I got extraordinarily lucky when one particular person offered me a ride home from St. Louis's Archon science fiction convention, and here's why: she is a very smart person who has just spent the last year under a near-total news blackout. No internet access to speak of, news mostly restricted to sports except during (of all things) the argument over the debt ceiling. And that's how it happened that I got asked to explain, in five minutes or less, how in the hell Occupy Wall Street even happened. Not what it was about, not what it was standing for, not what I thought was going to happen; she was interested in those things, but the one she really wanted to know was "why now and not three years ago, and how did it happen?"
I don't think I flubbed my answer. I've now had a couple of weeks more to think about it, and I'd give the same answer. But the more I think about it? The more I want to write this down and send it to historians in the future. And the more certain I am that they won't believe me.
Here's my understanding of how it came about:
It all started with a possible US war crime in Iraq, and, more importantly, with the cover-up by people who were acting like they thought it was a war crime. A bored sysadmin at a US facility in Afghanistan, with not enough to do, went browsing through his users' files and saw the video showing US air cavalry in Baghdad shooting up a journalist and the Iraqi civilians he was interviewing, then shooting up the family of four who stopped, in their van, to try to take the wounded to a hospital. So he did what you're supposed to do under those circumstances: he took it up his chain of command. Who punished him for asking about it, for not leaving it up to the JAG officers. That annoyed him so much that he took advantage of the cypherpunk whistle-blower support website WikiLeaks, sending them the evidence that the JAG corps and his chain of command declined to investigate.
But WikiLeaks was already under pressure from governments around the world, including ours, so he gave them one more thing to use in their defense. It was a "nuclear option," something so big that even they wouldn't really want to release it, but that they could threaten the US government with: go after us on (what came to be called) the "Collateral Murder" video, and we'll pull the trigger on this: over half a million classified State Department internal memos, downloaded from SIPRnet. The US government apparently thought that WikiLeaks wouldn't do it, or thought they could stop them, or something: they put pressure on banks all over the world to cut off payments processing for donors to WikiLeaks, over the Collateral Murder video.
This was, frankly, nuts, since "Collateral Murder" was a murky and not terribly interesting story. No matter how much anti-war activists wanted to portray it as My Lai in Baghdad, it was a mistaken identity case made worse by adrenaline rush; all it had in common with My Lai was that the chopper pilots who were eager to gun down the people evacuating the wounded were guys who'd lost friends to insurgents in that area, who were gunning for revenge, but that happens in every war zone. It was a very brief news story, already well on its way to being forgotten, but the government went ahead and ordered the banks to punish Wikileaks for their part in it, just because they could. Which the banks did. And so Wikileaks pulled the trigger on "Cablegate."
Cablegate had a lot of minor effects, most of them predictable, but nobody could have predicted one of them, because it was just that weird.
Despots all over the world have always told their subjects, "Everybody else in the country agrees with us, the despots. You're the only one who has a problem with it. Well, you and (some much-hated minority group). Which just goes to show, there's something wrong with you." In places where the despots have control over the media (which is most places there are despots), they get away with this, because for all most people know, the despot-controlled media is telling the truth about that. Maybe they and their friends really are the only ones who have a problem with it; how could they prove otherwise?
One of the absolutely least interesting, least important State Department cables in the whole "Cablegate" SIPRnet dump was a routine report from the US embassy in Tunisia, that said something that would surprise nobody anywhere in the free world: as the Tunisian dictator freaked out more and more about one thing or another, and got more and more brutal about it, lots of individual Tunisians were seeking out US diplomats and saying, "hey, I'm not okay with this, is it just me?" People from all walks of life. You're shocked, right?
Let me add something else, something that seems to have gone completely over the heads of the people of Tunisia: lots of stuff in the Cablegate dump is pure bullshit. Nothing in the Cablegate dumps should be taken at face value. There are brilliant, well-educated, deeply culturally embedded foreign-country experts in our foreign service. There are also one holy hell of a lot of dim-witted partisan political hacks who can barely read their own language at a 3rd grade level, let alone the language of the country they've been sent to. They both file reports to the Department of State that got dumped onto SIPRnet.
But I guess nobody pointed that out to the Tunisian people. The Cablegate "bombshell" that many Tunisians, not just al Qaeda, were angry at the Army and the dictator of Tunisia arrived right in the middle of an army crackdown, and emboldened by the (ridiculously poorly sourced) reassurance from western journalists that if they rose up against it, others would do so too, the Tunisians tried it. And it shouldn't have worked, because the army had all the guns. But it did work, for a reason not explained in the Cablegate files: right that minute, for their own personal reasons, the Tunisian army wasn't terribly happy with the dictator, either. So they declined to machine-gun the protesters. And the dictator fell.
