Occupy Wall Street rally in downtown New York, 2011. Photo credit: lev radin / Shutterstock.com
Ten years ago, on September 17, 2011, a few hundred people spent the night at Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park and formally initiated the movement known as Occupy Wall Street. Occupiers had no immediate goals and the occupation lasted two months. But it wasn’t insignificant, and its importance as an inflection point on the left has grown with time.
Rather than laying out a list of achievements or failures, I want to reflect on how the movement put activists who oppose the dominant political and economic system in a better position to think and organize. In fact, Occupy did benefit the long fight against capitalism by shaping consciousness and organizing. Furthermore, Occupy’s experience sheds light on some common shortcomings in how we understand the dynamics of our economy.
From a call on the internet and small planning meetings over the summer, Occupy grew into a gigantic—and peculiar—coalition of diverse political and movement traditions by fall. These, in turn, radiated out from the work cultivated at the Zuccotti Park occupation. The movement emerged at a moment when the Left was fragile: the 2008 campaign to elect Barack Obama had captivated some hearts and minds and momentarily reinforced the notion that politics as usual was the only viable strategy. In fact, the only other political movement to come out of the 2007–8 financial crisis was the mix of conservatives and libertarians that became the Tea Party.
Splintered internally and across ideological lines, progressive and radical activists could do little on their own. But they found common ground in the making of the occupation as an alternative response to politics. Zuccotti Park, privatized public space in Manhattan’s Financial District, was transformed into a community that could provide for the basic needs of movement participants, such as food and shelter. Ambitiously, it also created stations for first aid, and resources for mental wellness, such as a sizable library.
Zuccotti Park became a symbol of the society that could be, but also a center for collective discussion and deliberation. It was the home of the movement’s general assembly, and a point of reference for multiple working groups. There was a media center that played a crucial role in building a counter-narrative to mainstream media reports of Occupy, as well as a connection with the general public and other protest hubs. But most notably, working groups would beget working groups, not just populating the occupation but expanding “Occupy-inspired” activity beyond Zuccotti Park’s perimeter. In short, Occupy became a national—and international—call to arms.
For Occupy, “Wall Street” was not just a place, but the foundation for a range of problems that were otherwise difficult to grasp as a system. The comparison with the campaign against austerity in New York City just a few months prior to the Zuccotti occupation illustrates a crucial conceptual shift among activists. In opposition to budget cuts, a labor-student-community organizing coalition fighting the Bloomberg-Cuomo administration had pointed to the connections between policies at the local and state levels and the bailout of banks and financial institutions during the economic crisis.
Occupy, however, expanded this into a “theory” of contemporary capitalism: the point of the activism was to showcase that “all roads lead to Wall Street” rather than focus on a single issue—as they did in the budget campaign. The impact of this rhetorical shift cannot be overstated. With it, Occupy cracked open a broad consensus around the capitalist system to disclose the possibility of a new political imagination.
The backlash against Occupy’s broad pitch was predictable. Some argued for the importance of specific and tangible goals to the working class, reinstating a common position within the debate around movement building and tactics to effectively promote social change. Occupy was aware of this critique: it emerged internally and externally. But in the end, Occupy’s significance was not as a plan for the future, but an extraordinary moment of mobilization—or, as political scientist Aristide Zolberg would call it, a moment of madness that subverts the narrative of what is possible and achievable. Although moments of madness may not necessarily result in revolutions, radical transformation, or immediate “results,” they mark profound changes in collective subjectivity and consciousness.
Ten years later, the logic of capitalism has not yet been restored to its old status as common sense: one need only look at the millions of people who seem to be refusing to return to work at the jobs they held before pandemic lockdowns began in March, 2020. The idea that something is fundamentally wrong with the current system has persisted. It has propelled efforts to organize numerous constituencies around a range of issues—from the climate to housing justice, childcare, and the minimum wage.
What is one lesson we can draw from this surge in activism? That movements can make incredible progress when the initial barrier to challenging powers that be—its ideological safeguards—is compromised—for which Occupy should be credited today.
Occupy’s organizational structure was one of its most remarkable features. The movement was allegedly open to all, horizontal, and leaderless. A general assembly brought together hundreds—or even thousands—of people daily to discuss and decide, via consensus, matters of importance to the “community.” Immediately, this associated Occupy with anarchism—and some of its famous faces would, indeed, identify as anarchists.
But let’s look more broadly at the diverse coalition assembled in Zuccotti Park.
Occupiers came from many movement traditions: labor, racial justice, feminist, anti-globalization, and students were a few. They ranged from radical to liberal in their political orientation. Some came to “occupy Wall Street” with no experience in activism. Occupy was remarkable precisely because it formed an impromptu, and diverse, coalition.
