Occupy Wall Street Trained a Generation in Class War

How OWS shaped a decade of dramatic protests and why it has run its course.

Arun Gupta

University of California, Berkeley students set up tents after a general assembly voted to again occupy campus as part of an "open university" strike in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement on November 15, 2011. Max Whittaker/Getty Images

When Occupy Wall Street was evicted from its home base in Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011, by the NYPD in a paramilitary-style operation under cover of the night with a press blackout, the obituaries were being written.

The day before, Occupy Oakland, which vied with New York as the leader of the leaderless movement, was evicted for the second and final time. A convergence to shut down the New York Stock Exchange on the two-month anniversary of OWS, on November 17, fizzled. Lacking a base of operations, two thousand Occupy protesters at most showed up and were bloodily swept away by police from Wall Street and an attempted reoccupation of the park. Over the next few months, Occupy camps were forcefully ousted in Portland, Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Seattle, New Orleans, and Los Angeles with hundreds of arrests.

The movement that seemed to spontaneously appear, crystallize popular anger against powerful banks, and go global was deemed an abject failure. New York Times business columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin, who admitted to scurrying to OWS after the CEO of a major bank” rang him to anxiously inquire if the peasants were going to start chopping off heads, sneered Occupy will be an asterisk in the history books, if it gets a mention at all.”

Those who knew history had a more seasoned take. Frances Fox Piven, the renowned scholar of social movements, told me in the early days of Occupy, I don’t know of a movement that unfolds in less than a decade. People are impatient, and some of them are too quick to pass judgment. But it’s the beginning, I think, of a great movement. One of a series of movements that has episodically changed history, which is not the way we tell the story of American history.” 

How right she was. The 2010s was the decade of Occupy Wall Street. It saw a wave of leftist movements, from Bernie Sanders and the Fight for $15 to the Democratic Socialists of America and Black Lives Matter, spawned or shaped by Occupy. In popularizing the terms 99% and 1%, Occupy achieved the no mean feat of popularizing the idea of economic class. It also flipped the national conversation from Tea Party-led austerity to income and wealth inequality — still the central economic issue. Occupy taught a generation of activists how persistent protest could pressure politicians, corporations, and cops in a way that sign-carrying, speech-droning weekend marches never could. And it created a new rapid-response social media-driven protest that upped nonviolent militancy.

From the rubble of Occupy emerged a refrain that captured its enduring potential: You can’t evict an idea.” At the time it sounded as if it was making a virtue out of a vice by implying being evicted from the camps was not a genuine loss. Occupying after all was no mere tactic. It created the people, We are the 99%,” through the mic check, general assembly, running a community, and dreaming a utopia together. Without the participatory democratic equality in the camps that gave everyone something to build for and fight for, the movement looked doomed.

Occupy splintered into targeted movements. They did good work, but lost the radiance of mass occupation that made Occupy the center of the political universe for a brief shining moment. Strike Debt cleverly publicized the trillions of dollars of debt dragging down workers by purchasing student, medical, and payday debts for pennies on the dollar and eventually securing $2.8 billion in relief. Occupy Our Homes pitched tents in front yards to protect hundreds of families at risk of losing their homes as a wave of millions of home foreclosures, many illegal and triggered by Obama’s pro-bank reflexes, washed over the economy. Occupiers stood shoulder to shoulder with longshoremen on the West Coast and bakery workers and Teamsters in New York. Other projects fizzled out, however, such as the wildly ambitious campaign to take down” Bank of America. The following year, Occupy Sandy, the heroic grassroots relief effort in the wake of the deadly superstorm that walloped the Northeast proved to be more charity than mutual aid despite sloganeering otherwise. 

Occupy didn’t disappear. It wormed into the body politic where it mutated into surprising new variations. In November 2012, SEIU unveiled Fight for $15,” a fast-food worker organizing effort that tapped into Occupy’s message of economic inequality. The union hired Occupy veterans as field organizers and presented the workers movement as an Occupy-style upsurge (although it was in fact a minutely orchestrated campaign). A year later, Kshama Sawant catapulted to a seat on the Seattle City Council on a two-word platform, “$15 Now.” She credited Occupy with her stunning victory as the first socialist elected in a major city in decades. Before Occupy, there was a lot of … disenchantment and a sort of a feeling of demoralization,” Sawant told Democracy Now!. Occupy ended the silence on inequality, and really it put capitalism at front and center.” Months later Sawant rode shotgun in steamrolling the 1% with the first municipal $15-an-hour minimum wage law. 

Sawant was no fluke. Socialist Bernie Sanders rocketed from the outer orbit of politics to the solar center fueled by Occupy. His campaign told CNN in 2016, Occupy Wall Street helped create the political climate that helped Bernie’s message to resonate so widely, simply by shining a spotlight on issues of Wall Street greed and income inequality.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren brightened her star by advocating for the 99%. One stage ignited the next. The Democratic Socialists of America went supernova after Occupy and Sanders (and Trump’s election). Their nuclear growth legitimized socialism, knocked down the door for The Squad” of democratic socialists to become a force inside the House, and led to the watershed” congressional bills of more than $4 trillion in spending on physical and human infrastructure that will make or break Joe Biden’s presidency.

