When the 99 Percent found their voice

October 2, 2013

Two years ago, the Occupy Wall Street movement was spreading out from its home base in New York to places across the U.S.--and shaking up politics as usual. Jen Roesch writes from New York City about the origins of Occupy Wall Street, how the movement became a national and international phenomenon--and the lessons it holds for the struggles ahead.

ON OCTOBER 15, 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement mobilized the largest numbers it would achieve at a single demonstration.

Up to 100,000 people gathered in Times Square in the heart of New York City. Even a massive presence of police in riot gear couldn't stem the tide of protesters flowing into the square and filling all of the surrounding streets.

The New York demonstration, in turn, drew energy from protests around the U.S. and the world. The movement began with the occupation of Zuccotti Park near Wall Street, but quickly spread to other urban centers like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and then to smaller ones, college campuses and beyond.

The message was electrifying: At last, it was time for the 99 Percent to stand up to the wealthy 1 Percent. In all kinds of locales and settings, youth and working people, unionists and activists of every stripe made connections and launched local hubs of protest and debate.

By the time of the Time Square demonstration, Occupy regularly intruded into the nightly news. On the Sunday political talk shows, the talking heads referred to the 99 Percent--some with sympathy, most in fear of a mushrooming movement that targeted the wealth and privilege they and their class enjoyed.

Tens of thousands march as part of the Occupy Wall Street protest

Two years later, the movement has dissipated, with many activists taking up specific projects that often have little connection with one another, and others fading from politics. But the impact of Occupy can still be felt on U.S. politics--and it points to the potential for the struggles to come in 21st century America. At its peak, Occupy showed that the 1 Percent and its political spokespeople had plenty of cause for concern.

BESIDES ITS sheer size, the Times Square protest captured the unique energy and dynamism that characterized Occupy at its height. This was a demonstration for which there was never a single printed flyer. It was an unpermitted action held in the heart of New York's tourism district.

Originally billed as a dance party, there was no stage, sound system or speakers' list. Instead, people held handmade signs, began speak-outs in different corners of Times Square, told each other their stories via the "people's microphone"--an innovation of Occupy where the crowd repeated speakers' unamplified words so that thousands could hear them.

The mood was bold and confident. It was obvious to everyone that the police were incapable of moving against such a large and diverse crowd. The news ticker flashing across Times Square announced that Occupy had gone worldwide--the global day of action had included 1,300 protests around the world. When people began, somewhat giddily, to chant, "I believe that we can win," it had the ring of truth to it.

Protesters had good reason to feel confident. Just one day earlier, thousands of people had successfully defended Zuccotti Park--the privately owned space that was the base and heart of Occupy Wall Street--from eviction.

When billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he planned to clear the park at 7 a.m. for sanitation purposes, Occupy's mass base of support made itself felt. A core of Occupy activists had made plans to defend the park at all costs, but it was the expression of mass popular sentiment that made it impossible for Bloomberg to carry out his plans.

In less than 24 hours, 300,000 people had signed petitions opposing the eviction from Zuccotti Park. Major New York City unions called for a mobilization to defend the park the next morning. By 5 a.m., thousands of people began ringing Zuccotti--the vast majority expressing a willingness to face arrest if necessary. With growing numbers of union members arriving, it became clear that the balance of forces had tipped against Bloomberg this time.

When the announcement was made, shortly after 6 a.m., that the encampment would not be cleared, a roar of victory went up through the crowd.

For those weeks in late September and October, it began to seem like anything was possible--and that the political terrain in the U.S. had been fundamentally altered. In a matter of weeks, decades of accumulated bitterness and discontent at class inequality, the greed and arrogance of Corporate America, and the corruption of the political and media establishment found a political expression--and began to reshape national politics.

BUT IN the first week of the Occupy encampment, launched on September 17, it wasn't at all clear that the movement would survive, let alone grow as spectacularly as it did.

Occupy Wall Street wasn't the first attempt to occupy public space in lower Manhattan. In June 2011, activists with New Yorkers Against the Budget Cuts maintained an encampment in the shadow of City Hall to protest Mayor Bloomberg's proposed austerity budget. Over the course of a couple weeks, a core of 100 or so campers dwindled to about half that size.

