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Some Say Occupy Wall Street Did Nothing. It Changed Us More Than We Think

13 minute read

Ten years ago, on November 15, Occupy Wall Street was pepper-sprayed into the night by a squadron of police officers who helped shovel the tents, books, and placards left by activists into a fleet of sanitation trucks. A messy, motley, and spirited demonstration, Occupy started as a march of some 2,000 people in lower Manhattan that mushroomed to approximately 1,000 similar protests across the country. It seized enough media coverage to appear like a moment in the making, as it amplified outrage over America’s skewed distribution of wealth and opportunity.

And yet, as quickly as it started, it was gone within 59 days.

In the decade since its demise, scores of observers—and even participants—have said Occupy Wall Street fell short. Pundits including New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin have written that it will amount to nothing more than an asterisk in the history books. Then, there’s Micah White, editor at the activist magazine Adbusters. White’s email blast before the protest began is credited with sparking the idea behind Occupy. But in the 10 years since the protest ended, White has deemed Occupy a disappointment since it never achieved what it set out to do.

In his 2016 book, The End of Protest. A New Playbook for Revolution, White wrote, “an honest assessment reveals that Occupy Wall Street failed to live up to its revolutionary potential: We did not bring an end to the influence of money on democracy, overthrow the corporatocracy of the 1 percent or solve income inequality.” He concluded by calling Occupy “a constructive failure because the movement revealed underlying flaws in dominant and still prevalent theories of how to achieve social change through collective action.”

At first glance, it might seem as if Occupy came and went without leaving much of a legacy. It never solidified around a specific set of demands, nor did it generate a concrete platform. There’s no significant flesh-and-bones organization to point to as its heir. And it never anointed a leadership team.

There’s a big problem with that conclusion, however: Occupy’s messaging just won’t go away. It permeates political discourse about the global economy. It has cemented notions of economic inequality squarely in D.C. policy debates. Ideas that were thought to be too socialist since the demise of the Eastern Bloc—class struggle, wealth distribution across social strata, or even flaws in the capitalist system—were suddenly aired loudly and frequently for the first time since the Great Depression.

Sparking new youth movements

Occupy, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz told TIME, “is part of a series of events that precipitate an understanding of the limitations of corporate America, something that today has morphed into a sense of the misdeeds not only by the financial sector, the fossil fuel sector, and now by big tech. It was the first critique that crystallized it in a very powerful way. Subsequent movements built on growing understanding, a sense that the corporate sector is not really serving American interests.”

Occupy also seized the imagination of two key demographics on the rise. The first of these: Millennials, many of whom participated in the movement’s Manhattan launch or any of the similar protests around the country. The sustained protest also left a lasting impression on Generation Z, a cohort that was just becoming aware of a turbulent world around it.

Powered by youthful exuberance, Occupy not only roused a spirit of protest, but also helped create a template for peaceful resistance that could include equal measures of social media and old-fashioned physical presence. Not bad for two weeks of work—or as Vladimir Lenin wrote, “In some decades nothing happens—in some weeks decades happen.”

Millennials were pivotal in getting Occupy’s message out to participants and the media alike. A majority of participants were young students and college graduates who were steeped in student loan debt, according to CUNY sociologist Ruth Milkman’s studies of New York City’s Occupy enclave. As the first American generation to embrace social media, they used Twitter and Facebook to issue a call to action and later coordinate activities. Electrical outlets at Zuccotti Park made it possible to set up a makeshift communications post, one protesters used to contact media and document daily activities.

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Occupy was not created by any one centralized group, nor did it give birth to an organization of formal movement. It embraced an open-source, horizontal structure, more in line with a software developer’s organizational hierarchy. Key figures in the movement including late-professor and long-time activist David Graeber said the structure was deliberate, the goal being a new democratic model which would follow the will of the people. The result, however, was a standstill mired in glacial debates that failed to produce a platform or leadership.

And yet, Occupy seem to pull in support from disparate groups. The attraction lay in the fact that Occupy membership was never limited by narrow goals or messaging, says American University marketing professor Sonya Grier. “It was broad enough to capture all the associations the American public could generate at the time,” she says. “Even absent a unifying strategic action plan, Occupy Wall Street had the legs to spread to different societal groups in a way that continues to the present.”

A long line of protests followed in Occupy’s wake and owe it a debt of gratitude. With the help of Occupy veterans, the Fight for $15 fair wage movement started less than a year after the Zuccotti Park encampment was shut down. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the anti-Trump women’s marches, and the March for Our Lives certainly drew inspiration from Occupy. The movement helped propel Bernie Sanders’ Democratic-Socialist presidential campaign. There is a direct link between Occupy’s focus on economic disparity and the ascendancy of the Democratic party’s Progressive caucus.

“The success of Occupy opened the eyes of a lot of participants to what protest was and how it could make a difference,” says CUNY’s Milkman. “In a way, it made protest cool for a new generation of young people for the first time since the late 1960’s.”

Millennials are often maligned as a changeable and disconnected generation glued to their smartphone screens. That’s off the mark, says CUNY’s Milkman whose studies have tracked a group of several hundred Occupiers over time. She says a substantial majority have continued a commitment to change, some as activists, some as participants in other social movements, and some as labor organizers.

In many ways, Occupy’s function as a loudspeaker marked a tipping point for other groups as well. In 2011, labor unions saw an opening, and several declared support for Occupy or marched including New York City transit workers, a Teamsters local, and later longshoremen at an Oakland, California offshoot. In 2016, a wave of teachers strikes in red states such as Oklahoma and Kentucky were organized by Millennials via social media. And the labor movement’s Striketober muscle flexing this year likely drew some inspiration from Occupy.

