Three Lessons of Occupy Wall Street, With a Fair Dose of Memory

Seven years ago, on 17 September 2011, I attended the first Occupy Wall Street manifestation in New York City. The event had been announced in clever and enigmatic ways online, in particular evoking the recent and enormous M15, Syntagma, and Tahrir Square uprisings of the Mediterranean.

Some of the first publicity for OWS came from the Vancouver collective responsible for Adbusters, a magazine for anti-advertising guerillas to which I had once subscribed. They created the famous poster of the dancer on the bull, tagged curiously with the question, “What is our one demand?” Another online appeal set out lengthy procedures for assemblies that would occupy Broadway block-by-block, each independently holding a sidewalk and seeking consensus of everyone present in formulating their demands. None of this was actually followed at the real thing, of course. The rules included an implicit concession that consensus did not extend to the police. If harrassed by law enforcement, assemblies were to dissolve and reconvene on a different block.

But the first real-world humans of OWS came largely from the earlier “Bloombergville” tent village at City Hall. For months they had protested the city’s gentrification, lack of affordable housing, and routine barbarism toward the homeless. On 17 September, the initial assemblies around Bowling Green (the old park near the Wall Street bull sculpture, for those of you who don’t know it) were boisterous and ideologically mixed: a convergence of suited organizers-for-life and 24/7 agitators festooned with buttons, not a few bank employees alongside the homeless, hippies and punks, yoga fiends and academics, David Graeber urging a debt jubilee, six brands of sectarians each with their own banners, a sad whiff of Tea Party, and a bunch of Jane and Joe Does like me and you.

I was there with two friends I’d originally met on the Internet. We left in the evening, after the remnants of the undirected marches and gong-soundings and impromptu seminars on finance, which at their high point had numbered 2,000 people at most, converged on Zuccotti Park and started setting up a camp. My friends and I believed that it would be cleared by the police that same night. I should have accounted for the possibility that my supposed experience with how things work is not a seamless guide to the future. Who was it that said history is the history of surprises?

The next day and the next week I was thrilled to learn that the encampment had remained in place, in part thanks to the brilliant exploitation of a legal loophole regarding privately-owned public spaces in New York City. By contract between developers and the city, such places are fully public but not under Parks Department jurisdiction, and thus not subject to the city park curfew. The National Lawyers Guild and the ACLU showed up to get some orders staying the dispersal of the assembly. But above all Occupy Wall Street remained because a few hundred people gathered that night had decided it would be so, and I thank them and the many thousands who joined them in the next two months.

The camp grew, turned into a carnival with a kitchen and a library, with performers and side-circuses and a running general assembly that exposed everything and could decide on nothing, which perhaps was not really the point. I was working long hours most of that time. A few days I showed up at 7 am to throw a twenty and a few cigarettes at the media table, before running off to the job. By this, I wish also to admit that I did not build this. I was one among millions who were excited and moved by it. I later took part in Occupy Astoria-LIC and Occupy Alternative Banking, one of which is still a circle of friends, while the other continues today and has been among the many sparks in the rising movement to change the way money works. Besides efforts to bring Occupy to the neighborhoods, I was also part of the beautiful if brief Turkish-Greek-Brazilian revival of Occupy Wall Street in June 2013, on which more in some future piece.

After two weeks of near-complete silence from the corporate media — this is often forgotten — the conglomerates finally acknowledged the congregation of thousands downtown. As the saying goes, “First they ignore you, then they make fun of you, then…” As if by a switch, or perhaps as cattle stampeding at the snap of a twig, the TV, the punditry and the tabloids activated a 24/7 campaign of misrepresentation and trivialization. This came not only from the “mainstream” and conservative outlets, but also from the workhorses of intermittent opposition at Comedy Central. Is a pack of wolves the better metaphor?

At least this helped in spreading the occupations to many other cities and towns, even to set off a wave of solidarity protests abroad. Too bad the latter manifestations dwarfed almost every physical gathering in the United States! Yet it was also true that suddenly, “Our ideas are in everyone’s heads.” Everyone was talking about OWS, and at length. Even a bunch of pharma executives at a meeting to receive a Hollywood pitch, which I happened to witness as the Last Factotum present, spent the first hour agreeing that it was important. Granted, this group included the kind of 1%ers who do not condemn popular manifestations, but instead wonder which part they should fund. Meanwhile, a great many trade union activists understood that something important was happening, and they too provided big numbers for many of the Zuccotti and post-Zuccotti actions.

Occupy Wall Street in its original incarnation was not “the movement” for very long, yet today its spirit persists in a dozen movements that mostly existed before, came together in it, cross-pollinated, and emerged catalyzed, determined to disrupt Business As Usual, to pursue a revolutionary transformation of society and system.

