When Occupy Wall Street exploded onto the scene in the Autumn of 2011, the first reaction of those few mainstream commentators who bothered to notice was ridicule at worst and dismissal at best. As the movement grew in cities beyond New York on both sides of the Atlantic in the weeks that followed, a new critique emerged from a suddenly concerned press: the occupiers weren’t articulating specific goals and thus the movement was already a failure.
While the consensus model being used for most of the occupations was slow moving and, in those places, including Zucotti, where it required 90% agreement, somewhat counterproductive (as one example, by allowing bad faith actors to derail the process), the discussion was cut short when the encampments were brutally dispersed by authorities. This was especially true in the country where it started, the United States, where there is ample evidence that it was a coordinated action between federal and local authorities.
In the months that followed, centrist opinion makers, although their arguments varied, declared that OWS was not only dead, but that it had achieved nothing.
Yet, in the years since, we have heard echoes of the movement, at first with the humanitarian mobilization that came to be called Occupy Sandy (after the storm whose worst affects within the U.S. were in New Jersey and New York) and innovative efforts to address medical, student and other debt, like Strike Debt, which collected student debts and cancelled them. It also helped to inspire the Movement for Black Lives and the protest camps at Standing Rock.
In terms of American politics, the creative energy generated by OWS influenced the Bernie Sanders campaigns during both the 2016 and even more so in the current Democratic primaries, where his campaign team has strong activist roots. The Vermont senator has effectively seized on both the focus on the corruption of American politics by moneyed interests and the related issue income inequality central to Occupy. He has also kept alive the simple but effective formulation of the 99% opposed to a plutocratic 1%, making it a central talking point of both campaigns.
In between, the Vermont senator also helped champion the Fight for $!5 campaign that was also to some degree inspired by OWS, both in personnel and messaging, and has brought real results for workers in the fast food industry in New York where it started and in many cities and states across the country.
Looking at the debates during the current Democratic primary contest, we see how many of these themes were picked up, even by those calling themselves moderate, with Occupy’s victory in changing the conversation finding its best vehicle in Senator Sanders.
Many of those who had moved on from the heady days of occupation had tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to get Senator Elizabeth Warren to run for president in 2016 but, when she decided not to, these activists approached Bernie Sanders, who brought the concerns that had driven the movement to an even larger American audience.
As Jonathan Matthew Smucker, whose activism has found a place with Pennsylvania Stands Up after participating at Zucotti Park told NPR in a recent interview, “There was the Draft Warren campaign in 2015, which didn’t succeed, and then those folks went into drafting and supporting Bernie Sanders.”
Another thing Occupy is almost never given credit for is expanding what people, perhaps most especially younger people, see as possible in terms of movement building.
Evan Weber, who is a co-founder of one of the most inspiring activist groups in the U.S. today, the Sunrise Movement, which has endorsed Sanders, also participated in Occupy at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and explained to reporters from the website E&E News, “Ever since that moment I knew in my soul that if we were ever going to take action on climate change in this country, that we were going to have to do something like that.”
While there has been some criticism of the movement’s funding, which began with a grant of cash and office space from the stodgy Sierra Club and it’s very important to hold any movement accountable for where its money comes from, I would argue that Sunrise has so successfully brought the climate crisis to the forefront on the American left and trained so many activists, many from communities of color, that its contribution has been unprecedented in such a short time frame and only seems likely to continue to grow.
Other movements have also endorsed Sanders in recent weeks, with the Florida based Dream Defenders, which campaigns around issues of racial justice, endorsing him and one of its co-executive directors, Rahel Gilmer, praising his, “transformational vision for the political system.”
One of the reasons Bernie Sanders has been so effective in this current U.S. election cycle is his focus on not only a campaign but on creating a broader movement that will be able to mobilize large numbers of people to sway politicians and corporate interests. Central to doing this will be activist groups that can put out the call on specific issue sets or to particular communities, organizing large numbers of people to make their voices heard, especially by the donor beholden politicians both Democratic and Republican who will try to fight progressive change at every turn.
Going forward, it will be important for Sanders to not only mobilize this activist base throughout the primaries and continue his outreach to younger voters who could, if so inspired be a game changer in November but also try to bring in older ones, especially those over 65, who are keeping the hopes of moderate candidates alive (and are particularly susceptible to Michael Bloomberg’s blanket of television ads, a medium less and less relevant to younger people).
One thing that is certain, Occupy Wall Street lives on in the hearts of many who experienced and were inspired by it and may in this way have an unspoken impact not only on activist movements for years to come but on the 2020 presidential contest.