From North Dakota to Occupy Wall Street: An unlikely untold story of prairie radicalism

A core group of activists behind Occupy Wall Street had gone to school together — in the literal middle of nowhere

Published October 30, 2021 8:00AM (EDT)

Scenes from the second week encampment of the "Occupy Wall Street" protest in Zuccotti Park in New York City's financial district. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
Scenes from the second week encampment of the "Occupy Wall Street" protest in Zuccotti Park in New York City's financial district. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

To the four ex-North Dakotans holed up in a crumbling Bed-Stuy apartment on Aug. 27, 2011, Hurricane Irene was less a menace than a crossroads.

"People were like, 'Batten down the hatches,' but we piled into the apartment where Isham and I were living and went into life and political organizing mode," explains Jez Bold, who, having grown up in the six-months-of-winter city of Bismarck, North Dakota, was accustomed to severe weather prep. "In these videos I'd made while walking around the apartment there's butcher paper on the wall, and people are writing down things that they needed to be doing for their life. And also for Occupy Wall Street."

It's almost an afterthought, that last line, delivered in the understated way typical of Bold's Norwegian-German progenitors. As such, Bold was deflecting the seriousness of what the nonbinary-pronoun-using librarian and zis mates (that's the designation Bold prefers) — Mary Clinton, Isham Christie, and Lorenzo Serna — were up to that febrile night, which was nothing less than strategizing the dismantling of capitalism.

"Each one of us, sheltered in our individual apartments, [have] focused our efforts and solidified our plans," reads Serna in one of Bold's videos captured that night, in a statement later posted to as an "Organizers' Weather Report." "Hurricane or not, the occupation of Wall Street will not be stopped."

Shaking zis head today at the improbability of it all, Bold laughs not only at the fact that this group of  Midwestern exports killed time as Irene passed by playing Risk — "The Game of Global Domination" — but that their tireless organizing, in the end, paid off, such that a detachment of youth from the literal middle of nowhere played a pivotal role in kicking off the biggest challenge to American political economy in a generation.

This is why, riding the storm out in a tiny flat a week later, Bold was so anxious.

"Isham was making thai curry, making potatoes," Bold continues, describing the lockdown that canceled what would have been the fourth meeting of the General Assembly of New York, a standing assembly that the former North Dakotans not only helped envision, coordinate and execute, but that in many ways served as the springboard for the occupation weeks later. "I'm not really sure what the right word for this is, but it was an intensive weekend of organizing that was also kind of apocalyptic."

Almost as if Christie was preparing these believers' last supper.

"It was a couple weeks before [OWS] actually started and we were all just doing nonstop work," Christie says, recalling those delirious late summer days as nearly 24-hour Occupy prep. "We were immersed in that work from that little room, and particularly that one week with the storm we were just making orientation guides and doing social media and trying to get the word out." 

And as the world soon learned, it actually worked.

*  *  *

It would be an overstatement to suggest that Occupy Wall Street began in that apartment, but it's both amazing and true that a leaderless movement against capitalism got as far as it did because four-plus Midwestern kids educated at a relatively obscure public university — the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks — in the deeply conservative middle of the North American continent threw themselves unapologetically into activism on the East Coast 10 years ago, and in their own way changed history.

How does that even begin to compute?

"The Iraq war was very devastating for me personally, watching people get hoodwinked into this bullshit," says Amos Wentz, a fellow UND grad who also ended up in New York in October 2011 for the occupation. In a Zoom call, he is describing the event that carried him and his friends from North Dakota to New York. "You know, being 21 years old and watching full-grown adults swallow these obvious lies hook, line and sinker, and just knowing what was coming and having no recourse."

When the opportunity arose to travel to Washington and protest the war in 2007, Wentz jumped. Arriving in the nation's capital, though, he was disappointed almost immediately with the "official" event unfolding in front of him: hippies and rainbow peace-sign placards, drum circles, acoustic guitars and other liberal clichés.

"I come out of the punk music scene," he says, "so I don't have any patience for that. Then I saw this 'black bloc' group marching in formation, and I was like, 'Oh, that's interesting.' They looked more serious, and what really caught my interest is they had all these shields that were made out of bisected plastic barrels that said, 'No war but class war.'"

