How one organization is keeping the spirit of Occupy Wall Street alive

Occupy Wall Street changed the world and how people articulated their grievances, but it did not last long enough to seize upon its own victories.

SOURCEWaging Nonviolence
Image Credit: LA Progressive

Ten years after Occupy Wall Street introduced the ideas of the 99 percent against the 1 percent, the movement is finally getting its due. An Atlantic article’s headline last week read “Occupy Wall Street Did More Than You Think,” while a New York Magazine article by authors and organizers Astra Taylor and Jonathan Smucker led with “Occupy Wall Street Changed Everything.” Occupy has not only reshaped the political consciousness of the United States, but has reshaped the political landscape itself through the work of its alumni. 

One organization in particular made a point of learning from Occupy Wall Street’s strengths and flaws — and applying those lessons through the creation of new organizations and movements capable of continuing the fight for the future of the planet. The training center Momentum, self-described as a movement incubator, has played an important role in the post-Occupy world.  

Part institute, part network of leaders, it has done the work of connecting organizers and strategists, giving them the tools necessary to advance the process of building social movements that reflect present needs and conditions. Its leaders have created some of the most powerful organizations of our generation, from the Green New Deal-championing Sunrise Movement to Justice Democrats, the group most responsible for helping to elect the new progressive wing in Congress, known as “The Squad.” I joined the community in 2015, first as a participant seeking to better understand what Occupy was, then as a trainer and eventually in my current role coordinating the organization’s digital infrastructure.

Occupy Wall Street changed the world and how people articulated their grievances, but it did not last long enough to seize upon its own victories.

Momentum was created in the wake of Occupy’s successes and failures. The broader Occupy Movement spread to over 900 cities across the planet within a month. It introduced the idea of the 99 percent and brought light to both income inequality and the lack of an effective democracy in the United States. It almost immediately developed offshoots, like Occupy The Hood, which sought to bring in more people of color to an otherwise visibly white movement. Another outgrowth movement, Strike Debt, wiped out $15 million of personal debt of Americans and still works today to end all student debt in the country. Arguably the most public post-occupation successor, however, was Bernie Sanders’ first presidential run, which he described as a campaign that was “about creating an economy that works for all of us, not just the 1 percent.”

But of course Occupy had many shortcomings: the lack of people of color, the lack of a clear long-term strategy, and its inability to develop a strong enough structure to withstand the onslaught of backlash from the United States government. It changed the world and how people articulated their grievances, but it did not last long enough to seize upon its own victories. This is where Momentum comes into the picture.

Created in 2014, Momentum was the brainchild of frustrated but inspired organizers who saw the limitations of the work they were doing and the shortcomings of mass movements like Occupy Wall Street and the global justice movement of the 1990s. The training center was created with the support of a large community of organizers. Founders included Max Berger, an Occupy alum and later member of Justice Democrats; Mimi Hitzemann and Guido Girgenti, student organizers who had also been involved in Occupy; and Belinda Rodriguez, who came out of the climate justice movement. 

Momentum co-founder Carlos Saavedra speaking at a training in Milwaukee in 2015. (Facebook/Momentum)

Most of the early trainings and curriculum development process were led by two other founders Carlos Saavedra — who was grounded by his experiences organizing undocumented immigrants through United We Dream — and Paul Engler, who created the L.A.-based labor and interfaith organizing project the Center for the Working Poor and had previously been a labor organizer with UNITE HERE, a union primarily organizing hotel workers and others in the service industry.

Both Saavedra and Engler came primarily from what they would call the world of structure-based organizing. This is the work of building long-standing organizations deeply rooted in pre-existing structures like churches and workplaces, and developing local leaders who are capable of leading their community members to demand concrete concessions from those with direct decision-making abilities, like elected officials and workplace bosses. The last part is crucial because it relies on using the long-term threats of actions like election challenges and strikes to force targeted decision makers to do something they would otherwise not.

Momentum’s true strength comes not from its curriculum, but rather its ability to maintain a community of organizers.

Structure-based organizing contrasts heavily with what happened in Occupy, often called mass protest organizing. Mass protest organizing focuses on dramatic actions that get large amounts of people out on the streets and use sheer numbers to force immediate political change. They are often short lasting and don’t provide the kind of stability necessary to fully deliver on the change or commit resources and time to develop specific leaders. This form of organizing relies more on the sheer power of disruption of business as usual to succeed in the moment, a form of power that is hard to maintain in the long term without strong structures and relationships to keep people committed to the fight. 

Momentum was created to address the issues of Occupy and improve upon the model. Occupy, like many other movements in the mass protest tradition, was not able to bring forth immediate tangible policy changes, but it was able to embolden the public and project a new potential future outside of the neoliberal status quo’s trend of privatization of public goods — like education and healthcare — and low taxes for the rich. Momentum’s original purpose was to bring together other organizers based in the structure tradition and equip them with a set of tools that would allow them to understand that there was another way to organize, and that it was possible to recreate movements like Occupy and combine them with what they were used to — the stable work of building in workplaces and neighborhoods. 