Did it work? I mean, besides reminding Obama to reinsert some populism into his rhetoric, with just enough lead time to secure his 2012 reelection? Its workings still weave their way among us, my dears. Its ideas and tactics, or rather the ancient and new ideas and tactics that OWS expressed and embodied for a time in certain spaces in certain ways, are still everywhere available. OWS is history, and we are still writing it. It is evident as a strain of thought and action in many movements of our day that I will not list here, to avoid the misunderstanding that I am giving credit to OWS for the people working for and driving the vital movements of today. Agency is in the living, no matter their inspiration, and its sources are not always evident.

The story I wish to write now instead is not about how OWS was the beginning of “the movement,” but to identify three reasons why it was one of the most effective catalysts for social justice movements in decades. These are given with no claims that they tell all. And if you have a different list, make sure to write it down.

ONE: What Was Our One Demand?

Contrary to doctrinaire readings, Occupy Wall Street had a clear and compelling demand. In fact, the demand was written into the name of the action itself. Three words. The call was radical because it was directed to the people, and to the movements for justice and peace, and not to the government, and not to the establishment, or to the Congress, or to six liberal pundits who wished to dissect its meaning, a process necessarily preceded by its killing. Not all of the latter institutions should be simplistically seen as “enemy” in all cases, by the way; but if these boulders in our way ever roll toward meaningful change, it will only be because a wave of people power has pushed them along.

Occupy, a verb in the imperative — one that can also serve as a synonym for “disrupt” or “strike” — urged popular action against an object, two nouns identifying the biggest concrete enemy that needs to be disrupted: Wall Street, meaning the dominance of the private capital sector as well as the profit imperative that governs all. The name urged popular movements to acknowledge that reform, or revolution, will not happen only because it is reasonable, because it speaks to real and compelling grievances, or because it is possible and worth the effort. It takes a fight. In fact, it takes many fights, many fighters dancing and suffering together for a long time, before the moment when change suddenly appears, self-evident, inevitable, freshly hegemonic.

TWO: “Who Is In Command Here? I Thought It Was You.”

Despite its self-evident targeting of the financial sector that had produced the 2008 crash through witting fraud and come away from the ruins with bailouts and even greater power, OWS created an open and at-first physical platform for popular grievances at exactly the right time to resonate. If anything it was too late by a couple of years, for it should have started in 2008, but that’s not the fault of the activists. Many groups had, in fact, staged protests in the Financial District in the years after the crash, some even larger in numbers for a day, yet without the same effect. It was through its direct democratic process, later much-maligned, that Occupy achieved a breakthrough at Wall Street that the prior hierarchically organized efforts had not managed. That was also thanks to the initial joy of it, the unleashed creativity, the encouragement for all to participate as equals, to have their say and have it amplified by a hundred others repeating it in unison.

That doesn’t mean “horizontality” is the right way to organize in all situations, or that it is identical with and the only way to be a democracy. The right move at the right time also fostered the subsequent inability to adopt a more sustainable form. The process-anarchism of “no demands, no leaders, no organization” that set off the carnival also served, in part, to break it up once it came under pressure. For one thing, it was a magnet for agents and malefactors of various sorts. More fundamentally, the high promise of manifesting the desired new society within a contained space ringed by a police fortress came under inevitable strains. Was the function of Zuccotti to build movements, or was it supposed to start a commune on a spot where it could least be sustained?

Spoiler alert! The real killer was none of the above!

The American occupation wave of 2011 ended abruptly with a federally-coordinated national police-state crackdown on almost all of the sites simultaneously on 11 November, 2011. Sometimes this, too, is forgotten, even by some Occupy activists when they are engaged (as they are rightly) in self-criticism. Philadelphia and Oakland told different stories, but that is how it went most everywhere else. During the suppression action in New York, the Bloomberg administration made use of a bunkered joint “counterterror” command and surveillance center that included desks not only for the NYPD, state troopers, FBI and other federal, state and city alphabet agencies, but also for the New York Federal Reserve, J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and Pfizer, among others.

This reality, too, provided an important object lesson that cannot be emphasized enough. We all know how the saying often attributed to Gandhi continues: “Then they attack you.” At some point, they also apply the counter-insurgency manual, no matter how well you stick to non-violent civil disobedience. While I disagree that counter-violence has a hope in hell of defending against the modern state, counter-organization is a must. It is not enough to dissolve your assembly and reassemble elsewhere. I am not sure there is any defense in the American context, other than being public and building a movement of numbers so huge we are immovable.

If the occupations had continued and survived into the spring of 2012, it is impossible to say what might have happened, good or bad. Transformation of the encampments into a truly mass movement for economic revolution is only the rosiest possibility, and there were also darker ones depending on what reactions a sustained disruption of Business As Usual might have engendered. Of course, it all might have just fizzled out in the cold.

