The Occupy Wall Street movement, revered for refocusing the world’s attention on rising economic and political inequality, died peacefully in its sleep after a long winter hibernation. Born September 17, 2011, Occupy grew steadily and spread like wildfire from city to city and country to country before reaching its peak—inhabiting ninety-five cities in eighty-two countries and 600 communities in the United States. Initiated by Canadian magazine Adbusters, Occupy Wall Street was famous for its “human microphone,” its dedication to democratic process and its persevering slogan, “We are the 99 percent.” Whether by fear, anger, worship or respect, there’s not a leader in the NGO or political world who has not been moved or changed by Occupy. Occupy Wall Street is survived by many offspring, including Occupy Our Homes, Occupy the SEC, Occupy Colleges and The 99% Spring.
When asked to write about what the future holds for Occupy Wall Street, I found myself pondering what a future looks like without it. Or at least without the Occupy enshrined in our minds: the one defined by a tactical commitment to seizing and holding public space, an adherence to universal direct democracy and a resolve to clear all decisions through the General Assembly. At first, the exercise felt illicit, as though I might lose my progressive credentials for even giving the thought voice in my head. But as I allowed myself to go there, the act of sedition felt important and empowering. The whispered anxiety I hear about whether Occupy will re-emerge this spring with sufficient force seems misplaced. What’s paramount is to ask: If Occupy died tomorrow, would it have left behind a fundamentally transformed landscape with new players, new methods and new values? The answer to that is an exciting and liberating yes.
Occupy Wall Street has already transformed beyond recognition from its original state. Very few Occupies still hold public space, and the ones that do have lost members through attrition, arrests and extreme weather. The core players are focused on protesting the police repression that many sites experienced in the fall. There’s nothing wrong with self-defense, and police repression is certainly more pronounced in communities experiencing economic and political crisis. Still, this focus relegates the debate squarely within a familiar police versus protesters trope—a tough one for protesters to win, especially at a time when the country yearns to keep economic inequality front and center.
Meanwhile, campaigns have emerged outside the constraint of the trademark Occupy tactics. These campaigns often have an independent infrastructure, targeted goals and a nimbleness that prevents bringing every decision to a General Assembly. Not content for process to be the extent of their contribution, these campaigns have specific demands for justice: Occupy Our Homes demands that banks adjust or forgive loans so people can stay in their houses; Occupy the SEC pressures government for enforcement of the Volcker Rule; Occupy Our Colleges insists that governors refuse to cut one more dime from school budgets so that our youth can be educated without mortgaging their future.
The rallying cry of the Occupy movement—“We are the 99 percent”—has also taken on a life of its own. With a spirit of inclusiveness that mimics the slogan, established institutions from MoveOn to National People’s Action to the United Auto Workers are investing collective resources into The 99% Spring, a massive training project that aims to train 100,000 people in nonviolent civil disobedience and economic literacy.
It would be easy to dismiss some of these efforts as unworthy heirs to the Occupy mantle. Or to try to retake surrendered and seized Occupied public space when the weather warms. I hope we don’t. Social change is much like ecology: every once in a great while, we experience a massive breakthrough, an evolutionary leap, in how the world around us is defined. Occupy did that. The rest of the time, change is the unglamorous, slow plodding of organizers trying to adapt and push forward in an ever challenging environment. These evolutionary leaps reignite movements with imagination and energy, but sustaining that pitch is an often impossible task. The challenge is to use the fertile ground left by the transformed earth to foster a multitude of new growth.
It’s human to mourn the death of the early days of the cohesive and compelling communities in the town squares, which gripped the world’s attention. Let’s honor the past, note what has changed and make way for the new. Occupy is dead! Long live Occupy!
ALSO IN THIS FORUM
Richard Kim: “The Occupy Spring?”
Michael Moore: “The Purpose of Occupy Wall Street Is to Occupy Wall Street”
Bill Fletcher Jr.: “Occupy the Imagination”
Marina Sitrin: “Occupy: This Is What Democracy Looks Like”
Todd Gitlin: “More Than a Protest Movement”
Frances Fox Piven: “Occupy! and Make Them Do It”
Stephen Lerner: “Horizontal Meets Vertical; Occupy Meets Establishment”
Jeremy Brecher: “Occupy Climate Change”
Jonathan Schell: “If Vaclav Havel Met Occupy’s Human Mic…”
Arun Gupta and Michelle Fawcett: “Occupying the Unexpected”