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FIVE YEARS AGO, on the morning of September 17th, 2011, the only continuous inhabitant of Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park was a bronze statue of a businessman, seated permanently on a bench on the park’s west side.
That, of course, was before hundreds of demonstrators descended and built an encampment to protest the power of the 1%. By September 24th, when video of a New York City police officer pepper-spraying members of Occupy Wall Street garnered national attention, the newly rechristened Liberty Plaza Park had become home to a welcome booth, a kitchen, a childcare zone, an arts and culture area, medical and legal teams, a media-production center and a library.
These all emerged through improvisation, the active ingredient in Occupy. From its founders’ initial act to the proliferation of encampments nationwide, the movement unfolded mainly by way of intuition, experimentation, accident, luck and emergency.
That emergency intensified as police soon cracked down on the nascent movement, evicting encampment after encampment. In the blink of an eye, the state tore down most of Occupy’s visible achievements, leaving the public with the impression that it had failed to build anything lasting or useful.
And yet, five years later, Occupy is widely credited with making inequality a political priority—which, in turn, made possible the landmark presidential run of a 74-year-old socialist—as well as touching off a new era of raucous protest and civil disobedience.
If this seems like a big footprint for a failed movement, it’s worth looking more closely at what Occupiers built—and continue to build—that lived outside the parks. Occupy did indeed “change the conversation,” popularizing the “99%” formulation that reintroduced class into the political narrative. But just as significantly, it resulted in the construction of lasting movement infrastructure—communications networks, physical spaces available to organizers and models for training and analysis. While this kind of infrastructure is often overlooked or undervalued, it’s critical to a movement’s growth and lasting impact. Arriving on the scene at a low point of the American Left, Occupy scrambled to cobble together the structures that might have sustained it—but one of its most important legacies was that it gave subsequent movements something to build and improve upon.
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
When Occupy kicked off in 2011, it had little to draw from in terms of institutions, political parties, publications, communications networks or gathering spaces. The counter-globalization struggle of a dozen years prior, as well as the anti-war effort from the mid-2000s, had left behind bits and pieces of tools and support systems for social movements. Labor groups including the Communications Workers of America, the United Steelworkers and National Nurses United endorsed the movement, and a number of union locals and individual members stepped in to provide material support. But by and large, OWS lacked any of the infrastructure of a significant political Left to support it.
Without tools and spaces crucial for facilitating strategic movement building, Occupy never stood much of a chance of coalescing into a powerful political formation.
Still, the new movement was a welcome change from the anemic shows of protest and dissent many organizers had grown accustomed to in preceding years. Yotam Marom recalls that while he was involved in socialist organizing prior to Occupy, public demonstrations and activism had “always felt small, always felt scrawny, always felt like a sideshow. I would invite my friends to these actions and secretly hope they wouldn’t come, because it was a little embarrassing.”
Then, one day in Zuccotti Park, “the conditions were right, the right people were there at the right time, there was a little bit of magic dust, and the shit just popped,” he says.
New people were arriving every hour. Often, they had never led anything; some had never done any activism. A well-functioning operation, says Marom, would have identified the natural leaders among them and ushered them through a process of leadership development, but no such process existed.
“We pretended we were a leaderless movement,” Marom laments. As a consequence, not only were new leaders developed by the sink-or-swim method, “the leaders who did emerge were not held accountable. It made us less collective and democratic, not more.”
The question of leadership continued to dog Occupy. But after the parks were emptied, this realization led Marom and a handful of other likeminded comrades to found the Wildfire Project, which has facilitated strategic planning, political education and leadership development with the leaders of a number of movements that emerged in Occupy’s wake.
Since the project launched in early 2013, Wildfire has worked with the Florida-based, youth-led black freedom organization the Dream Defenders, the Fossil Fuel Student Divestment Network, anti-foreclosure organizers Occupy Our Homes, and several others, aiming to equip activists responding to a crisis with “the tools and skills to do that work in their day-to-day.”
Wildfire covers basic skills including public speaking and how to have one-on-one organizing conversations. But the group’s process draws on many of the lessons learned by Occupiers—for example, not to suppress conflict. “In other strategic planning processes, the idea is to table the emotional/political/interpersonal stuff and to get to the ‘work,’” explains Marom. With Wildfire, on the other hand, “we actually dive head-first into conflict. We’re trying, as much as possible, to teach people to be in conflict in a generative way, as a way to get to being able to fight over strategy.”
