Near History: Occupy Wall Street

Posted on August 28, 2020

When the Occupy Wall Street movement happened in 2011, I was 13 years old. This is not to say that 13-year-olds should not be aware of what’s going on in the world; some don’t have the luxury of ignorance. All I know is that I had no clue why Occupy Wall Street was a thing. In fact, there were quite a few events between when I was born and when I started legitimately comprehending things that greatly influenced the way the world looks today. So I’ve decided to learn by writing about them. 

This is the Near History Project

… where I write about the most important events in near-recent history (1990ish-2010ish) that shaped the world we live in. And you can help me with this! I’d like to have conversations with people who lived through these events to get as many perspectives as possible. I’m attempting to take as objective of a view as I can (considering a lot of the events I’m researching sparked controversy, or are political in nature). If you’re interested in talking about these things, drop me a line using your preferred method of communication. If you’ve got issues with the stance I take on an issue, feel free to reach out as well, either through a direct message or in the comments on the post itself. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into it. 

What was Occupy Wall Street?

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) began as a series of independent movements in New York City throughout the summer of 2011. The original idea was posited by a Canadian anti-consumerist group called Adbusters in July, calling for peaceful demonstrations on Wall Street. Many similar groups latched onto the ideas they suggested. Anonymous attempted to organize on Wall Street; labor unions assembled for marches in the financial district; a group of artists spent days around the area protesting nude. 

On August 2nd, a group named “New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts” assembled for a general strategy session to plan the Occupy movement. They chose August 2nd because this was a deadline for the debt-ceiling, which was a central political debate of the day (that topic may warrant another article in itself). During this assembly, they planned for a September 17th occupation in one of three locations near Wall Street: One Chase Manhattan Plaza, the site of the Charging Bull statue (Bowling Green Park), or Zuccotti Park.

On September 17th, around 1,000 people gathered in Zuccotti Park, a park in the financial district of New York. OWS chose this location because the park was privately owned, so police couldn’t force protestors out without the request of the owners. This was one of the main reasons the occupation went on for as long as it did. The protest wasn’t widely reported by major news outlets until four days after it began, but then garnered national media attention.

The encampment in Zuccotti Park held tents and sleeping bags for protestors, as well as a kitchen for meal service, contribution boxes for donations, and the “People’s Library” which held over 5,000 books and was equipped with laptops and internet. However, the park was far from pristine. There were numerous complaints about the sanitary condition of the park, as well as reports of sexual assault and groping in the tent areas. I found the “administrative organization” of OWS to be one of the most interesting parts of it. Rather than having a centralized leadership, the group used public assemblies in which anyone could attend and speak. In order to make a decision, the group would attempt to reach a full consensus, then drop to 9/10 consensus if they had to. No decisions would be made with a lower level of agreement.

The occupation continued through October, surviving through multiple clashes with police. The protestors used Zuccotti Park as a base of operations, staging other protests from there. On November 15th, 2011, nearly two months after the initial occupation, authorities notified the protestors that the owners of the property had requested their clearing due to unsanitary and hazardous conditions. Riot police then removed people from the park, making numerous arrests.

The loose structure of OWS allowed it to share the goals of many of the groups that participated within it, such as balancing income distribution, forgiving student loan debt, alleviating of the foreclosure crisis that had gripped the nation since 2008, and reducing corporate influence on politics. The main motto of the occupation was “We are the 99 percent”, a rallying cry highlighting the topic of uneven income and wealth distribution. The many goals of OWS are cited as one of the movement’s main problems, as OWS didn’t “decide” on one concrete set of policy proposals. The movement fell due to the loss of their centralized location before any actionable results were produced.

Why was it important?

Occupy Wall Street politicized a generation of people. Whenever a protest makes such a big splash in the news media (and now online though social media), those who aren’t participating can hear the message and potentially relate to the feelings and ideas that the protestors are highlighting.

It’s impossible to precisely measure the results of a protest like this. There were no immediate policy changes in 2011, but there have been implementations of certain policies that OWS was protesting for, such as higher minimum wages. The Fight for $15 movement started in 2012 in New York, riding the coattails of the Occupy movement and feeding off of the energy that was created.

There are interesting contrasts between OWS and the current protest movement that is gripping the nation. OWS fizzled out after their centralized location was captured and cleared by the police; Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have no centralized location, as they use social media and digital communication to organize. OWS was criticized for having little minority representation, while BLM is spearheaded by minorities. Finally, OWS had no concrete policy recommendations; BLM protestors make it a point to have specific demands so they can work towards specific results.

The world is certainly a different place than it was when the OWS movement happened. We’ve learned that protests will continue to evolve with the protestors. Now that we are in the full grip of the internet age, it will be interesting to see how the end of the BLM protests compare to the end of the OWS movement, and what the next generation of protests will look like. Thanks for learning with me!

Further Reading / Sources

Big shoutout to Wikipedia, the greatest resource on the internet

A 5-year anniversary look at the OWS movement

The timeline of the movement

Cover image by David Shankbone – Own work, CC BY 3.0

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