We Are Still The 99%
May 8, 2019 10:56 AM   Subscribe

“Occupy was in many, many ways a shit show,” Nicole Carty, a Brooklyn activist who was a facilitator at Occupy, told me. “But it deserves props, it really does, for unleashing this energy.” Occupy Wall Street was seen as a failure when it ended in 2011. But it’s helped transform the American left.
posted by The Whelk (27 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Sometimes your best purpose is to be seen as a warning for others.
posted by Punkey at 11:19 AM on May 8 [6 favorites]

There's this tendency to look at protests and other activist moments/movements in terms of whether or not they achieved their stated goals. Which, you know, that makes sense on one level, but you end up overlooking the long-term effects of these things.

I wrote a thesis on some relatively small-scale activism by Black people in the 19th century. It ended with people being jailed, and other pretty harsh consequences. They did not achieve their stated goals. Most historians (not many) who know about it have treated it as basically a failed insurrection. But! I found that if you look at the lives of the people involved, some went on to become very involved in Black politics, or they made names for themselves in their communities in one way or another. And there are countless other people who were undoubtedly affected in intangible ways. I can't prove a direct correlation between this activism in their youth and their later lives, but it seems highly unlikely that someone would go through something like that and remain unchanged. So they failed to achieve their stated goals, but we'd be doing injustice to everyone -- including the people who didn't directly participate -- to assume that this event had no effect.

So we always need to look at what even an "unsuccessful" thing did, like this article does. I've always thought it was absurd that we talked about Occupy as a failure, because we still use the vocabulary they popularized! The idea of the 1% and the 99% is just a thing that people immediately grasp. And then this article is great at tracing the people whose own political and activist careers were started in, or encouraged by, their participation in Occupy. Not to mention the people who could not participate, who were exposed to what Occupy was sharing. So many more of us were watching from afar.

For me, the lesson in Occupy and in my own research is that you need to be willing to attempt something, even if you know it's unlikely to succeed in a straightforward sense. A lot of people seem to self-sabotage, because they're preemptively judging the outcome in this very narrow way. It's not just about taking a risk, it's about understanding that you're going to be accomplishing something that will be a part of a much larger history. Very few things like this happen in isolation.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 11:32 AM on May 8 [79 favorites]

Occupy failed, in my eyes, by refusing to engage directly with the political system they were trying to influence. Protest and other forms of direct action are a great starting point, but if you want to actually move the levers of government, you need to have someone aligned with your goals with their hand on those levers. Had Occupy run candidates for local and state offices, I would have happily voted for them. Hell, even just an Occupy-based GOTV effort for whatever candidate was most progressive would have been helpful.

I don't discount the value of protest, but it's not the end-all and be-all of political activism. You have to actually put people aligned with your views up for election and get them into office, too.
posted by SansPoint at 11:38 AM on May 8 [15 favorites]

Occupy was a hologram - everybody saw something else in it.

I personally think of it as a phenomenon which certain conditions of those times made possible.
posted by mit5urugi at 11:50 AM on May 8 [4 favorites]

There was an occupy candiate slate

I always say occupy served its purpose by creating a groundwork of people who wanted to do more focused activism and not repeat the mistakes of the encampment. Occupy Sandy was a direct action Mutual Aid response to neighborhoods the Red Cross just never went to. A lot of people, including me, point to occupy as to when the scales fell from our eyes and we became more or less radicalized. Watching the people's Library get destroyed was a real " well I want politics that's the exact opposite of this". Before occupy you couldn't even say the words 'wealth inequality' on TV and now we're all having conversations about class analysis and the differences between social democracy and Democratic socialism.

I used to joke that the weirdest outcome of occupy was that I gave designer chocolates to every encampment I came across but the real weird thing is because of Occupy Wall Street some of my best friend's artwork is now hanging in the Colorado capitol building.

Actually now that I think about it the weirdest result of Occupy Wall Street is that there are now six socialists on the Chicago city council.
posted by The Whelk at 11:57 AM on May 8 [58 favorites]

A lot of people, including me, point to occupy as to when the scales fell from our eyes and we became more or less radicalized.

Yes! Me, too. I had been politically active before that, had gone to plenty of protests before that, had taken political economy classes before that (including a class specifically on socialism) -- but Occupy exploded a lot of my assumptions about power, politics, the economy. Occupy was so direct and real and so focused on OUR lives, our real experiences in the real world. NOT on politicians or governmental wonkery. It was just a whole new way of "being" and looking at the world as activists and citizens, at least for 24-year-old me, and I think for a LOT of others. And I wasn't even really involved! I was just an observer for the most part, showed up at the LA encampment maybe one time total.