As Wentz recalls, after the main contingent of protesters was redirected by the police to their designated parking lot far from the Pentagon, the scheduled speakers got on with their earnest speechifying, everyone cheered, and the crowd evaporated — all according to plan.

Or rather, almost all of the crowd evaporated. "Black bloc was like, 'No, we're gonna keep going to the Pentagon,'" he recalls. "And then a line of riot cops formed, helicopters came around, and we're at a standoff for an hour. By then a bunch of reporters were taking pictures. Then eventually we'd started to disperse. So we're walking back toward where we came from and the further we get back [from the Pentagon] the more the media disperses. Then, once the media decides that it's over and the last reporter leaves, the cops just charge us." 

Everyone scattered. Not everyone escaped.

Wentz did, though. Debriefing with his fellow protesters back on the bus, he started chatting with Christie, a UND student he didn't know at the time who had also made the trip. Both wanted to bring the energy of the D.C. event back home, and within days the pair had organized the UND chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the venerable leftist organization launched during the Vietnam era. 

In fact, a small group of leftist students had been meeting periodically on and off campus in Grand Forks prior to the Washington event, screening films and organizing other events. But the group had no name and little focus. 

An organized SDS at UND changed that.

The minutes from the group's inaugural meeting are remarkable for their sobriety, ambition and clarity of purpose. Holding no illusions about their likely efficacy, and simultaneously assuming a good-faith posture at the outset, the organizers invited their friends and got down to business. They gave a general history of SDS and recommended that members educate themselves on the group's politics. They discussed decision-making and issues the group was equipped to address locally, including not only an antiwar walkout on campus and a no-war-with-Iran petition, but teach-ins coordinated with UND faculty and bringing to campus speakers such as Winona LaDuke, Michael Parenti and former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers.

Joining Wentz and Christie at the first meeting, and most of the subsequent meetings in 2007 and 2008, were Clinton, Serna and Bold, plus what ultimately became a consistent bunch of regulars, who for the most part clicked. The walkout drew dozens of sympathizers, the petition and a variety of climate change events met with success and campus visits from veteran radicals also went well. By April 2009, the crew had helped coordinate a student-led UND Honors Program course on anarchism. (Full disclosure: I helped facilitate that course as a junior faculty member at the time.) There was talk of starting an SDS house in Grand Forks. 

"There was a void" in North Dakota, says Clinton, trying to explain their chapter's outsized success in the third-largest city of America's fourth-smallest state (in terms of population). "We had a wide range of political perspectives involved in SDS. And the common thread was that we were all anticapitalist, antiwar. Anything we did, I felt, was impactful as a result. And if I didn't have my SDS experience I probably wouldn't have been in New York during Occupy Wall Street." 

Wentz agrees, referencing J.G. Ballard's notion that it is often on the periphery where the future reveals itself.

"The advantage that we seemed to have was that there was no institutional left to get in our way," he says, suggesting that despite its location near the geographical center of the continent, few places are as culturally, politically and economically peripheral to the U.S. as a whole as North Dakota, which may account for the state's DIY ethic across the social and political spectrum. (With roughly 780,000 residents spread across 70,000 square miles, North Dakota has fewer people than at least 17 U.S. cities.) The Grand Forks SDS chapter, Wentz says, "was like a crucible for trying different things that I don't think happens in bigger cities," where one might encounter "this sort of decrepit old left with a lot of people who have too much leverage based on nothing — plus a lot of infiltration already baked in the cake. Here, there was nothing."

*  *  *

The absence of a genuine left in the state gave this team an opening to create — or indeed to recreate, on its own terms and almost ex nihilo — a radical politics that had dominated North Dakota for decades in an earlier era.

In 1915, former North Dakota farmer and Socialist Party organizer A.C. Townley — tired of seeing his friends and neighbors exploited by banks, railroads and granaries operating out of Minneapolis, Chicago and, yes, New York — bought a Model-T Ford and began traversing North Dakota farm by farm to share his vision of collectivist and/or state-owned grain elevators and mills, packing houses and banks, all operating in farmers' interests. Selling many rural North Dakotans on the plan of more local control, Townley collected cash dues and postdated checks and formed the Nonpartisan League, which grew exponentially as a progressive faction within the state's Republican Party. 

