All photos by Erik McGregor.
Occupy Wall Street was an inconsequential failure, even worse a “fad” — at least according to the New York Times. As Occupy’s first anniversary approached, Times columnist Joe Nocera delivered its obituary: “For all intents and purposes, the Occupy movement is dead,” he intoned. Occupy “will be an asterisk in the history books, if it gets a mention at all,” added the Times’ star business writer Andrew Ross Sorkin.
In fact, the impact of radical social movements tends to unfold unevenly over time. New organizations are launched. The public discourse gradually shifts. Long-term personal commitments to do the work are forged or deepened. The countless relationships formed during a peak movement moment nourish future efforts that build off of each other. Savvy political candidates embrace once-marginal ideas that turn out to have a large following.
Ten years out, the ledger on Occupy looks a little different. Here is a small sampling of the movement’s impact at both the national and local level.
NAMING THE CULPRIT
We are constantly told the United States is a middle class nation. In reality it’s a capitalist oligarchy with deep class divisions. With its populist framing of the 1% vs. the 99%, Occupy managed to smuggle class back into mainstream political discourse for the first time in decades and gave us a simple vocabulary for naming the 1-percenters — or more accurately the .01-percenters — who run this country for their own enrichment, an invaluable first step for someday challenging and dismantling their power.
THE FIGHT FOR 15
Emboldened by Occupy’s economic message and attention-grabbing tactics, the Fight for $15 began in 2012 when 200 fast-food workers in New York City walked off the job to demand $15/hr and union rights. With backing from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the campaign grew to encompass fast-food workers, home health aides, childcare workers, airport workers, adjunct professors, retail employees and underpaid employees everywhere. To date, Fight for $15 has won raises for 26 million people across the country with 10 states at or on their way to a $15 minimum wage.
THE DEBT COLLECTIVE
Inspired by the late anthropologist and Occupy organizer David Graeber who wrote a best-selling book on the history of debt, The Debt Collective has retired $2.8 billion in student debt, medical debt, payday loans, probation debt and credit card debt — often by raising funds to purchase debts on secondary debt markets for pennies on the dollar and then ripping up the debts they have acquired. The group’s student debt campaign has put student debt cancellation and free public college on the political map.
OCCUPY THE SEC
Occupy made room for all kinds of people including finance nerds who want the Securities and Exchange Commission to more closely regulate Wall Street. In the years following Occupy, OSEC would go on to become a leading critic of the SEC and nudge the agency to become more aggressive in exercising its powers.
RACE & CLASS
During Occupy, white participants were pushed by people of color to develop a deeper understanding of how racialized capitalism works and the relative privileges it confers on members of the 99%. Many white Occupiers were also on the receiving end of police violence for the first time in their lives, all of which prepared them to take the streets in support of the Movement for Black Lives following the 2014 deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of the police.
CATALYZING OTHER SOCIAL MOVEMENTS
Just as Occupy was boosted by movements that preceded it, threads from Occupy have run through some
of the past decade’s most dynamic grassroots social movements including Black Lives Matter, MeToo and an anti-oil pipeline protest encampment at Standing Rock, North Dakota that drew more than 10,000 participants in the fall of 2016.
Media for the 99%
Occupy Wall Street’s ability to create its own media narrative was key to its success. Some Zuccotti Park alums have continued to manage Occupy-themed Facebook and Twitter pages that receive millions of visitors per year. Others have gone on to launch new projects such as Unicorn Riot, a livestream service founded in 2015 that has provided frontline coverage of protests as they unfold. Unicorn Riot’s co-founder Lorenzo Serna is now the media director at NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led organization that promotes Indigenous struggles to develop and decolonize their communities.
In the wake of Occupy, Solidaire was formed by 1-percenters who have since redistributed tens of millions of dollars of their wealth to bring much-needed resources to frontline social justice movements with a special emphasis on Black liberation and indigenous sovereignty. Solidairenetwork.org.
THE WILDFIRE PROJECT
After exploding into national prominence within a matter of weeks, Occupy was riven by internal disputes that weakened the movement. Afterwards, a number of organizers with ties to Occupy helped launch the Wildfire Project, which has worked with more than 50 leftist organizations on how to create healthy internal cultures and organizing practices that set them up for long-term success. Sunrise Movement, Dream Defenders and Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) are among the groups that have been mentored by Wildfire. Wildfireproject.org.
