What Occupy Wall Street Organizers Would Do Differently

What Occupy Wall Street Organizers Would Do Differently

What Occupy Wall Street Organizers Would Do Differently

Do they still stand by the leaderless revolution?


The Rev. Michael Ellick

How do you hack this conversation of the modern media by creating magic and creating things that will invite people in? Before Occupy, if you took a shot at capitalism, you were a problem. And now it’s commonplace. There’s a lot that Occupy did to reimagine the playing field.

You get used to losing, but suddenly a lot of things started seeming possible. It was like the rising tide. It captured some collective-imagination moment, and it just moved past what anyone foresaw. Just having people in the same physical place drove an engine that made people not able to turn away. I’m coming from a church, but the church is set up where we don’t live together, we don’t talk to each other the same way that you could in that camp.

It felt like, “We have seen the other world, and we know how to get there.” We had a tribe going for a second there! The thing that we did best was to build joy and friendship. And we’ve all learned a lot about sustaining ourselves and our friendships and our communities.

A lot of people came together; it was a cooking of ideas. Occupy popularized a certain tactic set for a generation, and now you are seeing that played out writ large. People are continuing to build. It’s shocking to think back about how many trails go back to Occupy—“Oh, I met him there too!” There was a lightning-rod effect, not just for those who were on the ground but for those who were moved by the ideas and the possibilities. It was a way of giving people who had no power power right away.

But a lot of it was spectacle. We had not done the deep work with one another. Especially around race. There was some toxic, toxic behavior toward people of color, toward women.

The Rev. Michael Ellick is the minister of Judson Memorial Church and an organizer for Occupy Faith NYC.

Sonny Singh

Occupy was a little sliver of what could be possible for radical movement building. It became a hub around so many different social-justice issues, which was deeply inspiring to me. It showed us the importance of space, physical space, like the commons. I know it was just a tiny little public-private-partnership park that we took over, but just having that was so powerful. Symbolically powerful. I don’t think it can be overstated how important that is to our movements, our relationship-building, just having that intersectional, physical hub.

It was the beginning of a movement trajectory that we’re still in, that BLM very much picked up on and built out. And the Bernie Sanders campaign, too. The millennial folks who have now become leaders and organizers and, for better or worse, Twitter activists—a lot of them came out of Occupy.

Occupy brought a class analysis and an anti-capitalist politics to social movements in the US that the labor movement hadn’t been able to do for my generation of activists. The impact has been massive! Occupy being the catalyst, socialism is somehow cool now. It’s something that we can identify as and talk about in all kinds of spaces. DSA is now an undeniable force—it’s incredible that they were kind of irrelevant in 2011.

A lot of issues OWS struggled with have shifted tremendously in the last decade. Sexual harassment and gender-based violence are less and less tolerated in the mainstream and on the left. And there has definitely been a shift in consciousness with regard to uplifting the voices of gender-nonconforming and trans people and working to create spaces that are truly gender inclusive. Class reductionism on the left is still prevalent but the impact of BLM has been massive in bringing a stronger racial justice lens to our movements. Activists today still resort to both class and race reductionism, as if it’s an either/or binary. Occupy struggled with this deeply but I do think we’re making progress.

Sonny Singh is a trumpet and dhol player, singer, songwriter, and educator-activist based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Yotam Marom

Occupy was a really significant psychological shift, from righteous losers—which was my experience beforehand—to contenders. Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, the Bernie campaign, are within the context of a world in which the left can contend. Occupy cracked something open!

A lot of the people came out of Occupy energized but feeling deeply the limitations of that moment, and wanting more—wanting actual power. We were saying, “We don’t want to just be a bunch of people in a park. We want a piece of this thing! We want to win.”

What pops and what doesn’t, we rarely get to control. Often things generate momentum for a whole host of reasons that we didn’t plan for, sometimes even despite us. Here you are, camped out in a park, and that’s what’s working. And along the way, your sense of what’s possible has changed. You can’t build a social movement without that shift happening. It was epic and transformative, and we’ve seen the consequences of it over time.

We’re often just following what regular people think is moving. Take the Bernie campaign, for example. You’ve got this old New York Jew who lives in Vermont, and suddenly, for some 
reason, regular-ass people are just willing to die for this person, and he fills stadiums bigger than anything we ever filled!

One of the main contributions of Occupy was “the 99 percent.” That was one of the major gifts. It was the first time, in my life at least, that class was being put on the table, front and center, without any equivocation, and that was a huge gift to the left, that it became popular and clear and simple. A bunch of things that got replicated and spread were incredible. The participatory nature of the thing, that you can just come to the park and you’re a part of it—that’s magic! And this inclination toward direct action. But we also had a bunch of poisonous, toxic things, like the pretense of not having leaders. We were a so-called leaderless movement with no demands. The lack of demands was part of its initial success. People could see themselves inside of it. It was like an empty signifier that gave people a lot of room to imagine. But we never got past that, and we never created structures that support leadership development, that hold leaders accountable.

The task after a big movement moment like that is to go and build, so that the next time there’s momentum, we can capture it and make better use of it.

Yotam Marom is an organizer based in New York City.