But the activists from that struggle were the first to take up the call by Adbusters magazine to occupy Wall Street. Throughout the late summer, 50 to 100 activists met in general assemblies (GAs) to begin planning.

The movement's first action on September 17 didn't inspire confidence. Adbusters had set a goal of flooding Wall Street with 20,000 protesters. Local activists were more modest in their expectations, but were still hoping for 5,000 to 10,000. Instead, fewer than 1,000 people showed up that day, and about 700 participated in the first GA in Zuccotti Park. As a small core of protesters set up tents and sleeping bags, it was unclear how long an encampment could be sustained, or what impact it might have.

Several factors helped to give social weight to the initially small protest and catapult it to national attention.

One was a march of 1,000 multiracial protesters demonstrating in memory of Troy Davis--an innocent Black man who had been executed in Georgia the day before. This protest was marked by a militancy that would come to characterize OWS-related actions. The crowd snaked its way through lower Manhattan, evading police at several turns, and made its way to the Zuccotti Park encampment, where activists joined in chants of "We are all Troy Davis."

Not only did this connect Occupy Wall Street with a more multiracial, working class audience, it also established a pattern of local struggles looking to Occupy for support. This helped to give the movement a social content and local relevance it might not have otherwise had.

Activists seized the initiative to build on these types of connections. In particular, the newly formed Labor Outreach Committee organized support for ongoing labor struggles in New York City, including against some of the most potent symbols of the 1 Percent, such as the Sotheby's art auction house and the restaurant at the Central Park Boathouse. The committee began reaching out to some of the larger unions in New York for support. This backing would soon become critical to Occupy's survival.

THE KEY turning point came as Occupy entered its second week. On Saturday, September 24, the NYPD violently attacked a peaceful protest. When one officer, Anthony Bologna, pepper-sprayed a group of female protesters who were already captured in a net, the video went viral and drew mass sympathy for the protesters.

Suddenly, Occupy Wall Street became mainstream news. And as viewers tuned in, they listened as protesters told stories of what had brought them to the encampment. The stories of homes foreclosed on, skyrocketing student debt, debilitating medical bills, lost jobs and more resonated with a public reeling from the impact of the economic crisis.

By the second week, the encampment had assumed a mass character. Working-class New Yorkers began streaming to Zuccotti. People came before or after work. Students and those without jobs came and joined in the daily marches to the stock exchange and other activities--many carrying signs expressing their particular grievance or individual tragedy.

The numbers in the park swelled as impromptu discussions broke out in every corner. A "people's library" was set up and quickly became a center of political discussion, while guest speakers came to address the crowd. People would come and set up a table to promote a particular issue. Visitors would help out in the library or the kitchen or sanitation committee. Nightly GAs grew to 1,000 or more.

By the end of September, the Transport Workers Union became the first union to officially offer support for Occupy Wall Street. Other major unions followed suit. On October 5, a few days after police arrested 700 protesters on Brooklyn Bridge during another peaceful demonstration, a coalition of union and community groups organized a demonstration of more than 20,000 in downtown Manhattan.

Thus, from the very beginning, the fate of Occupy Wall Street was bound up with its interactions and connections with longstanding organizations and struggles--not exactly the commonly held picture of a movement that came from nowhere and disappeared into nothing.

The importance of the unions in providing early support and resources is clear. Also decisive was the movement's ability to connect with other struggles, particularly those rooted in working-class and multiracial communities.

But Occupy Wall Street broke new ground--and transformed people's sense of what was possible.

The early weeks of the movement were characterized by a high degree of spontaneity and experimentation, which was sustained, in turn, by mass involvement. The GAs and the consensus process by which they ran would later become ineffectual and even debilitating. But in the early days, these gave many people their first experience of democratic participation in struggle.

If there was one thing that became immediately obvious to anyone visiting Zuccotti Park, it was the multitude of stories, grievances and aspirations that had finally found a political expression.

Tens of thousands of people came to Zuccotti Park in those first weeks. Mass numbers engaged in discussions and participated in both planned and impromptu marches, which took off from Zuccotti every day. A significant minority of those people got actively involved in the more 100 working groups--with upwards of 5,000 people meeting in the various groups each week.