Occupy reverberated in the streets, ushering in a new style of political activism. It would be hard to imagine the peaceful, confrontational protest of the Black Lives Matter, climate justice, and immigrant-rights movements without Occupy. 

For the past decade, I have traveled the county reporting on these movements and organizers, particularly younger ones, tell me Occupy shaped their outlook. It was a lens that clearly revealed who gained and who lost from student debt, reduced job prospects, racist policing, medical bankruptcy, runaway wealth accumulation, climate catastrophe and bipartisan class warfare.

Occupy bears a debt to many movements that went before. Occupy is one plot point in this mass protest tradition going back to the Clamshell Alliance, Seabrook, and anti-nuclear protests from the late 70s,” says Mark Engler, co-author of This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century. Its siblings were the Arab Spring, the Wisconsin Uprising and Bloombergville, a poverty-rights campaign that occupied public space months before and a few blocks away from Zuccotti Park. 

If OWS has a parent, it is the Global Justice Movement that emerged in 1999 at the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle and which was a casualty of 9/11. It’s no coincidence Occupy began days after the 10th anniversary of September 11 in the shadow of the demolished World Trade Center and thousands of dead. OWS revived the fin-de-siècle street protests that police had smashed as part of the war on terror.” Global justice-era activists were early adopters.

But Occupy wasn’t your mother’s direct action. Lacking spokescouncils and affinity groups, the new age of protests Occupy begat is more anarchic, quick to coalesce and dissipate, and galvanized more by social media and memes than face-to-face organizing.

Occupy made it easier than ever to channel red-hot discontent into roving actions and protest settlements with a well-aimed Tweet or dramatic video. Climate justice campaigners grabbed Occupy’s fallen banner with occupations on land and sea by blockading oil trains and launching kayaktivists” to harry ships bound for Arctic oil exploration. In January and February 2017, airport occupations swiftly assembled through social media defied Trump’s racist travel bans. Occupy birthed Occupy ICE when in June 2018 a few activists camped outside of an ICE jail in Portland, Oregon, sparking a national campaign in protest of Trump’s family separation policy. The tactic of occupying landed in Standing Rock when the protest of a few hundred activists in 2016 mushroomed to a town of more than 10,000 peacefully blocking construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline slashing across the Sioux Nation.

Occupy also had a real impact on the movement for Black lives. Kazembe Balagun, a Bronx-based writer, activist, and father, says it’s important to remember that Occupy Wall Street was bookended by outrage over the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia on September 21, 2011, and the vigilante killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin five months later. In this context, he says, Occupy shifted white people. When Black Lives Matter kicked off, more white people were ready to accept the message. BLM is a multiracial movement, and Occupy gave it a left edge.” 

Balagun says debates in Occupy Wall Street connecting racial justice to economic justice were the seeds” that led Bernie Sanders to make more direct connections between the issues the second time he ran. And those seeds and conversations, says Balagun, opened up the door for a new generation of Black elected officials, the Cori Bushes, the Jamaal Bowmans. … They carry on the Occupy and BLM legacy.” 

Occupy also offered the ability for people to take the streets,” Balagun says. Occupy’s legacy was visible in the uprisings of 2020 after George Floyd’s murder, with physical occupations targeting police violence in Minneapolis, New York City, Portland, and Seattle.

Every movement reaches the end of the road, and a decade later Occupy-style protest has smacked into a dead end. The spontaneous outpouring of millions in summer 2020 was an astonishing rebuke to police brutality. But the police struck back with even more brutality. The story of 2020 is that police violence worked. The beatings, the gassings, the blindings, the shootings knocked many protesters off the streets and struck widespread fear, as did draconian prosecutions. The advantage of spontaneous protests is they can self-assemble rapidly and are hard to squash because their many limbs lacked a central nervous system that can be easily neutralized. The disadvantage, as M Adams wrote of the 2020 uprising, is that the spontaneity and raw emotion draw attention, but the lack of political direction, coordination and organization produce unpredictable results.” Adams and other Movement for Black Lives organizers are working to harness the street rage of the protests into mass organization.

Leaderless movements fossilize quickly, repeating the same tactic, as with summit-hopping during the Seattle era, occupying during the Occupy era, or cities where nightly protests went on for months last year. Protesters get worn down by police violence, by in-fighting endemic to social media, by the high level of commitment required. 

When leaders and organizations are absent, opportunism and grift thrive. Anyone was able to glom on to Occupy Wall Street, like Van Jones, who tried to steer it into the Democratic Party. Today there is a new danger: fascist gangs like the Proud Boys that police ignore if not abet. In Portland, where I live, far-right and police violence have chased the vast majority of the protesters off the street other than an angry and paranoid and armed hardcore. 

The path out of this dead end starts with organization. 

Occupy Wall Street gave the left ideas, skills, and a base in a way no one could have imagined a decade ago. The radicalization of a generation, the ability to easily explain class, the potential for mass nonviolent direct action, and crowbarring politics to let in socialist ideas and elected officials are all invaluable legacies. The post-Occupy era can build on these gains by drawing on the leadership of Standing Rock, the organization of Democratic Socialists of America, the militancy of Black Lives Matter, the focus of the Climate Justice Movement, and the discipline of worker organizing. 

Occupy rewrote the book on protests. It’s time to turn the page.

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Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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