Occupy Wall Street


The most recent new, large scale social movement to emerge in the US, Occupy Wall Street and the larger #Occupy movement grew largely in response to deepening national and world-wide growth in income inequality. While the movement began in one sense in Zuccotti Park, New York City, USA, the roots and breadth of the movement stretch much further. While the movement now looks a bit more like a moment, moments of upheaval can be quite crucial and can have reverberations for years after.

While the heydey of the Occupy movement proper may have passed, it continues to be immensely influential in many areas. It it spurred movements around medical debt and student debt that have evolved into significant movements, it inspired numerous local struggles in the US, Quebec and elsewhere, and contributed energy, expertise and bodies to the emergent Black Lives Matter movement.

Cultualpolitics.net creator and editor T.V. Reed did a lot of press interviews about the Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Together, or 99% movement, in fall 2011 and collated answers to the most common questions he was asked (see below). Nowadays, the only question he is asked is, Is the movement dead? The answer: yes, and no. Particular movement forms come and go, but movement energy continues. #Occupy energized a lot of people who are doing important political work around economic inequality and a host of related issues. Reed's initial take on the movement, and his later reflections on its strengths and weakness appear below the links and suggested readings.

Some Key Links to Hear Directly from the Movement

Selected Books and Articles on Occupy

  • Byrne, Janet, ed. The Occupy Handbook. Boston: Back Bay Books, 2012. Reflections on the movement from a variety of left-liberal pundits like Paul Krugman, Amy Goodman, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Robert Reich.
  • Chomsky, Noam, et al. Occupy. Mostly transcript excerpts drawn from Chomsky interviews on the movement.
  • Dixon, Chris. Another Politics is Possible: Talking Across Today's Transformative Movements. Foreword by Angela Y. Davis. Berkeley: U of California Press, 2014. Excellent analysis of the political ideas -- the "anti-authoritarian, anti-capitallist, non-sectarian left" --and organizing practices of the movements that fed into and flow out of Occupy.
  • Gerbaudo, Paulo. Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism. London: Pluto Press, 2012. Reflections on the use and misuse of new media in movements like OWS.
  • Gitlin, Todd. Occupy Nation. NY: Harper Collins, 2012. Media critic and former SDS activist finds fascinating newness in OWS.
  • Khatib, Kate et al., eds. We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation. Some excellent strategic thinking on the strengths, weaknesses, and future of OWS inspired movements.
  • King, Stephen. "Tax Me for F@%&'s Sake." Amusing attack on his fellow rich for evading social responsibility for the mess OWS seeks to fix by the renowned terrorist (so to speak) author.
  • Lang, Amy Shraeder, and Daniel Lang Levitsky, eds.Dreaming In Public: Building the Occupy Movement. Oxford: New Internationalist Publications, 2012. Evocative study rooted close to the movement.
  • McKee, Yates. Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition. Verso, 2016. Theoretically rich and comprehensive study of the role of the arts in Occupy and the role of Occupy and its aftermath in changing the politics of art in the US.
  • Mitchell, Greg. 40 Days that Shook the World: From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy Everywhere. Sinclair Books, 2011. Rich, sympathetic account of the movement that grew out of Mitchell's blogs on the action as it evolved..
  • Mitchell, W.J.T., Michael Taussig, and Bernard Harcourt. Occupy: Three Inquiries in Disobedience. U of Chicago P, 2013. Three brilliant essays from three very different writers present three equally rich angles of vision on the movement.
  • Schneider, Nathan. Thank you, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Foreword by Rebecca Solnit. Berkeley: U of California Press, 2014. Thoughtful insider's account of the Occupy movement that is especially good at giving the feel of the day to day, often quite unpredictable, evolution of OWS.
  • Taylor, Astra et al. eds. Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America. London: Verso, 2011. From the front lines descriptive dispatches, analytical pieces and speeches most originally published in the Occupy! Gazette.n+1.webzine.
  • van Gelder, Sarah. This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement.San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2011. Early account of the emerging movement from YES! magazine writer.
  • Welty, Emily, Matthew Bolton, Meghana Nayak and Christopher Malone, eds.Occupying Political Science: The Occupy Wall Street Movement from New York to the World. NY: Palgrave-McMillan, 2013. As title suggests, perspectives on the movement from a variety of academic political science approaches, both qualitative and quantitative.
  • Writers for the 99%. Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America. OR Books, 2012. Collection of many of the best first-hand on the ground accounts of OWS and its affiliates.
  • Occupy Wall Street Goodreads. More than 60 reader-rated books to choose from to explain the political-economic context of the Occupy movement.

