On August 10, 2011, the late David Graeber sent Astra an email that read, in part: “by the way, you should join us in our general assemblies leading up to the Wall Street actions. We have a genuine horizontal structure up and running and it’s really fun (for geeks like me anyway).” Graeber, an anthropologist by trade, was part of a loose group of a few dozen people meeting regularly that summer in response to a call, issued by a Canadian countercultural magazine called Adbusters, for 20,000 demonstrators to descend on Wall Street on September 17. (The date was rather arbitrary: It was the birthday of the mother of one of the magazine’s editors.) The announcement instructed people to bring tents and stay “for a few months.”
Astra never joined those early assemblies, but she showed up on the first day of what was billed as Occupy Wall Street. A few hundred protesters marched on Manhattan’s Financial District. With much of the area under police lockdown, they moved north from the iconic Charging Bull statue to Zuccotti Park, a sloping square with granite benches and planters. It was small and tucked away yet highly visible, its east side facing Broadway. Occupiers slept in the open air those first few days, marching every morning and evening, timed to the trading floor bell and rush-hour traffic. Bankers passing by would shout at us to “get a job,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that their industry was responsible for the mass unemployment that helped spark the protest in the first place.
“I thought the most likely scenario is that we’d all get beat up and put in jail,” Graeber confessed in a later interview. The planners surprised themselves by making it through the first night. Within a few weeks this gang of anarchists, students, activists, and online rabble-rousers — Graeber’s “geeks” — had captured the attention of the world, armed only with tents, cardboard signs, and an obstinate demand to be seen and heard.
An estimated 900 sister occupations sprang up across the United States and around the globe, some of which would outlast the original encampment by weeks or even months. Millions of people immediately recognized themselves as part of Occupy’s “99 percent,” the supermajority of working and indebted people exploited by the wealthy and powerful “one percent” — rhetoric so intuitively powerful that it has since become embedded in the popular imagination. Overnight, the protest forced a long-overdue national conversation about inequality, capitalism, and class, one that political elites had studiously avoided despite overseeing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
By the time billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg sent police two months later, on November 15, to expel sleeping protesters under the pretext of “cleaning” the park, Occupy had burst into mainstream political awareness. But its legacy was immediately cast in doubt. What, after all, had we accomplished? While Occupy had channeled the frustrations of people from all walks of life, its methods were derided as chaotic, amateurish, naïve. Prominent liberal institutions found the gathering uncouth. “Count us as deeply skeptical,” opined The New Republic.
The night we were ousted from Zuccotti, Occupy’s public-relations working group sent out a press release, drafted by Jonathan, that ended with the slogan, “You cannot evict an idea whose time has come” (a play on Victor Hugo’s “Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come”). But as we stood by helplessly as the encampment was literally shoveled into garbage trucks, we couldn’t be sure this strange experiment would wind up meaning anything at all.
Ten years later, the significance of Occupy Wall Street is undeniable. Occupy inaugurated a new era of defiant protest and was an early expression of the populist wave that continues to surge across the American political scene. It helped revitalize a moribund left, ushering in a social-movement renaissance across a range of issues, including racial justice, climate change, debt cancellation, and organized labor. And Occupy offered a crash course in collective action for a generation of organizers now in ascendance. Surprisingly, an uprising deeply suspicious of structure and power imparted critical lessons about the importance of building institutions and cultivating strategic discipline. Imbued with an explicitly anarchist spirit, the movement was hostile to electoral politics, and yet its most concrete legacy is the insurgent energy it unleashed to transform the Democratic Party, pushing it to be more responsive to ordinary people.
Occupy was ever contradictory, and in hindsight, it’s clear the movement’s greatest strengths were also its weaknesses. Its ideological openness attracted a diverse array of people and viewpoints, but also led to incoherence and conflict. The lack of centralization fostered autonomy and creativity, but also engendered tactical confusion. The camp in some respects represented (or “prefigured,” in movement parlance) the utopian world Occupy wanted to build, but that very utopia became a liability when the camp manifested all the real world’s myriad problems. The true legacy of Occupy will be the extent to which organizers in the future can navigate those contradictions. The stakes, now as then, couldn’t be higher: to democratically reshape society and ward off a looming authoritarian threat.
Today, Occupy’s insights about extreme inequality and political corruption sound commonplace. At the time, they were a revelation. Occupy cut through the stifling ideological fog that had governed economic policy-making since the Reagan era by acknowledging reality: The system is rigged. Though labor productivity up to that point had long been rising, most Americans’ wages had remained stagnant for decades as the cost of living skyrocketed and vital social services were slashed. This was not the result of “natural processes,” but of government interventions that structured the economy to benefit the people at the top.