Understanding little or none of this, people living under western-backed dictatorships all over the Arab world freaked out: "we can DO that?" So they tried it. In Iran, the army backed the regime, tortured and gunned down as many protesters as they needed to (which wasn't all that many) and won. Being a dog-bites-man story, hardly anybody talked about this much. In Syria, the army backed the regime, tortured and gunned down as many protesters as they needed to (which wasn't all that many) and won. Being a dog-bites-man story, hardly anybody talked about this much. In Saudi Arabia, the government handed out a few million dollars' worth of bribes, and sent the religious police and the army out to crack a few heads of people who wouldn't take the bribes, the regime won, and this being a dog-bites-man story, even you probably barely heard of it. But in Egypt? The Egyptians who tried to follow the Tunisians out into the streets lucked into the fact that the Egyptian army was also, for its own personal reasons, ticked off at the dictator; they refused to torture and gun down the protesters, and the protesters won. And now there were two, and even though the success rate was only "two for five" the world giddily declared the "Arab spring."
Which would have meant nothing. If it weren't for the second thing that happened because of "Collateral Murder" and "Cablegate."
People who live and die by the internet, who think that the internet is a Really Big Deal? A lot of those people saw the US government crackdown on Wikileaks as an internet censorship story. And nobody freaks out more, about internet censorship, than Anonymous.
Maybe you'd never heard about Anonymous until recently. I knew a couple of the 2nd or 3rd-wave hangers-on even before Anonymous had even consciously noticed Wikileaks. Anonymous' original issue was, of all things, Scientology. The Scientologists have been really angry, ever since their most-secret scriptures got dumped onto the Internet after they were briefly unsealed in a lawsuit. To contain that damage, Scientology lobbyists have been pressuring governments (and, by some press reports, Scientology black bag squads have been blackmailing government officials) to get governments to censor Scientology materials from the internet. And so a bunch of 4channers and /b/tards and Something Awful Goon Squad members got together on an anonymous chat server, and decided to protect themselves from Scientology black-bag squads by donning Guy Fawkes masks (the recent movie V for Vendetta was on their minds) and protest outside of Scientology centers. Nothing much came of it ... because Scientology is a much harder target than any government, if you ask me. And, if nothing else, it's also one that a lot fewer people care about. But that's who Anonymous were.
When Anonymous found out that the government was cracking down on banks that processed credit-card payments for Wikileaks? And when our own government started torturing Bradley Manning, the suspect in the Collateral Murder/Cablegate leaks, to (according to Manning's lawyer) try to coerce him to testify (falsely) that he didn't volunteer to send that data to Wikileaks, that he didn't come up with the idea on his own, that Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, put him up to it, so they could get NATO member countries to extradite Assange to us for espionage? Anonymous went ape-shit, forgot all about harassing the Scientologists, and signed onto an idea from the artsy anti-corporate magazine Adbusters for an American Fall following the model of the Arab Spring, calling on Anonymous's tens of thousands of anti-censorship fans to get the word out to Occupy Wall Street the way that the Egyptian people occupied Tahrir Square.
So, here we are.
Millions of Americans have been told by the corporate media, ever since the 1980s, that nobody but a handful of dirty hippies, and evil Satanic commies, and lazy welfare bums, and illegal immigrants, and of course more recently al Qaeda, but other than those people, nobody else but you has a problem with winner-take-all laissez faire oligopoly capitalism. They've been told that if you're not okay with fewer and fewer of us having jobs, or if you're not okay with more and more of us being robbed of our savings by Wall Street fraudsters who don't get punished ("laissez faire" means "leave us (businesses) alone," you know), or if you aren't okay with hedge fund managers like Mitt Romney making a thousand times the salary of the factory workers they lay off while liquidating their profitable companies for short-term gain, or if you don't agree with all of the Republican candidates and 90% of the Democratic candidates that those are the best policies for the American people? It's just you. You and al Qaeda and the illegal immigrants and the thieving welfare bums and the dirty hippies and the anti-Christian communists. So what's wrong with you that you agree with those people, and not with the rest of America, the real Americans? And people meekly shut up and took it, thinking that even if they did have a few friends who agreed with them, maybe it was just them. How would they know differently?
Just like the Tunisians. And the Egyptians. And the people of Saudi Arabia. And the Syrians. And the Iranians.
We didn't have Wikileaks to tell us otherwise. It shouldn't have mattered if we had; we should have known not to trust the roughly-half-BS stuff that was in the Cablegate files, but maybe it would have mattered to us if they had told us, like it mattered to the Tunisians and the Egyptians and the rest. But we did have Anonymous to tell us. Which shouldn't have mattered, because none of us knew who Anonymous were, and probably most of us wouldn't have approved if we did know. (You took the word of cypherpunk anti-Scientology freaks from three of the most notoriously awful BBSes on the internet over the word of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times? Really?) But somehow, when they told us, even though it shouldn't have done so, it did matter: by current polls, about 2/3rds of Americans now realize that no, it's not just a couple of us, and a few bad people, it really is at least 2/3rds of us who have a problem with this. And it's a month later, and the protest encampments are still going strong, and getting bigger. Pretty soon, maybe, the Wall Street regime's hand-picked politicians will order the cops and the Army to clear those camps, like the pro-Wall-Street regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and Saudi Arabia did, and the even worse regimes in Syria and Iran. And then we'll find out who the cops and the army like better, here, just like they did.
And in the far future, when they already know whether the police and the Army will have sided with the Wall Street regime or with the 2/3rds of Americans who aren't okay with the Wall Street regime, if they read my account of how it all started? They won't believe me. Because how this all happened? Is just plain nuts.