So effective was Townley's rousing that by 1917 the League had sent its candidates, Lynn Frazier and John Miller Baer, to Bismarck and Washington as governor and congressman, respectively. Soon holding nearly all the levers of power, the League eventually authorized not only the North Dakota Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks and the state-owned, Bismarck-based Bank of North Dakota, both of which operate to this day, but many progressive reforms still embedded in the North Dakota Century Code. 

Much of this radicalism emerged directly out of the state's tradition of collectivist thinking among not only its indigenous population but its largely Scandinavian immigrant communities. As Elwyn Robinson puts it in his "History of North Dakota," many of the 19th-century Norwegian immigrants to the upper Midwest in particular "had leftist sympathies and were socialists."

So pronounced was this tendency among homesteaders that in the early 20th century open socialists held leadership roles in towns across the state and published a weekly paper, the Iconoclast, out of Minot, which "attacked and ridiculed the National Guard, the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at the University of North Dakota, the Boy Scouts ('hired hessians of capitalism'), and a deity which presided unfeelingly over capitalist injustice," wrote Robinson, noting that the local Socialist Party even summoned the legendary Eugene Debs to speak at an antiwar rally in the state in 1915.

All of which is to say, before they were liquefied by the local chambers of commerce and their backers in Washington, Townley and his allies capitalized on the region's leftism so effectively that by the 1930s the NPL-run legislature had authorized the creation of regional electricity cooperatives and was threatening full socialization of the state. When the Depression came, NPL Gov. William "Wild Bill" Langer not only issued, with little resistance, a moratorium on all property foreclosures, but literally seceded from the Union. 

The fact bears repeating: If only for a short time in 1934, North Dakota was genuinely independent of the United States.

"Those were my ancestors," beams Clinton, whose maternal relatives still own and operate a farm in Divide County, "three farms over'' from where the NPL was conceived. "So I understood that what was common sense for the farmers and your neighbors, and was in our own interest, was actually anticapitalist. The farmers came together because this system was completely rigged against them. Had the NPL not organized to kick out the politicos and cooperatized the system that was ripping them off, we wouldn't have survived — we would've frozen to death or gotten sick or thrown out. But still today we have that farm."

*  *  * 

But as Clinton and other core SDS members left the university, one after another, the focus and momentum they had brought to the group likewise dissipated. By 2009, SDS had all but dissolved as its founders contemplated their next moves.

After graduating in 2007, Bold ended up in Minneapolis, working what ze called a "deadening job."

"I was a contract writer for a reinsurance broker," Bold says, explaining how the job reinforced the new graduate's anticapitalist convictions. "I was starting to see these contracts, just totally obscure documents, that were exchanging massive amounts of money. And I was writing them; you know, the English graduate writing a legal document where a massive amount of money was being exchanged. And I didn't even know what I was doing."

So repulsed was the self-described "optimistic nihilist" at participating in a system that enabled massive wealth transfers from one multinational firm to another with so little oversight that by 2009 Bold had quit the job, enrolled in a dual degree program in European studies and library science, moved to New York, and eventually undertaken a book project examining what it means to be "from North Dakota."

Christie mirrored his friend's relocation to New York in 2010 in order to complete the "union semester" at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies that autumn.

Clinton later followed, but not before dabbling with traditional party politics. "I worked for the Democrats in North Dakota in 2010 and, if people remember, that wasn't a good year," she says, recalling the disastrous "Tea Party election" halfway through Barack Obama's first term, in which two out of three of North Dakota's formerly all-Democratic congressional delegation flipped Republican while the state's Democratic Party, which had absorbed the NPL in the 1950s, lost nearly 50% its seats in the state legislature. "I decided: Never again electoral politics," Clinton said. "I'm going to be a union organizer."

She packed her bags, left a state that seemed to be getting more conservative with each election cycle, and made her way east to "crash with Isham in Jez's little room" and enroll in the spring 2011 union semester at CUNY.

