The Rise of Occupy Wall Street: The Movement Moment That Revived The U.S. Left

Issue 266

Ten years ago this fall a protest movement took root in Lower Manhattan that transformed how we think about inequality and reinvigorated the Left.

John Tarleton Sep 15, 2021

All photos by Erik McGregor.

More Coverage

Occupy Wall Street’s Impact Continues to Grow

Sandy Nurse’s Journey from Occupy Wall Street to NYC City Council

Contested Ground: 9/11, Occupy Wall Street & the Future of America

It was the summer of 2011 and millions of Americans were still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis. Home foreclosure rates were at an all-time high. The unemployment rate was hovering near 9 percent. Many recent college graduates couldn’t find a good job, or any job at all, to begin paying off their student loans and building lives as independent adults.

Lorenzo Serna was one of them. Serna had graduated from the University of North Dakota but was now jobless. When a friend from their student activism days at UND invited Serna to crash at his Brooklyn apartment, they hopped on a Greyhound bus. After arriving at the Port Authority bus terminal, Serna went straight to a meeting of local activists that their friend was involved with. The meeting participants were debating whether to “occupy Wall Street.”

The idea — that 20,000 people would set up a round-the-clock protest encampment at the foot of Wall Street — had been proposed by Micah White of the Canadian magazine Adbusters without consulting anyone in New York. It seemed far-fetched. Who was going to organize that many people to show up? How would they be fed and cared for? How would the NYPD respond?

“Everyone was like, what is this guy doing?” Serna recalled. “He’s not even from New York City. He’s telling people to do stuff, and he’s not going to do it.”

Still, “difficult” is not the same as “impossible.” Similar, politically charged occupations of public squares had taken place earlier that year in Egypt, Spain, Greece and the Wisconsin state capitol building. The same disconnect between ruling elites and everyone else existed here as well.

Now in its third year, the Obama administration was obsessed with “deficit reduction.” Wall Street had been bailed out three years earlier and now it demanded that the working class foot the bill. Obama offered congressional Republicans four dollars in cuts to Social Security and Medicare spending for every one dollar in tax increases but was rebuffed.

“There was a sense among the general public that the government really wasn’t coming to help them post-2008 financial crisis,” said Michael Pellagotti, a young activist from New Jersey who threw himself into the movement.

• • •

The anarchists at the New York City General Assembly took the lead on organizing Occupy Wall Street, holding in-person meetings in August and early September in a local park while doing outreach online to drum up interest. The protest kicked off on Sept. 17 when as many as 2,000 people marched from the bottom of Broadway past Wall Street to Zuccotti Park, a privately owned public space controlled by Brookfield Properties. They held assemblies that allowed people to face each other and share their struggles and how they might address them.

“The revolution already started now & no one is going to stop us,” reads the sign of a General Assembly-attendee.

“Assemblies are where we really listen to one another and build relationships as humans,” said Marina Sitrin, one of the lead facilitators that day who has studied and participated in “horizontalist” movements around the world over the past quarter century.

Roughly 200 people stayed through the night and kept the occupation going into the next day. It was the beginning of a fervent, 59-day experiment in public dissent. Occupy Wall Street would shake up American politics like few protests in history and inspire other Occupy camps to form in more than 600 cities and towns across the country in an outpouring of discontent. The meaning and the legacy of the movement is still debated by its participants, but a sense of wonder that they had been a part of such an event remains widespread.

“Every day felt like a week. It was like living in a time warp,” said Sandy Nurse, who slept over the first night and soon became a leading figure in the direct action working group that planned OWS’s street protests.

“It was like watching a mystery reveal itself,” said Gary Roland, a member of the OWS tactical team who insisted that the group set up camp at Zuccotti Park and not attempt to enter the plaza outside the One Chase Manhattan Building that was surrounded by police.

Zuccotti Park is a three-quarter acre slab of granite nestled amid skyscrapers with in-ground lights and a sprinkling of young honey locust trees planted after 9/11. It is a privately owned public space controlled by Brookfield Properties, which is required by city law to keep it open 24 hours a day.