At the same time, Wildfire works to challenge the antipathy towards leadership that pervaded Occupy. “A lot of it has to do with fear of the enemy, with the resignation that we’re never going to win anyway,” says Marom. As a culture within the broader Left, it’s “a barrier to building a powerful and strategic movement,” Marom believes.
THE NEW RULES FOR RADICALS
While Occupy’s decentralized model presented barriers, it also provided a powerful draw for those fed up with politics as usual.
In the run-up to Occupy, for example, Tammy Shapiro had been considering quitting organizing. Non-profits that operated according to a tailored political script, tightly controlling every aspect of a campaign’s messaging and development, seemed to be the only game in town.
“I was really repelled by the way funding and money controlled both Washington politics and the work of nonprofits,” recalls the former organizer for J Street U, a Jewish-American youth group that organizes against Israel’s Occupation. “I noticed that no matter what, wealthy donors had more of a voice than the grassroots.”
The initial success of Occupy Wall Street allowed Shapiro “to see the power of this different way of organizing,” she says. The occupation’s decentralized style, which left plenty of room for grassroots experimentation, provided a paradigm that made sense to her, and brought her back to the profession she’d been trying to leave.
She got involved in InterOccupy, a collective that facilitated communications Occupy groups around the country. That consisted of various tools: websites, social media, and online conference call technology that allowed Occupiers in different cities to simulate physical meeting space—dividing callers into discrete breakout groups, establishing a speakers queue and managing elections in which participants can dial to vote.
With this communication network in place, it was possible for InterOccupy to compile regular newsletters alerting recipients to challenges occupations were encountering, solutions they were devising, actions they were planning and so forth—all without assigning a hierarchy. It suggested to Shapiro “the potential of what decentralization could do.”
Occupy Sandy was the movement’s redemptive second act. Not only did it revive the networks that had formed a year earlier, its relative efficacy put to shame the haphazard efforts mounted by FEMA, the Red Cross and various other more traditional, hierarchical agencies that bungled the complicated relief effort. “Where FEMA Fell Short, Occupy Sandy Was There,” read a November 2012 New York Times headline.
“Occupy Sandy confirmed to me and a lot of other people in New York that we were doing things in a way that worked,” Shapiro says. “The way that we were organizing had a lot of potential to get real results.”
Still, trying to convey the potential of decentralization to people who had not been involved in Occupy Wall Street or Sandy proved difficult. “We had a basic intuitive understanding, but we didn’t have language, we didn’t have models,” notes Shapiro. “We didn’t have the Rules for Radicals for the networked social movement age.”
Without being able to clearly articulate Occupy’s organizing model, it would be hard to identify its weaknesses and improve them. Shapiro and some like-minded organizers formed the “think-make-and-do-tank” Movement Netlab (MNL) to change that.
Through one project, it has tried to detail the various roles participants take on in a mass, decentralized movement. For instances, a movement requires coaches, culture-makers, introducers and so on. Through another, it has charted the life cycle of a movement. MNL hypothesizes that movements are made up of distinct “moments:” First public anger grows over an ongoing crisis. Then, a trigger event incites a spontaneous mass response, which begins a “heroic” expansion phase and honeymoon period, when anything seems possible. When this ends, the movement goes through a painful contraction, and lastly through a period of reflection and evolution. Then the cycle begins again—with the difference that the movement, hopefully, has won some concrete gains and is even better prepared to take advantage of the next peak.
Shapiro and MNL’s work with the climate justice movement put into practice some of their hypotheses about how mass, decentralized movements can organize effectively for a common purpose. During the preparation for the 2014 People’s Climate March, for example, Shapiro built out a communications system that riffed off of InterOccupy’s structure, providing each of over 100 hubs (Labor for Climate, Arts for Climate, Yoga Teachers…) with a website, Facebook and Google group—“connected but separate online front doors.”
This allowed people to enter from a community that they felt deeply a part of, so they could bring their particular identities into the larger movement, rather than leaving them at the door. Moreover, it enabled groups who may sometimes be at odds—say, labor unions and anti-fracking groups—to organize autonomously for the march with messaging specific to their constituencies.
OCCUPYING ELECTORAL POLITICS
Winnie Wong, who had also been involved in Occupy Sandy, had another idea of how to put decentralized networks to work. She had seen how adept they had proven at providing relief to hurricane victims, and found herself wondering how they might fare at waging explicit politics.
“I wanted to do something much more strategic and tactical around Occupying the whole of the Democratic Party, which I believe to be complicit in all of these really harmful policies.”