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A wave of media exposure

Location played a big part, too. Occupy’s headquarters was, of course, in America’s news media capital. Base camp for the movement was Zuccotti Park, a compact 33,000 square-foot public space small enough to be a guilt slice in the glutton’s banquet that is lower Manhattan real estate. The irony: Zuccotti was privately owned. Its owners had won a zoning concession that prevented Mayor Michael Bloomberg from outright evicting Occupy’s protesters and helped its longevity.

From the start, Occupy delivered drama. Early on, New York Police pepper-sprayed several female Occupiers. Later, police clashed with march participants and arrested 700 protesters.

The result was a groundswell of publicity. Occupy started slowly, drawing in 2% of total news coverage by the end of its second week, as measured by the Pew Research Center. By mid-November, that number had grown steadily to 13% while driving economic issues to absorb almost a quarter of newscasts. For perspective, consider two numbers. The first is 20+ million, the combined audience that sat down for evening newscasts of the big three broadcasters ABC, CBS, and NBC, according to Nielsen. At an average cost of $55,000 for a 30-second commercial slot, Occupy at its peak was generating a level of media attention roughly equivalent of nearly $1 million in free advertising nightly.

By the beginning of its second month, the exposure was helping Occupy make inroads. A survey conducted in late October found a slim majority of participants (39% to 35%) supported rather than opposed the movement. Contrast those numbers with a 32%-44% support/oppose ratio generated by the Tea Party movement at the time and Occupy’s pull becomes clear. “When mainstream media, politicians and people milling at the water cooler are talking about political and economic inequality, the Occupiers are winning,” wrote University of California Irvine political science professor David S. Meyer at the time.

The origins of ‘the 1%’

Any retrospective of Occupy must include serious consideration of its rallying cry: “We are the 99%.” Economists such as Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty may have already been studying the way inequality had wedged a shockingly wide gap between haves-in-excess and have-nots, but in just 14 characters, Occupy organizers created a message that framed the outrage millions and put “the 1%” on notice. They were armed with a deft turn of phrase made for daily distribution on a crescendo of news coverage. In this way, Occupy echoed the Tea Party and millions of others on the political left, right and center who were suffering during the height of the Great Recession and concurrently expressing outrage at bank bailouts that left them stranded.

Occupy’s message continues to resonate. Exhibit A: President Joe Biden, who has targeted the 1% repeatedly while pushing to overhaul U.S. tax policy to help fund infrastructure improvements and an aggressive social agenda. His administration is also reportedly seeking to make good on yet another of Occupy’s ideas: debt cancellation. The 2020 Democratic Party platform pointed out that incomes for the top 1% in the country were growing five times faster than those of the bottom 90 percent. And let’s not forget Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose “Tax the Rich” dress at this year’s Met Gala event seems to leap straight out of an Occupy pret-a-porter evening collection.

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“Occupy’s legacy is the commonsense attention to inequality,” says author Astra Taylor who participated in the protest and later co-authored a book chronicling its day-to-day progression. “Structural issues such as poverty were examined before Occupy, but were subterranean in American discourse,” she says. “Occupy brought them to the surface and in that way made the everyday experience of real people news.”

Occupy’s unprecedented media success helped make the 99% and 1% labels commonplace. The nine months preceding Occupy were marked by global upheaval, so much so that TIME named “The Protester” the person of the year in 2011. The Arab Spring of 2011 had toppled despotic governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. In Europe, the Indignados protests against the Spanish government’s austerity measures followed soon after. By the time of its launch on September 17, Occupy had emerged as the latest in a global wave of mass discontent.

A legacy left, right and center

The lasting effects of Occupy are not isolated to the Left. A surge in populism is visible across the American political spectrum and much of the Right’s messaging can be traced back to the discontent Occupy crystallized. Donald Trump was able to leapfrog a crowd of Republican contenders in 2016 in part by hinting early on about raising taxation rates for the rich—only to U-turn later. His close adviser, Steve Bannon has identified a growing distrust of elites by a predominately white working class as key to Trump’s popularity.

“The notion of money corrupting politics, of corporate welfare, and of crony capitalism—this is the stuff that left- and right-wing populism are made of,” says Robert Reich, formerly an economic adviser to the Clinton administration. Indeed, Bannon, whose film Occupy Unmasked claimed to expose an orgy of criminality at the heart of the protest, nevertheless took up positions about the abandonment of the working class that mirrored the movement’s tone. Bannon frequently pointed to his father’s loss of life savings when AT&T stock tanked in the 2008 market drop as prime motivation. Occupy’s wide appeal was fueled by shared frustration, more specifically a sense of disconnect between commonfolk and the government. “The idea is essentially that the system is not going to save us, we’re going to have to save ourselves,” said activist Graeber two days after Occupy launched.

The 1%, meanwhile, has all but written Occupy off. The movement had no discernible impact on banking. No corporate regulation is directly linked to it. Ten years later, Wall Street and corporate America are bursting at the seams. Since 2011, the S&P 500 has climbed over 325% and now has a combined market capitalization of $39 trillion. Over the last 10 years, the wealthiest have gotten robust tax breaks thanks to a sizable windfall in the Trump tax cuts of 2017. And some measures find that members of the 1% grabbed hold an additional $7 trillion in wealth during the pandemic alone.

Economist Thomas Piketty, who authored two seminal books on inequality in the last decade— Capital in the 21st Century (2013) and Capital and Ideology (2019)—says, “Inequality has been moving to the center stage since Occupy and Capital, but it is not enough. The process will continue and will probably be accelerated by COVID and global warming, but the forces of resistance (especially the power of money on political campaigns, think tanks, universities, the media, etc.) are still very strong.” He adds, “What makes me optimistic is that it’s always been like this: elites fight to maintain extreme inequality, but in the end there is a long-run movement toward more equality, at least since the end of the 18th century, and it will continue.”

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