FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

What Became of Occupy Wall Street?

 

One of the more puzzling aspects about Occupy Wall Street is not that there was a moment when millions of people hoped or feared it might overthrow the rule of the banks, but that so little is said about it four years on.

Its anniversaries come and go without comment: Occupy’s founding on September 17, 2011, the high-water mark of the Oakland general strike on November 2, the eviction of of the New York camp on November 15, the creation of Occupy Sandy after the superstorm walloped the Northeast on October 29, 2012.

Occupy lost it luster because most people concluded it was a failure. It failed to articulate demands, failed to create a lasting impact, failed to spark a revolution. The haters dismiss Occupy as the “Frenzy that Fizzled.” True believers maintain Occupy triumphed for shifting the conversation from economic austerity to inequality, while ignoring the lack of infrastructure to carry its work and ideas forward. Many who joined or were inspired by it would up feeling confused, bitter, or disappointed at losing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to upend the status quo. Others blame Occupy’s dissolution on police forces that aggressively swept out all the major encampments. But it’s defeatist to say Occupy was vanquished “by a concerted government effort to undo it.” State violence is a given, and some radical movements still succeed.

Occupiers tried repeatedly to resurrect the movement after the main bastions in Oakland and New York City were evicted in November 2011. But it never regained its footing despite the national May Day general strike, protests against a NATO summit in Chicago, the Occupy Our Homes anti-foreclosure movement, Occupy Sandy, and attempted re-occupations of parks, plazas, and buildings across the country.

No, Occupy Wall Street did not fizzle or fail. Its outsized ambitions were destined to crash as there are no left forces strong enough in the United States to keep a mass movement flying high. But Occupy is still relevant. The difficulty in coming to terms with it is because of its mixed legacy. When radicals lost the initiative against a bankrupt political system, liberals stepped in to divert energy back into the system.

Occupy’s birth in the shadow of and days after the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks was a rupture. As the first radical movement of the 21st century in the United States, Occupy revived confrontational politics squelched by the “war on terror.” Its use of direct action for wealth redistribution and against state power has been explicitly adopted by today’s immigrant-rights, low-wage worker, and climate-justice movements. Occupy popularized class lingo with “we are the 99%” and “the 1%,” putting the wealthy on the defensive ideologically. Without Occupy, neither the $15-an-hour minimum wage movement nor Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign would have gained such traction.

Activists have tried to anoint successors to Occupy Wall Street, such as Occupy Sandy, the post-hurricane relief effort that was a hybrid of community organizing and charity. But none have matched the spirit or form of Occupy as closely as the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, there is no direct line between the two, as there is with Kshama Sawant. She came to prominence with Occupy, then won election to the Seattle City Council in 2013 on a “$15 Now” platform,  and is running for re-election as a “voice for the 99%” against an opponent bankrolled by CEOs, landlords, and business interests.

Black Lives Matter is the true heir to Occupy because it uses militant protest, digital media, and fluid and opaque leadership structures to challenge state power. The difference is Black Lives Matter began by targeting state force rather than its economic power.

Ironically, by early 2012 some Occupy groups were squandering popular capital on “fuck the police” marches that drew only the hardcore. Black Lives Matter has gone the other way, from a cry against the routine killing of unarmed Blacks to connecting police violence to economic violence. Opal Tometi, a leader of Black Lives Matter, told The Nation that “violence that’s sanctioned by the state” is more than the police. It includes poverty, “attacks on labor unions and what that has done to the standard of living, the employability of our people, the kind of wages that we are making, and the benefits.”

Black Lives Matter has had more staying power even as it has experienced growing pains, strategic splits, and conflicts over who is a leader given the ability to use social media to draw a following. Unlike Occupy, Black Lives Matter is rooted in a community. Black America is shaped as much by the violence that birthed this nation, and sustains it, as it as by the resistive creation that’s grown out of the soiled history.

But that doesn’t make Black Lives Matter immune to attempted co-optation, especially in the crucible of the 2016 election. Just as liberal groups like MoveOn, SEIU, and Rebuild the Dream tried to steal Occupy’s thunder with a “99% Spring” linked to their pro-Democratic Party agenda, so too have groups like the Justice League NYC pushed “establishment-friendly reformism” under the banner of Black Lives Matter.

Post-Occupy, the best organizing combines radical politics with leadership and organization. A few unions have waded into the breach created by Occupy. Public-school teacher campaigns in Chicago, Portland, Los Angeles, and Seattle have tied contract negotiations to student education and community issues, while reviving the use of strikes, walkouts, and protests. The SEIU-backed “Fight for $15” first seized the issue of income inequality in November 2012, just as Occupy had faded, and now 63 percent of Americans support a $15 minimum wage by 2020. But the fast-food workers struggle is more a march on the media than a rank-and-file movement. Most recently, auto workers rebelled against a fossilized United Auto Workers leadership by rejecting a contract that would have extended a tiered wage system dividing workers.

