In our lifetimes, we have seen plenty of different movements and mass protests come and go. Some ended up just being momentary causes of the week, like the protests against Chick-fil-a. Others have been much more enduring as we have seen with the resurgence of Antifa, and Black Lives Matter. Then we have the awkward middle child of a movement: Occupy Wall Street.
The Occupy Wall Street movement was like my friend’s bachelor party a number of years ago. Great idea on paper, tons of people interested, absolute disaster in delivery. Like that grand ol’ night, it also left a legacy that’s mostly (intentionally) forgotten by those that were involved. But it wasn’t all bad, and there are some lasting effects still impacting us today. We can see those effects in life today too: where the organizers have gone since, methods being replicated over the years (for better or worse effect), the lessons learned, the mistakes avoided, and the slow recovery from liver damage. And Occupy left its mark too.
For those out of the know, let’s kick this off with the history of the Occupy movement from its oddly Canadian beginnings to its end.
History Of Occupy Wall Street
Everyone who was alive for it, or has had the chance to hear anyone older than 25 bemoan it, will remember the Great Recession that hit most of the Western world and developed nations between 2007 and 2009. It was the greatest financial upheaval and reset in the U.S. since the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was caused by a larger combination of reasons than you might think. TIME Magazine listed 25 different people that contributed to the crash in different ways: through policy changes, setting banking precedents, and just plain greed. That was one of the shorter lists you can find.
Not the sole, but definitely one of the biggest contributions came from Bill Clinton. During his tenure, he brought out two key pieces of legislation that helped set the stage for the economic quagmire to follow. The first was the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act which repealed the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act. There were a lot of effects from that Act, but the most significant is that it allowed banks to use their client’s deposits to invest in derivatives (investments in things like futures, stock options, or credit default swaps). The second was the well-intentioned rewrites to the Community Reinvestment Act. This change was designed to put pressure on big banks to lend in low-income neighborhoods.
Banks, being the scandalous vultures that they are, saw an opportunity ripe for the picking. By offering subprime mortgages across the U.S. at interest-only rates, it allowed them to engage in hedge fund trading of the derivatives. They needed the mortgage market to stay strong and continuous to fuel the trading. The issue, however, was the major decline in real estate purchasing that began to happen around 2007. People couldn’t afford their mortgage, nor could they afford to sell at a loss, the housing supply was far larger than the market’s needs.
Now, I know you’re asking “what the hell does all of this have to do with the Occupy Wall Street movement?”
Fast forward to 2011, the economy is just starting to piece itself back together; families are either finally righting the ship, or have already drowned. As the U.S. is inclined to do after facing a crisis, everything else went back to normal. And that left everything in the hands of the same government and corporate conglomerates that screwed them in the first place. This time, however, people were still bitter enough to want to lash out. Enter Kalle Lasn.
Kalle Lasn worked for the Canadian anti-consumerism publication Adbusters. It was in early 2011 when she came up with the idea of a protest on Wall Street to tackle issues like wealth disparity, lack of action against those responsible for the 2008 crash, lobbyist’s and corporate influence on the government and democracy itself, and other related issues. On February 2nd, Adbusters published a proposal asking for a “Million Man March on Wall Street” with Lasn registering the now-defunct occupywallstreet.org in June.
Adbusters weren’t the only people pushing for this kind of direct action either. The hacking group Anonymous released statements encouraging their members and followers to participate, as did the U.S. Day of Rage group. Finally, on September 17th, the initial day of the protests finally came.
There were three locations initially planned for their protests, however, police in the city blocked off two of those locations leading the group to set up camp in Zuccotti Park. The park is private property. This meant the police were powerless to remove the protesters unless and until the owners of the park, Brookfield Office Properties, made the call. The movement inspired similar protests in 28 different U.S. cities, and expanded internationally as well.
On October 13th, there was a decision to clear the park for cleaning, leaving the protesters forced to clear out. Yet Brookfield postponed the cleaning. Protesters were already poised to resist such efforts, and some clashed with police despite the attempt being canceled. On November 15th, notice was given to completely clear out. The protesters were told they could return after the cleaning effort, but only if they came without the tents, sleeping bags, or tarps they needed to actually camp. Nearly 200 people were arrested for resisting the notice, among other charges, during the clear-out.
Several attempts to restart the protests were shut down swiftly by police, and the public eye eventually shifted away from their efforts. Nearly every revival attempt over the years resulted in mass arrests, but by the third-anniversary crowds barely reached 50 people in sporadic gatherings throughout the city.
Why did the movement fall apart in such a short time? The concerted efforts by the state played a major role, as did the movement’s organization; or lack thereof. Contrived platitudes came from politicians that wanted little more than to offer lip service to a seemingly large voter base rather than make legislative changes. This was followed closely by the mass arrests, and media attention almost purposely shifting away from them.
They weren’t only bullied out of existence. The goals and demands of the movement over the roughly three months they were active in New York were ever-shifting, or lacking concrete requests. They wanted fixes to big business and government being bedfellows, financial market manipulation to be properly punished, and social and economic equality issues addressed. The “How?” never seemed to manifest leaving the demands vague and, frankly, unactionable.
They also, by design, lacked any form of official leadership. By using a stacking system for people to speak, the Occupy movement prioritized the voices of marginalized groups, and aimed to reach any and all decisions democratically. The lack of a centralizing voice to organize, make clear and concise demands, and calls for specific action,sadly damaged their ability to effect change.
Other movements have rallied behind similar causes of inequality and excessive corporate power. The Antifa and BLM movements have retained the decentralized ideas of the Occupy movement and their focus on egalitarianism and socioeconomic issues. Many of the talking points, strategies, and even key people that were involved in Occupy, either in New York or elsewhere, have remained active with recent protests.
While we could ultimately call it a flop, that would be as disingenuous as Ben Shapiro. The Occupy movement created the famous “We are the 99%” mentality, reinvigorated the discussion around class in the modern world, and set the tone for direct action movements for the decades to come. The issues haven’t changed, only the lenses through which we view them.