Has Occupy Wall Street Changed America?
Above Photo: SPENCER PLATT/GETT
While the encampments in public spaces of 2011 are often called the Occupy Movement, in reality they were a phase, really a tactic, in a much bigger movement. Indeed, by occupying a public space we also occupied part of the political dialogue, put new issues on the political agenda and brought people together. After the Wall Street corruption that led to the 2008 economic crash those who crashed the economy were bailed out by the Department of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve. While they were bailed out millions suffered from the collapse, lost their homes, their savings and their jobs. Many have still not recovered.
Popular Resistance was founded after Occupy ended. We met with fellow Occupy activists, as well as with activists working on poverty, racism, environmental and economic justice as well as peace and ending imperialism and discussed what we could do to keep building the movement. We decided that reporting the movement would be essential as well as continuing to deepen the education of people on the issues and organizing campaigns around injustices were essential. We knew the corporate media would tell us the movement was over when the encampments ended. In fact, the movement is much bigger now than it was during the encampment phase. That phase served its purpose — it was the awakening of a social movement. Now the movement has deepened. Economic justice has resulted in the Fight for $15, increased labor strikes, calls for National Improved Medicare for All, a Universal Basic Income, free tuition and increases in worker cooperatives, participatory budgeting, advocacy for public banks and other aspects of a new economy. The climate justice movement has developed with blockades against pipelines, compressor stations, export terminals, bans on fracking, challenges to GMOs, the use of pesticides and calls for a new clean energy economy, organic and local foods and other positive changes. Actions against racial injustice have been raised to higher levels with Black Lives Matter and other struggles against racism and white supremacy.
Newsweek has it partly right — Occupy lives on. We are not occupying public space but we are organizing in communities across the nation and in the next decade there will be transformational change that has its roots in Occupy. If we keep educating, organizing and mobilizing people change that we think is impossible will become reality. KZ
Popular among tourists and lunching financial workers, New York City’s Zuccotti Park might seem like an unlikely place to start a revolution.
But seven years ago, the “privately owned public space” was transformed, seemingly overnight, from a concrete emblem of the Financial District to the birthplace of a political movement that would change the national conversation around economic equality in the U.S. for years to come.
On September 17, 2011, roughly 1,000 protesters crowded into the square under an “Occupy Wall Street” banner, thrusting the issue of economic inequality into the national spotlight.
‘Revolt in the West’
With many Americans still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis, Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters had issued a call to action for a “revolution,” a “people’s revolt in the West.”
The February 2011 editorial, written by staff writer Kono Matsu, said it was time for everyday American citizens to “rise up” and take a stand against the social and economic inequality that had become so rife in the country.
“Over 25 million folks are now unemployed, 2.8 million homes are in foreclosure while the investment bankers who brought this economy misery cynically reap obscene bonuses and rewards,” the call to action read.
“Blatant corruption rules at the heart of American democracy. And with corporations now treated as people, big business money dictates who is elected to Congress and what laws they shall pass. America has devolved into a corporate state ruled by and for the megacorps,” it warned.
“What would it take for the people of America to suddenly rise up and say ‘Enough!’?” the editorial asked. “If we want to spark a popular uprising in the West—like a million man march on Wall Street—then let’s get organized, let’s strategize, let’s think things through.”
In New York City, the message rang loud and clear: It would take a revolution to wake up the rest of America to the failings of the U.S. economic system.
The 99 Percent
Within days of the first Occupy Wall Street protest in Zuccotti Park, thousands had shown up to rally under the movement’s banner, with organizers taking advantage of the “public” part of the privately owned land, which ensured that police officers would require the permission of the park’s owners to remove demonstrators.
Protesters carried signs branding debt “slavery” and calling for the country’s leadership to “make jobs, not war” and put “people before profits.”
It was the movement’s driving slogan, however, that appeared to really resonate with Americans across the country: “We are the 99 percent.”