Beneath is my (T.V. Reed's) on-the-spot thoughts on OWS as it was unfolding and I was being interviewed as an "expert" on social movements by the mainstream media. While often an exercise in frustration, attempting to break up the neoliberal media framing of the movement(s) was not without some success (one reporter I talked to even joined #Occupy!), and I learned a good deal about the workings of the press.

(pre)Occupying the Media

Below is a summary from fall 2011 of one social movement analyst's take on the emerging movement as I dealt with many "expert" questions from the mainstream press. I think some of the insights are still useful as we think about the future. And I offer them as an example, sometimes successful, sometimes not, of attempts to educate mainstream media outlets about the movement as they questioned me. The actual answers I gave were often quite condensed versions of these, since if you do not seed the soundbite, your message will be lost.

What, in your opinion, is the dominant motivation of the people behind "Occupy Wall Street"?

There are far too many different kinds of people protesting to find a single dominant motivation. Just within the New York city crowd alone, there is incredible diversity ideologically, organizationally, in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, class status, and occupation, and in terms of experience as protesters (both old hands and absolute newcomers).

As the protests are spreading all over the country (under the rubric "Occupy Together or Occupy Everywhere"), the diversity of participants is growing even greater. It has also become an international movement.

But overall, most participants seem to be stressing economic issues: lack of jobs, the influence of corporate lobbyists on government, unresponsiveness of government to people in need (health care, lost retirement funds, student debt, home foreclosures), and growing income inequality generally. The protesters seem united in their view that it is unjust for the rich to be getting even richer during a devastating recession.

There is also a very strong streak of environmental concern among the participants, but this is not an unrelated issue, as the mainstream press often claims. Economic health and environmental health and safety, economic justice and environmental justice, are deeply tied together and the protesters are articulating those connections.

In many ways the surprising thing is not that a center-left protest movement has emerged, but rather that it has taken more than four years into the crisis for a large movement to emerge from the side of the political spectrum that invented modern models of protest.

What of the protesters' claim to be speaking for 99% of Americans?

That is actually a very precise number. They are pointing out that only the top 1% (those earning $1 million or more) are not being significantly hurt by the recession, and that the 99% majority has suffered great hardship in large part due to the unsound financial practices of this tiny minority, who in turn have not paid their fair share of personal and corporate taxes.

Is this "class warfare"?

Billionaire Warren Buffet said the most accurate thing regarding this idea of “class warfare.” Buffet said, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” That’s the way it feels to the protesters. They are not trying to start class warfare, they are trying to lessen it by instituting significant changes that will create a fairer economy and one where the gap between rich and poor is far less severe. They argue that we have the greatest income gap in the developed world, because the US system is the most skewed toward corporate power.

Is "Occupy Wall Street" the liberal-left answer the Tea Party?

OWS is not simply a response to the Tea Party, but that is part of it. Like the Tea Party, it has grown out of economic conditions and failures of federal and state governments to respond in meaningful ways. But OWS does not see cutting services to those most in need (i.e., "shrinking government") as the answer. They point to the fact that US taxes are lower than they have been at any time since the 1950s, and that while on paper our corporate taxes look relatively high, the fact of thousands of loopholes and tax breaks means our corporations pay the lowest taxes in the developed world. State and federal politicians have been cowed (by the Tea Party and others) into not using the more realistic option of raising revenue, instead of just cutting public services that are often a matter of life or death.

Also, the Tea Party began as an "astro turf" (fake grassroots) movement pushed by right-wing politicos like Dick Armey and bankrolled by conservative millionaires. With a large corporate media network, Fox News, to aggressively push it, it later turned into a significant movement with grassroots support.

