‘We showed it was possible to create a movement from almost nothing’: Occupy Wall Street 10 years on

“We are the 99%.” Ten years ago that unifying slogan travelled around the world. Some attribute its origin to the economist Joseph Stiglitz, who first popularised the distinction between the 1% of people with great wealth and power and the rest of us. Others say that it was the late anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber who coined the phrase. But everyone agrees that it went global when it was voiced by demonstrators who gathered in lower Manhattan’s financial district on 17 September 2011.

What took place that day, and the two months to follow, would become known as Occupy Wall Street, a protest movement against economic inequality and injustice that spread to 28 other US cities, to European capitals and financial centres, including London, Paris and Berlin, as well as parts of South America and the far east. In total it’s said that there were more than 750 Occupy events around the world, featuring demonstrators ranging from a few tens in some places to many thousands in others.

Inspired by the Arab spring protests that had toppled several dictators in the Middle East, OWS was also a delayed reaction to the global financial crisis of 2008 that had ushered in an era of austerity.

“The one duty we owe to history,” said Oscar Wilde, “is to rewrite it.” In the limitless leisure of retrospect, any particular moment in time and space can become imbued with pivotal significance or be consigned to the dustbin of historical dead ends. A decade on, opinions about OWS remain starkly polarised among both observers and participants.

One school of thought views it as a transformative event in contemporary US history, a popular uprising against the power of corporate America that helped shift the Democratic party leftwards, enable Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign and the election of self-proclaimed socialist politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. By this reckoning, it was also the original leaderless social media-organised movement on which #MeToo and Black Lives Matter would be modelled.

The opposing view sees it as an abject failure and historically irrelevant. This verdict was neatly summed up by the New York Times financial columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin when he predicted, a year on from the event: “It will be an asterisk in the history books, if it gets a mention at all.”

Leaning towards the latter camp is Micah White, the man who co-wrote the email that summoned the whole thing. Ten years ago White was senior editor of Adbusters, an anti-consumerist magazine based in Vancouver, Canada. Run by Kalle Lasn, a septuagenarian former market research company owner, Adbusters had a reputation as a provocative, stylish, anti-establishment publication.

Like many radicals at the time, the magazine’s editorial collective was impressed by the popular uprising in Egypt’s Tahir Square that had brought down Hosni Mubarak. In response they decided to issue an American call-to-arms or, more accurately, legs. They wanted protesters to get down to New York’s financial district.

“On September 17,” they wrote to their subscribers list in mid-July 2011, “we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices.”

The old 1968 revolutionary slogan was “be realistic – demand the impossible”. But the demand Lasn and White suggested was surprisingly possible, if unlikely. They called on Barack Obama to “ordain a presidential commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington”.

The email was taken up by the hacker group Anonymous and spread through radical circles. It worked. Rather like the Sex Pistols’ legendary gig at the 100 Club, which half of London later claimed to have attended, many people have since suggested they were part of that first day. In fact, there were around 1,000 who actually made their way, after a couple of false starts, to Zuccotti Park, between Broadway and Church Street.

White believes that OWS amounts to the “best social movement from a technical perspective” of the past decade. Yet he sees it as a failure both in achieving what it set out to do at the time and in its long-term impact. “I think if you look at the last 10 years, activism has not worked,” he says.

Perhaps the first thing to say about Zuccotti Park is that it’s not a park. Instead, it’s a privately owned public space with granite paving and a meagre smattering of young trees that lies a couple of blocks from the old World Trade Center. In the UK we’d call it a small square. But owing to its private status, it afforded a certain protection from immediate eviction.

Among that first group who did go there were Marisa Holmes, then a 25-year-old anarchist film-maker who had already visited Tahir Square, and Graeber, who would go on to write the influential Bullshit Jobs, which contended that most jobs were needless and meaningless, before his premature death last year. That first night Holmes organised a general assembly.

“We were on a dinner break and we had peanut butter sandwiches provided by the food committee,” she recalls. “David wanted me to facilitate. At the time I was not prepared.”

One reason Holmes, and everyone else, was a little unready was because no one was expecting much of a turnout, despite Adbusters’ call for 20,000. But even though the gathering was nowhere near that size, it was still bigger than any earlier efforts at protest in the area.

“Previous attempts to go to Wall Street or do any kind of camp in that area had been relatively small and not very effectual,” says Holmes.

General assemblies, food committees: this is the language of organised protest. But OWS prided itself on its leaderless principle – a stance that would bring much criticism – and on reaching decisions by public debate and group consent. To do this, a novel means of public address was employed which became known as the “people’s microphone”. A speaker would shout out a few words, which would then be chanted by those close by, and then rechanted by everyone else. It was a laborious means of conveying information, but many found the mass participation “empowering”.

Almost immediately a strategic schism emerged. The original undertaking to “incessantly repeat one simple demand” never materialised. White drafted a resolution outlining the demand, which he emailed to Holmes, but it was gently rejected.