Nearly three years into the Great Recession, Occupy was arguably late to the game. But by 2011 the public was primed for revolt. Wall Street greed had evaporated trillions of dollars of wealth overnight and caused millions of families to lose their homes, savings, and jobs — with Black and Latino families losing more than half their collective wealth. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama, purveyor of “hope and change,” left millions of underwater homeowners in the lurch and refused to hold bankers accountable, instead tasking men like Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers with fixing a crisis that, as negligent government regulators of both Republican and Democratic administrations past, they had helped cause.
There was simply no political outlet at that time for those appalled by the bipartisan consensus surrounding issues related to finance and the market economy. This was the backdrop that informed the radical outlook of the original Occupiers. Upon arriving at Zuccotti Park, participants were encouraged to form small assemblies to discuss why they had come and what, if anything, they wanted the movement to achieve. “It was kind of nice to be at a protest and, instead of marching and shouting, to be talking about ideas,” Astra wrote in a message to friends encouraging them to join. “It felt like the script had changed.”
At the end of the first day, the decision was made to demand nothing — on the grounds that demands of the state only legitimized a corrupt system, one in which our ostensible representatives do the bidding of deep-pocketed donors and call it “democracy.” The movement’s adoption of open assemblies was a reaction against the existing order and an homage to dissenters in other countries who had created similar forums. Participants deliberated and made decisions directly, using a system of “modified consensus,” meaning proposals had to reach a threshold of 90 percent unanimity to pass.
The assemblies proved untenable for many reasons (for example, people could contribute to decisions they had no obligation or intention to help follow through on). But many found the experience moving and transformative. “The direct democracy aspect of [Occupy’s] structure in the very beginning was really exciting for me,” recalled Evan Weber, then a Wesleyan undergraduate and a future co-founder of the Sunrise Movement. “As things went on, the complete consensus for groups of thousands just became extremely impractical. But at the beginning, being able to really feel like everyone there had value and that we were making decisions that we were all bought into was pretty exhilarating.”
One of the first lessons Occupy imparted was that improbable things were possible. As dusk fell on the first day, Astra slipped away, convinced the cops would soon disperse the crowd. She had spent years being shunted into the “Free Speech zones” that defined protest against the War on Terror during the George W. Bush era. But the people gathered in the park — most of them in their early 20s; some were teenagers — were thinking of the Arab Spring and the European “indignados,” the rebels in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, and Greece who held public space for weeks on end. The young occupiers had also watched in awe that spring as demonstrators took over Wisconsin’s Capitol for days. Why couldn’t they set up a camp in a park and make their voices heard too?
In his book Thank You, Anarchy, Nathan Schneider, one of the movement’s most eloquent participant-chroniclers, writes that people “came for a protest and arrived at a school.” People from all over the country descended on the park in those first weeks; at one point, Weber led two school buses full of fellow Wesleyan students to Zuccotti. Jonathan made his way from Providence, Rhode Island, and got to work training occupiers to talk to reporters in ad hoc workshops in a corner of the park.
Zuccotti Park quickly became a veritable tent city, with a food station, a sanitation crew, a well-stocked library, multiple newspapers, upward of 100 working groups, and an incessant drum circle that quickly grew notorious. Young people, old people, crusty punks, college students, and tourists mingled, ringed by a perimeter of cops. Simple cardboard signs scrawled in marker — “The World Has Enough for Everyone’s NEED But Not for Everyone’s GREED”; “Shit Is Fucked Up and Bullshit”; “I Lost My Job But I Found an Occupation” — came to be hallmarks of the protest, while some attendees dressed up in outlandish costumes to make a political point, donning Guy Fawkes masks (associated with the online hacktivist subculture Anonymous) or strolling about with their mouths muzzled by dollar bills.
Occupy got a boost from wanton police violence. The mainstream media began to take serious notice a week into the protests, thanks to a viral video of two young women being pepper-sprayed at close range by an NYPD deputy inspector named Anthony Bologna. Then police arrested over 700 protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge, and sympathy for the protesters only increased when JPMorgan Chase announced that it had donated an “unprecedented” $4.6 million to the NYPD “to strengthen security in the Big Apple.” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly wrote to JPMorgan chairman Jamie Dimon expressing his “profound gratitude.”
