General James McPherson Memorial, Washington D.C., Jan. 2012
On June 9th, 2011, Kalle Lasn, a Canadian political activist, registered occupywallst.org. Five years later – to the day – the site still publishes regularly. But that is all that remains of a once global movement: a website.
I was a mild supporter of Occupy DC, which I attended a couple times in early 2012. I wrote about my experience here. McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza once teemed with fomenters, camped out under muddy tarps and carefully marking posterboard in ratty tents. But today, all that can be seen are statues and half-empty benches. When I type occupydc.org into my browser, I get the ominous note: “Nothing found.”
The Occupy Movement can be traced back to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and the Iranian Green Movement of mid-2009. “Occupation” as a protest trend began later that same year with students of The University of California system, and their response to tuition hikes and faculty layoffs. These cutbacks were a result of a ripple effect: the global economic recession was at its peak, and would last until 2013. The students would camp out overnight in front of administrative buildings; hence the term occupy. This continued into the next year. On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself alive to protest the Tunisian government, precipitating the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring was an uprising across countries in the Middle East and North Africa, beginning in January of 2011. A few months into the unrest, the Spanish Indignants – one of several anti-austerity movements – arose in Spain.
By the summer, Lasn and a fellow writer for Adbusters (a Canadian anti-consumerist magazine) Micah White, a 29 year-old American, formulated an idea. They proposed that the West needed its own political revolution, occupation style. They postulated that Wall Street, the financial district of New York City, was the center of attention for the “One-percent” crowd (the top 1% of Americans possessing nearly forty percent of the nation’s wealth), and would therefore be the most symbolic and effective place to camp out until their demands were met. Lasn and White, the men behind the anarchist methods “culturejamming,” and “clicktivism,” respectively, were very concerned with the corrosive effects of consumerism, and thus corporate personhood as established by Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision in 2010. The magazine and their followers were also concerned with corporate interference in government, a historic wealth gap, and the lack of consequences for the parties responsible after the financial crisis and resulting recession.
Same statue, only days earlier. Source: Washington Post
The event was scheduled to begin on September 17th, to coincide with the 10th anniversary celebration of the re-opening of Wall Street trading after the September 11 attacks. Occupiers came in with sleeping bags and a hardened resolve to send a message (the tents came later). Due to permit issues, they could not use electronic voice amplification, so they used the method notoriously known as the human microphone. Gas powered generators were also banned by the NYC Fire Department, so they resorted to bicycle-powered ones to run wireless routers and other essential items. They ran websites concurrently with the original one, often live-tweeting or streaming video of the encampment. At thousands of dollars a day in online donations, they were able to feed everyone in the park three times a day, while sparing no expense on quality.
The fervor spread throughout the United States and soon dozens of camp-in rallys were formed in other cities, including Philadelphia, Washington D.C., San Diego, and many others. The movement widened throughout the the Western world, and soon the topic saturated the media. The United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, France, the Netherlands, and even French Guiana joined in, with over ten cities in each country. Before long, there was an Occupy protest on every continent.
On November 15th, a few hours after midnight, the New York City Police Department evicted the occupiers from Zuccotti Park, citing “sanitation concerns” voiced by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the owners of the park: Brookfield Office Properties. This had been attempted a month before, but after the protesters cleaned the park themselves, the company’s clearing and sanitization day was postponed. But after two months, NYC and the residents of downtown Manhattan had had enough. There were noise and rats, it was getting very cold, and some of the occupiers were not so much protesting as using the camp as an alternative to sleeping in the alley. By the end, the encampment’s donations were running low and they were having trouble feeding everyone. There was a feeble attempt to re-enter the park on New Years Eve, but they were once again discouraged by police armed with riot gear and pepper spray.
By early 2012, just as the last of the U.S. camps were evacuated (including D.C.), many Americans were sick of hearing about it. More re-occupations occurred later in 2012, attracting much smaller numbers than the year before. The last one of these, unsurprisingly, was in Portland, OR: their 24/7 prayer vigil would not dispersed until July of 2013.
Since then, the Occupy “brand” has been used to raise awareness for various kinds of social justice issues, and has watered itself down. Everything from Occupy the SEC, to the occupation of various banks, abandoned homes, the organization of hurricane Sandy relief, police brutality marches, to the Wal-Mart worker’s strike. These petered out one by one. The most recent – and perhaps last – use of the Occupy brand was in April of this year. Dissenters swarmed CNN’s headquarters demanding fair coverage of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Presidential Election campaign. They claimed that (the now presumptive Democratic Party nominee) Hillary Clinton was being given preference on the network, both in time on screen and positive editorial coverage.
Bernie Sanders has echoed the rhetoric of the Occupy Movement. In 2012, the Democratic candidate was Barack Obama by default, so the (democratic socialist) Sanders didn’t have a chance, until now, to capitalize on the dead movement’s latent ideals. He champions the restoration of economic equality, the elimination of money in politics, and useful regulation of financial markets. His foreign policy is a bit shaky, but he is certainly not as pro-war as his direct competitor. But some argue that – as usual with politicians – his promises are too vague, and that he is purposely pandering to a specific demographic/s with empty gestures. Some applaud his outsider credentials, and his potential as a third choice to the highly partisan and/ or corporate beholden leaders of the two-party system as it exists.
New York City, Sept. 2015. Source: Jerry Ashton, Huffington Post
No matter where you lie on the equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome spectrum, or if you even accept the validity of such a paradigm, we may agree on the current state of world politics. With exception of the Syrian Civil War, which is ongoing, most of the above issues and movements slowed to a halt three years ago, and a page in history is turning. We are sixteen years into this century. People born in 2000 are practically adults now.
Income inequality is being addressed in the national discourse and in a presidential candidate, global surveillance philosophy has largely been exposed (thanks to Edward Snowden), the recession is in the distant past (the unemployment rate has been steadily falling since 2013), and a new generation are nearing high-school graduation: Generation Z.
Millennials, including myself, will fade from the spotlight and begin taking more substantive roles in society, leaving the protesting to the younger set. The youth, the kids, the children. Children who spent every one of their formative years looking at a five inch screen filled porn and cynical comedy and jaundiced partisanship. Get off my damn lawn you pesky kids! Off my lawn and into the streets.
Some people think that the Occupy Movement was a failure, since it didn’t make any real change. Some people think that the One-percenters quashed the hopes of the other Ninety-nine percent, and that’s why it got nowhere. Some people think the movement was essentially redundant, since it championed views already established by Western liberalism (free-market capitalism, constitutional republics, equality-based civil rights, freedom of speech, etc.).
I think the movement was a success, in that it reminded everyone that these are the bars we need to strive for. Not a political revolution, but a necessary call for constant vigilance. Vigilance to protect our rights, and vigilance to maintain the society most of us have agreed upon, against those who seek oppression in favor of a single group (the super-rich, specific religions, dictators, even the poor) over another. And if we feel – no matter our age – we aren’t living up to those standards, we need to get our asses out to the public squares, and plant them there until we’ve truly been heard.