While some activists would spend day and night camping at Zuccotti, established labor unions would turn their offices into storage for the movement. While some activists participated in the largest marches, others would navigate infrastructure needs, coordinating behind the scenes across numerous organizations to guarantee that the march itinerary was completed smoothly. While some promoted numerous activities in the park, others would conduct outreach in distant neighborhoods or carry out some action elsewhere in the city. Some of these endured: when Hurricane Sandy struck New York City a year later, the Twitter account @OccupyWeather was one of the few sources for information about flooding.
Occupy dissolved the distinction between “participant” and “ally.” All levels of action were crucial for Occupy to reproduce itself and be visible. Occupy existed where participants and allies encountered, and dissolved into, each other. Working groups beget working groups, affinity groups were formed, and ad hoc projects emerged to address a multitude of issues simultaneously.
Anarchist principles emphasize horizontal structure and leaderlessness, but the reason those characteristics succeeded at Occupy is not because anarchists were dominant. While some activists embraced anarchist principles out of ideological agreement, others acquiesced to them for pragmatic reasons. After all, the movement’s openness and flexibility did allow groups to be formed and “carry their own thing.”
As importantly, no group or organization was in a position to run the show alone, and these principles emerged as a common (and unstable) ground for Occupy’s planners. Horizontal structure and leaderlessness also became a dynamic in and of themselves. They bound occupiers to a script amid the movement’s fast-paced growth, even when acute conflict settled in. Establishing other “rules” meant disrupting exactly what allowed Occupy to exist and thrive in the first place.
A movement’s organizational structure does not simply its reflect world view: world views grow, and may change, as a movement evolves. Furthermore, the organizational structure adopted by a movements—horizontal or hierarchical, centralized or decentralized–also, implicitly or explicitly, accounts for struggles within them. In the case of Occupy, tension and conflict across groups were crucial to shaping its trajectory and the attachment to the horizontal and leaderless format.
Amid such organizational arrangements, it may come as no surprise that Occupy created an abstract political subject, the “99 percent,” expressed in the popularized phrase: “We are the 99 percent.” The idea of a great majority pitted against a tiny minority of oppressors was deeply compelling.
Yet, strong as the motto’s appeal was at the time, it relied on a faulty assumption that exacerbated difficulties within the movement. In the “99 percent” frame, capitalism is universally exploitative. But the phrase failed to account for racialized forms of division and exploitation that are necessarily promoted by the capitalist system. To be sure, some occupiers fought hard to incorporate race into their discussions, and they made progress internally. But these efforts remained a struggle within the struggle and mostly resulted in only a superficial analysis, in which capitalist oppression and racist oppression are understood as intersecting but are still conceptualized as separate.
The view that capitalism is essentially racial would, however, be successfully disseminated by the Movement for Black Lives a few years later. This is not to say that the Movement for Black Lives needed Occupy to reach its own analysis. The point is that the idea of racial capitalism made more sense for a greater number of people, particularly M4BL allies, in light of the previous missteps of a movement that—despite the intentions of some of its participants—fell back on colorblindness.
In the years following Occupy, a new focus on electoral politics has occurred, resulting in, among other things, a wave of progressive legislators being elected at the local, state, and federal levels. While the election of Donald J. Trump as president in 2016 motivated these efforts to a great extent, they are also linked to that “moment of madness” that was Occupy.
This may seem counterintuitive, since Occupy did not have a formal program or platform and refused to work through institutional channels. To some activists, this became a source of frustration and a shortcoming to be addressed. The latest turn to institutional politics by the Left, however, has not reiterated old electoral approaches. Instead, it has incorporated the power of mobilization and street protest, as it emerged in the Zuccotti Park occupation and the intense action that emanated from it.
Nor could the Left have made the turn to the ballot without the work and influence of numerous former occupiers. For example, in the aftermath of Occupy and other campaigns, some organizers joined forces to build Bushwick, Brooklyn-based community center Mayday Space—among them former occupier Sandy Nurse. The center has become a vibrant hub of local activism over the last years, and Nurse will be the Democratic city council nominee for District 37, where the Bushwick neighborhood is located, in November 2021.
To many who were present on and after September 17, 2011, the restructuring and expansion of activist networks across the city—and even the country—was Occupy’s fundamental legacy. But such networks, by themselves, do not mean much. Occupy’s, in the end, was to highlight the notion of distinct, diverse approaches to political struggle, and highlighted the importance of collaboration across them. The cultivation of a movement ecosystem, in which each political and movement tradition has a role that contributes to the struggle, has been reanimated over the past decade, even though controversies around tactics have unsurprisingly persisted.
What led to Occupy’s success also led to its demise. Given the movement’s unstable grounds and flawed assumptions, its existence could not help but be short-lived. Still, ten years later, the movements, tendencies, energy and organizing tactics produced by the “moment of madness” are all around us. Our job for the next ten years is to build on them while developing the long-term vision Occupy could not, and was not devised to, offer.
Nara Roberta Silva is a sociologist who studies social movements, global Marxism, and post/anti-colonialism. She teaches at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.