Popular opinion was on our side, as evidenced in not only polls but the mountains of pizzas, clothes and blankets, and cash donations that flowed in from far-flung sympathizers. “We had just lived through one of the most insane highway robberies of everyday people, through collusion by bankers and the one percent and our government,” as Weber put it. “It was the right thing to be screaming about.” The encampment was a giant middle finger on Wall Street’s doorstep, and that defiance touched a nerve.
It also unsettled the Establishment that was supposed to hold the powerful accountable: the press. The journalists who flocked to Zuccotti often reported in bad faith, mocking protesters for using cellphones and computers (products of capitalism) and marveling at seemingly strange rituals, including the human microphone (since traditional amplification was illegal, the crowd had to repeat what speakers said so that everyone could hear) and “sparkle fingers” (hand movements to silently signal agreement or disapproval during discussions).
Actually, the encampment’s eccentric aspects were part of its appeal — and its power. “It looks like a pirate ship wrecked in the Financial District and set up a civilization,” a friend who lived a few blocks away said at the time. Befuddled pundits criticized the movement for its lack of clearly enumerated demands. But in fact it was the mandarins in the press who displayed a startling naïvete about how politics work, not the motley and mostly inexperienced group that gathered at Zuccotti Park. Social change, sadly, is not as simple as citizens respectfully presenting well-conceived proposals to the people in charge.
As it turned out, the lack of demands became one of Occupy’s greatest assets, enabling a wide range of people to see themselves in the same struggle. Popularizing a broad critique of inequality was far more important, politically, than writing out detailed policy prescriptions. And the overwhelming spectacle belied an underlying seriousness about the movement’s strategic approach. While Occupy’s anarchistic tendency was highly visible, many Occupiers advocated for collective discipline, coalition-building, and strategic engagement with the broader political system — as a disruptive protest movement applying pressure from the outside, to be sure.
Underlying heated debates about structure, leadership, and strategy was the question of power, something Occupy was deeply ambivalent about. Tensions were palpable from the start. On that first afternoon in Zuccotti, someone pointed out that any demands needed to be backed up by some kind of leverage; power would be required to get results. Occupy’s emphasis on direct democracy, however, prioritized means over ends, process over outcomes. Though it was far from evident at the time, Occupy would be the apotheosis of the horizontalist ethos.
The limits of that ethos, however, were evident to many of the movement’s dedicated participants. Michelle Crentsil, who was part of the People of Color working group, recalls a “clash of cultures” at Occupy. “The people who put together the [POC] working group, including myself, had come from organizing traditions where we don’t balk at structure and leadership,” she told us. “We like leaders. We think there are leaders and people can develop and be good leaders.”
Crentsil noted the disjunction between Occupy’s stated ideals and the reality. “There were leaders: they’re standing up in the middle of the park and telling us what we’re going to do next,” she said. “I think it’s better to be explicit about it, because then you can hold people accountable.” In this sense, the People of Color working group foreshadowed the common refrain within the Black Lives Matter movement that it was not leaderless but leaderful.
Instead of spontaneously spawning local assemblies across the country, as some of Occupy’s original planners predicted, the uprising helped usher a new kind of left into being.
Guido Girgenti was 19 years old and a sophomore at Occidental College when he joined Occupy Los Angeles and helped organize the Occupy Colleges network. In the decade since, Girgenti helped co-found the Sunrise Movement and is now the media director for Justice Democrats, an organization that recruits and supports progressive insurgents running for Congress, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, and Jamaal Bowman. “People forget how deeply anarchist and deeply, in my opinion, dysfunctional Occupy was internally,” he told us. “In retrospect, so much of Occupy felt like the last spasms of a Left that had been totally marginalized from mainstream politics.”
Girgenti sees Occupy as a “bridge” between the late-20th-century left, which was small, fragmented, and ineffectual, and a 21st-century left that aims to build a majoritarian, multiracial, class-conscious movement that operates both inside and outside the political system to materially improve people’s lives.
The writer Adriana Camarena described Occupy San Francisco as “a teeter-tottering training ground for the uninitiated activist.” The same was true across the country. When the tents were gone, people tried to apply what they had learned to a variety of new efforts — and they were determined not to repeat Occupy’s mistakes. “A lot of us really took inspiration from what Occupy did to breathe life back into movements in 21st-century America,” Weber reflected, while adding that he and his collaborators “wanted to make an explicit rejection of” Occupy’s extreme decentralization. After encampments across the country were cleared, many veterans of Occupy were ready to contest for real power.
