Sexism and Racism on the Left: What Has and Hasn’t Changed Since Occupy Wall Street

Sexism and Racism on the Left: What Has and Hasn’t Changed Since Occupy Wall Street

Sexism and Racism on the Left: What Has and Hasn’t Changed Since Occupy Wall Street

Dozens of Zuccotti Park activists pushed the movement to confront race and gender oppression—and have continued that work in the decade since.

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The thousands of people who flocked to New York City’s Zuccotti Park 10 years ago this fall to protest capitalism run amok were far more diverse than the media let on. “It’s true there were a lot of white people, but in the NYC encampment there were many BIPOC people and women of color, like myself, who had very visible leadership roles,” says Sandy Nurse, a carpenter and local organizer who recently won the Democratic primary (and effectively the election) for the 37th District of the New York City Council.

In the fall and winter of 2011, I interviewed dozens of women at the encampment—mostly queer and BIPOC—who led marches and demonstrations, got kettled and arrested, facilitated contentious meetings, and participated as fully as their white male counterparts. Some had arrived to express anger at the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis (summed up by the chant heard everywhere that fall: “Banks got bailed out / We got sold out”) or just ambled over out of sheer curiosity. And though the tumultuous energy of the early days of the occupation drew them in, they quickly took on a second job: teaching their fellow protesters about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and how those forces work together, even in the would-be utopia of the park.

Mel Butler, who now lives in western Canada with her family, arrived in Zuccotti Park thinking about economic exploitation and ended up doing mostly feminist work. Recalling her time in New York, she says she watched these “isms” rear their head, being continually surprised, and then unsurprised, that many Occupiers were focused only on class issues. “Maybe the original goals of Occupy were not broad enough,” she says. “How can you just deal with one form of inequality?”

She and her fellow activists pushed back on language that erased race. They called attention to police brutality against people of color and confronted sexual assault in the park. They denounced transphobia within women’s spaces. They raised questions about who was doing work like running the kitchen and facilitating meetings and whether that work was getting respect. They implemented a “progressive stack,” which allowed people from marginalized groups to speak first. As the year went on, they even held a series of community dialogues about power and privilege to bring a race and gender analysis into their public-facing activism and into the park itself. “We were hacking through, little by little,” says Ariel Federow, a longtime activist and recently a public defender. “Occupy tried to be a space for those conversations.”

The results were mixed. By the spring of 2012—after the Zuccotti Park encampment was brutally evicted—events like the jubilant May Day march and a new encampment in Union Square were led by, and centered around, women of color, immigrants, care workers, and unhoused people in a newly intentional way, according to the participants. But the larger Occupy movement, with its decision-making assemblies and spokescouncil meetings, never fully recovered from the combination of police crackdown and internal strife. The manarchist reputation lingered.

Now, in interviews 10 years after Occupy, many of these activists note that almost every issue they drew attention to has gone mainstream, such as when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talks about being an assault survivor on Instagram, or when Elizabeth Warren focuses on Black maternal mortality, or when TikTok stars hype intersectionality. In fact, intersectionality—the term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how various oppressions interact with one another—is such a keystone of the left that it has engendered a conservative backlash. Despite those attacks, left movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Indigenous water protection, disability justice, and even Covid mutual aid all strive to acknowledge the overlapping oppressions that had to be painstakingly explained at Occupy meetings.

Marisa Holmes, who made a film about Occupy, thinks the movement’s internal struggles and even its failures have helped sow the seeds for a decade of social change because of the unique way the protests worked: continuous and out in “the square.” “We were putting these practices and ideas out in the open, in public space,” she says. “A lot of people were newly radicalized. Maybe Occupy was their first point of contact.”

Holmes and other activists I spoke with are quick to credit the work that began before Occupy—especially INCITE!, a 2000s-era network of radical women of color who organized within an abolitionist framework, as well as the global uprisings of 2011 that stunned the world as young people in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, and elsewhere took over public space and refused to surrender it—along with the work that followed Occupy for inspiring the movements that have emerged since. And many see Occupy as key to their own awareness of both the possibilities and the limitations of organizing. “A lot of young activists took what we learned there about race or gender and said, ‘How do we build groups where this is the focus?’” says Manissa McLeave Maharawal, who is now an academic and has worked on housing policy and eviction defense since Occupy. “How do we find groups that are doing this work and continue learning?”

