It’s hard to believe that the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon began and ended almost four years ago. The relatively short media lifespan of those occupations of public parks and squares in the United States and around the world was a mixed bag, in composition, politics and effects. During its heady peak, there was talk of a revolutionary change, with the neoliberal financiers and their greedy lifestyle being tossed into the dustbin of history. The idea of direct participatory democracy would replace the bought-off plutocracy whose reign was destroying out futures and the planet. Some participants argued that even the cops were on our side.
Then the cops got their orders. With the visible exception of one retired policeman from Philadelphia, the men in blue took out their nightsticks, tear gas and pepper spray. They then proceeded to trash the occupied spaces, brutalize the occupiers, almost kill a protesting man in Oakland, and pepper spray persons for no apparent reason other than what appeared to be the cops’ collective thrill. In other words, they did their job. They showed their true colors and which class they were hired to protect. Just like always.
Michael Gould-Wartofsky was present for many of the moments he describes in his newly published history of Occupy Wall Street. Titled The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement, Gould-Wartofsky’s text examines the movement’s precursors and the movement itself. The author is a sociologist, photographer and left-leaning political activist. He was also an almost daily participant in the original Occupy encampment in Manhattan’s Zurcotti Park and attended numerous actions emanating from that encampment. As a camper/occupier, he also spent numerous hours engaged in the decision making process utilized in Occupy—known as the General Assembly. His descriptions of the events, assemblies and daily existence in Zurcotti Park provide the reader with a general sense of the various personalities, politics and emotions that prevailed during the occupation.
The book begins by describing the 2008-2009 bailouts of the financial industry and subsequent dramatic bank profits. The anger and sense of betrayal felt by many when they contrasted this bailout to the growing impoverishment of the 99% was a key element in the movement that led eventually to Occupy Wall Street. The book discusses various anti-austerity movements around the world, with a focus on those in the author’s home of New York. He looks at the anti-austerity protests in Greece and Spain and the 2011 protests against anti-union legislation in Wisconsin. A cursory analysis of the economics involved rounds out the discussion, while also providing an essential context. Like the dominant analysis of the occupy movement itself, though, it falls short. The shortcomings of neoliberal economics are acknowledged–inequality, government in the service of Wall Street and corporate America –but one of the primary causes of the ongoing economic depression is barely mentioned. That cause is the US wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. Even when the participation of military veterans is presented in the narrative, Gould-Wartofsky does not take this opportunity to present the relationship between the trillion dollars spent on war and the declining financial situation of much of the US population. Then again, given that this is a history of the Occupy Wall Street movement—which barely touched on this relationship in its public pronouncements—perhaps the author is merely sticking to the movement’s script. In other words, the failure to acknowledge the permanent war as a fundamental cause of the economic crisis that helped precipitate Occupy Wall Street is not the fault of the author as much as it is of those who participated and formulated the analyses Occupy Wall Street operated under. The political analysis of Occupy that was presented to the public was an amalgam of philosophies—from left anarchism and socialism to social democracy and progressivism, with a smattering of various conservative philosophies occasionally rearing their heads. The most fitting description of its overall philosophy, however, would be one best termed militant liberal reformism.
The books’ strengths are in its discussion of what made the daily routines of Occupy work (and not work.) This meant the meetings of the General Assembly, the planning of the marches and rallies, the outreach to unions, neighborhood organizations and the media, the running of the kitchens and other social services, and the disbursement of funds. The author skillfully weaves together the tale of how members with various political philosophies, class, racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds and life experiences managed to maintain a protest like Occupy Wall Street. This movement was, after all, the first protest movement since at least the 1970s to address the issues of class in the United States in a manner so public it forced the ruling class’ media and power structure to acknowledge it. In forcing that acknowledgement, it also showed to the world that, when challenged, the ruling class has no hesitation in bringing out its armed forces to defend its interests and property.
If one recalls, several books were published during and immediately following the Occupy encampments. Those texts provided immediate reflections on the movement and its meanings. This book has the luxury of time and uses it fortuitously. Given this hindsight, Gould-Wartofsky’s The Occupiers is able to provide a broader context to the movement and a greater nuance to its meanings. It is a detailed, often vivid description of the Occupy Wall Street movement, its origins and multiple forms. Informative, comprehensive and eminently readable, it is an essential book for everyone interested in understanding not just the Occupy movement, but recent US history in general.
Ron Jacobs is the author of a series of crime novels called The Seventies Series. All the Sinners, Saints, is the third novel in the series. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground . Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. His book Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies will be published by Counterpunch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.