Occupy Wall Street had a much more grassroots beginning, and there is no left-of-center equivalent to Fox (MSNBC, for example, is both much smaller and much less aggressive in pushing its politics). But if some large labor unions get involved, this will help level the playing field some. And effective use of relatively inexpensive social media helps too.

The Tea Party claimed to be speaking for "the real America," while in fact their support has consistently polled at only 19%. The Occupy Together movement has the potential to be much larger. Where the Tea Party skews older, whiter, maler and more middle class, OWS/OT is much more diverse in age, income, ethnically, in terms of gender (with women dominating in leadership roles), and ideology (mostly left of center but very broad).

Both movements claim to be speaking for the 99% who are not millionaires. But the Tea Party seems to have made peace with the 1% who are, calling them "job creators," while Occupy Wall Street believes those most responsible for the current economic crisis need to be held accountable. They argue that years of deregulation and tax breaks for corporations and the richest Americans didn't create jobs, but created only greater and greater economic disparity, while destroying jobs and driving down wages for those whose jobs haven't yet been exported

Is this a big city movement as opposed to the rural base of the Tea Party?

Isolated rural areas without much ethnic diversity produced much of the harshest Tea Party actions. While the bigger cities have gained more attention for their response because they are naturally larger, the Occupy Wall Street movement has also spread quickly to rural areas. A small town of 25,000 near me had a Wall Street protest yesterday. Economic discontent is everywhere across the country, and new electronic media spread the word rapidly to all areas, urban suburban and rural.

How might the movement impact the presidential campaign?

Obama is by nature a center-left politician who has been governing of late as a center-right one, partly due to the influence of the Tea Party movement that has driven the Republican party to take extreme, uncompromsing positions. As the Occupy Wall Street movement grows, it is likely to push Obama back toward the left. Indeed, given some statements he has made recently, it already is doing so. More generally, it will strengthen the Democrats’ calls for higher taxes on the richest Americans. This was already an idea supported by 2/3rds of Americans polled, and that number is likely to grow as the movement keeps a spotlight on economic inequality.

Is it too early to talk about its long-term impact?

Yes, it is too early to know what the long-term impact will be, but my colleagues on the ground amidst the protest believe it to be a movement with stronger energy than they have seen in some time, and they believe it will last and grow significantly.

It seems already to have had some legislative impact. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid proposed a surtax on millionaires (and Obama later endorsed it). This is exactly the 1% income group the protesters feel are not paying their fair share. Typically, such moves don't buy off or satisfy movements, but rather embolden them to push for more. Other legislation to end corporate welfare is emerging, though the block all Republicans are preventing most of these measures from even reaching the Senate or House floor for debate.

But there is a much wider context here. The #Occupy Everywhere movement is deeply tied to worldwide revolts against increasing economic inequality during the era of globalization. The Global Justice movement has been raising these issues through protests since the 1990s, and economic issues were very much a part of Arab Spring uprisings. The protests in the summer of 2011 in Europe, and the Occupy Movement in the US (and now around the world) continue to argue that a radically new economic order with a far more just distribution of wealth within and among nations is the our only hope for environmental and social health.

What will be the keys to success of Occupy Wall Street?

Movements grow most rapidly when they can tap significantly into existing social networks. The march on October 5th, in which labor unions became far more involved and merged very well with the other protesters, points to one key factor in success. Students who have time and the energy of youth, joined with unions that have monetary resources and the stability that comes with an older constituency, make a powerful base to work from. This combination nearly brought down the government of France in 1968, and was at the heart of the protests against unjust forms of globalization in Seattle in 1999. But the movement also has drawn in all kinds of other folks-- war vets, the unemployed, working class and middle class folks feeling economic pain --virtually everyone. These less organized constituencies will enter more slowly but can play an essential role.

