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In late 2011, people across the United States stood up to protest what they saw as an unfair socioeconomic system. Though deployed most memorably in New York City in Occupy Wall Street, the tactics of Occupy were deployed in cities and towns throughout the nation, such as Youngstown, Ohio. These tactics helped to form the first widespread, largely leaderless movement in recent American history. As the nation witnesses the lasting vestiges of this movement, namely the impact it has had on young Americans, it is important to explore the legacy of Occupy a decade after it started.
A Decade Later: Reflections on the Occupy Movement
Following the killing of George Floyd in the early summer of 2020, America experienced an outpouring of activism. Despite some instances to the contrary, these protests were by and large nonviolent and leaderless, spreading organically to encompass hundreds of cities in the United States and abroad. In Seattle, protests included the creation of the so-called “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” an area emptied of police by protesters and occupied for much of June. Such a sudden and widespread response across the U.S. shocked many observers. It left people wondering how such a wave of protest was even possible and why now, of all times, it had been sparked.
When looking at the roots of contemporary American activism, one would be amiss to ignore the Occupy Movement. Starting with one small march on Wall Street in June of 2011 during which media representatives outnumbered participants (Lynd 2013:146), Occupy spawned mass demonstrations the likes of which hadn’t been seen in the U.S. for decades. Despite having no official treatise on the goals of the movement, hundreds of thousands across the country and abroad stood up against an unfair economic system, ineffectual government, and a nation that had grown complacent after decades of conservative propaganda and oppression. As we approach the tenth anniversary of the beginning of Occupy in the wake of the 2020 summer protests, many wonder what happened back in 2011, and what really came from these demonstrations.
Occupy sought to circumvent traditional channels of change. For the Occupiers the decades leading up to 2011 had been marked largely by the criminalization and discouragement of protest, the destruction of unions, and cascading victories for the wealthiest Americans on the backs of the poorest. National policy saw a departure from the New Deal, Great Society, and New Left of the 1930s-70s, in favor of the laissez-faire economics and “greed is good” attitude of Ronald Reagan and other neoliberal figures. Activists, particularly those in socialistic and anarchistic circles, saw that the methods being used at that time simply weren’t achieving their goals. Some, including David Graeber, felt that in order to combat the modern problems of the 21st century, the Left had to find modern solutions. As Graeber says in his book Debt, “(we) live, now, at a genuinely peculiar historical juncture” (Graeber 2011). We, the American people, could either choose to ignore the failings of the socio-economic situation and continue to be complicit, or we could stand up and face the forces of oppression on our own terms.
Following the end of the Vietnam War, the Left splintered along cause lines. What remained were small groups fighting different issues in different localities, focusing on small-scale solutions. Parallel to this was the propagation of neoliberal economic theory and an increase in “law and order” politics in the American conservative movement. It was the combined rise of these and similar forces and the paralysis of leftism at that time that led to the revolution of means that became Occupy.
Their strategy was simple: “occupy everything, demand nothing” (Matthen 2011). Instead of asking for things to change, the Occupiers sought to seize their desired world through direct action alone. In different areas, the Occupiers had different goals. At the Occupation in Youngstown, Ohio, there was a sign that listed their goals: financial regulation and legislation, investment in the people, and Medicare for all. Figure 1.
This sign, courtesy of Diana Ludwig, was present at the Occupy Youngstown demonstration and created by members of the local community.
The idea of a national movement based on participatory democracy and direct action was immediately criticized for its apparent lack of practicality. Many on the left had scorned the notion of a solely direct approach for years leading up to Occupy, with one activist musician singing, “Whether or not it works, I know it is the case that only direct action can save the human race” (Rovics 2007). Still, many participants had hope for this new style of movement. “Occupy planted the seed that [in] this system, it doesn’t matter which issue is your top issue… [are all from a] common source” and as such it must be treated as one big “democracy issue” (Beiersdorfer).
It is also apparent that Occupy would not have been as impactful as it was had it not become a national movement. “The wisdom of the organizers was in saying ‘we’re not going to keep this in Lower Manhattan’” (Tobocman). By engaging with the nation, Occupy became about issues facing all Americans. People across the country were able to truly be a part of a grassroots mass movement, the likes of which most Americans had only heard about.
Occupy received community support, but in different ways than other mass movements. Due to the nature of the occupation strategy, community support for Occupy largely consisted of providing food, facilities, and necessary aid (Tobocman) to a core group of frequent or full-time Occupiers. In Youngstown, Ohio, one participant remembers “people would bring down soup and other stuff… there was always too much food” (Beiersdorfer). It seems that there was at least moderately broad public support for the ideas of Occupy, though “it was more like a novelty” (Beiersdorfer) to many.
In the larger Occupy sites, they tended to receive broad support from many different segments of the community. When the contemporary mayor of New York City, Mike Bloomberg, wanted to clear out Occupy Wall Street, “huge numbers of people went down to support them, including the labor unions” (Tobocman).
On the whole, there never seems to have been a feeling within Occupy that an appeal should be made to the police. Particularly within the circles of seasoned activists who had experienced injury at the hands of law enforcement, there was a belief that such an appeal would fall on deaf ears. Some argue that, without gaining the trust and support of the police, the Occupiers opened themselves up to the type of aggressive clearance demonstrated in camps across the country. It also seems that, amongst the ranks of younger police officers, there was some sympathy towards the Occupiers. A participant of Occupy Wall Street recalls one striking instance of such sympathy: after an arrest during which the subject had been injured by law enforcement to the point of requiring hospital care, they engaged in conversation with two NYPD officers who were driving the subject from the hospital to the police precinct. The subject asked the officers, both young people of colour, what their working conditions, wages, and job environment was and receiving generally negative responses. Following this exchange there was a short silence in the car, which was broken by one officer saying simply “keep protesting.” Additionally, the lack of a broad, national appeal to members of law enforcement seems to have led to a concerted crackdown by the Department of Homeland Security and other governmental agencies (Erdely, 2018).