Occupy sprouted scores of offshoots. There was no clear guidebook, after all, for revitalizing a decimated and demoralized left. After the evictions, some people tried, and failed, to establish new camps (an ambition that mistook the tactic of occupation for a political goal). Less literal efforts to sustain the Occupy spirit were more successful. Occupiers went on to prevent foreclosures, ally with the homeless, agitate on campuses and in workplaces, and start cooperative businesses. They won enormous goodwill in New York — even praise from the Department of Homeland Security — for mobilizing an astonishing 60,000 volunteers to help with relief efforts after Superstorm Sandy pummeled the city in 2012.
They also kept up the focus on finance. A group called Occupy the SEC garnered headlines and helped shape policy by penning a 325-page letter of criticisms and recommendations pertaining to arcane financial-sector regulations known as the Volcker Rule. Astra (recruited, once again, by David Graeber) joined a working group focused on debt that eventually developed into a lasting organization, the Debt Collective, that has moved the call for debt cancellation from the margins to the political mainstream. Through different tactics, including a student-debt strike, they pushed all the leading 2020 Democratic presidential-primary candidates to campaign on varying degrees of student-loan cancellation. As a result of their work, the Biden administration has eliminated nearly $10 billion of student debt in 2021 alone.
In the wake of Occupy, a social-movement revival swept the United States, with record-breaking numbers of people taking to the streets against racism and police violence, Trump’s Muslim ban, patriarchy, the gun lobby, and more. Nelini Stamp, a Zuccotti regular who now serves as director of strategy and partnerships for the Working Families Party, has been at the forefront of many of these uprisings, and she believes Occupy was pivotal. “The ruling class taught us that our democracy was broken so that we do not get involved and we do not try to fix it,” Stamp reflected. In Stamp’s view, Occupy challenged this complacency while also changing how people protested, connecting local actions to larger movements by normalizing the use of livestreams and social media.
The Sunrise Movement, which helped transform climate politics by mobilizing around the demand for a Green New Deal, was profoundly influenced by Occupy. “After Occupy I became obsessed with the idea and power of social movements, and with figuring out how we could do a similar thing — spark a similar sort of moral crisis on the issue of climate change, which we thought, similar to the financial crisis, was a sleeping giant,” Weber told us. “In the planning for and creation of Sunrise, we drew a lot from both Occupy’s successes and failures.” Where Occupy had no long-term plan, Sunrise aimed to “create Occupy-style trigger moments” — such as their sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office just days after the 2018 midterm election, which was joined by Congresswoman-elect Ocasio-Cortez — while recruiting people into a multiphase, multiyear strategy.
The rise of the Democratic Socialists of America is another example of how Occupy changed the left. “We absorbed a lot of energy coming out of Occupy,” Maria Svart, national director of DSA, told us. DSA has dramatically expanded in recent years, now boasting over 95,000 dues-paying members (including both of us) and 300 chapters across the country. “Members are themselves empowered to choose the campaigns to develop,” Svart said, “and they’re talking about the class struggle, and they’re knocking on their neighbors’ doors, and they’re talking to their coworkers.”
In contrast to Occupy, electoral engagement is a big part of the equation for DSA, Sunrise, and others. What had seemed like a chasm between protest movements and electoral campaigns appears to have vanished. “Occupy set the ground for people to electoralize social movements without co-opting them,” Stamp told us. Many Occupiers were hypervigilant about preventing politicians from stealing the movement’s thunder, reserving special ire for Democrats who were seen as invoking progressive talking points while selling out to corporate interests. But since then many Occupy participants have been part of insurgent electoral campaigns to challenge the Democratic Party’s old-guard leadership and upend its status quo.
Occupy’s legacy was most visible in Bernie Sanders’s two presidential runs — which in turn inspired more insurgents, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the Squad, to seek office. Sanders may have been shouting Occupy’s talking points since before most Occupiers were born, but the movement of the 99 percent created conditions for his campaign to catch fire, shifting the balance of power in the Democratic Party to the point that Sanders is now one of the chief players in ongoing negotiations over Biden’s legislative agenda.
This July, Sandy Nurse, a prominent member of Zuccotti Park’s Direct Action working group, won her primary campaign to represent Brooklyn’s 37th District in City Hall (which, in a heavily Democratic district, means she’s the presumed victor). She knows that just having good elected officials in office is not enough. Social movements create the “wind that pushes us forward,” she told us, meaning the inside and outside have to work in tandem. She also credits Occupy, with its focus on money in politics, with helping popularize the idea of financing campaigns with small-dollar donations. Toward the end of her race Nurse says she was asking people for $20, and while it was a lot more work than getting one fat check from the real-estate lobby, that’s the price of independence and public trust.