“When Occupy started,” he recalls, “we kind of stepped back and we didn’t want to go there as leaders, and there was a mood of like, we also don’t want you to go there. The failure to create the demand was a strategic error that was unavoidable based on the prevailing prefigurative anarchism in New York City at that time.”

He’s referring to the anarchist principle, emphasised by Graeber, that the way radicals organise now should reflect the sort of society they want to build in the future. In that idealised society, debate would replace demands. “They wanted to test that out,” says White. “And, congratulations, it did not work.”

Holmes doesn’t accept the analysis or criticism. She points out that Adbusters was a magazine based in Canada “that was just making these proclamations” and wasn’t involved in organisation on the ground. As early as 20 August, she says, at the pre-planning stage, “we decided not to have demands, through a consensus process in the assembly of maybe 50 people that were there that night”.

It may sound like an arcane difference of opinion but it’s a fundamental issue of means and ends, values and results, process and change, the eternal battle between the pragmatist and the idealist. White wanted to gain momentum by organising around a single overwhelming demand that would engage universal popular support. Holmes wanted to set up a makeshift society that would be a model for the future.

It was Holmes who slept out in the square. White remained at home in Berkeley, California, staying in contact with the organisers, and didn’t visit it until the following May, by which time the protest had fragmented into an occasional spectacle. “Our aim was to stay as long as possible and inspire the creation of a democratic movement in the United States,” says Holmes. “And our long-term goals were about practice, about encouraging a cultural shift toward a more egalitarian democratic culture.”

“Horizontalism” was the watchword, the belief in involving everyone in the decision-making process without any pyramidal structure of leadership. It was an approach that called for an awful lot of meetings. Many activists love meetings. White is not one of them. “I think I’m on the spectrum,” he says. “It’s a thing I’ve always wondered about: why build social movements when I like to be alone so much?”

Holmes, however, is a meetings person. And she was not alone. In a 2016 film she made about OWS called All Day All Week, we see a number of mostly young people excited by outreach meetings, actions groups, legal groups, communications groups, town planning, treasury and comfort groups, food committees and student assemblies. There was even a demands group, that duly failed to come up with any demands.

In the film you can see a performative aspect to the occupation, and not just in the drummers and buskers who seem to provide an endless noisy soundtrack to the proceedings. It’s there in the poses struck by the earnest young people addressing the crowds, as though they were all too aware of the iconography of revolutionary uprisings.

Although the autumnal weather soon turned cold, people kept coming in the early days, and the crowds kept swelling. The police made continual attempts to stem the flow by insisting that all tents and permanent structures be removed, but Liberty Plaza, as it was renamed by the protesters, held firm.

On 25 September, protesters marched from the plaza to Union Square, where the police pepper-sprayed screaming demonstrators and arrested dozens of activists. The scenes were captured on smartphones and quickly went viral, turning up on the evening news, which served to bring more people to the protest. “The more the state beat us down,” said Holmes, “the more support we received.”

There were also celebrity visitors, such as the film-maker Michael Moore and the radical academic Cornel West. A rumour also went round that Radiohead were going to pay a visit and play a concert in solidarity.

“Radiohead will play a surprise show for #occupywallstreet today at four in the afternoon,” Occupy organisers wrote in an email to supporters. Had the band actually turned up, there is the question of whether they would have been allowed by the occupiers to perform, and how long it would have taken to reach that decision.

At Occupy Atlanta, one of the many protests that OWS spurred, the civil-rights legend John Lewis turned up to address the crowd. But before he could speak, the occupiers first had to debate whether he should be allowed to speak, a process that, employing the people’s microphone repetition method, was destined to be lengthy.

Protester: How do we feel…

The crowd: How do we feel…

Protester: … about Congressman…

Crowd: … about Congressman…

Protester: … John Lewis…

Crowd: … John Lewis…

Protester: … addressing the assembly…

Crowd: … addressing the assembly…

After 20 minutes of listening to this back and forth, Lewis left, having not addressed the gathering.

Although the Radiohead rumour was soon exposed as false, more people came flocking to the plaza un New York. For one young protester from Brooklyn, the new arrivals were not a wholly positive development. Negesti Cantave, who now works in the music industry, says that while she feels the work of OWS was well intentioned, it wasn’t effective.

“I think there were more longer-lasting negative impacts for New Yorkers,” she says. “There was a large influx of people from out of state, some people even coming internationally, and I think the legacy of Occupy Wall Street has to do with the nonprofit industrial complex [the voluntary/NGO sector] and gentrification.”

It seems unlikely that visitors to OWS would have had much of an effect on the voluntary sector or housing in a city the size of New York, yet Cantave’s observation does speak of a class divide. “It’s not often talked about,” she says, “but there was a fair amount of wealthy people who participated.”

Cantave herself only spent one night sleeping out in the plaza. She was living in New York anyway, she says, and “there were a lot of issues in terms of how the city chose to sabotage that space. It was not always a safe space for women or female-presenting, female-identified people.”

