Two years ago, a group of Americans in New York City sparked a movement that redefined protest and struggle. Around one hundred people took over a park near Wall Street to call attention to income inequality and economic injustice.
Occupy Wall Street participants called themselves “occupiers.” They were a group fed up with what the system had to offer and took over a space, Zuccotti Park, to expand the possibilities for creating change.
Firedoglake was one of the few media organizations to document the first day of the movement, September 17, 2011.
Hundreds inspired by uprisings in Greece, Spain, Tunisia, Egypt and other countries attempted to get on Wall Street but were stopped by the New York Police Department (NYPD). Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s army fortified Wall Street making it impossible for anyone to go near the New York Stock Exchange and register their discontent.
By mid-afternoon, the police had pushed demonstrators back into Zuccotti Park—what this movement would call Liberty Square. It appeared, as it would for many of the coming days, that the police were going to move on demonstrators at any moment and there would be mass arrests. Police even asked for the leader of the demonstration multiple times. There was no leader.
Protesters remained in the park late into the night and eventually sleeping bags were unrolled after the owner of the park, Brookfield Properties, apparently declined to push police to remove the protesters. In reaction, one occupier, Joanne Lipp, tweeted, “It really does feel like a mini Tahrir Square.”
From that day onward, the movement continued to grow, with inspired Americans in cities all over the country starting their own encampments like the one in Zuccotti Park. Occupiers reclaimed public space. They brought people together and removed the fear and isolation that pervades so much of society, preventing action from taking place. They created an opportunity through the novelty of occupying to advance an important nonviolent uprising of the 99% against the richest 1% in America.
Occupiers did not settle for directing the energy into contacting representatives or senators in Congress to support a bill. They did not develop a slick and well-funded MoveOn.org-style campaign to survive political spin from lobbyist groups that would oppose their agenda, which would require selling out. They had a vision for the kind of society citizens could create without waiting for politicians to no longer be bought and paid for by their corporate masters on Wall Street and pursued that vision.
What gave Occupy its power was the fact that it was a banner that anyone could organize under to confront any social issue in one’s community. One did not have to find a way to protest Wall Street in cities thousands of miles away from New York. They could take up a local cause and make that the driver for action in solidarity with those in Zuccotti Park. Also, the movement remained out in the open in public space so the community could see they were not going away. That made the actions of occupiers difficult to ignore and pushed media organizations to not only cover why occupiers had taken over space but also the dynamic of inequality, which had fueled “The 99%” to protest.
The movement may not have the same power as it did in its early months, but it is not as if Occupy is a force that no longer exists. Allison Kilkenny of The Nation, who also covered the movement when it first began, highlighted in her post on the anniversary multiple examples of Occupy groups that continue to struggle for change.
Occupy the SEC, the wonkier branch of the OWS movement, is “extremely focused.” The branch is focused on advancing lawsuits to push federal agencies to engage in more regulation of Wall Street. They are also interested in who will replace Ben Bernanke as head of the Federal Reserve. (Larry Summers, who played a role in the conditions that led to the financial crisis and would have been heavily targeted by Occupy, recently withdrew his nomination, giving occupiers reason to cheer.)
Additionally, Occupy Our Homes has continued to engage in direct action to protect homes from being improperly foreclosed by banks and have pressed the Justice Department to prosecute Wall Street executives.
Occupy Our Homes Atlanta racked up multiple victories with individual homeowners, including Jacqueline Barber, a retired police detective and cancer survivor, who was facing eviction when she reached out to OOHA in October 2012. Her fight to stay in her home lasted almost a year, and included a trip to Minneapolis to personally deliver a petition to US Bank.
Occupy Homes Minnesota also won multiple victories for homeowners, such as Rose McGee, a community advocate who fought Fannie Mae for a year and was finally able to secure a major victory that included a significant principle reduction.
Occupy Sandy, which arose in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to help communities rebuild, and Occupy the Pipeline, a non-violent direct action and civil disobedience group organized to oppose the construction of the Spectra Pipeline that would deliver hydrofracked natural gas.