It’s hard to find estimates of how many people participated in Occupy. The evidence seems to support direct participation in the hundreds of thousands in 82 countries worldwide. In major cities like New York and Oakland, estimates of participation usually range in the tens of thousands at any given time (OpenStax CNX). Many more sent food, books, and other supplies to the Occupiers, but did not live at the sites for any considerable period of time (Linebaugh).
Given the job market of 2011, still recovering from the Great Recession, many recent graduates found themselves with degrees, mounds of student debt, and no jobs. These people were disenchanted and sought a way to change the system. As one member of Occupy Youngstown put it, “after the financial crisis, it felt like whatever we believed of ‘yeah things are tough now, but work hard and you’ll make it’… you couldn’t even fool yourself anymore” (Sabatini).
Another key group of Occupiers were seasoned activists who had participated in actions leading up to Occupy. While only a handful of them had actually participated in the Movement of the 1960s, many participants were inspired by the direct action that had shaped their childhood and young adulthood. This group has spent the decades leading up to 2011 working on many of the issues that defined the late 20th and early 21st century Left: people who had been fighting for the environment, free speech, and rebuilding organized labor and against war and globalization were all called by the future and methods espoused by Occupy. Some, while very supportive of the goals, were skeptical about the future of the movement. “It was still, I thought, very unlikely that people were going to be able to maintain a permitless encampment for more than a few hours before they could be immediately swept up” (Tobocman). Despite their concerns, these activists were largely impressed by the longevity and scope of Occupy.
Impact on the New Generation
Occupy has left an indelible mark on the social consciences of many Americans. One particularly prescient example of the impact this movement had on American activism is the current landscape of leftist activity. Many of the most important contemporary social movements, from Black Lives Matter to student climate activism to the Fight for $15 came into being in the immediate wake of Occupy. Other established groups, including the Democratic Socialists of America, found a broader audience and used that moment to expand their ranks and push what had once been considered radical, fringe issues into more mainstream political discourse. Those who had found their political voice through participating in Occupy have continued to fight for their beliefs and build a more just world. As one chronicler of Occupy said, “The movement as a whole is no more dead than the people who participated in it” (Sanchez 2016).
Even after the encampments had been taken down, many activists applied the techniques they had learned during Occupy to other efforts. Members of Occupy Youngstown used these tactics to fight fracking propositions in the area. One participant remembers, years afterwards, going to a protest against new fracking wells and, along with a group of people who had been college students in 2011, using the “human mic check” to drown out pro-fracking speakers. Also known as the human megaphone or human sound check, this strategy involves one speaker yelling something to a crowd and having the crowd yell it back to them. While primarily used to boost a speaker when sound equipment was unavailable, the human mic check was also frequently used in this manner of disruption. “The beauty of Occupy was feeding people and gathering together and having great conversation. There was a real sense of community and building community” (Beiersdorfer).
Members of Generation Z were also affected by this movement, though most were too young to participate or grasp its significance in the moment. For many in this group, their memories of Occupy largely consist of images and footage that they saw on the news or in their home cities. Inquiries bring back recollections of scenes from Zuccotti Park and now-popular slogans like “we are the 99%.” For others, these memories are sharper: stirrings of unrest or resentment towards a system that, even to young minds, showed rampant inequality and deeply rooted problems. A decade later, those who had been children during Occupy would find themselves on the front lines of protests against inequality, racial and economic, climate change, and gun reform among a plethora of other issues. The social consciences of these young Americans were forged in the new world presented by Occupy, and their desire to make change was bolstered and turned into action by the possibilities of protest demonstrated a decade earlier.
Occupy in Retrospect
Occupy was never meant to be permanent. The setup, the peaceable occupation of Zuccotti Park and other sites around the country, was not meant to be a pragmatic solution. It was intended to be a visible reminder of the inequality in the United States and a demonstration that mass movements are possible in 21st century America. It garnered media attention, brought the issues into the light, and demonstrated the collective power of the 99%. From the start, Occupy operated organically, was nominally leaderless, and spread by those following the example of those in New York City. Despite having no set universal demands, Occupy sought to address a common problem: the unfair distribution of power and capital in American society. For the Occupiers, the Great Recession demonstrated that rampant income inequality and plutocratic legislation allowed the wealthy to continuously control the government and many of the major institutions of society. When the administration at that time was ineffective in regulating the banks and combating inequality, people took matters into their own hands. “Occupy was a step off the normal train of reality into the possibilities of what a world could look like” (Sabatini). It gave people an outlet to listen, share their ideas, and envision a better future.
While the physical tenants of Occupy are gone, this movement birthed a new language in politics, new central issues for politicians, and spurred on the plethora of new social activism that we’ve seen over the last decade. “You can’t say that Black Lives Matter wouldn’t have happened without Occupy… and you can’t say that Standing Rock came out of Occupy, but there’s an aspect of people who joined those things that came out of Occupy” (Tobocman). Some were disgruntled by what they saw as inefficacy within the system of nonviolent direct action and strove to answer the problems of society with varying levels of violence, but many more were inspired to proceed along the road of nonviolent civil disobediance. Though it is not possible to definitively prove or disprove whether the 2016 Women’s March, the 2018 March For Our Lives, the 2019 Climate Strike, or the Black Lives Matter movement would have happened without Occupy, it seems certain that at the very least these protests would have looked very different without the nationwide, leaderless, and potent example that was Occupy. Bibliography
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