I worked at a nearby office building. When the workweek resumed on Monday Sept. 19, only a few dozen, mostly bedraggled Occupiers could be found at the park during the day. At first glance, it looked like another hopeless protest. However, more was going on than met the eye.

The small daytime contingent would be supplemented with people coming by after work. Evening meetings of the General Assembly — OWS’s official decision-making body — were growing in size and found the perfect work-around to NYPD restrictions on the use of amplified sound in the park — the “people’s microphone,” a communal process by which members of a crowd would repeat what a speaker said to those standing further away. The group had a catchy battle cry — “We are the 99%!” — and Nurse and the direct action working group were keeping their fellow Occupiers from becoming too sedentary by leading twice-a-day marches on Wall Street to greet the opening and closing bell of the New York Stock Exchange chanting “All day! All night! All week! Occupy Wall Street!” Their every action was broadcast by livestreamers like Lorenzo Serna who were determined to do an in-run around the corporate media.

Occupy’s existence was tenuous but it persevered and slowly gained strength. The NYPD loomed in the background but did not move against what was still a small, rag-tag protest.

New York’s billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, liked to refer to the NYPD as “my private army,” and not without reason. At his behest, the police had repeatedly crushed dissent from Iraq War protests to the 2004 Republican National Convention to Critical Mass bike rides. But this time the NYPD found itself ill-prepared to confront a nimble foe that had mastered revolutionary new developments in communications technologies.

On September 24, OWS celebrated its one-week anniversary by marching to Union Square. Near the end of the march, some of the protesters were kettled behind orange nets in advance of being arrested. Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna casually walked up and with no apparent reason blasted two young white women in the face with pepper spray, causing them to cry out in agony. Video of the beefy cop assaulting the two women was captured on video, went viral on social media and was then picked up and amplified a second time by conventional media outlets. The incident boosted the visibility of OWS and swung public sympathy toward it.

One week later, the NYPD surrounded and arrested 700 Occupy protesters as they tried to cross the Brooklyn Bridge. The stand-off made national headlines and the movement exploded. Donations and new volunteers poured into OWS and new encampments opened daily in cities and towns across the country.

“When the media coverage really kicked off, it became just an influx of people who wanted to participate,” Nurse said.

Several days later, New York’s labor unions convened a mass demonstration in support of Occupy that drew an estimated 30,000 people to Foley Square and the surrounding streets and courthouse steps.

After years of investing in conventional messaging campaigns that failed to move the needle on economic inequality as a political issue, a bunch of scrappy organizers sleeping out in a park had broken through.

Labor was eager to be seen with its popular new friend. It provided space for holding meetings and storing supplies, bodies in the streets for protests, messaging credibility with working-class New Yorkers who might be wary of Occupy’s countercultural musk and funding for special projects like The Occupied Wall Street Journal, a brilliantly designed, four-page, full-color broadsheet that captured the Occupy moment and was distributed to tens of thousands of readers. An early sign of Occupy’s ability to reshape the political narrative came when a labor-led coalition pressured Gov. Andrew Cuomo to drop his plans to eliminate a “millionaires tax” on high earners that brought in $2-3 billion a year in revenue. Wary of being tagged as “Governor 1 Percent,” the image-conscious Cuomo backed down.

Occupiers demonstrating with The Occupied Wall Street Journal.

“It was an instantly profound and very rare intervention at the level of meaning in society and its dominant narrative,” said author and organizer Jonathan Smucker of Occupy’s impact. The standard up-by-the-bootstraps narrative that people are fed was for tens of millions of people supplanted by a new narrative of a rigged system that only served the interests of the rich, said Smucker, who credited Occupy for fueling the growth of a radical left wing of the Democratic Party that didn’t exist at the time. It wasn’t what Occupy Wall Street’s original organizers intended, but OWS had become too big for any one group or faction to control.