With that simple slogan, referring to the wealth distribution in the U.S.—between the wealthiest 1 percent and the rest of the population, the 99 percent—Occupy Wall Street organizers were able to hold up a mirror to the majority of the country. And many did not appear to like what they saw.
While the movement predominantly attracted young protesters under the age of 35, 2011 surveys painted an interesting picture of the demographics of its base early on.
In one survey conducted by Baruch College professor Hector Cordero-Guzman and business analyst Harrison Schultz, 64 percent of those in the Occupy Wall Street movement were found to be under 35, according to the survey, which polled 1,619 people who visited the OccupyWallSt.org website.
Twenty percent of “Occupiers,” as they came to be known, were over 45.
Around 26.7 percent of those polled were enrolled in school, while 13 percent of survey-takers were earning more than $75,000 a year. A significantly smaller 2 percent of survey-takers claimed to earn more than $150,000 a year.
Another poll, undertaken by Douglas Schoen, a veteran Democratic Party pollster, found that 15 percent of demonstrators were unemployed, while 18 percent of demonstrators called themselves “part-time employed” or “underemployed,” representing a “combined total of 33 percent who are struggling in the labor market,” as Aaron Rutkoff put it in The Wall Street Journal.
On September 29, 2011, Occupy organizers issued a “declaration of the occupation of New York City.”
The declaration laid out a wide-ranging list of demonstrators’ grievances, all stemming, organizers said, from the roots of a corrupt economic system.
After a number of showdowns with New York police, which resulted in hundreds of arrests, the protesters were finally forced out of Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011.
However, by that point, the movement had already grown beyond the boundaries of any one locale, with protesters taking their demand for change across the nation, demonstrating at banks, corporate buildings, foreclosed homes and college campuses, where they knew students were accumulating staggering debts.
The Conversation Continues
The Occupy movement attracted widespread support, with many notable figures joining the occupation, including Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Kanye West, Russell Simmons, Alec Baldwin and Susan Sarandon.
The national conversation it sparked on systemic inequalities in the U.S. was one that even President Barack Obama, still in his first term, was moved to join.
During an October 6 news conference, he said the movement expressed “the frustrations the American people feel, that we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, huge collateral damage all throughout the country.”
“And yet,” Obama said, “you’re still seeing some of the same folks who acted irresponsibly trying to fight efforts to crack down on the abusive practices that got us into this in the first place.”
In the end, the Occupy movement may never have achieved the “revolution” it sought to inspire seven years ago, but its impact on the U.S. and the American people cannot be downplayed. Even to this day, Occupy demonstrations continue to crop up in the face of perceived corporate and government wrongdoing.
On September 15, dozens of Occupy Wall Street protesters gathered once again to mark not only the seventh anniversary of the movement but also the 10-year anniversary of the Lehman Brothers collapse and the 2008 financial crisis.
Organizers said fellow Occupy activists in the U.K. would also be taking part in the day of action, with activists declaring the Bank of England a “crime scene.”
But the Occupy banner is far from being limited to Wall Street. In the past year alone, the spirit of the Occupy movement has been invoked more than once.
In recent months, it has risen up once again with the development of the “Occupy and Abolish” ICE movement, which has seen Democratic politicians and everyday Americans calling for the end of the embattled U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
What started as a grass-roots campaign has quickly evolved into a widespread movement, with many calling for ICE to be dismantled over its role in enforcing U.S. immigration policies, including the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy. The latter saw thousands of children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Occupy banner was also lifted in July, when Washington, D.C. saw the rise of its own Occupy movement.
Protesters rallied outside the White House for weeks as part of an Occupy Lafayette Park demonstration accusing Donald Trump of “treason” after the president appeared to dismiss the U.S. intelligence community’s findings of Russian meddling in the 2016 election during his controversial summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Seven years later, the idea that Occupy Wall Street came to represent—that Americans can, and perhaps should, take matters into their own hands and disrupt the systems they believe no longer serve them—is alive and well. And in the face of perceived injustice and wrongdoing, it is clear that Occupiers across the country will continue to rise up time and time again.