The group that assisted communities after the hurricane is now committed to opposing “Bloomberg and his Housing Authority,” which “want to build luxury towers on the parks and playgrounds of Lower East Side and Harlem public housing projects.” It may be their organizing that makes the difference in halting efforts to gentrify neighborhoods by replacing public housing with shelters only rich upper class New Yorkers will be able to afford.
It is a common perception that Occupy has failed and that is partially why the movement is not seen engaging in action any more. Some groups across the country have withered, however, the story of Occupy and any discussion of where the movement is now cannot omit the suppression occupiers experienced from police.
NYPD officers used force to shove, tackle and throw occupiers. They kicked and punched occupiers. They used batons, pepper spray, barricades, scooters or horses violently against occupiers. They obstructed press freedom by arresting journalists or obstructing their ability to cover what they were doing while dispersing actions. They even went after legal observers at protests there to help mediate conflicts between protesters and police and advise occupiers on what they have a right to do and not do when engaging in assembly and speech.
During the one-year anniversary of the movement on September 17, 2012, Paul Henri-Sullivan set out to film the NYPD because he wanted to “show what protesters had been saying for years: that the NYPD suppresses protest with questionable tactics.”
The 10-minute video, which consists of footage shot over a period of 87-minutes in the morning and was posted to Sparrow Media, clearly demonstrates the way in which the NYPD can deliberately disrupt peaceful protest through arrests of individuals, who are not engaged in any violent or seemingly unlawful activity.
The full extent to which police or security forces at all levels of government cooperated, often at the orders of city mayors, to remove Occupy encampments is not known yet. The extent of FBI involvement in monitoring or sending undercover agents to infiltrate and how the Department of Homeland Security targeted free speech and assembly during early months also remains unknown. What the public has is bits and pieces of information that suggest the FBI treated Occupy like it would a criminal or terrorist threat and the FBI and DHS employed surveillance to monitor protesters.
Occupiers have returned to the streets for the second anniversary. They are showing solidarity with fast food employees at McDonald’s. They are supporting teachers on strike in Mexico and speaking out against the continued disproportionate use of “stop and frisk” by the NYPD against people of color in New York. They are marching against the ultra-secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement that is symbolic of how the 1% conspire to run the world at the expense of the global 99%. And they are even pushing for Wall Street to be taxed.
Should the movement return to public space and be out in the open, as it once was prior to being forcefully dispersed by America’s security agencies?Even if the answer were yes, public support would be needed to deter those in power from preventing citizens from engaging in assembly.
Energy cannot be unnecessarily expended trying to recreate the magic of what happened two years ago, when everything fell into place and the decision to not intervene and disperse protesters on those first days sparked a powerful movement. However, that does not mean that there is not a climate demanding of vibrant protest from Americans.
Five years later, criminal cases against bankers from Lehman Brothers and other banks, who were responsible for the financial crisis, have not been pursued by the Justice Department. In fact, the Justice Department, as a PBS FRONTLINE documentary showed, have studiously avoided prosecuting bank executives.
As the Center for Public Integrity reported, “Major banks that survived the crisis, largely because they were saved with taxpayer money after being deemed ‘too big to fail,’ are now bigger and more powerful than ever.” Wall Street bankers may be unemployed, but they now have free time to relax in their mansions and play tennis, ski or golf.
Meanwhile, “the gulf between the richest 1 percent and the rest of America is the widest it’s been since the Roaring Twenties.” AP reported, “In 2012, the incomes of the top 1 percent rose nearly 20 percent compared with a 1 percent increase for the remaining 99 percent.”
The income gap has widened. Police forces, including militarized units, have not had the authority they assert to disrupt peaceful protest restrained. Nonetheless, there are pockets of revolt all over the country where Americans remain unwilling to tolerate injustice or the present social order and, in the spirit of Occupy, they engage in struggle to keep hope alive.