There is also evidence that large left-liberal non-government organizations (NGOs) and grass roots community groups that were initially caught off guard by the movement are now jumping on board. MoveOn.org, for example, with massive constituencies and a record of exerting significant political influence, was not involved at the beginning but seems now to be actively involving itself in the movement. This movement has also drawn upon the experience of several generations of activists, from Pete Seeger whose roots are in 1930s movements to sixties New Leftists to 1980s nuclear power plant occupiers to the more recent Global Justice Movement. The movement is bigger than the progressive left in the US, and if experienced organizers and organizations in that tradition get involved respectfully, rather than in an effort to take over the movement, it can potentially grow extremely large and exert great influence.

Isn't the movement unorganized? Will there eventually be a "Martin Luther King" to lead it? Do movements need charismatic leaders? Can you compare it to the civil rights movement or another movement?

The movement is actually highly organized, especially logistically. For example, a number quickly organized marches with thousands of participants, including many absolutely new to protest, have come off with very few incidents. Greater ideological cohesion typically emerges as a movement develops and participants come to understand the particular pressure points where they can impact government policies and social attitudes.

As to the parallel with the Civil Rights movement, it is not the charismatic, Rev. King-led branch of the movement that it resembles or is likely to emulate. Rather, it is the decentralized student inspired, decentralized branch of the Civil Rights movement that is its model (the one in which SNCC -- the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee played a key role). That branch was highly suspicious of charismatic leadership and argued instead for a group-centered leadership model in which all members were empowered to be leaders for a time. it also used a decision-making method that came to be called "consensus process." The mainstream media doesn't seem to understand that this method, while time-consuming ("Democracy is an endless meeting"), is the most truly democratic way of making decisions ever devised.

The protesters themselves point to Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring; is this an appropriate comparison given the really desperate situation of the people in Egypt and the Middle East generally?

They also were clearly moved by the pro-labor protests in Wisconsin, and by European Summer, as some have dubbed protests across the Atlantic. But analogies across differing social movements are always mostly misleading. This is ultimately neither the Civil Rights movement nor Arab Spring nor any thing else but Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Together.

But the demonstrations clearly include many inspired by both the American progressive protest tradition and the recent events in the Middle East. While the parallel with Egypt is certainly very limited, the protesters know that the human cost of the US recession is severe. People die daily in the US due to inadequate nutrition, restricted health care treatment, and all the accumulated impact of poverty. In what remains, for awhile at least, the richest country on earth there are close to 45 million persons living below the poverty line in the US today (15.1% of the population). And many millions more are experiencing the often deadly impact of lives broken by unemployment, underemployment and financial stress.

How important is the Internet and social media to the protests?

In terms of method, the movement, like Arab Spring, is using new electronic social media, both to help organize and to offer informational outlets outside mainstream, corporate media. But they also understand the limits of social media and that social media can also be used against protesters, as they have been used in Iran, Syria and elsewhere as surveillance mechanisms and as ways to track down and imprison protesters. They also know that online organizing can assist but never replace face-to-face, person-to-person interactions, and the power of thousands in the streets.

What happens if the occupation sites are all broken up?

The often violent break up of occupation sites, including the originating site in Zuccotti Park, signal a new phase of the movement. Police violence has brought more sympathy, while isolated instances of violence on the part of occupiers (provoked by the police, in most cases) has also driven away potential recruits. Occupations always have the danger of becoming static, of spending too much time in the logistics of daily encampment life and too little on the logistics of political challenge. The breakup of many occupation sites can be a blessing if it provokes some new strategizing of next steps in the movement.

More than likely some occupying with continue, alongside other approaches. The movement of some occupation sites onto what activists thought would be more receptive university campuses has instead demonstrated the complicity of higher education administrators in upholding social inequality. While this is an important move to deepen the connection to campuses (always a key site of protest), there is also a danger in this strategy of isolating the movement to students and faculty, while a major strength of the movement has been its broad social spectrum.

Other emerging strategies include calls for general strikes, with echoes of the Vietnam War era moratorium strategy -- a call for ending all business as usual until change occurs, and cross country marches, some of which were effective in the Black Civil Rights, Chicano/a and American Indian movements. The latter, of course, also pioneered the occupation strategy, taking over first Alcatraz island in San Francisco, and later the Wounded Knee battleground site.

