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Occupy Wall Street goes national

More reflections on the ten-year anniversary

Below, we continue our series featuring reflections by Tempest Collective members on the ten-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. The previous reflections can be found here.

Emma Wilde Botta, Occupy San Francisco

On a Saturday in October 2011, I took the train from Stanford to San Francisco. I wanted to see for myself what this Occupy movement was about. I was 19 years old, a sophomore in college.

I heard it before I saw it. Voices echoing off the walls of high rise buildings. “We are the 99%.” I found myself swept up into a crowd that was unlike any crowd I had been in before. I wasn’t entirely sure where we were going. I wasn’t entirely sure what we were doing.

For the next few months, I spent every minute I could in San Francisco. It was an education. The mass marches through the city, the lines of riot cops, the chants of “This is what democracy looks like.” An international ethos connected us with revolutionaries in Egypt. Our picket lines shut down the port of Oakland. The encampments gave me a glimpse into the possibilities of life beyond capitalism. On an incredibly small scale, people were figuring out how to organize society based on human need and—though fleeting—it was beautiful.

Occupy gave me the chance to talk to people from all walks of life, people very different from me. We were united by a shared sense that things were messed up. “Banks got bailed out. We got sold out.” We weren’t going to wait for other people to save us. When I think about Occupy, I think about how I felt my own power and our power.

Evan DeMers, Occupy Sacramento

We made ourselves homeless by choice, among the long-term or permanently unhoused who called Caesar Chavez park a sort of home. Our tents formed a town where before there had been only benches and walkways. Food Not Bombs continued making their weekly deliveries of healthful vegan meals, but they had never counted on fueling such an upswelling of young energy.

Where was that energy directed? Against the rich, against the soulless corporations, against the manifestly unfair system, of course. But where were they? How could we make clear to them the righteous potence of our rage? When the media rolled in with their cameras, we thought this was our chance to send our molotov cocktail in a bottle across the airwaves, to explode at the base of the neoliberal establishment and tickle its foundations with the flames that would unsteady it, leading to its inevitable collapse.

The media had their own plans.

They selected from among us the most energetic, and tragically the least educated: the schoolchildren. Our movement was mocked for ratings, to make the viewers at home calm and confident in their dismissal of rebellion, to reassure them that, no, the way of life you know is the only one that could ever be in this twenty-first century.

They were wrong then and they’re wrong now. The difference is, the liberal facade has begun to slip. COVID-19 has seeped through the many cracks that have formed as efficiency and profit have been elevated over community and resilience, and the people can see it.

Solidarity over poisoned individualism, comrades.

In November 2011, Occupy Oakland shut down the port of Oakland, the fifth-busiest shipping port in the U.S., as part of a national day of action. Credit: Emma Wilde Botta

Avery Wear, Occupy San Diego

One thing that was different about Occupy Wall Street compared to other movements (and Occupy San Diego, in which my local branch of the International Socialist Organization participated) was its popularity. I remember polls at the time talking about something like two thirds public support for the movement. Occupiers were viewed as heroes in liberal circles. Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Ron Paul tried (and failed) to jump on the bandwagon. I remember leading boos at a mass rally at the San Diego Civic Center as a Tea Party representative took the stage. There was hysterical opposition to Occupy as well, but what shook out was a class-based polarization of society with a big majority aligning with the working class.

Occupy San Diego, as elsewhere, opened the door between organized labor and the left. We started the Occupy San Diego Labor Solidarity Committee. This brought union support into some actions. And it brought together Occupy union and labor-oriented members who were active together for several years. It began to create a labor Left. SEIU (Service Employees International Union) dreamed up the Fight for 15 in response. The memory of Occupy and the issue of $15/hour minimum wage made Kshama Sawant’s campaigns possible. A couple of years later, Sanders caught fire.

Donnie D, Occupy Wall Street, NYC

I remember sitting in my Human Geography class in my senior year of high school when the Egyptian revolution kicked off. In class, we turned on the TV to watch video after video of brave Egyptians rising up as a wave of revolt swept the region. I remember being in absolute awe to see an entire nation, then an entire region, revolt against decades of austerity and political repression, against all odds. The bravery was inspiring. It got me thinking, if an entire nation, let alone region, can rise up, maybe there is an alternative. In the face of the fallout of the 2008 economic recession, one could really only feel cynical about the state of the world. Seeing a whole movement of people say enough is enough and that they deserve a better world showed a generation what courage was, and it was contagious.

I was set to move to New York City for college later that year, and I entered the city yearning for that alternative, courage, and solidarity. I had no idea that less than a month into my freshman year, after stumbling into a group of socialists on campus while searching for anyone fighting for a better world, that the U.S. would have its own national movement against wealth inequality. When I first heard of Occupy, I was sitting in my first meeting with Left wing organizers. When Occupy was described to me, at first, I didn’t take it seriously. It didn’t measure up to what I initially thought something like Egypt would have been like. It felt like an internet fad that would pass, a meme that would be played out in a week. Less than a month later, I was marching at the crack of dawn with people I had only met days earlier. I remember a comrade looking at me, clearly recognizing this was one of my first big demonstrations as I nervously looked at the wall of NYPD officers surrounding Zuccotti Park, and her having a big grin, saying, “we’ll be fine.” Then, we got word that a bunch of labor unions were on their way to help defend the park from being evicted. I was not just relieved, but ecstatic that any of these unions would come down and defend this experiment.

Occupy was a blur, warts and all. It brought out a dormant Left interacting with everyday people, many organizing for the first time. It had a plethora of internal contradictions that were not spared from scrutiny by participants and observers alike. Whatever faults it had, though, Occupy reinvigorated the national conversation around inequality and the wealthy. It had revitalized the dirty but open secret essentially no politician in the U.S. wanted to talk about, that of class, and introduced an entire generation to organizing around class demands, but not solely that. There were networks that formed both nationally and internationally following Occupy, layers in each city that would branch out into various other struggles. A lot of the networks and relationships made during Occupy helped lay the groundwork for struggles to come. It served as a jumping off point for a generation that had been told this was the end of history. Yet history marched on.

Since then, there has been no shortage of obituaries for OWS. Attempts to reconstruct the timeline since then have been muddled, often omitting the full global context and the various vectors of organizing that followed. It’s easy to forget how revitalizing these social movements were to organizing, starting with the Arab Spring, the Wisconsin Capital occupation, the Movement of the Squares, etc.. Occupy ignited a generational and incipient class consciousness that was international, not restricted by age or geography, but united by our shared economic misery, giving us the courage to fight. It’s easy to focus on how episodic struggle has been or on the absence of accountable leaders, but the impact of the movement never went away. There is a continuity to it, and we haven’t seen it slow down. It matters that we reassess, reorganize, and build upon the strategies and tactics we’ve learned from the past for a better future.

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