• • •

Zuccotti Park hummed with activity throughout the day and late at night you had to tiptoe around dozing Occupiers in their sleeping bags. According to Marisa Holmes of New York City General Assembly, 100 working groups formed during OWS with an average of 40 members each. While many working groups focused on Occupy’s internal workings — food, sanitation, public safety, health care, finance, communications, meeting facilitation, etc. — others sought to channel some of the movement’s energy to other causes: supporting striking Sotheby’s auction house workers, aiding embattled homeowners, stopping a controversial fracked natural gas pipeline from being built in Manhattan’s West Village.

The fracktivists lost the battle to stop the Spectra Pipeline from being allowed to cross under the Hudson River and enter the West Village. But one of the groups leading that fight, SANE Energy, emerged from Occupy with more volunteers and momentum and would play a leading role in stopping several major fossil fuel infrastructure projects in New York City and State in the following years.

Occupy’s rapid growth also meant it experienced many growing pains. A draft of the “Declaration of the Occupation of Wall Street” included a passage that described the Occupiers as “being one race, the human race, formerly divided by race, class …”

Manissa Maharawal was stunned. Like the “All Lives Matter” rhetoric of recent vintage, this awkward appeal to our common humanity erased the unique ways people of color experience life under racialized capitalism. Using the people’s microphone, she appealed to the General Assembly to change the passage. She received some push- back, but her request won overwhelming support and was accepted. Maharawal would go on to participate in the people of color caucus that worked to introduce the movement to a more nuanced analysis of race and class that didn’t exclude one at the expense of another, work that would help prepare many Occupiers to embrace the rise of Black Lives Matter a few years later.

“The energy of people thinking together and being curious and trying to learn made me feel like ‘Hey, I have something to contribute here,’ ” Mahawaral said. “We were trying to contribute something, not to tear the movement down but to make it stronger.”

• • •

The sheer size of OWS eventually made the consensus-oriented General Assembly unworkable. Key working groups began making decisions on their own because it was the only way to get anything done. Prominent leaders were denounced. After weeks of dysfunction, OWS belatedly switched to a “Spokescouncil” model of decision-making that empowered representatives from working groups to meet and make decisions.

Judson Church Multi-faith service for Occupy Wall Street.

Occupy Wall Street was not separate from the world and over time the camp became a refuge to more people seeking food and shelter, including some of whom had mental health and substance abuse issues. Undercover cops stirred up trouble. The police were also reported to be sending newly released inmates from Rikers Island straight to Zuccotti Park. As October turned to November, the encampments in New York and other big cities were not only facing greater internal challenges but were also being targeted by the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies that were collaborating closely with local police departments. Police raids were carried out in one city after another to shut down Occupy encampments. Zuccotti Park finally fell after midnight on November 15. The NYPD destroyed everything people could not hastily carry away, including the People’s Library and its thousands of books that ended up in the trash.

The loss of a central hub was shattering for OWS. At the same time, it freed up the energy that was going into maintaining the camp to flow into myriad forms of long-term movement building work that would change the world outside Zuccotti Park. Two days after the raid, another labor-backed march of 30,000 people gathered in the dark and marched over the Brooklyn Bridge toward an uncertain future. The grief and the anger over the loss of Zuccotti was palpable. As the crowd began heading over the bridge, Mark Read was waiting high up in a nearby apartment building. He aimed his “bat signal” at the side of the Verizon Building that stands next to the bridge and a series of messages danced on the wall: “99%…Mic Check!…Look around you…You are a part of a global uprising…We are a cry…from the heart…of the world…We are unstoppable…”

The crowd roared its approval. Read, a professor of media studies at NYU, had offered the leaseholder on the apartment he was using $250 for her trouble. She declined upon learning he was with Occupy. The police figured out where the bat signal was coming from, Read said, and soon they were pounding on the apartment door, demanding to be allowed in.

The woman’s sister took her two children aside to speak with them. “I remember her telling them ‘We need to be brave. And you know, sometimes you need to take a risk to do the right thing.’ ”

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