On September 17, 2011, activists gathered at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan for the first day of the Occupy Wall Street Movement
Margot Paez is a PhD candidate at Georgia Tech. She does research on climate adaptation and water resources. She was active in, and filed daily video reports on, the Occupy Movement in Los Angeles.
Ten years ago, I packed my video camera and audio equipment into a backpack and decided I was going to do something a little different with my life. For about 55 days during the fall of 2011, I filed daily video reports on social media that included interviews and a nightly report on what was happening at Occupy Los Angeles, one of Occupy Wall St’s affinity protests. Over this period, I watched a protest movement transform into a social movement as occupiers were forced to confront the failures of American society. Shortly after the eviction, it seemed like we had failed, but years later, I realized that movements never truly fail, and like discoveries in the pure sciences, they have far reaching impacts that are beyond what the original investigators could ever imagine.
What was Occupy about, really? I spent the first week trying to answer this question. I asked occupiers, in particular the core organizers, if they could get me a list of demands. They never surfaced. During that time, I was frustrated that there wasn’t a cohesive message. Was it the illegal foreclosures? Was it the wage stagnation? The bank bailouts? Debt? Police brutality? Climate change? Homelessness? In hindsight, it was all those things and more. Americans, as it turned out, were (and are) facing multiple crises all at once.
Occupy had two stages. The first stage involved strong support from the working class. In the early days, Occupy had multi-generational backing. Workers showed up after their shifts were over and they would stand along the sidewalk that surrounded City Hall in Downtown Los Angeles, holding signs, and cheering whenever someone honked in support. In the early days, SEIU members even led some evening protests.
At its peak, protestors staged several surprise actions at local bank branches which they attempted to occupy. There was a regular police presence, too. It seemed that once a week I was threatened with arrest, though thanks to my home-made press badge, I was never more than detained a few times.
In the second stage, the working class stopped showing up. I think this happened because like me, they were frustrated that the occupiers couldn’t come up with a clear set of demands and I think the general assemblies, which required 100 percent agreement on anything, were extraordinarily limiting. All it took was one contrarian to block a motion and nothing would happen. This occurred regularly. There were also egos. Despite occupy being a leaderless movement, there were people who wanted to be leaders and these people wanted to have an exclusive relationship with the media. Their actions caused friction, distrust, and resentment.
Inevitably, the political movement lost momentum. Working on building a new community became increasingly necessary as occupiers realized that American society had for too long neglected the basic needs of its citizens and the occupation was the first time many of us had been forced to confront these needs. While from the start of the protest, there was a goal toward creating a sharing community among the occupiers, I don’t think anyone expected that the city would force them to provide social services for the unhoused. Suddenly, occupiers were faced with more than just protest organizing, they had to do the city’s job, too.
The occupiers welcomed the unhoused community, and the community played an important role in shaping Occupy’s message. The major problem was that the city council purposely used the unhoused so that the Los Angeles mayor could shut down the occupation. Many in the unhoused community struggle with drug addiction and mental health and all are forced to live in unsanitary conditions. The mayor would later call Occupy LA a health hazard and used this as the reason to evict the protestors.
The local politicians and police’s plan, however, failed to stop the occupation at first, and occupiers met the challenge with mutual aid and community solidarity. Occupy provided volunteer-led medical services and treated anyone who needed care, free of charge. Occupiers had few resources to deal with drug addiction, but when it turned out a community member was using, they embraced this person and brainstormed solutions. They asked themselves, “What was needed to be done to help this person? How can the community support them?” Early on, occupiers built a garden to grow food to feed those who needed to eat, but a month later, the city tore it down.
Occupiers were no longer able to focus on the economic injustices that came about after the 2007-08 recession. Instead, they were forced to deal with something even deeper, which were the long-standing social injustices that neoliberalism caused, and which began before our generation was even born. Yet, the occupy movement didn’t fail.
Occupy changed the national narrative. For the first time, people were openly talking about income inequality. Thanks in part to David Graeber, the late anthropologist who helped coin the phrase, the news networks were talking about the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. Today, more Americans are again becoming comfortable with the idea of socialism. We’re no longer afraid to question capitalism’s legitimacy.
Without the occupy movement, I don’t believe there would have been an opening for Bernie Sanders to run for president. It was less than five years after the dust settled on the encampments that Sanders decided to run, and he spoke the language of the occupiers. He talked about the 99 percent and income inequality. He provided solutions to the social crises that occupiers faced in their encampments. Yes, it’s true that Sanders never wavered from his narrative in his long political career, but it wasn’t until after Occupy, that he had a chance to take his, and the occupiers’, message to the White House.
Occupy made something else happen during its existence. For the first time in the thirty years since neoliberalism had taken hold of the economy, Americans were allowed to openly confront the unfathomable reality that the middle class American dream was exactly that. Just a dream. Just a lie. The bitter taste of defeat of the American worker tastes even more bitter these ten years later.
Still, we must hold out hope. The greatest lesson to take from Occupy is not about whether protest movements work. Instead, it is that when people come together to solve problems, even those that are so far beyond their own control, they become transformed through human ingenuity, creativity, and community. They find solutions to problems that existing conditions promised were unsolvable. This is what we must remember from Occupy: to believe in ourselves, and that together, another world is still possible and within our hands to hold and to mold.