I’ll never forget the moment I got hooked on Occupy.
It was the evening of September 27, my third day hanging out at Zuccotti Park, and one of the first days the media started to pay attention to the fledgling movement. At the time, I was the millennial organizer for Rebuild the Dream, a group Van Jones founded to ignite a grassroots, Tea Party-style uprising against austerity. As a professional organizer, I was skeptical that a small group of scraggly kids in a park were capable of producing any real change.
That evening, Cornel West spoke at the general assembly. “We will send a message: this is the US Fall, responding to the Arab Spring,” he said. Until that point, I didn’t believe this country was capable of a movement like those that rocked the Arab world and later spread to Europe.
Professor West pushed us to imagine that what was necessary was also possible, “We will move step by step to what [Martin Luther King] called a revolution of true values. Don’t be afraid to say the word ‘revolution.’ We want a transfer of power from the oligarchs to ordinary citizens.”
Just a few days later, Occupy started spreading like wildfire. I remember sitting with new friends in the media center, feverishly trying to keep track of new occupations as reports flooded in. That lasted a few short hours. We gave up when it became clear we couldn’t keep tabs on the thousands of sites popping up around the country and the world. To build on the momentum, we called for a national day of action on October 15 in solidarity with the M15 Indignados movement in Spain. Two short weeks after we put out the call, more than 30,000 people filled Times Square. The giant ABC News ticker in the middle of the square blared, “Occupy Wall Street Movement Goes World Wide.” ABC got the headline backwards, but that didn’t make it any less exciting.
Occupy captured my imagination—and for a moment the imagination of the entire world—because it refused to negotiate with a political system that had broken faith with ordinary citizens. Instead of working for change from within that broken system, Occupy showed that it is possible to fight without negotiating with those in power. A movement that vibrant could only have come from revolutionaries inspired by the Arab Spring, who were willing to propose the creation of a new moral order that would replace the corrupt nexus of wealth and power.
The connection between Occupy and international revolutionary movements is not merely rhetorical. Occupy borrowed organizing strategies directly from the Arab Spring and was heavily influenced by organizers with direct experience from international revolutionary movements. Like those movements, Occupy started when a small group of citizens took it upon themselves to create a democratic space in direct opposition to the ruling few.