So it was that in what might have just been a matter of right-place-right-time, the trio got to work together again, taking inspiration from the Arab Spring and the emerging unrest in Spain, Greece, Latin America and even Wisconsin around the same time.

Finding an outcast's comfort in the company of labor activists and teamsters, punks, writers and performance artists, Christie had, by this time, taken up with a group called New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts that was challenging the massive reductions written into Mayor Mike Bloomberg's draft budget. After an energizing protest on March 24, 2011, into which Christie roped Bold and Clinton, the anti-austerity group began planning an encampment to be held outside City Hall in June. 

"Bloombergville," as the camp was soon called, lasted more than three weeks before it closed following the passage of an only slightly less brutal budget package. But the trio learned from that experience that despite being relative outsiders — or maybe because of it — the skills they had cultivated back in Grand Forks had proven at least modestly effective in the nation's largest city. So they got to work on their next project, which was then little more than a vague effort to organize a coalition of New York leftists they had come into contact with: single moms and climate activists, anarchists and Marxists, and student, antiracist and anti-austerity groups, many of whom, yes, had seen the July 2011 Adbusters magazine call to occupy Wall Street.

"It was Isham, I think, or it might have been Mary, who proposed that we have a general assembly on Aug. 2," recalls Serna, who had by now made their way to New York from UND as well. Having just completed an MFA program in North Dakota that spring, the child of Chicano immigrants found the offer to spend the summer and fall in the city, almost for free, too compelling to ignore. "That's how I ended up in New York. I got off the plane and Isham was like, 'Hey, you want to go to this meeting? We're gonna talk about this call to Occupy Wall Street.' I was like, 'Yeah, sure. Let's go.'"

Together again, the quartet got to work building a coalition, working almost night and day, organizing affinity groups and doing outreach.

"I also remember a formative [post-hurricane] Labor Day party on my rooftop, which was down the street" from where Christie and Bold lived, Clinton recalls. "And all these activists were there because the only people we knew in New York were activists from Bloombergville and from these other protests. So we just brought everybody together and started introducing each other."

"We took a picture all together on [Clinton's] roof, and we were definitely seeing a pocket of people emerge," Serna adds of the early September bash and remembering the moment they began hearing the rhetoric they had perfected that summer — "We are the 99%" — coming out of someone else's mouth. "I was listening to the radio and this person I didn't know said, 'Yeah, we're gonna occupy Wall Street.' I had no idea who this dude on the radio was. That's when I thought: this might be working."

*  *  *

The scene is marvelous in its reversal of Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby": North Dakotans abandoning the Midwest for New York and throwing raucous parties, not for the benefit of the one percent, but as a toast to its impending and necessary collapse. It was as if the cohort, as Greil Marcus wrote of Baz Luhrmann's 2013 film version, was putting a capstone on Fitzgerald's vision by revealing "what the book had been searching for all along": an illustration of the fact that American capitalism was always doomed.

This, at least, was the sentiment that Bold, Serna and seven of their associates held in mind as they made their way to Wall Street on Sept. 1, 2011, to make camp. Out to test the police response to a peaceful campout in the heart of the beast, this platoon, singing and laughing, had barely opened their knapsacks when the police materialized.

Undeterred, Bold mounted a retaining wall and began thundering against income inequality. 

"True emancipation can never happen through the present dominant institutions because they are the very ones that generate or replicate the hierarchies of injustice," a video of the action shows Bold declaiming. Bold says those are the words of Alexandre Carvalho. "Wall Street is all streets!" 

It was like a Declaration of Independence, the call-and-response, inescapable in its accusation that the United States of America was and is simultaneously a police state and failed state. In that voice one can hear not only the prophet Amos and Martin Luther but Emma Goldman and Cesar Chavez.

Soon enough, Bold, Serna and the rest of the scouts were down at the precinct station slogging through a disorderly conduct charge.

"The funniest thing about it was, like, it was our test run to see how it goes," says Serna, their Emiliano Zapato moustache bouncing with laughter. "Then we got arrested right away. But we did [OWS] anyway. After that, I thought that on [Sept. 17] we were just gonna get angry, were going to fight the cops for a while and then go to jail. And that would be the end."

