Some Say Occupy Wall Street Did Nothing. It Changed Us More Than We Think
Ten years ago on November 15, Occupy Wall Street saw a police squadron spray pepper into the night. The officers helped push the protestors’ placards, tents, and books into a truck fleet. Occupy was a chaotic, diverse, and lively demonstration that began with 2,000 protestors in Lower Manhattan. This march grew into a series of similar marches all over the country. It seized enough media coverage to appear like a moment in the making, as it amplified outrage over America’s skewed distribution of wealth and opportunity.
It was over in just 59 days.
In the decade since its demise, scores of observers—and even participants—have said Occupy Wall Street fell short. Some of the experts include New York TimesAndrew Ross Sorkin wrote that it would be no more than an “asterisk” in history. Then, there’s Micah White, editor at the activist magazine Adbusters. White’s email blast before the protest began is credited with sparking the idea behind Occupy. White, however, has considered Occupy to be a failure in the ten years that have passed since its end.
He wrote the 2016 book Protest is over Revolutionary Strategies: A new Playbook White wrote, “an honest assessment reveals that Occupy Wall Street failed to live up to its revolutionary potential: We did not bring an end to the influence of money on democracy, overthrow the corporatocracy of the 1 percent or solve income inequality.” He concluded by calling Occupy “a constructive failure because the movement revealed underlying flaws in dominant and still prevalent theories of how to achieve social change through collective action.”
It might appear that Occupy has gone without much. Occupy did not create a platform or a consensus around any particular set of demands. There’s no significant flesh-and-bones organization to point to as its heir. It never appointed a leadership team.
There’s a big problem with that conclusion, however: Occupy’s messaging just won’t go away. It is a constant theme in the politics of globalization. It is a direct result of the fact that it has made economic inequalities more prominently in D.C. policy conversations. Ideas that were thought to be too socialist since the demise of the Eastern Bloc—class struggle, wealth distribution across social strata, or even flaws in the capitalist system—were suddenly aired loudly and frequently for the first time since the Great Depression.
Inspiring youth movement
Occupy, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz told TIME, “is part of a series of events that precipitate an understanding of the limitations of corporate America, something that today has morphed into a sense of the misdeeds not only by the financial sector, the fossil fuel sector, and now by big tech. This was the initial critique which made it crystallize in an extremely powerful manner. Subsequent movements built on growing understanding, a sense that the corporate sector is not really serving American interests.”
Occupy captured the attention of two demographics that are on the rise: Millennials and Millennials. The first of these: Millennials, many of whom participated in the movement’s Manhattan launch or any of the similar protests around the country. Generation Z was also affected by the sustained protest, which left an impression on a generation that was only beginning to understand the turbulent world in which it lives.
Occupy was fueled by youth exuberance. It created a model for peaceful resistance, which could also include old-fashioned presence and social media. Not bad for two weeks of work—or as Vladimir Lenin wrote, “In some decades nothing happens—in some weeks decades happen.”
Millennials were pivotal in getting Occupy’s message out to participants and the media alike. A majority of participants were young students and college graduates who were steeped in student loan debt, according to CUNY sociologist Ruth Milkman’s studies of New York City’s Occupy enclave. They were the first generation in America to use social media. Zuccotti’s electrical outlets made it possible to create a communications center, which protesters could use to reach media and to document their daily activities.
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The Occupy movement was not founded by any one group. It embraced an open-source, horizontal structure, more in line with a software developer’s organizational hierarchy. David Graeber (late-professor, activist) was a key figure in the movement. He said the design was intentional with the ultimate goal of creating a new democratic model that will follow the will and wishes of the people. However, the result was not what it seemed. It was stuck in glacial discussions that didn’t produce any platform or leaders.
Yet, Occupy seems to draw support from many different groups. Sonya Grier, a marketing professor at American University, said that the attraction of Occupy was its freedom to not limit membership by messaging or goals. “It was broad enough to capture all the associations the American public could generate at the time,” she says. “Even absent a unifying strategic action plan, Occupy Wall Street had the legs to spread to different societal groups in a way that continues to the present.”
A long line of protests followed in Occupy’s wake and owe it a debt of gratitude. Occupy veterans helped to start the Fight for $15 fair wages movement less than a decade after the ZuccottiPark encampment had been closed down. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the anti-Trump women’s marches, and the March for Our Lives certainly drew inspiration from Occupy. The movement helped propel Bernie Sanders’ Democratic-Socialist presidential campaign. There is a direct link between Occupy’s focus on economic disparity and the ascendancy of the Democratic party’s Progressive caucus.
“The success of Occupy opened the eyes of a lot of participants to what protest was and how it could make a difference,” says CUNY’s Milkman. “In a way, it made protest cool for a new generation of young people for the first time since the late 1960’s.”
Many people view millennials as an unstable and disengaged generation that is glued to their smartphones. That’s off the mark, says CUNY’s Milkman whose studies have tracked a group of several hundred Occupiers over time. Milkman says that a large majority of them have maintained their commitment to changing, whether as activists, as organizers, or as active participants in other social movements.
In many ways, Occupy’s function as a loudspeaker marked a tipping point for other groups as well. Occupy saw a chance for labor unions to emerge in 2011. Many marched or declared their support, including New York City Transit workers and a Teamsters Local. Later, longshoremen were also present at the Oakland, California, offshoot. Millennials used social media to organize a wave in teacher strikes across red states, such as Kentucky and Oklahoma. And the labor movement’s Striketober muscle flexing this year likely drew some inspiration from Occupy.