I think that it was a hugely influential movement. But maybe its influence is invisible because it's cultural, all in the form of changes of perception and thought and assumption. I think that it actually has been so influential that it seems obvious and trite in retrospect -- same as when you read a book that created a genre and think, "oh jeez, using those same old genre formulas, isn't it!" and can't really appreciate how radical it actually is and was.
posted by rue72 at 12:17 PM on May 8 [34 favorites]

Occupy was that scene in Into the Spiderverse where Miles is getting stuck to everything: that awkward, painful learning experience that you go through before you start swinging between buildings.

Thwip thwip.
posted by BeeDo at 12:26 PM on May 8 [12 favorites]

I remember observing how the people with power did everything they could to demean, dismiss, and harrass the protestors. The most interesting, lingering memory I have about the Occupy protests was the coordinated expulsion of them. Multiple cities, all at the same time. In a matter of hours, it was like they were never there.

The bastards who orchestrated that are still in charge.
posted by KHAAAN! at 12:45 PM on May 8 [27 favorites]

dress rehearsal.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 1:01 PM on May 8 [15 favorites]

It inspired me to work on this- nycmesh.net
posted by bhnyc at 1:13 PM on May 8 [8 favorites]

Occupy permanently changed the national discussion. The phrase "wealth inequality" wasn't even in the discourse, pre-Occupy. If the only thing Occupy ever managed was to make people aware of the deep inequities built into the modern capitalist states, then it did good work.
posted by bluemilker at 1:34 PM on May 8 [30 favorites]

Revolutions do not need to be short and violent. They can be long and (relatively) peaceful. One could argue that the United States has been in a state of revolution since the start of the twentieth century, with various high points like the Progressive movement, the feminist movement, the civil rights movement, the hippies and now the Occupy movement.
posted by No Robots at 2:01 PM on May 8 [7 favorites]

Revolution is a verb not a noun and all that
posted by The Whelk at 2:07 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]

posted by hwestiii at 2:35 PM on May 8

In the same vein as the rhetorical concept of the 99% and the 1%, I've felt that the People's Mic has the potential to be a lasting contribution from Occupy.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 3:02 PM on May 8 [4 favorites]

Those of us who were part of the Cornell University Anti-Apartheid Movement in the 80s arguably failed, since the Cornell Trustees did not divest from South Africa. I don't feel like a failure, though.

It started when a group of students wrote a report showing that portfolios that did not include investments in South African companies performed as well as those that did. Morally, the choice was obvious. The report was ignored. However, events escalated, and three protest groups formed. One was a graduate student group that did all sorts of gruntwork like staffing tables, writing informational pamphlets, hosting artshows and film series, and holding weekly 1-hr meetings that followed Roberts Rules of Order. There was a faculty group that held long dithering meetings, but the members were often professors who had been students during the 1969 Willard Straight takeover and over beers they would tell you what they had learned about protesting. An undergraduate group built a shantytown, threw stink bombs, had hunger strikes, and chained themselves to things. The University pretended to respect the professors, made attempts to listen to the graduate students, and was genuinely afraid of the undergraduates. Although we failed, a generation of us learned how to protest, and got to try out all these various tactics, seeing what worked and what didn't. I notice that a lot of us are now ourselves college professors and professionals, still out here, happy to share a beer with a young activist and talk about what we did. Right now Cornell students are demanding divestment from fossil fuels! You go, Kids!
posted by acrasis at 3:28 PM on May 8 [16 favorites]

Protest movements are not generally about presenting a list of demands and trying to get specific policies enacted.
Those things are done through very slow, deliberate legislative action, or war. To pronounce any protest movement that failed to achieve immediate policy action is to wildly misread the situation.

Protest movements are about invigorating people and making them think differently about a problem. Occupy was wildly successful. It gave the enemy a name. It defined the terms of the struggle for a generation of millenials who will never see the institutions that were created long ago bend to slowly and partially accommodate their needs which are now obvious and emergent. The lesson of the Occupy movement was that if there is any hope at all, it lies in confronting the power structure directly, tearing it down, and rebuilding it yourself. And it most likely won't work, but there isn't an alternative.

I tend to agree that most of us have taken that message and are more quietly but subversively moving along, doing the work that moves each of us individually. I know it has made me unafraid of calling out the bullshit to the face of the stuffed suit from whom the bullshit is emanating, unafraid of losing my job, or alienating powerful people (both of which I have certainly done) but it has also made me make sure I've done my homework in continuously thinking through the repercussions of a total tear down and what comes after. That's how you gain followers instead of just pissing everyone off.

No more bullshit revolutions where people go home when Radiohead doesn't show up.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 4:05 PM on May 8 [17 favorites]

I mean the cops forced them out not the lack of Radiohead. It was the cops that threw the people's Library into dumpsters.
posted by The Whelk at 5:24 PM on May 8 [5 favorites]

They got off their asses.
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:31 PM on May 8 [2 favorites]

Arguably, it also transformed the working class American right too. The banks aren’t friends to anyone.
posted by Middlemarch at 6:06 PM on May 8 [2 favorites]

It broke my heart when Occupy was dispersed. The two worst things about it is that I never got to go, and that Fafblog went on hiatus because of it but never returned.