The movement quickly grew beyond the bounds of the park--working groups spread to a nearby public atrium, where hundreds of people could be found in various discussions at any given time.

Existing struggles also became infused with a new sense of militancy and drew in fresh layers of activists looking for a way to channel their political activity. Foreclosure auctions and Department of Education meetings were disrupted by activists who used the mantle of Occupy to express their goals and sympathies. Other community activists found their way to Occupy, which in turn spread farther into working-class and multi-racial neighborhoods.

As Occupy became a mass movement, a growing number of activists were beginning to discuss how it could be sustained and translated into concrete political gains. By late October, it was clear that the encampments were coming under assault--and that the movement would have to deepen both its roots and organizational infrastructure if it was going to survive.

THE CONVERSATION about the future of the movement was cut short when the Obama administration--using its Department of Homeland Security to coordinate with mayors across the U.S.--gave the signal to move decisively against the encampments in early November. The state acted quickly and with overwhelming repression. Despite mass sympathy for the movement, the social forces supporting Occupy were simply not yet organized enough to provide an effective resistance to the crackdown.

The movement's first response was a typically bold assertion: "You can't evict an idea whose time has come." At first, this seemed true. Just two days after the eviction of Zuccotti Park on November 15, some 30,000 people demonstrated in New York City. Many of those who participated were on their first march. It was clear that Occupy was still reaching new people who were inspired to join the movement even as it was being attacked.

The reality, however, was that the encampments had been central to Occupy's success--and their loss was not easily overcome.

To start with, they offered a symbol of direct confrontation and reclamation of public space. In a very real sense, they provided the physical arena in which people could come together to discuss strategy, and through which new people could enter the struggle--they substituted themselves for the organizational structures that many activists rejected.

In other words, Zuccotti Park and the other Occupy encampments around the country allowed activists to find one another. Without them, there was no way for new people gravitating toward the movement to find it.

And without the broad involvement and mutual cooperation that had marked the high point of Occupy, the movement splintered and fragmented. Some activists continued to focus on confrontational tactics against police, in the misplaced hope of recreating the spark that had catapulted the movement to prominence. Others rooted themselves in local struggles, where many continue to be part of a dedicated corps of organizers.

Two years after Occupy, it's tempting to view the movement as something like a shooting star that briefly lit up the American landscape, seemingly coming from nowhere, and disappearing just as quickly. But this view both misses the ways in which the Occupy movement was rooted in the struggles that came before it--and underestimates its lasting impact.

Adbusters had called for Occupy to be "America's Tahrir," a reference to the mass protest movement at the center of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Certainly activists drew inspiration from Tahrir, and from the "movement of the squares" in Spain and Greece. But there were equally important preludes to be found in the U.S. working class movement.

First and foremost, there was the struggle against Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to smash the public-sector unions in Wisconsin, which led to the weeks-long occupation of the Capitol building in Madison. Coming on the heels of the demoralizing victory of Republicans in the 2010 congressional elections, this was the first taste of mass working-class action after decades of retreat. Then, just weeks before Occupy Wall Street began, Verizon workers up and down the East Coast went on strike, winning massive public support.

Seen in this light, the Occupy movement can be understood as one aspect of the process of rebuilding working-class politics and organization in the U.S.

AT THE same time, Occupy opened up new possibilities that still remain today. The language of the "99 Percent against the 1 Percent" remains potent. In fact, in the birthplace of Occupy, the mayor who oversaw its eviction will leave office soon, and his likely replacement is a candidate whose campaign rhetoric about a "tale of two cities" draws on the popularity of Occupy's message.

Nor has Occupy merely left behind ideological residue. There has been a proliferation and radicalization of a whole range of struggles in the past two years.

It's hard to imagine how a union as conventional and bureaucratic as the Service Employees International Union would have taken up the organizing of low-wage workers as aggressively as it has in the Fight for 15 campaign without the labor-activist alliances forged during Occupy.

Environmental activists in New York City have threatened to "occupy the pipeline" bringing fracked natural gas into Manhattan, while nurses and community activists are threatening to occupy closing hospitals, and homeowners and supporters have taken back their homes against the banksters' efforts to foreclose on them.

