Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A revolution is born

Adbusters hashtag heard round the world

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VANCOUVER -- A Twitter hashtag was fired off on July 13 this summer from a house in Vancouver's quiet, leafy Fairview Slopes neighbourhood -- 17 characters that would ignite anti-corporate protests in New York and other North American cities: #OccupyWallStreet.

An email also was sent to 90,000 people on a mailing list: "On Sept. 17, flood into Lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street."

The left-wing call to action came from the office of Adbusters, a non-profit, anti-consumerism magazine created in Vancouver 22 years ago to subvert what its founder Kalle Lasn has called the "spectacle" of capitalist culture.

The Adbusters issue that hit newsstands in mid-July came with a striking and iconic centrefold poster for the proposed protest: A ballerina delicately perched atop a charging bull. Protesters in anarchist black emerge through fog behind the beastly bronzed symbol of Wall Street, wearing gas masks and holding batons. Above the ballerina is the question: "What is our one demand?"

On Sept. 17, nearly 1,000 people heeded the Adbusters call and gathered in New York's financial district to protest Wall Street and its role in creating the economic crisis and the growing gap between rich and poor.

An occupation of a nearby park, plus regular marches, continues.

U.S. President Barack Obama said the protest "expresses the frustrations the American people feel." Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney described it as "class warfare."

On Saturday, similar protests are scheduled to take place in cities across North America and a few in Europe.

Lasn, 69, Adbusters' founder and editor, declined to be interviewed by the Vancouver Sun about his role in creating the Occupy Wall Street movement, saying he wants the media's focus to be on the grassroots activists.

However, in a recent interview with the website ArtInfo, the Estonian-born Lasn said: "That combination of the hashtag #OccupyWallStreet and the poster, that 'one-two punch,' is sort of what gave birth to this movement."

Lasn told ArtInfo that Adbusters has always been a propagator of "memes," a term used for ideas that spread through a culture.

"We came up with this Occupy Wall Street meme and then came up with this poster, which is to me a visual meme, and now the meme we're trying to propagate is, 'We've had our American Tahrir moment and there's a movement beginning -- but now it has to go global.' " (Tahrir is the name of the square in Cairo where the Arab Spring revolutionary movements began.)

The merry meme-prankster began his career running a market-research company in Japan. He immigrated to Canada and began making television documentaries.

When no commercial TV station would sell Lasn airtime for a 30-second commercial about the disappearance of old-growth forests, he started Adbusters in 1989 to expose the hold corporations have on popular culture.

Lasn wanted the non-profit, anti-consumerism Adbusters to deconstruct commercial culture, including advertising, through "culture-jamming."

Adbusters uses eye-catching graphic design and provocative text to disrupt assumptions about why and what we consume.

Lasn was inspired by the political ferment of the '60s, in particular the role played by a radical group called the Situationists during the 1968 student protests in Paris.

Over the years, Lasn and his staff have built a loyal following of about 100,000 readers and supporters. About 30 per cent are in Canada, 40 per cent are in the U.S. and the remainder are around the globe.

Adbusters developed "anti-advertisements" that sold ideas rather than products, promoted an annual anti-consumer "Buy Nothing Day" and founded a line of ethical "Blackspot" sneakers, made with hemp, recycled tires and vegan leather in fair-trade factories.

But none of these campaigns came close to matching the Occupy Wall Street crusade's amazing success in grabbing media and public attention.

With Occupy Wall Street, Lasn hit the culture-jamming jackpot. The roots of Occupy Vancouver go back to a call last year by Adbusters for a new round of activism called Carnivalesque Rebellion, which went nowhere.

Then, early this year, Lasn and his staff became inspired by the Arab Spring mass gatherings. They wondered whether there was enough outrage in the American activist community for a critical mass of people to converge on Wall Street, just as angry Egyptians had taken over Cairo's Tahrir Square.

In June, during the weeks before the tweet that launched a thousand demonstrations, Lasn and his crew of culture-jammers worked on an issue of Adbusters they hoped would inspire a mass gathering.

The July Adbusters issue proclaimed: "All right you 90,000 redeemers, rebels and radicals out there, a worldwide shift in revolutionary tactics is underway right now, which bodes well for the future."

The Adbusters message filtered through the American activist community -- and then got a big boost in late August when the Wall Street protest was endorsed by the influential Anonymous collective of hacker-activists who promote Internet freedom and anarchy and campaign against government secrecy.

On Sept. 17, the protests began, capturing the attention of the American media and the political class.

Lasn has said the activists should avoid making unachievable "loony-left" demands. Instead, they should focus on a few concrete proposals, such as the increased taxation of America's wealthiest one per cent, or a "Robin Hood" tax on currency trades and financial transactions.

But the Occupy Wall Street movement is beyond Lasn's control.

The protest meme created by Adbusters now belongs to the people in the streets.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 15, 2011 A17

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