Superstorm Sandy swamped areas of New York when it swept ashore on October 29, 2012. With both federal and local government disaster relief agencies paralyzed and large NGOs like the Red Cross missing in action, the anarchist-inflected Occupy Sandy filled the void. With its motto of “mutual aid, not charity,” It swiftly mobilized a decentralized network of thousands of volunteers who visited New Yorkers trapped in their unlit apartments, gathered food and other supplies, established medical clinics and later helped people gut their mold-infested homes and begin rebuilding their lives. In Far Rockaway, it helped incubate several worker-owned businesses.
“Occupy Sandy did not save the day,” Resilience.org wrote afterwards. “But Occupy did save countless people hungry nights, desperate days, panicked sweats over finding places for the kids to sleep, cold conversations about next month’s rent. It brought people together.”
Many of the people who were active in Occupy Sandy later helped form neighborhood-based mutual aid networks in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Opponents of fracking received an infusion of new volunteers while leading an anti-pipeline fight in the West Village during Occupy. SANE Energy was in the thick of the West Village battle and would see its ranks swell. In the following years, the group would play a leading role in successfully rallying public opposition to several major natural gas infrastructure projects including the Williams Pipeline, which would have traversed beneath the
New York Harbor, and Port Ambrose, a proposed liquified natural gas port that would have been located off of Long Beach, Long Island. The same offshore area will be the site of a future wind farm that will power hundreds of thousands of New York homes.
Opened in 2014 by veterans of Occupy, Mayday Space is a multi-story organizing center and social hub in Bushwick that works in tandem with its sister space Starr Bar a short walk away. Mayday
is both a neighborhood resource and a city-wide destination for engaging programming, a home for radical ideas and debate, and a welcoming gathering place for people and movements to work, learn, celebrate and build together. Mayday co-founder Sandy Nurse won a City Council seat in June and will take office January 1.
Bernie Sanders had been inveighing against a rigged economic and political system for 40 years but was barely known outside his home state of Vermont when Occupy Wall Street came along. Occupy’s easily understood class analysis (99 vs 1%) and the concerns it raised around economic inequality would provide the soundtrack for Sanders’ two spirited presidential runs. Sanders failed to win the White House but his campaigns largely won the battle of ideas around moving the Democratic Party back toward its New Deal roots. He also revived the Left as an electoral force in America for the first time in decades. Now Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders is pushing to enact substantial parts of his program — expanding Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing, federally subsidized child care, free community college, investments in renewable energy and a Climate Conservation Corps that would employ hundreds of thousands of young people — via a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package. It still has to pass through a gauntlet of congressional committees and overcome unanimous opposition from Republicans as well as some corporate Democrats.
PEOPLE FOR BERNIE
Bernie Sanders benefited from more than the change in the zeitgeist that Occupy inspired. His 2016 campaign was boosted by OWS activists Winnie Wong and Charles Lenchner, who launched the People for Bernie Facebook page. The site generated about 4 billion engagements in 2016 along and served as the mother ship for the roughly 200 independently managed pro-Sanders Facebook pages Wong and Lenchner established in the spring of 2015 and then turned over to Sanders supporters across the country to use as they saw fit. Wong, who coined the phrase “Feel the Bern,” helped organize the 2017 Women’s March and was a senior advisor to the 2020 Sanders campaign.
OUR REVOLUTION, JUSTICE DEMOCRATS, DSA
The 2016 Sanders campaign in turn helped seed a new generation of organizations on the electoral Left. This includes Our Revolution, with hundreds of state and local chapters that have worked to elect progressive candidates in recent years, and the Justice Democrats, which played a key role in electing several members of the Squad, most notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It was a group of AOC campaign alums who started the Movement School, which is training the next generation of electoral organizers and campaign staffers to build a diverse progressive movement.
The Sanders campaigns also super-charged the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America, which is now the largest socialist party in the US since the 1940s. Here in New York City, the DSA has elected one Congressmember, six state legislators and two incoming City Councilmembers.
Elizabeth Warren had already made a name for herself as a critic of the financial industry when she ran for a Massachusetts Senate seat in 2012. Still, Occupy helped turbocharge her relevance as a crusader against abusive business practices. While her 2020 presidential run did not succeed, Warren proteges are leading the Biden administration’s campaign to enforce anti-trust laws for the first time in decades.
Before Bernie and the Squad, Occupy Seattle organizer Kshama Sawant was elected to Seattle City Council in 2013. She was the first Socialist elected to public office in Seattle in almost a century. She quickly became the driving force in the successful campaign to make Seattle the first major city to enact a $15 per hour minimum wage. She also played a key role in passing a tax on Seattle’s largest corporations to address the city’s homelessness crisis. Sawant has been reelected twice and is now fighting a recall effort bankrolled by big business interests that want to drive her out of office.
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