With the threat of racist, authoritarian, minority rule hanging over us, the left has to work on all fronts. As WFP’s Stamp put it, we can’t afford to cede terrain, electoral or otherwise. “My viewpoint has changed since Occupy,” she said. “I’m here about building power.”
In 2011, the world was wracked by calamity. But by the standards of 2021, it appears a simple time. There was no pandemic. The authoritarian right was far less powerful. And climate catastrophe was less palpably present.
Occupy was the writing on the wall — or rather, on a cardboard sign — that democracy was in profound crisis. It was not the protesters who failed, but the political elites who ignored Occupy’s prescient warnings.
While Democrats worked to stymie and denigrate the populist politics of the left, a right-wing insurgency exploded on the scene, backed by deep-pocketed donors and cable-news promoters. Launched in 2009, the Tea Party merged populist rage with racist resentment, blaming the economic meltdown on “Big Government” and Black mortgage holders, the latter being the very people who had been most harmed by the recession. This reactionary movement succeeded spectacularly, capturing the Republican Party and, with the election of Donald Trump, the presidency.
What we desperately need now is a powerful progressive alternative to the Trumpian right — one that taps into deep dissatisfaction with the status quo but channels it into a popular struggle to create a more caring, more equal society. In Occupy Wall Street, people found the class cleavage — and the willingness to name culprits at the top — that Obama had shied away from. But in response, as Michelle Crentsil noted, the Democratic Party “got scared,” treating the politics of “the 99 percent versus the one percent” with disdain. Sunrise’s Weber has seen this process up close, with figures like Nancy Pelosi dismissing the Green New Deal as “the green dream or whatever.” In the absence of a progressive answer to Trump, Weber fears that “right-wing authoritarianism will win and that what we experienced over the last four years with Trump will pale in comparison.”
Maria Svart shares these concerns: “It’s more important than ever that we build a larger, more organized, more engaged multiracial working-class mass left with millions of people — as soon as possible.”
Ten years later, this is something we can learn from Occupy. At the core of the protest, there was a deep optimism and an openness to welcoming all people. Despite being revolutionary in orientation, Occupy wasn’t more radical than thou. Svart put it this way: “Ordinary people — not just the ‘organized political people,’ but random people — could go down to their local encampment and could see that they could do something.”
The whole point of the phrase “We are the 99 percent!” was its capaciousness. It functioned as an invitation. The curious didn’t have to pass a political litmus test; they could show up and ask questions. If they stayed long enough, they’d see how their hardships aligned with the hardships of others.
Of course, as countless critics have noted, Occupy’s demography never reflected the country’s diversity (though it is important not to erase all the people of color who participated and played key roles). Movements since have thankfully focused on some of the issues where Occupy fell short, particularly in regard to race and gender. But movement veteran Stamp, for one, also wondered if we have perhaps overcorrected. “We’re so siloed,” Stamp said. “And I think that our orientation is not toward the masses.” Chloe Cockburn, who was active in multiple Occupy working groups and has long worked on criminal-punishment reform, noted that as the left has become more prominent, it runs the risk of becoming more exclusive — a clubhouse for those who already have the right analysis and vocabulary instead of a popular vehicle that can “unleash our full power.”
Will we develop sufficient strategic wherewithal to navigate the multiple unfolding crises we face? Can we build popular movements robust enough not only to shift the direction of the Democratic Party but to redistribute power and wealth in our society? Can we foster the solidarity required to overcome the politics of divide-and-conquer and redress all forms of racism? Will we be able to mitigate the climate crisis and ensure a livable planet? Can we muster the political will and the strength to show that, actually, there is an alternative to capitalism and the profound injustice we have inherited?
When future historians look back on the movements catalyzed by Occupy, those are likely to be some of the questions and criteria used to assess their impact. But today we should remember: Occupiers were just regular people — young and old, students and teachers, unemployed and overworked, insecure and indebted. They were not some special category of human being who have a duty to save the world, yet they took the risk of trying to bring about something new. They were the 99 percent, which means they were, and are, us. The question of whether Occupy will succeed or fail is ultimately a question we must ask of ourselves.
Astra Taylor is a co-founder of the Debt Collective, a union for debtors. Her books include Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone and Remake the World: Essays, Reflections, Rebellions.
Jonathan Smucker has worked for 25 years as a political organizer, campaigner, and strategist. He is the co-founder of Lancaster Stands Up, Pennsylvania Stands Up, and Beyond the Choir, and the author of Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals.