Kalle Lasn, the white-haired evangelist of Occupy Wall Street, was on the phone from Vancouver, pressing me in his thick Eastern European accent. "So how do you feel there at Fortune?" he asked before I could begin my interview. "Are you scared? You feel that some sort of a heave is happening underneath your feet?"
It was late October, six weeks into a movement that Lasn and his crew of "culture jammers" at Adbusters magazine take credit for launching. "Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?" Adbusters posted on its website in July. "On Sept 17, flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street." Now Tahrir may have been a stretch. Even Lasn, who was born in German-occupied Estonia in 1942 and spent part of his childhood in a refugee camp, doesn't think that America is quite ready for Tunisia-style "hard regime change." Otherwise, good call.
But what's next, now that winter is on its way and mayors in New York and Oakland, two of the movement's epicenters, have sent riot squads to shut down the camps in their cities? Lasn told me during the same interview that perhaps the occupation as we know it was coming to an end. "Some heroic people will hang in there and sleep in the snow and inspire us all with their guts," he predicted, "but by and large I think this movement is kind of peaking now and probably moving into its second phase, where people will go home and initiate myriad projects of all kinds."
In the latest "tactical briefing" issued by Adbusters hours before police began dismantling the encampment at Zuccotti Park, Lasn noted the "ominous mood" and suggested a possible response: "We declare 'victory' and throw a party … a festival … a potlatch … a jubilee … a grand gesture to celebrate, commemorate, rejoice in how far we've come, the comrades we've made, the glorious days ahead. Imagine, on a Saturday yet to be announced, perhaps our movement's three month anniversary on December 17, in every #OCCUPY in the world, we reclaim the streets for a weekend of triumphant hilarity and joyous revelry." Time will tell.
Not since the 1960s have we seen anything like this, at least on the Left. I recently spent a few days visiting Occupy sites in New York, Boston, D.C., Denver, Los Angeles and Oakland (I was in Oakland on November 2 for the general strike and the march that briefly closed the country's fifth busiest port) and I'm telling you: No matter how you feel about the protesters (and you're not alone if you're conflicted or confused), you would be impressed. Tent cities in the public square in cities all over America, crowds of marchers in the streets, over 4000 arrests nationwide—in my lifetime, and I'm past 50, that's new.
I don't wonder why this is happening. I do wonder, a little, why now? There's nothing on the crowded Occupy agenda—the growing gulf between rich and poor, corruption on Wall Street, runaway speculation disguised as financial innovation, the erosion of the American dream, the steady undermining of democracy by big money and special interests, and looming environmental disaster—that hasn't been a concern of many for many years.
Lasn claims he had forgotten but back in 1998 he told The Ecologist in London that the global economy was a "doomsday machine" and that "everyone on the planet who knows what's going on can feel it, but we're denying it. It's waiting there in the background and as soon as it comes to the forefront, then that will be the catalytic moment when dramatic change will be possible." I read Lasn's words back to him and asked him if he thought that moment had finally arrived. "Exactly!" he said.