Cathy O’Neil

Occupy certainly radicalized me, as someone who had left academic math and gone into finance. I did not know what finance did, but I believed the hype that mathematicians and the mathematical approach to finance would make the markets more efficient. I just thought Larry Summers seemed really smart. With the financial crisis I was disillusioned, but I had no direction for that. And then when I joined Occupy, it pointed me quite firmly in a progressive direction.

The group that I helped organize during Occupy is still meeting. It’s been meeting every week since October 2011. The original name was the Alternative Banking Working Group, but later we changed it to Occupy the Future. Mostly it’s a discussion and reading group, but we talk every week about recent news from Occupy’s perspective.

We created a playing card project, The 52 Shades of Greed, with a bunch of other groups. And then we wrote a book, Occupy Finance, together, a few years after Occupy. Personally, I have become an author, and I started a company to audit algorithms. Honestly, I don’t think I could have written my book, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, without the education I got from my fellow Occupiers.

Cathy O’Neil is an American mathematician, data scientist, and author. She is the founder of the blog MathBabe (mathbabe.org) and has written books on data science, including the New York Times best-seller Weapons of Math Destruction.

Cathy O’Neil is an American mathematician, data scientist, and author. She is the founder of the blog MathBabe (mathbabe.org) and has written books on data science, including the New York Times best-seller Weapons of Math Destruction.

Suresh Naidu

Seattle and the anti-globalization movement was the political experience that set me on my particular path, along with anti-war activism. And so much of the undercurrent of that was anarchism—this idea that you didn’t need hierarchical organizations and you wanted to do everything in horizontal ways. And there’s still some real power in that, and I don’t want to give it up entirely. I’ll probably swing back the other way once there’s some lefty bureaucrat telling us what to do and that this is the program and you have to get with it—the iron law of oligarchy in action! There’s something really powerful in the anarchist countercurrent that should be maintained to protect us from that. But that horizon crested in Occupy, and then there was a strategic reorientation toward much more traditional electoral and institutional politics.

I was throwing up my hands at Occupy and its decentralized networks and thinking, This is not where the US is right now. The institutions of the left have not burrowed deep enough into everyday life to generate mass action. We are not at a place where something decentralized and spontaneously organized can change enough about US institutions. We’re just not there.

I think my cohort and cohorts younger than mine took the lessons of Occupy and went into other domains of institutionalized politics to effect change. I don’t know how many people are conscious about that being a reaction to Occupy, but in my view it almost certainly is.

Part of the rise of the Sanders campaign and of DSA was other people thinking, “What the hell were we doing with that Occupy stuff? We’ve got to march through the institutions and build structures.” We can’t win with street encampments alone, without holding power in legislatures.

Along these lines, there’s no horizontal substitute for big, bureaucratic organizations that have steady sources of revenue and staff and lawyers, and we need these given the terrain of political conflict in an advanced democracy. There’s obviously a crucial role for street politics, but we also need to win in workplaces, courts, agencies, and governments. So we need to build tools and organizations that can fight and win on that terrain as well.

Suresh Naidu is a professor of economics and international and public affairs at Columbia University.

Sandy Nurse

Most people in Occupy were deeply apathetic and disillusioned by the political system. What drew me there was outrage against the billionaire class and their grip on the entire planet. We were angry and outraged but not sure how to get in front of a global extraction system that’s chewing people up and spitting them out and leaving them to die. Occupy elevated a feeling that capitalism is the crisis, the exploitation and extraction of wealth in service of that top 1 percent. It just falls out of everyone’s mouth now.

It totally blew my expectations, because I thought it was going to be a plain old march, or a standoff for a few hours. It taught me the importance of visible, physical dissent. We were suddenly mashed into this space with all these people with a shared mission. We had a physical home for radical thought and discourse and creativity and experimentation. That created deep relationships, and long-lasting effects rippled out from those relationships.

The biggest lessons I learned were around leadership and communication. During the encampment, a defining moment for me came when a person sat me down and asked me to take responsibility for some things. That was the first time I recognized that I was being seen in a leadership role.

It cut across race and class. People of color were in strong de facto leadership roles and have continued as leaders since then. Occupy did have the pitfalls of being focused on just capitalism and class, and not racial capitalism or intersectionality. But it’s important not to erase or dismiss those of us who were there. At least in New York City, I saw a lot of participation from nonwhite folks. Nationally it was more of a white movement.

At that time, we didn’t see elected officials explicitly naming things that most people who showed up in the park were outraged by. Since then, Bernie Sanders was the first politician I have ever donated to in my life. He got $4 from me on a monthly basis, which was a big deal for me.

Since Occupy, I’ve been organizing in my community in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I started two nonprofits. One is BK ROT, a youth jobs program centered around creating convenient fossil-fuel-free composting options for residents and small businesses. I’m also a cofounder of the Mayday Space, which is like Zuccotti Park inside a building. It’s a neighborhood resource, a home for grassroots organizing, and a citywide destination for movement-building.

My working in the neighborhood, and the decision I made to build where I live, made me realize that without sympathetic folks on the other side of the table, these are much bigger uphill battles. It humanized local politicians to me. In 2019, I was encouraged by some local residents to run for office. I ran for about three or four months for State Assembly before our local City Council seat was vacated and a special election kicked off. Then we decided to switch. A community meeting decided that the City Council seat was a priority because of the length of time someone holds it.

Sandy Nurse is a community organizer and the Democratic Party nominee to represent District 37 in the November 2 election for the New York City Council.

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