Occupy’s emphasis on economic justice—the 99 percent versus the 1 percent narrative—lacked a strong racial justice analysis,” Nurse says. This was evident even in October 2011, when a document, the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, was introduced at a General Assembly, the horizontal, consensus-based decision-making body of the encampment. As it was being read for approval to a crowd of hundreds, a few listeners were struck by language that seemed to ignore racism: It referred to the world as “one people, united,” with no mention of race. In a move to amend the language, a group of South Asian activists, including Maharawal and Hena Ashraf, took part in a “block” of the resolution. “I am someone who isn’t afraid to speak up,” Ashraf, who is now a filmmaker in Los Angeles, told me this summer. “They were using language that I wasn’t feeling.” The small group sat down and drafted new language while walking skeptical white participants through the basics of racial oppression. Their subsequent blog posts about the interaction, highlighting the presence of people of color at Occupy, the naivete they encountered, and the opportunity to move past that ignorance in a public way, were widely circulated. It was both exhausting and galvanizing—“so real it hurts,” as Maharawal wrote. But at activist gatherings today, Maharawal says, such confrontations, and all the messy learning they entail, aren’t necessary. “It’s a relief,” she says. She credits Black Lives Matter with easing, if not eliminating, the burden of Racism 101 conversations.

BLM protests have brought the danger of Black peoples’ daily existence to the fore while also drawing attention to the racialized nature of economic exploitation. For Maharawal, the movement achieved many of the goals set forth by the Occupy People of Color Caucus that formed after that fateful General Assembly. “I remember a couple years later I was at a march against police brutality, and I saw some other people from the POC caucus. I was like, ‘These are the kinds of protests we were trying to have. This is the analysis we were trying to bring to Occupy,’” Maharawal says.

In the decade following Occupy, the constant stream of videos showing police brutality created one flash point after another and helped shift the focus, even for those who were already personally affected by police brutality, like Occupy participant Shaista Husain and her family, who she says were scarred by racist policing on Staten Island. “During Occupy, I still didn’t have the words to say, ‘This is the most important thing we need to talk about right now,’” she says. “If you don’t deal with race and racism in NYC, that’s not direct democracy.”

Just as activists of color had to combat ignorance about race, Mel Butler found herself doing feminist work at Zuccotti. “It started with people saying, ‘Don’t just hug people who might not want to hug you back,’” she says. Butler joined Occupy’s feminist and Safer Spaces working groups early on, and she soon found trans inclusion to be a stumbling block. “There were some people that were transphobic, but the issue I confronted more often was ignorance and confusion,” she says. “I remember being ridiculed by so-called feminists for bringing trans issues up, because they thought it wasn’t a real thing.”

While her efforts to educate people within the working groups slowly made inroads that year, Butler says the changes of the past decade have made those discussions easier. A few years after Occupy, at the gym, she heard a Top 40 radio station covering Caitlyn Jenner. “They were talking about pronouns and lingo that seemed so radical for us to try to discuss during Occupy in 2011,” she says. “I was crying on the Stairmaster!” Similarly, the basic concept of consent has become easier to bring up in mixed-gender groups since the #MeToo era. There’s still room for improvement, but “there’s been a huge shift,” Butler says.

Yet sometimes the new language masks old problems. Ashraf says she feels gratified that queerness and different gender identities are more accepted today. “But I do feel kind of jaded,” she adds. “Because people now say, ‘I know all these inclusive words and how to use them,’ but they’d still rather listen to themselves.”

As the allegations of sexual harassment at Occupy encampments multiplied, many participants tried to create ways to handle these and other safety issues through mediation and an internal system of security, even escorting offenders off the grounds rather than alerting the police. Harassment survivors and other Occupiers didn’t always think that worked in practice, even if they understood the problems with a criminal-justice-based response or knew that law enforcement was often indifferent and even hostile to victims within the movement.

Ashwini Hardikar, who was organizing a radical child care collective in 2011, arrived at Occupy as an anti-capitalist interested in racial justice. But then she was sexually harassed at Zuccotti Park, and after a post she wrote about it went viral, she began to hear stories of harassment in Occupy encampments all over the country. “I think that being at Occupy was one of my first experiences being in a space where at least a small faction was trying to utilize abolitionist-style ways to address sexual harassment and violence,” she says, recalling the mediation processes and community agreements the Safer Spaces Working Group attempted to put in place, even as reports of inappropriate behavior and assaults multiplied at Zuccotti.

