A popular sign at Occupy Wall Street read, “The beginning is near.” Ten years later, two organizers look back to assess what began.
As staff organizers who were already active in New York City antiwar and economic justice movements, we’re the first to admit that we didn’t think the camp would survive even a few days. There had been a recent camp-out action at City Hall, called “Bloombergville,” and annual student occupations at New School and New York University, but these were all evicted with little fanfare or impact. Some of the same characters from those actions were involved in Occupy Wall Street (OWS), and we chalked up OWS to a grandiose fantasy with questionable branding. Within a week, it became clear we’d spectacularly misjudged the situation. Soon our workdays revolved around Liberty Square, the Occupiers’ name for Zuccotti Park.
The movement contained all three of Gandhi’s components for changing the world: personal change at the individual and interpersonal level, alternative institution building, and legislative change. It was a good place to apply adrienne maree brown’s lesson on fractals—what we do at the smallest level is reflected in what we do at the most global level, and vice versa. This diversity in approaches and issues was unified under the now famous “We are the 99%” banner. Between the two of us, Ali focused on the Global Justice working group, an action called “Empire on Wall Street,” and visiting other Occupy sites in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Davenport, Iowa, while Cheyenna focused on the Alternative Economies Working Group and got active in the “Occupy Office” and OWS Messaging clusters.*
What most folks don’t realize is that OWS played out as an event, a tactic, and a network. A tremendous amount of labor and organization went into maintaining the camp. There was a point in the fall of 2011 when our kitchen fed more people than New York City’s largest soup kitchens. We coordinated food, clothing, shelter, libraries, marches, bank accounts, businesses, fundraisers, websites, small meetings, huge meetings, security, sanitation, press relations, etc. And we did it with a democratic consensus-based process, with a human mic—sound amplification was prohibited by the New York Police Department (NYPD) because we lacked a permit, so a speaker would pause and people would repeat the person’s words so those behind them could hear, sometimes in two to four waves to reach the back of the crowd—while facing illegal police suppression and violence. We did it as young people, facing mountains of debt, a recession, and climate change. Every day the thing didn’t fall entirely apart was an achievement.
It was also deeply flawed. The camp replicated the same forms of oppression and violence that existed—and continue to exist—in our dominant US culture. Most of the Occupiers were white, and the movement often alienated communities of color. Conflict emerged and harm occurred. OWS developed a sexual assault and substance use problem. We collectively had to negotiate between those who wanted to drum all hours of the day and those who needed it to stop at night. We often caught flak because we didn’t have “all” the demands and answers that the media and onlookers wanted. Our democracy meant we sometimes moved too slowly, sometimes too fast. We burned out. Jonathan Matthew Smucker’s book, Hegemony How-To, offers deep insight about OWS’ failures to move beyond building a clubhouse to actually building a movement.
A popular misimpression is that after the camp was evicted, we simply disappeared back into the ether. That’s not what happened. Instead, OWS alumni from New York City and beyond switched tactics. We’ll give you a few examples we’ve observed, with the caveats that this by no means should this be considered a complete list, and to remember these examples are deeply tied to other movements, especially those led by communities of color. Our focus here is on the OWS connection, but that is not meant to construe that these efforts are merely the result of OWS.
Speaking from our vantage point here in New York City, there is a rising tide of electoral and legislative change from the neighborhood on up through the state level that is directly tied to Occupy. OWS alumni are campaign staff and policy wonks now, and some, like our beloved Sandy Nurse, are even on the ballot for City Council this fall. Alums are in the leadership of key groups like Justice Democrats, Lancaster Stands Up, Working Families Party, Our Revolution, and Way to Win, just to name a few. Would Bernie Sanders have become the most popular politician in the country if activists hadn’t sown the seeds with “We are the 99%”? Maybe. But no reason to speculate, given the direct line that can be drawn between OWS alums and the senator’s campaign staff.
Occupiers continue to push for debt relief through Debt Collective and Project Springboard. During Occupy, this work was organized as Strike Debt, with debt relief campaigns focused on healthcare. The movement they’re part of is slowly making progress as President Joe Biden forgives populations considered especially worthy of compassion, such as students taken advantage of by predatory for-profit schools, or disabled people who rely on government support.
Historically these incremental wins are often required to achieve major victories, though sadly the current process is a truly terrible one of means testing and determining who is most worthy of relief. OWS rejected this idea entirely, instead supporting education as a human right, one we can pay for by taxing the One Percent. Perhaps as the indebted millennials who came of age during Occupy begin to take office, this process can speed up a bit!
Occupy Our Homes, with multiracial leadership, took OWS into low-income neighborhoods where predominately Black and brown homeowners faced foreclosure due to racist subprime mortgage practices. This tactic recently gained media attention again in Oakland, where a group of mothers organized to remain in their homes despite facing a pandemic eviction.
Protest and Demilitarization
The aggressive NYPD tactics that violently cleared Liberty Square on November 15th provided a key moment for the movement. While SWAT [special weapons and tactics] raids and militarized policing tactics had been rising for decades and police violence is something communities of color face daily, their deployment against largely white protesters and the sudden attention that brought raised that set of issues’ prominence in the mainstream media.
