Breaking Up With Occupy
Justine Tunney grew up on food stamps, the son of a teenage mother with an upper-middle-class extended family. Tunney and her mother moved a lot from school to school, through a marriage and a divorce. She came to understand herself as transgender at 16, though she didn’t start taking hormones until her early 20s. She was bullied and beaten. It was only when the family got its first computer, while Tunney was a teenager, that she felt like she was good at something.
“I did a lot of mischievous, evil stuff,” Tunney remembers. She learned to fiddle with AOL and made money building software for hackers. Her grandparents helped support her new hobby, and she continued to teach herself programming and then took business classes at a community college. She became an expert in Internet security. She dressed goth.
“When you’re trans, you’re one of the people thrown away by society,” she says. “I try to distract myself from the loneliness by focusing on work and revolution.” It has to be in that order these days.
By the middle of last year, Tunney found herself adrift, running the most popular website of a less and less popular movement. Then, a checkup at a low-cost LGBT clinic turned up a suspicious mass. It turned out to be cancer.
There’s no health insurance for people who pour their lives into Occupy Wall Street. At first, she looked around for a free or affordable way to get treatment, but there was no good option. And without the right kind of insurance she could end up deep in debt. As if in the nick of time, a recruiter contacted her and set her up with an interview at Google. Eighty hours of studying and seven interviews later, she got the job and the insurance that came with it. The tumor was removed, and the ordeal seems to be over.
“I suppose I pose less of a threat to the system,” Tunney says. “But I don’t have to worry when I walk into the office. I don’t have to think about money.”
She also doesn’t have to deal with flack from the General Assembly. “The people in this company are remarkably productive while managing to maintain a somewhat horizontal work environment,” she commented on a fellow organizer’s Facebook post in June. “We’re also not cruel and disrespectful when working together, and when we have meetings, we don’t scream and physically assault each other.”
Few of those, who, like Tunney, helped plan Occupy Wall Street in the summer of 2011, or who lived in the park during the occupation’s precarious first weeks, imagined that what they were doing would become the phenomenon that it did. They created a massive, if transient, intervention in a sick political culture, carving out space that millions of voices around the world would step in to fill. They were systematically repressed in a nationwide crackdown. It was a failure only in falling victim to its own success.
“Maybe a sense of closure is what people need,” Tunney thinks. “Maybe it would be good for them.” This would certainly lighten her burden of maintaining the website, but until there is closure she’ll continue doing it. “This is what I signed up for,” she says.
Moyer, characteristically, saw the light at the end of even this dead-end alleyway. “The perception of failure has a heyday of one or two years,” he wrote. It fades if participants, new and old, “join the movement by adopting Stage Six–appropriate practices.” By his schedule, we’re just about due for something different, something better suited to a world that has already gotten Occupy’s drift and has tended to agree. Unless we’re too busy perceiving our failures.
People like Justine Tunney and Sandy Nurse might play a role in whatever stages of the movement lie ahead, but perhaps we shouldn’t expect them to. Perhaps they’ve done enough. The question “What happened to Occupy?” should matter less for those who care about the movement’s values and aims than the question of what the rest of us will do next.
See also Nathan Schneider’s “Occupy, After Occupy,” an assessment of the movement in our September 24, 2012, issue, a year after Occupy Wall Street first shook the world.