“We are unstoppable!” Some of the lessons from Occupy Wallstreet, 10 years later

“One of the main contributions of Occupy was ‘the 99 percent.’”

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For many, it began as a meme. A picture of a dancer perched on top of the statue sometimes called the Bowling Green Bull located on Broadway within New York’s financial district. The poster bore the message, “What is our one demand?” above the image and, “Occupy Wallstreet, September 17th, Bring tent”, below it. The poster was created by Adbusters Magazine on Canada’s west coast and spread widely online and on growing social media platforms along with the hashtag, #OccupyWallStreet, which began to circulate in July of 2011.

When the day arrived, dozens of activists found the area around the bull and One Chase Plaza had been barricaded by authorities so they set up close by, in Zuccotti Park. Over the coming days their numbers grew so much that they could no longer be ignored by corporate media, although many did their best to dismiss or belittle the protesters, focusing especially on the occupiers insistence that the movement was and would remain leaderless. It then spread to other cities and across borders, an American Autumn following the Arab Spring that had created so much, unfortunately unrealized, hope for change in that part of the world.

Somewhat ironically, the one demand referenced in the poster would never be made clear. Instead, a variety of causes from ending economic inequality, addressing America’s student debt crisis, stopping foreign interventions and many others would become part of the conversation as people gathered at the encampments that sprang up until police in New York ended the experiment a little less than two months later on November 15th. Most other encampments both inside and outside of the country were closed with varying levels of police violence soon after. 

During those weeks at least 100 working groups were formed at Zuccotti to look at the issues and General Assemblies took place using the formal consensus model in the hope of giving every participant a voice. Denied the use of amplification, activists created the ‘human microphone’, which had listeners loudly repeat a speakers’ words so that all would hear them, another innovation adopted widely as the movement spread.

The use of formal consensus, especially when almost complete unanimity was called for as it was in some places, created its own problems, not the least of which was the willingness on the part of some to hijack the proceedings for their own purposes or amusement. Then there was the constant drumming, which seemed to be an especially big problem at Zuccotti, where the voices of other Occupiers were drowned out and those living close by were driven to distraction by the noise that began early most mornings and lasted far into the night. 

Nonetheless, in reading reminiscences of the weeks before the encampments were dismantled I was reminded of the feelings of hope and community I felt here at Occupy Montreal and in streams that were coming out of encampments far and wide. It was an experience that has colored my approach to life and politics ever since. It even created new media spaces like this one and gave energy (and a slogan) to the first real progressive challenger to the status quo in American politics in generations, Bernie Sanders, many of whose most enthusiastic staffers and volunteers in 2016 had been Occupiers themselves. 

While the Occupiers produced many powerful slogans, organizer Yotam Marom made a good argument in The Nation about which has had the biggest impact in the years since, “One of the main contributions of Occupy was “the 99 percent.” That was one of the major gifts. It was the first time, in my life at least, that class was being put on the table, front and center, without any equivocation, and that was a huge gift to the left, that it became popular and clear and simple. A bunch of things that got replicated and spread were incredible.” 

For a leaderless movement, Occupy produced many leaders that have gone on to find their niches on the progressive left in the United States and abroad, including one of the founders of the Sunrise Movement and many of those in the Justice Democrats and the growing Democratic Socialists of America who have helped bring new voices like Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush into the country’s congress.

Despite the successes, the movement also failed in some ways. Outside of large encampments like those in New York, Washington D.C., Oakland and London, England, Occupy wasn’t as diverse as many hoped. Having said this, attempts were made to center marginalized groups like using what was called the ‘progressive stack’ to ensure that these voices would be heard.

As activists faced police repression there seemed to be a growing awareness that this was part of everyday life for marginalized groups and this has led many former Occupiers to join these struggles in the years since, something that was evident at Standing Rock a few years later.

While the right painted the Occupiers as ‘communists’ and ‘anarchists’, the faux populists who have since taken over many conservative parties in wealthier countries seem to have learned more from the movement than the moderates and self described liberals who were so quick to dismiss itAlthough clearly insincere, leaders like Steve Bannon helped fashion a message about a forgotten working class and forever wars that could have come out of Occupy.

As Michelle Crentsil recently told Jonathan Smucker of the Intercept, “When Occupy named the crisis, the Democratic Party didn’t do anything to translate that into building power. They got scared and were like, ‘Oh, what if this gets too out of control? Oh no, the socialists are out.’ But the right was figuring out how to use it to catapult themselves into power.” 

One aspect of the occupations that has mostly been forgotten is the way that law enforcement responded, especially in the United States, where federal authorities worked not only with state and local police as we might expect, but in New York especially, with corporate security whose bosses clearly had their own reasons for wanting to see the encampment and almost daily protest marches brought to an end.

After leaked FBI files showed the scope of the cooperation, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, Executive Director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund explained, “These documents show that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are treating protests against the corporate and banking structure of America as potential criminal and terrorist activity. These documents also show these federal agencies functioning as a de facto intelligence arm of Wall Street and Corporate America.” 

The links between these private security forces and police at all levels would become even more obvious during Standing Rock, which had its own encampments. Worse, a private security company, Tigerswan, put their own undercover agents at some of the camps and described peaceful protesters as dangerous terrorists internally according to documents obtained by the Intercept

More recently, at least in part as a response to short lived encampments used as a tactic by the environmental group Extinction Rebellion in the UK, Boris Johnson’s government has banned them as part of their Police,Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Intentional or not, this has also criminalized the lifestyle of the country’s Roma and Traveller communities.

I took the title for this story from a chant featured in a documentary I watched recently, “We are unstoppable, another world is possible!” At the time this seemed true and it still echoes today in the movements and voices of progressive politicians that have come after Occupy, a movement that in the end succeeded much more than it failed.

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