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Occupy Activists' New Fight for Regulation, Affordable Housing and Social Justice | The Nation

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Allison Kilkenny

Allison Kilkenny

Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.

Occupy Activists' New Fight for Regulation, Affordable Housing and Social Justice

Protesters march together in New York City as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 (PaulSteinJC/Flickr)

Next week marks the two-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, the protest movement that began in New York City’s Zuccotti Park in response to rampant Wall Street corruption and social and economic inequality.

And while most of the Occupy camps have been destroyed by police, many of the former occupiers still maintain the same spirit that birthed the movement, but now they’re channeling their energy elsewhere, often in more focused ways that, unfortunately, receive far less media attention.

All of the conditions that inspired the Occupy protests are still in place. For example, new analysis of IRS data finds that the income gap has actually widened to its highest levels in a century.

The top 1 percent of U.S. earners collected 19.3 percent of household income in 2012, their largest share in Internal Revenue Service figures going back a century.

U.S. income inequality has been growing for almost three decades. But until last year, the top 1 percent’s share of pre-tax income had not yet surpassed the 18.7 percent it reached in 1927, according to an analysis of IRS figures dating to 1913 by economists at the University of California, Berkeley, the Paris School of Economics and Oxford University.

And while the class divide widens, Congress has shown nothing but contempt for the poor by slashing their already meager support systems during the sequestration.

The House of Representatives is expected Thursday to take up a proposal that could make somewhere between 4 and 6 million Americans ineligible for full SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, or food stamps).

Because conditions have arguably gotten worse since 2011, protesters maintain the spirit of Occupy is still very much alive—it just isn’t centralized in camps anymore.

Interestingly, Occupy the SEC, the wonkier branch of the OWS movement, proved to be the answer to one of the most prominent criticisms of OWS: that the movement lacked focus.

Occupy the SEC is an extremely focused offshoot off OWS, and it’s perhaps the group’s commitment to toiling away in unglamorous court cases that has resulted in many of their legal battles receiving little media attention.

Akshat Tewary, co-founder of Occupy the SEC, says one of the main issues their group will be focused on in the next few months is the replacement of Ben Bernanke as the head of the Federal Reserve.

“At present, Larry Summers has been tapped as Obama’s pick. This is especially troubling as Summers was complicit in formulating economic policies that helped cause the recent financial crisis,” says Tewary.

The group recently submitted an amicus brief in the Supreme Court’s consolidated Troice cases (Chadbourne Chadbourne & Parke LLP v. Troice, Willis of Colorado Inc. v. Troice and Proskauer Rose LLP v. Troice) based on the massive Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Allen Stanford, and relates to the complicity of third parties like auditors and law firms in abetting that fraud. In October 2012, the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on these three cases.

The protesters also serve as watchdogs, and have analyzed a slew of bills that would gut various components of Dodd Frank Title VII’s swaps oversight (basically the mechanisms put in place to prevent future shady Wall Street trading). Occupy the SEC sent a letter to the House Financial Services Committee with its recommendations.

Additionally, Occupy the SEC filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of New York against six federal agencies over the delay in promulgating a Final Rulemaking in connection with the “Volcker Rule,” a specific section of the Dodd-Frank Act meant to restrict the banks from making certain kinds of speculative investments that do not benefit customers.

“Their delay in doing so has put the entire global economy at continued risk, given that a properly implemented Volcker Rule would greatly reduce risk-taking at banks,” says Tewary.

The case is currently under review before a judge in the Eastern District of New York federal court.

Occupy Our Homes is an OWS offshoot that still embodies the movement’s direct action strategy. The group recently co-organized a week of action with the Home Defenders League at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, that attracted homeowners from around the country, many of whom had never participated in direct action before.

The protesters marched on the DOJ to demand prosecutions for Wall Street executives, and took over the entrance, eventually setting up a twenty-four-hour encampment. Twenty-seven people were arrested at the DOJ, multiple people were tasered by DHS, and arrestees refused to give their real names, instead giving the names of bank executives such as Jamie Dimon or Brian Moynihan.

Seven additional homeowners, all of them women and grandmothers, were arrested down the street at the office of Covington & Burling for blocking the revolving door. Three of those seven women are going to trial next month in DC.

Using online petition tools, training calls, workshops and one-on-one coaching, Occupy Our Homes has helped people all across the country launch successful home defense campaigns. Shabnam Bashiri, an organizer with the group, says more than 300 people have launched campaigns and many of them have resulted in victories.

Next month, Occupy Our Homes plans to host a “Housing Justice Academy” which will be three days of regional trainings around the country (Atlanta, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, among others.) Bashiri says the goal is to “bring people together to participate in trainings on home defense and nonviolent direct action, and then participate in coordinated actions which will hopefully grow and strengthen the movement.”

Bashiri calls it a “boot-camp” for Occupy Our Homes.

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.

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Other OWS offshoots operating quietly despite a collective yawn from the establishment media are Occupy Sandy and Occupy the Pipeline—both movements that arose from the federal government’s unwillingness/inability to address crises.

Occupy Sandy initially received glowing praise from the establishment media, including The New York Times, in addition to Mayor Bloomberg and The National Guard, for the group’s remarkable relief efforts. When the Red Cross and FEMA were nowhere to be found in NYC communities, Occupy Sandy rushed in to fill the void.

But Occupy Sandy had difficulty translating community recovery into a political movement.

The Brooklyn Rail:

Josmar Trujillo, a Rockaway resident, was already sympathetic to OWS politics, and says that Occupy Sandy helped organize new grassroots community groups, like the Wildfire Project, which is trying to ensure community benefit guarantees from the city when new post-storm infrastructure is built. “They have to learn the local political terrain, which is just as thorny in any New York City neighborhood,” he says of Occupy Sandy volunteers. “They’re really checking themselves on leading, because they are outsiders and that carries a lot of negative weight. So they have to balance getting involved and not taking the lead. They bend over backwards to make sure they are not imposing their politics on anybody.”

The Brooklyn Rail adds that Occupy Sandy organized few protests against the city’s handling of the relief efforts, one of which took place outside Mayor Bloomberg’s Upper East Side townhouse in order to call attention to the fact that hurricane ravaged areas were still waiting for vital repairs as winter approached.

In late July, there was a march to City Hall demanding that sustainable development and affordable housing play an integral part in any rebuilding plan, but, The Brooklyn Rail notes, “it was sparsely attended, featuring mostly paid organizers from community and labor groups, and it drew little attention from the mainstream press.”

Occupy Sandy volunteer Jessica Roff, reflecting on the Herculean task of fighting against corporate-backed rebuilding plans, admits that the movement was late to the game. “That’s a good question that we need to regroup on,” she says. “We weren’t out politicizing things because people needed a blanket so they wouldn’t freeze or a meal so they wouldn’t starve.”

There has been little talk of a mass gathering to celebrate the two-year anniversary of OWS, but that’s not unusual (anniversary protests are notoriously underwhelming).

But the lack of organizing may also stem from some of the best and brightest organizers having moved on to instead channel the spirit of Occupy elsewhere: in the battle to keep schools from closing, to lend solidarity to striking fast food workers, to fight to keep people in their homes and to hold officials accountable.

The “Occupy is dead” trope is ridiculous precisely because all of the elements that led to the movement’s birth are still in place—if not worse now. The rich are richer, the corrupt live without fear of going to jail, and everyone knows institutions aren’t coming to save us.

Occupy’s spirit of resistance may be scattered, but it can never die. Not as long as a sense of injustice lives.

Nathan Schneider writes about the aftermath of the Occupy movement in his article Breaking Up With Occupy, published in The Nation on September 11, 2013.

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