editor and co-founder of Adbusters magazine and one of the first to call for the occupation of Wall Street, says that phase one of the movement, in fact, has come to an end.

Winter, he says, should be a time for celebrating autumn’s grand accomplishment and for “brainstorming” strategies for phase two. While he hopes a few “diehards” will hold out at occupations through the winter, he expects the second phase to ramp up in the spring.

In July, Adbusters sent out a “tactical briefing” to its 90,000 supporters, telling them, “On Sept. 17, flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street.” The few hundred who did so sparked a movement that quickly went global. Though OWS has yet to create much in the way of new policies or political change, it has succeeded in launching a national conversation about the nation’s rapidly growing income inequality.

Here in Boulder, the protesters in front of the county courthouse on the Pearl Street Mall and the city municipal building on Broadway have been repeatedly doused with snowfall. With more extreme weather to come, it remains to be seen just how many “diehards” will stick it out until spring.

During this lull, we thought it would be a good time to speak to the man who started it all. In the following interview, Lasn discusses OWS’s origins, whether the movement represents a resurgence of the Left, and how the protesters are seeing beyond the “bad rap” that communal ways of thinking have had over the past few generations.

Boulder Weekly: There have been multiple crackdowns of Occupy movements across the country in recent weeks, in Denver, Philadelphia, Oakland, L.A., and New York. Do you think they’ve been nationally coordinated?

Kalle Lasn: No, it was just zeitgeist.

Things were quieting down a bit at the Occupations and the media was turning against us a little. It was just one of those turning point moments.

BW: In a recent “Tactical Briefing” you suggested that the protesters declare victory and take a break for the winter.

KL: That was before Bloomberg’s raid on the Zuccotti Park protesters. We put that briefing out a few hours before the crackdown because we felt that morale was dropping. Winter was coming and the Occupation here in Vancouver was really running into trouble, so we said, “Hey, this is the moment to declare victory and regroup.” This movement is one of the most wonderful moments in the lives of millions of young people, so we felt we should celebrate. We suggested having a party starting on Black Friday, November the 25th, that would last the entire weekend. Then afterward, a few of the diehards would hold out for the winter and sleep in the snow while the rest of us went home and prepared for the counterattack next spring. It’s not for me to say what the movement should do but I think it would be inspiring to celebrate what we’ve done so far. We’ve got a lot of work to do this winter to prepare for the spring.

BW: Left-wing leaders have laid the groundwork for the movement by bringing to the fore key issues, such as the dire effects of corporate influence over our political system. How do you view their role in OWS?

KL: Just about every political leader from the left, from Slavoj Zizek to Michael Moore to economists like Joseph Stiglitz, has been to an Occupation and given a rousing speech. So in a way, they have been leaders. One of the great things about this movement is that the protesters got the aesthetics right. They may not have the policy side of it right yet, but in terms of form, they got it perfect. Part of the aesthetic is that these lefty luminaries elevated the way the protesters thought about their movement. Imagine how you’d feel sleeping in the park and a luminary comes down and says what you are doing is magnificent. There is an emotional and aesthetic leadership when these lefty luminaries do that

BW: Does OWS represent a significant resurgence of the Left?

KL: The wonderful thing about the left is that even though we’ve been disillusioned and almost totally ineffective since 1989, we have had a lot of fantastic ideas. Whether it’s precautionary principles or a Robin Hood tax or reinstating Glass-Steagall or banning high-frequency flash trading. Or deeper philosophical ideas about making the public airwaves truly public again and new information delivery systems like Democracy Now! to supplant the CNNs of the world. The left is brimming with fantastic ideas. With this movement, we have finally mustered the passion to create a blueprint for a different kind of future. The new guys are jumping over the dead body of the Old Left and doing something unexpected and exciting.

BW: Tell me about the origin of Adbusters and its relevance to the anti-corporate ideology of Occupy.

KL: Adbusters started after we created a TV spot and weren’t able to buy time for it. In 1989, the forest industry in the Pacific Northwest launched a multi-million dollar PR campaign and their ads were everywhere — on TV, at bus stops, full pages in the newspapers. They ran a TV commercial that said, “Hey you Canadians, we’re doing a fantastic job managing your forests. We have forests forever.” I was part of a group of environmental filmmakers and we knew that was a lie; they were clear-cutting our old-growth forests. So we came up with our own TV spot. But when we approached the same stations that ran the industry ads, we were told no. It was an incredible moment of truth to realize there was no democracy on the airwaves. We saw how an industry with big bucks could air ads telling people whatever they wanted, but a small group with a dissenting viewpoint couldn’t buy time. It angered us to the point that we launched Adbusters and everything we’ve done since. Eventually, we morphed from attacking the lack of democracy on the airwaves to becoming a radical critique of consumer culture.

BW: You encountered the same problem trying to buy airtime in America. The only station that would sell it to you was CNN.

KL: Yes, but even they refused for many years until I threatened them. In fact, they were the only TV network in the whole world to finally sell us time. I think Ted Turner had something to do with that because he was a pretty decent guy. But the interesting point is that this movement is not just about economics, it’s also about the media. It’s about the food that we eat. It’s about the way that we get our information. We’re tired of getting our information from CNN, our economy from Wall Street, our food from McDonald’s and our drink from Coca-Cola. We want a different future all across the board. A revolution of everyday life is what we’re after.

BW: The movement seeks reform of corporations and Wall Street. But there is a communal nature to the occupations.

KL: When I was a university student I felt there was something very fantastic and inspiring about this idea of aspiring toward a communal future. I notice now, and what we talk about in Adbusters, is that some of the ideals of communism are finding their way back. There is something wonderful and idealistic and truthful about communal ways of thinking. These young people are seeing beyond the bad rap that these ways of thinking have had for the past several generations.

BW: The media has been very dismissive of you and Adbusters. I watched an old CNN interview with you and the host ridiculed your idea for a Buy Nothing Day.

KL: The commercial mass media is, in many ways, the propaganda arm of capitalism. With [Occupy Wall Street], the mass media knows that eventually they are going to be one of our targets.

BW: Is there a precedent for OWS — for this kind of global movement where so many protesters in different countries have similar grievances?

KL: In 1968 a movement started in Paris’ Latin Quarter that was sparked by the Situationists. Hundreds of campuses exploded and cities everywhere had dramatic protests. It looked like it was going to be the first global revolution, but it fizzled out. There was no climate change or Internet then, of course, and the world was still a pretty benign place. The Modernist ethic and aesthetic was roaring along, and there still existed a feeling that human progress would continue forever. But the young people couldn’t bare the thought of living the same lives as their parents. They felt they were being forced by the existing power structures to knuckle under to a predetermined lifestyle. The young people then just wanted to live in a better world. Forty years later, history is repeating itself, but the stakes are much higher. We live in a much more apocalyptic environment. This could be the beginning of a second great mindshift, possibly a global revolution.