Nearly five years after Occupy Wall Street’s eviction from a small Manhattan park, the movement that shined the spotlight on the 99% has spread its seeds across America.
From the shade of honey locust trees in Zuccotti Park near the New York Stock Exchange, the group’s creed against income inequality, corporate greed and the influence of money in politics helped spawn a variety of causes — from Black Lives Matter to the ascent of Bernie Sanders to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s quiet protest against institutional racism.
“What a movement that has any kind of success does — not necessarily practical results but any kind of excitement — is acquaint or reacquaint people with some of the pleasures of being involved in a social movement,” says Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University professor and author of “Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.”
“The way movements work is they sort of enlarge the circle of possibility.”
On Saturday, the fifth anniversary of the birth of their movement, Occupy supporters plan to gather at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan and later march to police headquarters. There will be speeches about Black Lives Matter, the minimum wage, gentrification, prisoner rights, HIV/AIDS and other topics.
‘Interplay between the digital and physical space’
Kalle Lasn, co-founder of the counterculture magazine Adbusters, took to Twitter and some websites in 2011 to help organize a campaign encouraging tens of thousands of Americans to hold nonviolent sit-ins in Lower Manhattan.
The campaign was inspired by the social-media fueled uprisings in places such as Egypt and Tunisia. The populist demonstrations against authoritarian regimes in North Africa and the Middle East became known as the Arab Spring.
“There was a kind of interplay between the digital and the physical space there, and social media was a tool, among others, that was very effective in bringing large numbers of people out,” says Michael Gould-Wartofsky, author of “The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement.”
Adbusters’ protest campaign, with the hashtag #occupywallstreet, began with the launch of a website calling for a march through the streets of Lower Manhattan and a sit-in at the stock exchange — just as demonstrators did in Tunis’ November 7 Square and Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
The New York campaign got a sizable boost from the hacktivist group Anonymous, which released a short video urging supporters to participate in Occupy Wall Street.
Drawing fascination and ridicule
On September 17, 2011, a few hundred protesters descended on the ultimate symbol of American capitalism: the Financial District in Manhattan. Drawing both fascination and ridicule, the movement quickly spread to encompass headline-grabbing protests around the globe.
“Obviously there was dry tinder all over the place that could get ignited without much trouble,” Gitlin says. “That’s why you very quickly got these hundreds of encampments.”
Large labor unions, including the AFL-CIO and Service Employees International Union, came on board. Solidarity protests sprouted up in Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Denver and Chicago, among dozens of other cities. President Barack Obama expressed sympathy for the protesters’ views. Celebrities flocked to the encampments. Mass Occupy arrests made the news every week.
The 99% were pitted against the 1%.
“That’s now part of our folklore,” Gitlin says of the catchphrase “We are the 99%.”
But Occupy as a political project had already begun to fray by the time the New York Police Department, acting on orders from then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, cleared the park, arresting more than 240 protesters nearly two months after the “occupation” had begun.
Many activists had become baffled or frustrated by the avant-garde in their midst and had largely soured on the spectacle.
Despite the inner tumult and outside mockery, aspects of the message behind the protests — which eventually spanned more than 1,000 locations across the country — have become part of the current political discussion.
“The movement as a whole is no more dead than the people who participated in it,” Gould-Wartofsky says.
“It brought a lot of young people into the streets and into a kind of a political consciousness that has only evolved since 2011.”
Conversation about ‘white role in black oppression’
Among them was activist Cecily McMillan, who spent 58 days in jail after being convicted in the 2012 assault of a police officer in Zuccotti Park. She recalls many of the early protesters as part of “the most educated, most entitled generation.” They were disenchanted and jobless after spending “their entire lives studying the poor, studying the oppressed in graduate school,” she says.
“What we had there were people that experienced the emoticon of what the suffering of the 99% was,” she says. “You were making performance art out of the existence of the oppressed.”
But the demographics soon began to evolve. Labor unions and community groups lent their support. The occupiers joined marches against the New York police’s stop-and-frisk policy, which the courts ruled unfairly targeted blacks and Latinos.
“Black and brown people came down and said, ‘Listen, you’re not doing anything for us,’ ” McMillan recalls. “It turned into a practice that has led us to have a conversation about what is the white role in black oppression.”
McMillan is now an Atlanta-based prisoner rights activist. She chronicled her personal and political transformation in “The Emancipation of Cecily McMillan: An American Memoir.” This week, she participated in a New York panel discussion called “Mobilizing Privilege Against the New Jim Crow.”
“We were able to essentially take our cultural capital, our privilege, and directly transfer it to these movements,” she says of the involvement with causes such as Black Lives Matter.
‘Language of … the millennial generation’
The Black Lives Matter network was founded four years ago by three black female activists angry over the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer as he walked home. They created the #blacklivesmatter hashtag. In addition, there was the Black Lives Matter movement, a more amorphous collection of racial justice groups formed to fight police brutality.
“Both are millennial-led movements and are speaking largely the language of my generation, the millennial generation,” Gould-Wartofsky says of Occupy and Black Lives Matter.
“They’re also addressing themselves to what they see as institutions that are unaccountable to the public and that kind of exposed, for them, the deficit between the principles of democracy and the reality.”
Fight for higher minimum wage
Occupy also helped influence the national conversation about the growing wealth gap.
In April, the forces of Occupy Wall Street reunited in support of Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate. They did traditional canvassing and participated in an Occupy-inspired march in Manhattan before the New York Democratic primary. Prominent Occupy organizer Beka Economopoulos led a phone-banking effort for Sanders from Zuccotti Park.
“Without a doubt, people who had been excited and frustrated by the encampment got sort of agitated to think about what they wanted to do next,” Gitlin says.
“Obviously, some of that spirit and some of those persons gravitated into the Bernie Sanders movement.”
Attorney Martin Stolar, who represented many Occupy protesters, says Sanders’ success is partly attributable to the earlier movement.
“Occupy was criticized for not having a program, but the program was to raise the level and change the nature of the conversation,” says Stolar, a former president of the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. “That’s what Occupy was about it. They succeeded in that respect.”
Occupy organizers got involved in the campaign for the $15 an hour minimum wage and helped build momentum for a national worker-led movement.
“The ‘Fight for $15’ would not have happened without Occupy Wall Street, and they have raised the wage floor now in dozens of cities and states — not always to $15 but certainly higher,” Gould-Wartofsky says.
“A lot of that energy came out of Occupy Wall Street.”
Occupy was long criticized as a leaderless group of disaffected young people without a clear objective or agenda, but it’s now credited with influencing grass-roots movements addressing a variety of issues — from the student debt crisis to oil pipelines and fracking to police brutality and racism.
“The new wave of protests that you’re seeing … are a testament to the enduring power of the Occupy movement’s message,” Gould-Wartofsky says.