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Media exposure in a wave
It was also important to consider the location. Occupy’s headquarters was, of course, in America’s news media capital. Base camp for the movement was Zuccotti Park, a compact 33,000 square-foot public space small enough to be a guilt slice in the glutton’s banquet that is lower Manhattan real estate. It was owned privately, which is ironic. Its owners had won a zoning concession that prevented Mayor Michael Bloomberg from outright evicting Occupy’s protesters and helped its longevity.
Occupy was dramatized from the beginning. New York Police pepper-sprayed Occupiers early on. Later on, 700 protesters were detained and police clashed.
It was the culmination of a massive amount publicity. Occupy began slowly. It received 2% of all news coverage at the beginning of the second week as per the Pew Research Center. Mid-November saw that percentage rise steadily to 13%, while economic problems absorbed almost half of the newscasts. Two numbers can be used to put things in perspective. The first number is 20+million, which represents the combined audience who sat down to watch the newscasts on NBC and CBS at night, as reported by Nielsen. Occupy generated an equivalent level of media attention to nearly $1 million per night at its highest point, with a 30 second commercial costing on average $55,000.
Occupy was making inroads by the second month. In a survey that was conducted late October, 39%-35% of respondents supported the movement rather than opposed it. Contrast those numbers with a 32%-44% support/oppose ratio generated by the Tea Party movement at the time and Occupy’s pull becomes clear. “When mainstream media, politicians and people milling at the water cooler are talking about political and economic inequality, the Occupiers are winning,” wrote University of California Irvine political science professor David S. Meyer at the time.
The origins of ‘the 1%’
Any retrospective of Occupy must include serious consideration of its rallying cry: “We are the 99%.” Economists such as Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty may have already been studying the way inequality had wedged a shockingly wide gap between haves-in-excess and have-nots, but in just 14 characters, Occupy organizers created a message that framed the outrage millions and put “the 1%” on notice. The Occupy organizers were equipped with an elegant turn of phrase that could be distributed daily on the crescendo of media coverage. Occupy was able to echo the Tea Party’s sentiments and those of millions on the left and right who suffered during the Great Recession. They also expressed outrage over the bank bailouts which left them homeless.
Occupy’s message continues to resonate. Exhibit A is President Joe Biden who repeatedly targets the 1% while pushing for a reform of U.S. tax policy in order to fund infrastructure and a strong social agenda. His administration is also reportedly seeking to make good on yet another of Occupy’s ideas: debt cancellation. According to the 2020 Democratic Party platform, incomes of the richest 1% were increasing five times faster than that of the lowest 90 percent. And let’s not forget Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose “Tax the Rich” dress at this year’s Met Gala event seems to leap straight out of an Occupy pret-a-porter evening collection.
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“Occupy’s legacy is the commonsense attention to inequality,” says author Astra Taylor who participated in the protest and later co-authored a book chronicling its day-to-day progression. “Structural issues such as poverty were examined before Occupy, but were subterranean in American discourse,” she says. “Occupy brought them to the surface and in that way made the everyday experience of real people news.”
Occupy’s unprecedented media success helped make the 99% and 1% labels commonplace. The nine months preceding Occupy were marked by global upheaval, so much so that TIME named “The Protester” the person of the year in 2011. Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya were overthrown by the Arab Spring 2011. In Europe, the Indignados protests against the Spanish government’s austerity measures followed soon after. Occupy was the latest wave of global mass discontent by the time it launched on September 17.
Legacy left and right.
Occupy has lasting consequences that aren’t limited to the Left. A surge in populism is visible across the American political spectrum and much of the Right’s messaging can be traced back to the discontent Occupy crystallized. Donald Trump was able to leapfrog a crowd of Republican contenders in 2016 in part by hinting early on about raising taxation rates for the rich—only to U-turn later. His close adviser, Steve Bannon has identified a growing distrust of elites by a predominately white working class as key to Trump’s popularity.
“The notion of money corrupting politics, of corporate welfare, and of crony capitalism—this is the stuff that left- and right-wing populism are made of,” says Robert Reich, formerly an economic adviser to the Clinton administration. Bannon is the man behind this film. Occupy Unmasked claimed to expose an orgy of criminality at the heart of the protest, nevertheless took up positions about the abandonment of the working class that mirrored the movement’s tone. Bannon frequently pointed to his father’s loss of life savings when AT&T stock tanked in the 2008 market drop as prime motivation. Occupy’s wide appeal was fueled by shared frustration, more specifically a sense of disconnect between commonfolk and the government. “The idea is essentially that the system is not going to save us, we’re going to have to save ourselves,” said activist Graeber two days after Occupy launched.
Occupy Wall Street has now been largely abandoned by the 1%. It had little impact on the banking industry. There is no direct link between it and corporate regulation. Ten years later Wall Street and corporate America have burst at the seams. Since 2011, the S&P 500 has climbed over 325% and now has a combined market capitalization of $39 trillion. The Trump tax cuts have granted the richest a substantial tax break. This has been possible for 10 years. Some estimates show that members of Trump’s tax cuts in 2017 gave the wealthy a substantial boost with $7 trillion more wealth.
Economist Thomas Piketty, who authored two seminal books on inequality in the last decade—Capital in the 21St Century 2013. Capital and Ideology (2019)—says, “Inequality has been moving to the center stage since Occupy and CapitalThis is a good thing, but not enough. It will be continued and probably accelerated by COVID or global warming. However, the forces of resistance (in particular the power of money in political campaigns and universities) will not allow it to happen. are still very strong.” He adds, “What makes me optimistic is that it’s always been like this: elites fight to maintain extreme inequality, but in the end there is a long-run movement toward more equality, at least since the end of the 18th century, and it will continue.”