Perhaps most dramatically, the networks born during Occupy sprang into action in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last year--drawing attention to the government's inaction, working with community organizations and mobilizing an impressive grassroots army of volunteers and resources. In some neighborhoods, Occupy-inspired activists made the difference between people getting the help they needed or not. The movement even helped shame the government into stepping in.

The Occupy movement also raised the expectations and expanded the political vision of a whole generation of activists, who today are more likely to identify with struggles beyond their own. It's now easier to make the connections between individual fights and the system as a whole.

The left has felt challenged to work together in ways that might not have been possible before--and at its best, it has risen to this challenge. This is the context for the ecosocialist alliance that has galvanized left-wing environmental activists behind the slogan "system change, not climate change."

WHILE THE Occupy movement illuminated the possibilities of this political moment, it also exposed the challenges that will need to be confronted if we are to build a new left.

For two months in 2011, tens of thousands of people actively participated in building the Occupy movement, and much larger numbers looked to it with home. Today, however, the majority of those sympathizers and many of the active participants have drifted out of political activity.

Certainly, activists--some of them involved in movements before Occupy, some since then--continue to carry out work that had come together during the movement's heyday. The struggles they are involved in have benefited immensely from their efforts.

But it is too often difficult for new people to find their way into the left today--unlike when Occupy had its base in Zuccotti Park and public spaces in other cities. Much of the organizing that continues today relies on existing networks of activists.

In many cases, there is an unarticulated assumption that militant tactics will automatically bring people into action, as seemed to happen during Occupy's high points. As a result, activists sometimes neglect the hard, patient work that movement building in quieter times, such as patiently winning arguments or carrying out mundane tasks to organize a meeting.

Another unresolved issue of the Occupy movement is what kind of organizations and struggles are needed to confront the 1 Percent. The lack of structure, demands and leadership was part of what made Occupy attractive to a new layer of activists at first--there was room for people to take initiative and raise their own demands. Yet these same features contributed to the movement being unable to sustain itself over the long haul.

Any movement that wants to be successful today will have to figure out how to create democratic and accountable structures that can simultaneously involve the widest possible layer of activists while also providing direction and leadership. It will have to figure out how to connect individual struggles--around housing, police brutality, education, community services and more--to a broader challenge against the system.

Those inspired by Occupy can't simply devote themselves to the smaller, local fights that will help to build organization and confidence in the absence of that broader systemic challenge. They must engage in, and provide space for, the larger political debates that have emerged in the last two years.

Many of the activists who were inspired by Occupy see it as a break from the past. In particular, they contrast its direct confrontation with authority via the occupation tactic to the permitted, mass demonstrations organized by other movements, before and after it. Many people, activists included, attribute Occupy's dizzying success to its tactical audacity, its rejection of organizational structures and its independence from existing groups and forces, which are seen as bureaucratic and ossified.

But this is to misunderstand what Occupy was. Its imagery was certainly powerful, and the physical occupation of space provided a way to break through the prevailing sense of alienation and powerlessness, allowing people to connect with one another.

But what ultimately gave Occupy its power was its mass character. This was achieved through a complex interaction of younger activists focused on direct action, of new people making their way to the movement and finding a role for themselves, and of longer-standing organizations, including unions and liberal groups, taking part. This didn't just happen--all along the way were compromises, uneasy alliances and even tactical retreats.

"Occupy" as a movement may never revive in the form we knew it. Nevertheless, it has permanently altered the vocabulary of American politics, where references to the 1 Percent are commonplace. The movement exposed the fault lines of class inequality and tapped into widespread discontent. In that sense, it has made a contribution to the rebuilding of working class confidence, organization and militancy.

For those of us who were inspired by the Occupy movement, the challenge is not to try to simply imitate it, but to learn its lessons, extend resistance in every direction possible, and deepen our organization and politics so that our movements will be more effective in the future.

If there's one thing that Occupy should have taught us, it's that politics are unpredictable. Struggle can emerge where and when you don't expect it--which is why the best way to mark the second anniversary of Occupy is to prepare for the next eruption of resistance.

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