5 Essential Occupy Wall Street Stories

4 minute read

Five years ago, on Sept. 17, 2011, people who identified themselves as part of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement began sleeping in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan’s financial district. Their demands were varied, but they claimed to represent the 99% of Americans who were struggling economically, railing against the world’s wealthiest—”the 1%”—and corporations with too much influence on Washington. Thousands of arrests later, and even after the NYPD cleaned up the park, protests continued nationwide.

In the beginning: TIME’s reporter on the scene described the miniature city inside the public plaza:

The park has become a semi-permanent home, complete with a medical station and a distribution point for food and water. The protesters have organized themselves into committees to remove the garbage, roam the camp to enforce a ban on open flames (an evictable offense in the eyes of the NYPD) and engage with the people in the area. A couple of pizza joints, a Burger King and a deli have let the protesters use their bathrooms; some have even donated food. In the middle of the park is a media center where protesters send out Twitter updates and live-stream the latest news on their website. At 1 am Wednesday, more than 3,000 people were sending in questions while a young woman in a yellow poncho answered them on a live feed.

The politics: The movement got cover billing on TIME’s Oct. 24, 2011 issue. The story wove in public opinion, which seemed to support the movement at the time, and the progressive agenda of the Obama White House.

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TIME’s Person of the Year: The magazine’s recognition of “The Protester” included the Occupiers, as the magazine deemed 2011 an “unprecedented, uncanny year of insurrection”:

No one could have known that when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in a public square in a town barely on a map, he would spark protests that would bring down dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and rattle regimes in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Or that that spirit of dissent would spur Mexicans to rise up against the terror of drug cartels, Greeks to march against unaccountable leaders, Americans to occupy public spaces to protest income inequality, and Russians to marshal themselves against a corrupt autocracy…

But leadership has come from the bottom of the pyramid, not the top. For capturing and highlighting a global sense of restless promise, for upending governments and conventional wisdom, for combining the oldest of techniques with the newest of technologies to shine a light on human dignity and, finally, for steering the planet on a more democratic though sometimes more dangerous path for the 21st century, the Protester is TIME’s 2011 Person of the Year.

One year later: Did OWS make a difference? By the fall of 2012, TIME argued that the anger at the big banks prompted them to “backpedal and abandon their plans to charge for debit-card use,” while community banks and credit unions gained more customers “at least temporarily.” With student debt reported at $1 trillion, the White House also announced plans to “let former students more easily consolidate their debts at a lower interest rate.”

Other populist movements: When TIME profiled the Black Lives Matter protesters who were on the 2015 shortlist for Person of the Year, the magazine noted that the movements that followed Occupy chronologically did not necessarily follow OWS tactics:

No matter their ideological differences, grassroots uprisings tend to follow patterns. Like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter is anchored in the physical occupation of public space and amplified by social media. Each uprising was decentralized by design; insurrections against the misuse of power are leery of vesting too much of it in one place. But there are specific reasons Black Lives Matter has flourished where Occupy fizzled.

One is the way it has weaponized protest. Activists strategically shut down Chicago’s Magnificent Mile on Black Friday and blocked traffic along Washington’s I-395 on one of the busiest travel days of the year. The demonstrations were chosen to maximize impact: causing discomfort is designed to make society feel the pain and frustration of living as a black person in America.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com