The climate-justice movement is fractured by the same confrontation and cooptation divide. Blockades from below have slowed the construction of pipelines, the movement of coal trains, the development of natural-gas export terminals, and the sailing of oil-drilling ships to the Arctic. But the 2014 “People’s Climate March,” hyped as the next phase of Occupy, was defanged by well-funded liberals who turned it into a corporate P.R. march devoid of politics, instead of the initial vision of a Seattle-style blockade around the United Nations.

This, too, is the legacy of Occupy Wall Street. Amorphous, “leaderless” networks can respond quickly to a crisis but act as quicksand to movement building. Occupiers wound up butting their heads against the state even as they opened up new paths for their successors. These new movements have had more material success than Occupy Wall Street, but the age-old challenge that Occupy put into stark relief remains: will they settle for reform when they came to have a revolution.

This is a revised version of a piece that originally ran in TeleSur.

More articles by:

Arun Gupta is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York and has written for publications including the Washington Post, the Nation, Salon, and the Guardian. He is the author of the upcoming “Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food-Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste” (The New Press).

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
April 06, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
COVID-19 and the Failures of Capitalism
W. T. Whitney
Donald Trump, Capitalism, and Letting Them Die
Cesar Chelala
Cuba’s Promising Approach to Cancer
David A. Schultz
Camus and Kübler-Ross in a Time of COVID-19 and Trump
Nomi Prins 
Wall Street Wins, Again: Bailouts in the Time of Coronavirus
Dean Baker
Getting to Medicare-for-All, Eventually
Dave Lindorff
Neither Pandemic Nor Economic Collapse is Going to Be a Short-Lived Crisis
Sonali Kolhatkar
Capitalism in America Has Dropped the Mask: Its Face is Cruel and Selfish
Ralph Nader
Trump’s 7 Pro-Contagion Reversals Increase the Coronavirus Toll
David Swanson
A Department of Actual Defense in a Time of Coronavirus
Ellen Brown
Was the Fed Just Nationalized?
Jeff Birkenstein
Postcards From Trump
Nick Licata
Authoritarian Leaders Rejected the Danger of a COVID-19 Pandemic Because It Challenged Their Image
Kathy Kelly
“He’s Got Eight Numbers, Just Like Everybody Else”
Graham Peebles
Change Love and the Need for Unity
Kim C. Domenico
Can We Transform Fear to Strength In A Time of Pandemic?
Mike Garrity
Alliance for the Wild Rockies Files Lawsuit to Stop Logging and Burning Project in Rocky Mountain Front Inventoried Roadless Area
Stephen Cooper
“The Soul Syndicate members dem, dem are all icons”: an Interview with Tony Chin
Weekend Edition
April 03, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Omar Shaban
Gaza’s New Conflict: COVID-19
Rob Urie
Work, Crisis and Pandemic
John Whitlow
Slumlord Capitalism v. Global Pandemic
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Strange Things Happening Every Day
Jonathan Cook
The Bigger Picture is Hiding Behind a Virus
Paul Street
Silver Linings Amidst the Capitalist Coronavirus Crisis
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Control of Nature
Louis Proyect
COVID-19 and the “Just-in-Time” Supply Chain: Why Hospitals Ran Out of Ventilators and Grocery Stores Ran Out of Toilet Paper
Kathleen Wallace
The Highly Contagious Idea
Kenneth Good
The Apartheid Wars: Non-Accountability and Freedom for Perpetrators.
Andrew Levine
Democracy in America: Sorry, But You Can’t Get There from Here.
Ramzy Baroud
Tunisia Leads the Way: New Report Exposes Israel’s False Democracy
David Rosen
Coronavirus and the State-of-Emergency Pandemic
Matthew Stevenson
Will Trump Cancel the Election? Will the Democrats Dump Joe?
Ron Jacobs
Seattle—Anti-Capitalist Hotbed
Michael T. Klare
Avenger Planet: Is the COVID-19 Pandemic Mother Nature’s Response to Human Transgression?
Jack Rasmus
COVID-19 and the Forgotten Working Class
Werner Lange
The Madness of More Nukes and Less Rights in Pandemic Times
J.P. Linstroth
Why a Race is Not a Virus and a Virus is Not a Race
John Feffer
We Need a Coronavirus Truce
Thomas S. Harrington
“New Corona Cases”: the Ultimate Floating Signifier
Victor Grossman
Corona and What Then?
Katie Fite
Permanent Pandemic on Public Lands: Welfare Sheep Ranchers and Their Enablers Hold the West’s Bighorns Hostage
Patrick Bond
Covid-19 Attacks the Down-and-Out in Ultra-Unequal South Africa
Eve Ottenberg
Capitalism vs. Humanity
Nicky Reid
Fear and Loathing in Coronaville Volume 2: Panic On the Streets of Tehran
Jonas Ecke
Would Dying for the Economy Help Anybody?
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail