What's happened to the Occupiers?
The Occupy Wall Street movement sprang up in New York a year ago. As members gather to mark its first anniversary those involved reflect on its impact and internal strife
ZUCCOTTI PARK in September is breezy and sun-dappled, and on Wednesday this week it was filled with office workers and men from the nearby World Trade Center construction site taking their lunch breaks. In one corner of the park, activists gathered following a meeting, and drum beats could be heard from a group of Occupiers camped outside Trinity Church, opposite Wall Street. The area is relatively quiet – thronged with pedestrians, sure, but mostly free of the protesters who made their homes in the park during September 2011.
The park, in the heart of New York’s financial district, was the birthplace of Occupy Wall Street, a movement that took many by surprise when it sprang up last autumn. It swiftly garnered attention and gained significant public support. Many of those involved at the start were anarchists, theorists and feminists, and, drawing on these philosophies, they established an unconventional campaign for change.
On Monday, and this weekend, in the run-up, a range of concerts, lectures, film screenings and parties are planned across New York to mark the movement’s anniversary.
A press release gleefully states: “99% to Wall St. We’re coming for you! Year two begins.” But the reality is less certain. Ever since the NYPD threw activists out of the park in the early hours of November 15th 2011, Occupy has been without a home. Supporters congregate uptown in Union Square Park (though not overnight) and hold meetings in rooms in universities and friendly venues across the city. A small group sleeps on the footpath outside Trinity Church, but, one year on, the movement has lost visibility. Police brutality, internal disagreements and the strain of long-term “occupations” have taken their toll.
Perched on one of Zuccotti Park’s granite seats, bearing a poster with a statement about bankers and the 99 per cent, is Michael Glazer, a bearded 27-year-old actor from Chicago. He recalls how, a year ago, he sold his guitar to make enough money to pay for the bus, arriving in New York on October 9th. Hundreds of people were sleeping in the park and thousands were visiting in the day.
“Coming up on our one-year anniversary, I think there’s a lot of hope, because we have lasted this long,” he says. “But I think there is a bit of a sense of a missed opportunity because I feel like people understand that we can’t occupy public spaces any more the way we did.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly for such a large and disparate collection of people, the movement has seen plenty of friction. According to Glazer, those who went so far as to mention support for a mainstream political candidate were likely to get into trouble, in a way that has driven off the soccer moms and more ordinary folk.
“There are people that are anarchists that are part of the movement. There are people that are socialists, there are people that are completely apolitical. If you show your support for anybody on any political side they just start swearing at you and start screaming at you. I don’t see it as healthy.” The visible activists have dwindled. Glazer was a part of Occupy camps at both the Democratic and Republican conventions and was surprised by the small number of protesters. A couple of hundred people camped out and between 1,500 and 2,000 attended marches, he said. “I think the police outnumbered us five to one.”
Down the street from Zuccotti a young woman called Darah McJimsey is overseeing the library: a suitcase containing books donated and salvaged from dumpsters (sample titles: Portraits of American Politics; Treasure Island).
The 24-year-old from California came to New York last November. She has noticed a sort of class difference within the movement. “I live in front of Trinity Church with a bunch of other people who are part of the movement. We are all homeless, we sleep out here on a 24/7 peaceful-protest physical occupation.”
The group, which includes people who were homeless before they joined the Occupy movement, would be grateful for emotional support and food, she says, but they rarely receive visits from the organisers who don’t sleep out.
A number of problems face those sleeping out, and Occupy’s dispersed locations make it harder for people like her to keep up with events. “A lot of us try to attend meetings regularly, which are ridiculously far away, and we have giant backpacks and no metro fare and we’re hungry. We don’t know what’s going on, we don’t have access to computers. That’s another divide – the technological divide.”
Earlier this year, McJimsey says, Occupy introduced a spending freeze. “I don’t even know what’s up with our finances.”
There are other potential complaints about Occupy, including the broad spread of causes it embraces and the diffuseness of its aims. The General Assembly website lists 92 groups, ranging from anti-racism allies and global justice to PR and meditation. Almost every group has its own website.
Yet this diversity within unity is at the heart of the movement’s appeal: the sense that everyone in the 99 per cent is connected and their causes are connected too. One reason Occupy never became the Tea Party (or acquired similar political influence) is because it never set out to do so. “Occupy Wall Street isn’t like the Tea Party,” Amin Husain, a lawyer turned artist-activist who has been involved with Occupy since the very early days, tells The Irish Times. “It’s not looking at Republicans and Democrats and Independents. It’s not looking at left, right and centre. It’s talking about people and the fact that people have been screwed. How many people: 99 per cent of people have been screwed. They have been screwed by 1 per cent of the political elite and economic elite.”
To speak to early members such as Husain is to be reminded of Occupy’s original freshness, that idealistic vision of a world which is, simply, a fairer place. “We did change the conversation, we brought class consciousness into it – because economic justice and political justice and social justice aren’t separate struggles, they’re connected,” Husain says. “Ultimately we need solidarity within struggles in the United States.”
Andrew Sabl, a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California in Los Angeles, who has been following Occupy since last year, agrees that the movement has had some success. Even if it has not operated through standard political routes, it has re-energised those who might have tired of politics and activism. “The issues that Occupy started talking about very quickly had an effect on political discourse: distribution of economic power, Wall Street corruption. They had been neglected by the political class in this country and Occupy changed that.”
There are two forms of involvement in politics, Sabl suggests. One is with a view to accomplishing a concrete goal, the other is a sort of religious involvement. “They engage for the sake of the activity itself and of being in a group with others who want to confess that faith. Occupy always has many characteristics of the latter, but Occupy by now is decisively a confession of faith, not a political movement directed at achieving anything in particular.”
Whether it’s down to those religious feelings or to more pragmatic impulses, a core of Occupy supporters remain stalwart, even those who expressed some misgivings. Back in Zuccotti Park, sitting alone and wielding his sign, Michael Glazer articulates an age-old activist sentiment. “You have to keep it up – somebody has to,” he says. “I’m here today, I’m holding a sign. I’m just trying to spread an idea.”