They drew on research from civil resistance scholars Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan and their conclusion that with almost no exceptions, no nonviolent campaign worldwide since 1900 failed to achieve its goals once it involved “the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population.” Momentum took this macrostudy and combined it with the study of specific struggles, like the civil rights movement, the South African anti-Apartheid movement, and, chiefly, the model of mass mobilization utilized by Otpor, the Serbian political movement that played a key role in the overthrowing the dictatorship of Slobodan Milošević. All of these movements used some form of “hybrid” model that would take the best of both structure organizing and mass protest work. 

A 2016 training to prepare leaders from Black Lives Matter, Occupy, Sunrise, AllOfUs, IfNotNow, and various student organizations to take the reins of Momentum’s training program. (Momentum)

Momentum’s training curriculum argued that more organizations needed to adopt a hybrid model — with the acknowledgement that tweaks would need to be made for the specific purpose and conditions of each movement. While the organization has crafted its own training program, it sees itself more as a curator of concepts from past and present than a chief inventor presenting fully novel ideas.

Yet, Momentum’s true strength comes not from its curriculum, but rather its ability to maintain a community of organizers. Members of the community experiment with the curriculum and create organizations by implementing its concepts. Each organization creates its own model with heavy modifications based on their own needs and theories from other groups like Jonathan Smucker’s progressive messaging organization, Beyond The Choir and support from other institutes like The Wildfire Project and Training For Change. Within the Momentum community exist different ideologies, priorities and ideas of how victory can be accomplished. The organization serves as a container that can hold these debates and generate new best practices from the lessons provided by leaders actively practicing theories of change.

The idea has been to create a virtuous cycle of movement theory and practice. Organizers from movements like Occupy and the Obama-era undocumented immigrant youth, or Dreamer, movement came together at Momentum trainings and agreed upon shared language. They used terms like social movement theorist Bill Moyer’s trigger events — or events that polarize the public and potentially expand the number of movement participants rapidly — as well as absorption, the process of actively recruiting large amounts of participants through post protest phone calls and trainings. One of the main concepts that Momentum shared with both new and seasoned organizers was the idea of “frontloading,” an often year-long planning process in which an organization’s DNA — its story, strategy, culture and structure — are carefully crafted by a small group of leaders before they attempt to spread their proposed model wide enough to accomplish their long-term goals.

This shared language allowed them to debate, analyze and come together to form new organizations. A handful of organizers who’d worked within or were inspired by Occupy Wall Street formed AllOfUs, which later merged with and became Justice Democrats, the organization responsible for the recruitment and election of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman. Leaders from the Dreamer movement would experiment with focusing on a specific demographic and build Movimiento Cosecha to organize undocumented workers across the country. A group of organizers from the Divestment Student Network, a campus-based environmental justice organization, joined together to form Sunrise Movement, which took the disruptive actions of the mass protest tradition and combined them with a clear, stable electoral engagement strategy to popularize their solution to the climate crisis, the Green New Deal. 

Nicole Carty, an Occupy alumni, leads a planning session for the first all Black Momentum training. (Momentum)

IfNotNow, an organization focused on ending American Jewish support for the occupation of Palestine, reformulated its strategy as a part of the community. Dissenters, a new antiwar organization created by young people of color, including anti-sweatshop labor activist Byul Yoon, received support from Momentum throughout their early development. And a veteran group of Black Lives Matter organizers like Miski Noor and Kandace Montgomery helped Momentum commit more resources towards Black leaders, and then worked to establish 2020’s defund the police demand as the Minneapolis-based organization Black Visions. 

Within these organizations there is a good amount of crossover, most clearly represented by Never Again Action, one of the catalysts of 2020’s first car caravan protests demanding the release of undocumented immigrants from detention centers. This project involved collaboration between Cosecha and IfNotNow and received support from Momentum staff as it considered next steps.

The cycle continues as leaders from organizations like Sunrise come back to Momentum to lead trainings and attend skillshare events. These skillshares primarily involve presentations from organizers that summarize lessons from their experiences, like findings from an experiment in communal housing leaders in apartments across the country. They also involve open discussions and panels in which ideas like electoral engagements can be discussed and debated. Here leaders can receive a crash course on the results of different campaigns and projects and take the knowledge back into their own organizing. Momentum has taken information from these skillshares and used them to update the curriculum, which is then passed on to a new generation of participants. 

This process has evolved over the years and now involves temporary think tanks to tackle tough topics like Trump’s potential to initiate a coup. Feedback from those think tanks and complimentary one-on-one interviews are used to develop comprehensive reports — many of which will be released this year for the public. This process eventually led to Momentum’s two latest projects, a cohort program that provided year-long support for organizers to develop new movement organizations from scratch, and an ongoing reflection process in which Momentum leaders and staff are engaging in a series of retreats to revamp the organization to fit the exact needs of movement leaders today. 

It is this process of training, practice and reflection that makes Momentum so effective. While many see Occupy as a failure or victory for the left, Momentum understands it as a lesson that needs to be dissected and understood. Much like Occupy, none of the currently existing movements are perfect, but they will provide lessons for the next iteration of organizers who seek to take the mantle and push the limits of the politically possible. Momentum gives organizers a home to do that, a shelter and home base that carries the legacy of Occupy and the many generations of movement practitioners that came before it.


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