That led to People for Bernie, which memorably coined the catchphrase “Feel the Bern.” “We organize like a working group,” says Wong of the 8 to 10 core members. “We give each other permission to act autonomously on behalf of the collective.” When disagreements arise (“They very rarely do,” she maintains) about whether something is appropriate to post, they are resolved with deliberate haste in a group Facebook chat. “I credit Occupy with teaching me de-escalation.”
The group actually launched in 2014 as “Ready for Warren.” Its mission involved “building electoral power for people who identify with the core issues and the core messaging that came out of Occupy Wall Street,” says Wong, “We made Elizabeth Warren the figurehead of the 99%.” It wasn’t long before prominent liberal organizations signed onto the call (ultimately unheeded) for Warren to challenge Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary.
In April 2015, Wong says, “We were the first to pivot to Bernie Sanders, long before the other groups endorsed him.” People for Bernie originated with an open letter bearing the names of a number of organizers from Zuccotti Park and other Occupations, who signed on in support of Sanders, as individual occupiers. (Disclosure: the author is a signatory.)
Simultaneously, the group launched a website and, approximating the structure favored by Tammy Shapiro and InterOccupy, more than fifty “…For Bernie” Facebook groups and Twitter accounts, “which basically became the formation of a large, decentralized tent for people across the country to get under.”
“We gave away all the passwords to so many constituencies,” Wong says. “We knew that we couldn’t be the people responsible for creating the messaging, we needed the people to create the messaging. We needed people to talk about their issues.”
While there are no plans to change the floating signifier from “Bernie” to something else just yet, there is some room for that to happen. “It was never about electing Bernie Sanders,” says Wong. “It was about creating a movement.”
Most importantly, the network People for Bernie has assembled remains ready for re-activation when the right moment hits.
OCCUPYING FOR ABOLITION
This summer, a new wave of encampments swept the nation. From Decolonize LA to Chicago’s Freedom Square to New York’s Abolition Square, activists once again built ongoing protest sites, this time to call to for an end to racist policing and mass incarceration.
These protests emerged directly out of the Black Lives Matter movement, and in some cases cited the encampments set up during 2014 protests in Ferguson as immediate inspiration.
Infrastructure built in the wake of Occupy also provided important support.
The planning meetings for Abolition Square, located just blocks from Zuccotti Park, took place at the May Day Space, housed in an Episcopal church in northern Bushwick, Brooklyn. The collective directing the project is largely made up of Occupiers who remember all too well how the movement flagged when it lacked a permanent home. Previously, it inhabited a much larger space, elsewhere in Bushwick, which hosted grassroots activist and movement group meetings, forums, parties and more.
“Our mission is to facilitate space for social justice organizing groups,” says Sandra Nurse, an Occupy veteran and member of the May Day collective. “It’s specifically built for groups to feel welcome at any time of the day, as needed.” With May Day, groups doing vital organizing don’t have to resort to meeting rooms at the odd hours of their convenience, or public spaces where police can surveil and harass members.
Five years ago, Occupy Chicago suffered keenly from a lack of space—mass arrests prevented a permanent encampment from ever being established. Chicago’s Freedom Square thus managed to do what Occupy Chicago did not: occupy. Organizers with the #LetUsBreathe collective transformed what was once an unkempt vacant lot on the city’s west side for 41 days, setting up tents across from an alleged police black site an Homan Square. In addition to calling for the site to be shut down, #LetUsBreathe envisioned Freedom Square as a space that “imagines a world without police” and as a “community block party.” Organizers have since ended their occupation and turned the space over to the surrounding community.
One of the key organizational differences between Occupy and Black Lives Matter, believes Shapiro, is that the latter has been intentionally inclusive of pillar organizations with formal leadership structures, has largely avoided the fetishization of leaderless-ness that had so frustrated Yotam Marom in Zuccotti Park—a fetish that only developed, says Shapiro, “because we didn’t have the kind of framework that we’ve been working out at MNL.”
“You need a lot of distributed leadership in a decentralized network, but there’s still leadership,” she says.
This and other lessons have brought the Left to a very different place than it was in five years ago. “The biggest gain from [Occupy] was the sense of possibility that people took from that moment. We had never had any expectation that we would be big or powerful, and that has catastrophic consequences,” says Yotam Marom. “Now, organizers “actually believe that a movement is possible, and it changes everything about the way they work.”
Derrick Clifton contributed reporting to this story.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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