In 1983, after graduating from Skidmore College, Fithian spent a year following Abbie Hoffman, founder of the anti-war Youth International Party (a.k.a. the Yippies), tending his garden and "picking his brain." Three years later, a coalition of activists outraged by the CIA's covert wars in Central America hired her to organize a blockade of the agency's Langley, Virginia, headquarters that ended with 600 arrests. She hit the streets with fellow protesters—including the black-clad anarchist kids she calls "the smashy smashies"—to disrupt the World Trade Organization's 1999 meeting in Seattle. And in 2005, she teamed up with fellow radicals and former Black Panthers to launch Common Ground Relief, a group that rebuilt houses while clashing with police in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward of post-Katrina New Orleans. "When people ask me, 'What do you do?' I say, 'I create crisis,'" Fithian told me. "Because crisis is the leading edge where change is possible."
Fithian's résumé has made her a target for people hoping to discredit the nascent Occupy movement. In a single week this past October, conservative activist Andrew Breitbart ran nine stories on his website painting her as an anarchist bent on "the total annihilation of the American political and economic system." In fact, Fithian has a long history working with mainstream groups such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). But Max Berger, an organizer of Occupy's moderate wing who cut his teeth working for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, sees her credibility with young radicals as crucial. "Nobody is going to say that what Lisa does is not badass," he says, "so she is in a very strategically important position of teaching kids who want to be badass to be smart."