(Secretly, I think it never returned because Giblets got elected president.)
posted by JHarris at 6:58 PM on May 8 [2 favorites]

A lot of people, including me, point to occupy as to when the scales fell from our eyes and we became more or less radicalized.

Me too. I remember going down for the first time with some mild skepticism. And then I saw the kitchen handing out food to everyone, and suddenly I was completely moved for some reason. That was a singular moment that shook me to my core for reasons that I still can't articulate.

I was in grad school at the time, and tried (sometimes successfully) to drag my students and professors and TAs down. I went the times when it was in danger of being cleared out, and we successfully stopped it from happening, and it happened for real. I remember sleeping in Judson church, or climbing that fence to enter the triangular park near Canal St. I remember listening to Gayatri Spivak speak (in washington square park) and hearing her voices echo via the People's Mic.

I remember how bright of a beacon Zuccotti felt; during those months, no matter what time it was, I knew that somewhere in the city, there was a small park full of people dreaming about the future, who would feed you and others if you were hungry, and sit in solidarity with you, and be discussing plans and thoughts for a better future.

I remember marching to Foley park and seeing an enormous crowd, definitely in the high 5 figures of numbers of marchers, and reading the NYT and seeing it say "thousands march", and realizing for the first time how conservative and biased the NYT and other media are.

I remember also how it wasn't all so shining and simple! The people's mic, the use of blocking, the gender and racial distribution of who was speaking up - often white, often men, made organizing sometimes difficult. There was conflict, and problematic aspects to it, yes.

I remember thinking at some points during a protest about how beautiful everyone looked -- I don't mean 'hot' or attractive, I meant that at some point I would look around and see all these different shining faces excited and passionate to talk and chant about a better, more just, more ethical future, and energized while being in solidarity with others, taking care of each other, offering food or water or cough drops, supporting each other. It was transcendent.

As a result of Occupy, my practice and beliefs changed, or became more amplified. I have actively chosen paths of work that are ethical or just. There are so many secondary movements I have seen that are direct outgrowths of Occupy. There are so many people I know who went who are actively working as advocates, lawyers, in government, in non-profits, who still remember that experience.
posted by suedehead at 8:06 PM on May 8 [21 favorites]

without Occupy there wouldn't my favorite photo of myself
posted by The Whelk at 10:10 PM on May 8 [7 favorites]

I never thought of it as a failure, but I hear that a lot lately. I did think it pointed out the failure in people's thinking and imagination. I believe it really changed the way people think long term, how can that be a failure?

It was a failure for people expecting things to be prepackaged. I never understood why a bunch of people protesting were expected to have all the answers to America's problems else that proved they weren't legit. It seemed like people wanted to dismiss them because they didn't have great logos or a slick ad campaign.

I also think it was a red hot mess on many levels. But exactly what else is a protest supposed to be? Like you want to see a Punk band as long as the venue is nice, and they're not too loud or rude, and they're done at a reasonable hour.
posted by bongo_x at 10:53 PM on May 8 [2 favorites]

Well, one reason the Occupy movement unfairly gets called a failure is that it happened around the same time as the Tea Party movement, which was portrayed in the media as harnessing the same feelings, with a right-wing spin. And the TP movement was so successful that it now owns the entire Republican party and the Executive branch. But Occupy's message was viral enough that both Hillary Clinton in 2016 and pretty much the entire Democratic slate for 2020 accept its issues, even if they don't all accept its proposed solutions.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 11:22 PM on May 8 [6 favorites]

Leaf by Niggle
As lifelike as these fictional places might seem, Tolkien is conscious of the gulf between the real world and the invented one. Niggle’s art flourishes in his afterlife, but leaves little obvious mark back in his hometown; indeed, his canvas is used to patch his neighbor’s roof. Toward the end of the story, the reader learns that a single leaf is preserved in a museum (with the title Leaf: by Niggle), but the museum burns down, and “the leaf, and Niggle, were entirely forgotten in his old country.” Shippey’s autobiographical interpretation here is that Tolkien feared his own work would be forgotten. But this ending can also be read as a commentary on what Tolkien believed made good fantasy literature. Niggle’s painting becomes real elsewhere, regardless of what happens to the canvas.
looks like #OWS Alternative Banking Working is still going! (of which cathy o'neil is a member ;)
posted by kliuless at 11:34 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]

No more bullshit revolutions where people go home when Radiohead doesn't show up.

To clarify my statement, this was a comment on the media’s bullshit narrative that Occupy was a movement of spoiled kids with nothing better to do and no message who went home when the tabouleh and weed ran out.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:10 AM on May 9 [3 favorites]

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