What remains in my heart came a few days after the eviction, when I witnessed the largest march of radicals in New York in decades, a street-winding mosaic of causes and cultures in which, at long last, after decades, almost all of the marchers were younger than I. I do not speak for all, but in my observation these 20,000 people with 200-odd organized contingents who snaked through the often dangerously narrow police barricades each had their primary reasons for coming together as groups or for showing up as individuals, but all were united around two shared demands: upholding the freedom of speech and assembly that had been denied to OWS; and addressing the planetary elephant.

And now to the shocking conclusion: What planetary elephant would that be, you ask?

THREE: “And Then You Win?”

OWS highlighted political economy as the central. unifying system of rule. Some may disagree, but this is inherent and obvious in the rhetoric of the 1% and the 99%. This language, too, was nothing new, but it had been contained for decades and breaking it out remains, for now, the most obvious legacy. The occupations achieved a long-needed breakthrough in restoring a popular vocabulary for seeing that there is a ruling class, seeing that it is a class of the owners of the means of production, and seeing that this ownership and the associated power-elite of institutional management is concentrated among the fewest, far fewer than even “1%” would indicate. (The bottom of the 1% is mostly just a bunch of doctors, architects and shopkeepers, by the way. As the dataheads might say, the inequality curve is asymptotic.)

At the same time, OWS never posited a false binary between class struggle and the struggles of subaltern and historically oppressed social groups, as we see in certain forms of liberal identity politics that contribute to divide and rule and are currently much in vogue.

On the contrary, the initial “Declaration of the Occupation of New York” held clearly that “all our grievances are related,” and they are related through a system of political economy commonly called by the name of capitalism. In this struggle, there is no contradiction but common ground and the need for coalition between labor organizing, women’s rights, securing the justice and equality denied to African Americans, providing rights and safe havens for immigrants and refugees, equal protection for all regardless of whom they love and how they identify as individuals, and achieving the human rights of healthy food, health care, housing and equal access to well-funded education for all. Or, inseparable from all of these struggles, protecting the human rights of political speech, press, assembly, protest and petition.

There is no contradiction but common ground between ecological and economic justice for the impoverished and dispossessed, the struggle to end the debt peonage of students — and the majority of the people! — the struggle to protect families against home foreclosures, and the vision of a rational, socialized system of money and finance that directs capital to needs and not to maximizing private return. This change cannot be piecemeal, or it will not be.

Joining all of these causes at the hip is the need to take back and redistribute the power seized and the swag plundered by the criminal billionaires (that would be all of them), to end the periodic pre-programmed crashes and crises of capitalism with their always-escalating human costs and violent consequences, to begin immediately and on a global scale the transformations in energy and production and food needed to secure our life and civilization on this planet, to end the dominance within the state of military spending and the Pentagon system, to end the empire and its perpetual war that seems like mere business to those of us removed from the fronts, but by its own logic one day must end in peace or global annihilation.

Capitalism didn’t invent every problem, it may not be the historic source of everything we call out as racism, sexism, imperialism and hate, it may not have even always been the worst option available to humankind; but today it drives all elements of oppression toward a wet, apocalyptic convergence. It is bereft of solutions, offering only increasingly delusional and simple-minded visions. The latter have many of the remaining “best and brightest” in their grip. Some are techno-utopian; some theocratic; some flat-out fascist. All three of these strains are at work in the current U.S. federal administration.

The time, finally, has come to occupy the relative heaven on earth that our GDPs claim has already arrived. Protecting the sick and the old and the disabled and the young is one and the same struggle as slowing down the treadmill of work, gorge, dispose, pay, return to work, repeat until you die.

But the daily operation of the beast knows only more enclosures and privatizations and pollutions of water and air and land and time and eyeballs and minds, more division and conflict among the many, ever lower wages and pensions for the median household and below with the precarity reaching ever higher, more intense work regimes beating on human bodies forced to offer themselves up as “free labor,” more plunder and burn for the rich caught up in spacebound fantasies, more heatwaves and hurricanes and landslides and wildfires and oceans turned to plastic, constant updates of toys for those who can pay, the loneliness of boxed consumption and a pill for every mood, our minds finally filled with an infinite entertainment program in which Kayfabe Politics has become the Biggest Show Ever and the screen now watches you more than you watch it. That doesn’t mean we’re all going to sing kumbaya, or that there are no real conflicts and contradictions among the 99% that must be acknowledged and not buried in working-class unity rhetoric. But truly understanding the big picture of “all our grievances are related” — through a political economy and its systems of ownership and incentive — defines a common mission, one that long ago became more than a question of socialism or barbarism, but of survival or extinction.


Nicholas Levis, who teaches history, has pretty much had it, and the Google ate the contact e-mail he created just for these articles (true story). So there is no way for you to contact him, not even to offer him money for his nest-egg against imminent obsolescence. You’re on your own.