In our case, several OWS-ers focused on opposing war and militarization, lending their support to uprisings around the world in that hopeful year of 2011. Many also went on to create projects and campaigns building on that early momentum and dot connecting.
One such project was Facing Tear Gas, which gathered dozens of accounts protesters provided about tear gas. These stories exposed weapons profiteering as well as deep connections between demands and tactics from around the US and across the global South. That effort then spun off a campaign to take on the fairs and gatherings where police were getting their new toys and deepening their militarized mentalities. This campaign ultimately ended the Bay-area based Urban Shield, the largest SWAT expo in the world. This showed us how the links between generations of organizing against policing, renewed protest movements, and the crucial priority of racial justice can really get things done.
Alternative Institution Building
During Occupy, alternative institution building included starting worker co-ops, drafting a declaration for an alternative economy (never brought to the state general assembly for a vote, unfortunately), holding solidarity economy workshops, and supporting Bank Transfer Days.
One year later, when Hurricane Sandy hit New York, many alumni immediately got involved in the emergency relief effort, which has been widely acknowledged as a model for community-based rapid response. That’s a skill we still need to hone as climate crises accelerate, but the prototype is there. More recently, when COVID-19 shut down the economy and mutual aid groups began springing up, OWS alumni could be found at all levels, within and far beyond New York City. If nothing else, we understand how to organize logistics to feed and care for large numbers of people in an urgent situation.
The work we did on worker co-ops is perhaps the best example of this. The nonprofit The Working World was just getting started in New York City at the time, and their first loan was to a worker co-op we started, OccuCopy. Now The Working World is the fiscal sponsor and founder of the Seed Commons, which is a national loan fund for worker co-ops.
OccuCopy eventually merged with another business to become Radix Media, which thrives today as the only union worker co-op print shop in New York City. The other co-ops we started fizzled, although many of the participants are still active in collectives and passed along assets (like screen printing supplies) to other activists, keeping these resources in the movement.
Perhaps most importantly, worker co-ops have had a meteoric rise in attention and resources since 2011, spurred in part because of New York City’s groundbreaking Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative, which has placed millions of dollars into the hands of nonprofit worker co-op technical assistance providers. Cities around the country have copied this effort. It’s hard to imagine the New York City work succeeding without all the energy and leadership from a new wave of worker co-op organizers that became a crew through our shared work at OWS.
Bank Transfer Days, which encouraged individuals to move their money from big banks into credit unions, also gained popularity during the height of the Occupy movement. Nationally, credit unions had about $950 billion in assets in 2011; today, that number is more than twice as high, at $1.98 trillion.
This tactic of moving money continues to be popular as activists call for accountability from big banks for everything from foreclosures to pipelines. During Occupy, there was also an Alternative Banking Working Group, and efforts to start an alternative bank, which echo campaigns in a growing number of municipalities across the US calling for public banks.
Millennials are moving into middle age. We’re not “kids” anymore. In the solidarity economy world, former Occupiers often serve as staff and lead national and local US organizations. Many of us formed relationships then that we’ve carried with us through different jobs, campaigns, and organizations, and which have allowed us to move with deep trust. Such relationships have been a source of power, and shared ethos and history.
For many alums of OWS, part of that legacy has been a renewed internationalism. Beginning in the fall of 2011, protests in dozens of cities around the world broke out under the “Occupy” banner. This helped spark relationships and analysis at a truly global level. At a moment when the US has just withdrawn its military from Afghanistan, Occupy’s invitation to link issues, dream of multiracial alliances, and connect movements around the global has much to offer a renewed effort to demilitarize—locally and globally.
These days, more and more people have continued to break away from the idea that the status quo is working. The pandemic made that clear for even the most comfortable among us. It is grandiose to say that OWS was the beginning, but it certainly was not the end! Since 2011, we’ve seen numerous uprisings, campaigns, and movement moments emerge, including incredible organizing to protect Black lives; pass a Green New Deal; protect immigrant and refugee families; defeat pipelines and protect Native sovereignty; protect workers; and defund the police. Direct action, disrupting business as usual, has been a crucial component of all these fights. We can’t win without confronting power directly and disrupting the work of those who seek to deport, cage, pollute, and own our labor and land.
OWS often got dismissed for not having any “demands.” We find this laughable because our demands were obvious. Just read the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City. What did we want? We wanted those with the power and authority to do something about the problems outlined in that document. We wanted action from our elected representatives to protect our communities. We wanted systemic change. That’s not something that comes from a single piece of legislation.
We find value in being generous with the people who elect to go into the streets to address the abuses of power and unconscionable violence in our society. We encourage you to do the same. Movements, and the people in them, are imperfect, but that doesn’t mean their contributions aren’t valid. Someday we’ll collectively be the ancestors our descendants look to. Someday it will be the case studies and wisdom from our movements they’ll be building upon, as the following political generations make mistakes, learn, and grow just as we have. We must not be afraid to be messy and imperfect. We can’t afford not to try to change the world.
In that way, the man with the “beginning is near” sign is quite correct. We are always able to start from where we are, pick up where our forebears left off, and do our part to move justice forward.
* A quick language note: Our perspective is from New York City, and that’s the group we mean when we say “OWS.” Other Occupy camps had their own local names and all of them fall under the umbrella of the Occupy movement.