Yet by comparison with sleeping out elsewhere in the city, it was relatively safe. And with its “people’s kitchen” and relative street-safety, the occupation also attracted a growing number of homeless people, who were not accustomed to meetings, debate or active participation.

As one witness testifies in All Day All Week, horizontalism faltered when it met homelessness. No one had the expertise or knowledge to deal with people who had really been let down by the system they were all protesting against. “Almost all of us were totally ignorant about how to do it,” he admits.

Cantave says she can remember a lively discussion about whether they were organising a protest project or providing social services. “I definitely think we were not equipped to provide social services,” she says, but notes that many homeless people also wanted to get involved in organising.

The fact is, even in the most egalitarian of settings, some people are practised in discursive dynamics and others struggle to make their voices heard. To David Graeber, for example, OWS was the realisation of a belief, he says in Holmes’s film, that he had psychologically accepted wasn’t going to happen. “And then it happens,” he said, “and you say, ‘Oh, all right, I’ve been saying for years this was going to happen.’ And it did! It was amazing.”

To the academic, it was a theory that had been put into practice. Some of his fellow protesters were committed on a more practical level. In the film, Chris Gotono, who ran the people’s kitchen, says that he noticed class, gender and racial divisions in who was working, and he complains of being taken for granted, doing the “unglamorous hard work of keeping that park going day in and day out, while other people had theoretical conversations on theoretical problems on theoretical matters and then went on their theoretical marches afterwards”.

A combination of internal tensions, exhaustion and worsening weather began to undermine morale among the occupiers and thin their numbers. Ultimately, it was finished off by Mayor Bloomberg, acting on behalf of Zuccotti Park’s owners Brookfield Properties, who sent in the NYPD to dismantle the camp on 15 November, just under two months after it had been assembled.

Despite several attempts to re-occupy the space and others in the area, the protest effectively came to an end. “The movement never really recovered,” says Holmes at the end of her film. It also ended an experiment in social and political organisation. However, Wall Street, and the whole financial and corporate sector, remained almost entirely untouched by the two-month long occupation. It changed no banking practices, brought forth no corporate regulation.

By that measure it was widely seen as a failure. The Arab spring, which had been the original inspiration for many of the organisers, had led arguably to a worse outcome for many of the countries involved – in July, Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied, dismissed the country’s prime minister and suspended parliament. In its own way, OWS was adjudged to be equally counterproductive. Political and economic life continued as before in the US and elsewhere, and, if anything, there was a lurch to the populist right, embodied most egregiously by Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

Yet, a decade on, OWS is frequently cited as the precursor to a range of initiatives and developments, such as Black Lives Matter or the UK’s Extinction Rebellion.

“I think in a number of ways [BLM] are part of the legacy,” says Holmes, who is white. “There’s overlap in the people who came through Occupy and the people who were later involved in these movements.”

Cantave, who is black, is not so convinced of the lineage.

“I don’t think that the Occupy movement itself influenced Black Lives Matter,” she says. “There were individuals who participated in Occupy who later participated in Black Lives Matter, but I believe that the Black Lives Matter protest falls much more in a legacy of black protests in America.”

Micah White, who is mixed-raced with an African American father and a white mother, believes that the links between OWS and BLM are not just an overlap in individual protesters, but also the adoption of a model. “We showed people that it was possible to create something like a social movement with so few resources,” he says.

The other major development in which OWS is often cited is the Democratic party’s shift to the left. Both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders drew activist support from former Occupiers. On this, Cantave is in agreement.

“That’s 100% true,” she says. “There was a realisation that the left is not necessarily as small as maybe the Democratic party thought it was. And I think the Democratic party was forced to speak to that base in a more serious way.”

White, however, is more sceptical. “That is one of those beautiful ideas that we come up with to make ourselves feel better,” he says, arguing that true revolutionaries set out to realise their own ideals. Non-revolutionaries, he says, are “quite happy that the legacy of Occupy is Bernie Sanders and AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]. Gradual change in the future at some unknown period of time. That’s not what we were about, though.”

For all his revolutionary fervour, White has since gone on to address Davos – a decision he justifies with the comparison of Che Guevara addressing the UN – and is now a father and works in cryptocurrency. He says that he “detest[s] groupthink” and he no longer wants to be “part of an ideological scene”.

At the end of her film, when Holmes admits that the Zuccotti Park eviction marked the end of OWS, there is an air of dejection in her narration. “In many ways,” she concludes, “the global revolution that we have been part of was transformed into a counterrevolution.”

Yet both she and Cantave remain firm believers in anarchism. Holmes is currently working on a PhD in media studies and continues to be committed to the ideals that first took her to Zuccotti Park. She thinks that White’s apparent abandonment of those ideals is “really sad” and suggests that it was his lack of organising experience and working alongside others that produced what she see as his pessimism.

“I mean, I definitely have my moments feeling burnt out and frustrated. It can get really rough in the face of state repression. But, you know, with a long view,” she says, breaking into a smile, “I think what we did was successful.”

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