It wasn't the end, of course. As the authorities soon learned, the Sept. 1 arrests were just the beginning. For when thousands of people showed up on Wall Street on Sept. 17, and then tens of thousands more over the weeks that followed, the North Dakota quartet — which had helped organize the general assemblies, designed and printed flyers, written and distributed an orientation guide, coordinated and populated OWS working groups, staged a trial encampment on a public sidewalk that tested police response and, later, coordinated disruptive actions at Sotheby's and the Museum of Modern Art to help striking art handlers win a better contract — discovered how effective, and even how instrumental, their efforts had been. 

"I remember we had like a little squad huddle at Liberty Plaza," Clinton continues. "All the different occupations around the world were reporting back, and I think [Jez] said, 'If we build it, they will come.' And they came." 

Soon, this team's faces and voices were popping up on news outlets of all persuasions reporting on the occupation, which increasingly looked like a real threat to capitalism. Serna, who live-streamed the occupation early on as part of the OWS Media Working Group and "wore through two pairs of shoes" traversing the city, was interviewed for stories by NBC News, Wired, CNN and Democracy Now!. Christie was quoted in Fast Company, Jacobin, the New York Times and Common Dreams. Clinton showed up in the Wall Street Journal and In These Times.

Left out of most of these stories — with the exception of Nathan Schneider's passing reference to "the group who had gone to high school together in North Dakota" in his 2012 Harper's essay — was the fact that each of these prophets had materialized in New York seemingly out of nowhere, like Jimmy Gatz, with nothing but a genuine desire to bring people together and an affinity for the underground. And like their literary antecedent, these latter-day ex-Midwesterners proved convincingly that everything we've been taught about the impossibility of change — that it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism — is a lie.

In so doing, they resurrected the questions facing any American grappling with her nation's history of injustice and structural violence: If people from the "middle of nowhere" can imagine the end of capitalism, can take themselves seriously enough to address pressing socioeconomic problems head-on and threaten the political status quo, why don't you? Why don't I?

A full decade after Zuccotti Park completed Fitzgerald's narrative by turning it upside down, these questions are less rhetorical than existential: Capitalism is still destroying the planet, life expectancy has declined in the U.S. as diseases of despair have become endemic, and COVID-19 has all but incinerated whatever was left of America's social fabric. 

So do the four colleagues, like the mountain climber in Lenin's "Notes of a Publicist" whose inability to reach the summit nonetheless shows others a better path forward, keep at it: Clinton is a union organizer, as was Christie until recently. Bold presses on as a children's librarian and member of New York's Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council. Serna, after founding Unedited Media in the midst of OWS, later worked with the radical media collective Unicorn Riot, which was one of the first organizations to cover both the Black Lives Matter movement and the Native American protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline near North Dakota's Standing Rock Reservation in 2016.

All of this is rooted in Occupy. "It was super chaotic, but also some of the most beautiful moments I've ever seen," Christie says, speaking more like a reader of Hegel than of Lenin. "It's like, we didn't have a revolution, so it's a failure. But looking at it that narrowly is a problem, because let's say, a couple years from now, we do have revolution: Occupy Wall Street is going to be incorporated into that narrative, and the legacies are always being rewritten."

"I get a lot of shit at the union halls for 'sleeping in the park,'" Clinton says. "But at the same time, I've garnered a lot of respect because I have this experience of being involved in something that was beyond our wildest dreams. We have a choice: We can do nothing, or we can organize and fight and continue to learn from each other and continue to figure it out together."

By Brian James Schill

Brian James Schill is a researcher and writer at the University of North Dakota. His writing has appeared in Punk Planet, Prairie Schooner, North Dakota Quarterly, Punk & Postpunk and elsewhere. His literary history of punk and post-punk music, Lusty Scripts, was published by Indiana University Press in 2017. His forthcoming book is tentatively entitled "Breakdown in Mercantile Ethics: Cormac McCarthy and Neoliberalism."

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Activism Capitalism Deep Dive History North Dakota Occupy Wall Street The Great Gatsby