She retains some reservations about efforts to build a restorative justice utopia while simultaneously running a movement. “In theory, yes, I’m totally for it,” she says. “But the reliance on long amounts of time for participation is a big challenge. You have to be in a community with someone to have a process like that work.” The protracted, sometimes enervating process of consensus-building isn’t always sufficient to address urgent threats of violence. In fact, despite many attempts, the Safer Spaces group never officially passed its community agreement through the fractious decision-making bodies of Occupy, even if in practice it put those elements in place.

When the movement for prison abolition went national during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, and communities like ChaZ—an encampment and “autonomous zone”—popped up in Seattle, Hardikar watched to see whether the activists there would have more luck threading the needle. “I do think that women and nonbinary survivors of color are asked to take on heroic and creative roles and be the guinea pigs,” she says, especially when it comes to reintegrating the people who made them feel unsafe. “Occupy really showed me how challenging it is to put these ideals in place.”

Maharawal also feels that Occupy’s mission to be open to all was a limitation. “It was unpopular at the time to say, ‘I don’t want to include someone who is racist,’” she says. “People were saying, ‘We can teach them.’” Today’s post-Trump polarization, along with a new understanding of police surveillance, she adds, has made it less likely that today’s lefty groups will err on the side of welcoming all comers. Ariel Federow puts it more bluntly: “What I hope is that, in progressive spaces, we are less likely to tolerate fuckery.”

Another concern is the ways that the movement’s attempts at openness fell short of a real welcome. Several of the people I spoke with now have young children. All are living through Covid. They’ve been thinking about who was absent in 2011, who didn’t have the time, ability, or immigration status to participate: caregivers, people with health issues, essential workers. Even for them, the need for self-care was eclipsed by the desire to be part of this juggernaut. Holmes points to the chant heard at marches: “All day / All week / Occupy Wall Street.” “There was a sense of urgency,” she says. In her organizing in the years since, including at the NYC Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council, Holmes has tried to be more vocal about the toll that facilitating takes and the need to train others to do the work, in order to make the movement more resilient, fairer, and harder to target. “It’s a very feminized role, to hold space for a collective,” she says. “It’s taxing. But you can’t have a horizontal or directly democratic movement without facilitation. I understand now that it’s a generation-long struggle. We need to build communities of care first, and dismantle the ableism and patriarchy and white supremacy that we’re bringing in.”

For all their critiques, however, everyone I spoke with felt that Occupy achieved at least some of what it set out to do. It changed the conversation in the United States about wealth inequality, paved the way for stronger stances from figures like Warren, Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders, and brought policy issues like debt and health care to the fore. Sandy Nurse points to the Cancel Student Debt movement, “which started in Washington Square Park in a huddle of the Occupy Student Debt Working Group.” “The fact that Sanders and Warren ran on the promise to cancel student debt to some degree is a testament to that work,” she says. Occupy’s critique of dark money in politics has had an impact too, Nurse adds. “In my own race for city council, we were able to run a grassroots campaign without money from special interests. That is now the norm for leftists and progressives looking to run for office.”

Nurse’s successful campaign is one example of how Occupy helped to prime New York for change. On a more basic level, the echo of “the people’s mic” is heard at almost any protest here. “Occupy was ended by the cops but trickled out in all directions,” Federow says. “Organizing is, at its core, about building relationships and skills, and for me, those relationships and that trust came back around in other work later.” Friendships, new ideological commitments, and even families began at Zuccotti Park. Butler recalls picnics with her Safer Spaces comrades, who became her best friends. There’s a substantial list of spouses and partners who met at Occupy.

That’s because, for all of Occupy’s flaws, there was something exhilarating and unforgettable about being part of what Federow calls “a real moment in New York radical history.” It’s a chapter that people will study in textbooks someday: being kettled on the Brooklyn Bridge. Defending the park with brooms. Talking about the personal toll taken by capitalism over the sounds of drum circles.

Husain, who now organizes tenants in Brooklyn, says that while the policy issues from the Occupy era have gained new prominence, “what is missing is the horizontalism, the direct democracy, and the mutual aid.” She firmly believes that electoral politics can’t create meaningful change without mass demonstrations. As society weathers one crisis after another, she imagines a new Occupy-like movement that integrates the lessons of the past decade, finally getting right what the previous iteration got wrong. “The true meaning of ‘progressive stack’ goes beyond intersectional: The people who are the least visible become the most visible,” she says. “One day we’re all going to put it into practice and have our shit together.”

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