Thus far, the #Occupy Movement has largely targeted the people responsible for economic distress and inequality. What about actions that draw attention to the folks being hurt most by the recession? What about solidarity marches to homeless shelters, food banks, unemployment offices, defunded medical and mental health facilities, and prisons? Some of these events could include volunteer work (carefully arranged to be helpful, not intrusive) that would clarify the costs of recent cuts to social services, and show the movement to be proactive, not simply reactive. These actions could avoid being mere charity in that they would be used to draw attention to the desperate need for public funding of social programs that are often matters of life and death, and that could be reestablished by fairer taxation and less corporate welfare.

Some occupation energy will also no doubt be transferred into the electoral arena, pushing for candidates sympathetic to movement arguments. But historically, for electoral strategies to be meaningful, there must be continued pressure from the streets, from protest embodying greater political imagination and a deeper analysis than is present in mainstream politics.

Reflections on the Occupy Moment/Movement

As noted at the top of this page, OWS has had a number of positive impacts on the discourse of US politics, and a number of important echoes into other movements, including, most importantly, the Black Lives Matter movement.

At the same time, it seems clear that by choosing the path of ideological, or procedural, purity over coalition building, #Occupy scared off many allies and turned inward where debate became often insular and self-destructive. Make no mistake, police repression also played a significant role. Occupation sites were often viciously destroyed, agents provocateur undermined it from within, and, especially in NYC, police encouraged mentally unstable individuals to enter the site to stress the resources and deflect energy from the movement.

In addition, movements typically have a tough time during election years, since that other form of politics generally takes precedence. OSW was not wrong to believe that the 2012 election was a choice between the lesser of two evils. Neither party has an interest in significantly reforming, let alone overthrowing, capitalism. But it is the height of elitism and naiveté to argue that the election didn't matter. The lives of millions of members of the 99% have been deeply impacted by Obama's reelection. Saving the deeply flawed Affordable Care Act alone is of great significance. Disillusion with Obama's twice promised hope and change should be used now to organize around the deep structures that limited whatever true impulses for reform (barely liberal, never radical) that he held. And it should be used to prod further analyses of the "deep state" behind the official one, the state that continues regardless of the party in power.

Nevertheless, movements have survived similar disruptions when they had a clear sense of purpose and direction, something the #Occupy Movement never quite achieved. The initially important strategy of choosing occupation over marches or civil disobedience actions became over time a liability. Too much time went into maintaining the encampments, too little into strategizing how to expand the scope of the actions and focus the energies into broader changes.

This is not the typical critique that #Occupy had no leaders, no goals, or no proposals. I understand the ideological reasons for resisting mainstream versions of these ideas. But movements need concrete accomplishments or reachable stages of development to sustain their energy. Movements need to have politically relevant work for their members to do, and they need an internal education process (beyond the library on site) that integrates new folks into the movement. In all these cases, #Occupy fell short.

Perhaps a better publicized series of direct actions and/or educational projects by #Occupy forces on things like student debt, home foreclosures, homelessness, decline of middle class income, and so on would have had both inspirational and practical ameliorative value without "selling out" the idea that only full-scale structural political economic change can ultimately deal with these problems. The moment was less successful than it might have been because people need to see a variety of ladders leading between vague discontent and radical transformation.

Reform and revolution need not be antithetical. Concepts like Andre Gorz's "non-reformist reforms" speak to the need to push for changes that can ameliorate current suffering, but that ultimately cannot be fulfilled by the existing system and can therefore spur to more radical transformations. Demanding the "impossible" (a la Che) and demanding an end to exploitative mortgages or student debt can work hand in hand.

But as noted above, despite these shortcoming, the #Occupy energy spilled into related projects that offer the kind of concrete program for radical reform that can build up into larger movement for social and economic justice. Very importantly, thousands of new people around the US and the globe had the experience of direct democratic discussion of and reflection upon the varied sources of income inequality rooted in systemic violence as implicated in racism, environmental devastation and a host of interconnected issues.