One year ago today, a group of protesters gathered in New York City’s Zuccotti Park, a small square of concrete in the Financial District. Inspired by the Arab Spring, the protests began as the brainchild of Kalle Lasn, the co-founder of Adbusters, a small publication with an anti-consumerist message. During the summer of 2011, a poster appeared in Adbusters. It was a call for action for a “Tahrir moment”. It used the hashtag OccupyWallStreet. It proposed the date September 17th.
The idea went viral, capitalizing on the sense of anger and frustration many Americans were feeling. The country was fully feeling the effects of the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression. Millions of Americans were unemployed, in foreclosure, or otherwise struggling. 25% of young people–a demographic heavily represented in the Occupy movement–were deemed economically insecure. (The term, calculated by a political scientist at Yale, takes into account savings, out-of-pocket medical expenses, and income loss.) In 2011, the links between what was happening to average Americans and the 2008 financial meltdown on Wall Street were becoming widely known. The full effect of the controversial Citizens United ruling–which opened the gates to a flood of corporate money in politics–was making itself known. People flooded to Zuccotti Park. They set up an encampment.
On October 1st, 2011, hundreds of people were arrested while marching over the Brooklyn Bridge. The arrests were made utilizing a controversial practice known as kettling–when the police herd protesters into netted-off areas. The controversy was increased by the fact that police officers were walking with the protesters until they were on the bridge. This, along with a video of NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna pepper-spraying two young women who appeared to not be resisting, catapulted the movement to national attention. It spread like wildfire, appearing in hundreds of cities across the country, and then overseas.
For the next six weeks, the movement came into national focus. Everyone had an opinion. Some believed it was the left’s answer to the Tea Party, a populist movement based in a sense of economic injustice. Some believed that it was a group of dirty anti-capitalists. Some believed it was the salvation of the country increasingly controlled by 1% of the population. Some believed it was a group of entitled kids who did not want to work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Some believed it was the heir to the protest movements of the sixties.
In truth, the two months that began Occupy Wall Street defies easy explanation. The group was deliberately leaderless, yet well-organized, providing food for the demonstrators, creating a library, and setting up a technical infrastructure so that the events could be broadcast across the world. Instead of a traditional leadership, the movement relied on “people’s assemblies.” In Occupy ideology, the collective holds the power. Decisions are made by consensus, not decree–an often slow process.
The raid of Zuccotti Park. Credit: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images.
On November 15th, the Zuccotti Park encampment was raided and forcibly cleared out, following a controversial court ruling that said that the city had the right to bar tents or people sleeping overnight. The raids were broadcast live over the internet. Those within the movement vowed to keep on going, claiming that they would survive unfettered without the park. Rich Niacin, creator of the OWS Instagram feed, claimed that:
Zuccotti Park is just a symbol, a cry loud and clear for people who feel left behind by the social system. Even if it is permanently cleared out, another one will spark, somewhere, sometime, again.
Nevertheless, the movement began to subside, at least from the majority’s view. Today, massive protests are occurring across New York City, following marches and rallies that occurred throughout the weekend. The message is clear: Occupy Wall Street is not dead, and never was. (A quick browse through the Occupy Wall Street Facebook timeline shows that today’s actions are not a resurgence of the movement.)
There have been many critiques of the movement. There were claims that Occupiers were co-opting other protests, subsuming specific issues into their general cause. One such example was the Million Hoodie March in response to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an incident that highlighted racism at work in the country. Many people of color felt drowned out in the consensus-based system. As Occupy grew, many felt that there was a tangible difference between occupying Wall Street–a historic symbol of power–and occupying places such as Queens, which is traditionally home to many minority and immigrant groups. In rooting out the 1%, OWS has tried to make all voices equal. It’s an utopian worldview that ignores that Occupy is rooted in American society–which has always been systemically unjust. As shown in the Million Hoodie March, these injustices have, despite many Occupiers’ best efforts, pervaded the movement. And, because everyone is as equal of a representative as others, the demonstrators chanting “We are the 99%” at a rally for Trayvon Martin–which was about racism, not income inequity–become representative of the faceless whole. People–including noted rapper Jay-Z–claimed that they stood for a vague message, or that they did not adequately convey their goals. Some believed that they were not actually accomplishing anything.
Many are using the anniversary to look back and try to measure the impact. Whatever the flaws, it’s obvious that Occupy Wall Street had a powerful effect on the nation. Phrases such as “the 1%” and “we are the 99%” have become part of our discourse. Income inequity–and the various ways that income inequity is sustained–has claimed a significant place in politics. There have been a string of small victories over the past year. The movement has occupied homes to prevent foreclosures. They encouraged people to move their money out of big banks, and were instrumental in the backlash against proposed debit card fees earlier this year. They helped popularize the idea that money needs to get out of politics, and brought the public’s interest in knowing just how their candidates were funded. Most importantly, they made Americans aware of the deep inequities in society and started a national conversation on the government’s role in addressing these inequities.
Many believe that instead of protest, the time has come for Occupy to focus on the political process. For some in the movement, that is not congruent with their goals–because it would require they work within the system, which many believe to be corrupt and unsalvageable. Nevertheless, one of the major differences between the Tea Party and Occupy (aside, of course, from ideology) is the involvement in the political process. The Tea Party, after gaining public attention and support through protests and marches, put up political candidates and forced the Republican party to the right. Occupy has done no such thing.
Saturday, NYC’s Financial District. Photo Courtesy of OWS’s Facebook Page.
What they have done is plan for today, to make it clear to America and the world that they are not finished yet. Thousands of people were in Zuccotti Park and marching on the streets by Sunday night, called on to blockade Wall Street and to fight back:
Join us on Monday to fight back against worker exploitation, mass incarceration, environmental destruction, the foreclosure epidemic, austerity, predatory debt, and our corrupt political process. All of our grievances are connected. If you follow the money… all roads lead to Wall Street.
In a little less than two months, Americans will go to the polls to decide whether to re-elect President Obama or to give Mitt Romney a chance. To think that the OWS movement has not had an effect on this election is ridiculous. They helped frame how we see Mitt Romney–who made a fortune with Bain Capital, and who was, at one point, undoubtedly part of Wall Street. Many Occupiers believe that the choice in November is not a choice at all–that there is no fundamental difference between the candidates, and that with the money system of politics, there never will be.
On anniversaries we should also look ahead. What does the future of Occupy Wall Street hold? In analyzing the future of OWS, it’s illuminative to look at the Tea Party. It’s not an entirely fair comparison–the Tea Party, aside from getting involved with the political process, had several systemic advantages over Occupy. The Tea Party focused on rallies rather than encampments, and did not monopolize public spaces (which led many locals to be annoyed at their presence and therefore unsympathetic.) The Tea Party has a significant bankroll–they are well-known to be linked to the billionaire Koch brothers. Reports vary on how much money OWS has raised, but it’s nowhere near that level. OWS has always been defined by clashes with the police, while the Tea Party never has. But perhaps the most significant fundamental difference is in the message. The Tea Party always had a coherent message. OWS’s consensus-based model, in defying easy categorization, made it easy for a media source to use a solitary person as a stand-in for a movement.
Mistakes may have been made, but even critics of the movement can admit that there are salient, important parts of OWS’s ideology that resonate with the American people–perhaps even more on September 17th, 2012 than on September 17th, 2011. Does today mark a new beginning, an evolution towards effective change? Only time will tell.
Written by Jess Mary Aloe
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Header image courtesy of TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images