New Internationalist

Will Occupy live to see another birthday?

September 2012

On the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, #S17, Mark Engler says the 99 per cent could sorely use another round of rebellion.

Occupy Wall Street began as a small and marginal effort. As its first anniversary comes and goes, it has become small and marginal again.

To say this is not to disparage those seeking to carry on the Occupy spirit. It is to acknowledge reality in the hope of changing it.

Can Occupy rebound in its second year? What would it need to again become influential in highlighting economic inequality and challenging rule by the rich?

Some answers can be found in Occupy’s past.

In between its bouts of marginality, Occupy accomplished remarkable things. Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman perhaps put it best. Before the uprising, ‘we were basically having an insane national discussion,’ he said. The US unemployment rate had reached double digits, something more than a third of Americans had never seen in their lifetimes. State governments reported record demand for food stamps. Yet debate in Washington DC revolved around cutting social programmes.

Alan Hughes Picture
Alan Hughes

‘Then a group of people started camping out in Zuccotti Park, and all of a sudden the conversation changed significantly, towards being about the right things,’ Krugman explained. ‘It’s kind of a miracle.’

He’s right. But this didn’t happen instantly, and the dynamics of success were not otherworldly.

During the occupation’s first week, only a few dozen participants camped in New York City’s financial district. Despite limited numbers, they created a key dilemma: police could either allow a permanent tent city in lower Manhattan, which would be a victory for demonstrators; or they could act on behalf of wealthy bankers and shut down dissent, something that would perfectly illustrate the protesters’ claims about what our democracy had become.

A conflict was unavoidable. And when police did respond, the images generated – officers pepper-spraying non-threatening demonstrators at close range – galvanized democratic outrage internationally.

As momentum reached a peak, Occupy became an umbrella for resistance. Hundreds of cities joined. Community groups that had long conducted sit-ins at foreclosed homes saw participation swell. Labour unions organizing against poverty wages and for decent healthcare bolstered Occupy marches. Participants from the camps, in turn, joined their picket lines. Movement art, poetry and film abounded.

Now, momentum is low. Unions and community organizations persist, but they rarely bother to identify with the Occupy label. Most of the camps have long since been evicted.

The assemblies that linger attract only a small core of activists. Many of them are focused on building a sense of mutual support among those who remain. Others are transforming vacant lots into community gardens or claiming empty buildings as squats. But these are not drives designed to reach out to the ‘99 per cent’. Anarchists who consider this language to be watered-down liberalism don’t even aspire to that goal.

This is a problem. Occupy is a particular type of movement, one distinct from long-term efforts to build progressive institutions, political parties or counter-cultural spaces. Rather, it is a mobilization that uses civil disobedience to shift public focus and create a burst of energy for ongoing organizing. It lives and dies by the media.

A thousand community gardens, however beneficial, won’t recapture the spotlight. A street fight with the police won’t do it either: state authorities are itching to deploy their insanely militarized arsenals. Inviting them to do so with hurled bottles and busted bank windows only isolates the movement from the wider public.

Early on, Occupy’s name was an advantage. It’s an active verb, one that serves as an audacious command to reclaim public space and public discourse. Yet in year two, the name may be a liability, suggesting that progressive imagination is limited to a single activity.

If Occupy is to regain momentum, it must create a new dilemma for authorities – or many new dilemmas – bold, creative and nonviolent.

Let’s hope it can. Because the 99 per cent in the US could sorely use another round of rebellion.


Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website: DemocracyUprising.com

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 456 This column was published in the September 2012 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 Beth 19 Sep 12

    hmmm...

    Big mobilizations can only give birth to smaller more permanent institutions, these things have to work in waves.

    But whatever you think is happening and should happen it isn't very nice to elide community gardens and squats with street fights and window busting. Community gardens and squats are one of the institutional forms that can tie people in to a movement after a mobilization. And it was an anarchist that coined the '99%' terminology that you're claiming we sneer at... and anarchist principles on which the whole shebang was organised. By all means share ideas for new mobilisations, coalitions, institutions... whatever grows a movement in way that can really win. But this article seems a bit like a random anarchists-are-doing-it-wrong on the basis of the fact that of course Occupy was never going to last for ever. Yes it was a good big media stunt, it'd be nice if there was more stuff like that. But we're not going to change society with one big media stunt every few years, long protest camps and being beaten by police wear people out, they aren't sustainable forever. You might find the numbers and the goals unexciting but it's the ongoing alternative-world building of squats, education projects, food projects, fighting repossessions, anti-debt initiatives and community gardens that are born from and give birth to huge mobilizations. They grow slowly, they improve people's lives directly and they build a real understanding of solidarity.

  2. #2 Beth 19 Sep 12

    hmmm...

    Big mobilizations can only give birth to smaller more permanent institutions, these things have to work in waves.

    But whatever you think is happening and should happen it isn't very nice to elide community gardens and squats with street fights and window busting. Community gardens and squats are one of the institutional forms that can tie people in to a movement after a mobilization. And it was an anarchist that coined the '99%' terminology that you're claiming we sneer at... and anarchist principles on which the whole shebang was organised. By all means share ideas for new mobilisations, coalitions, institutions... whatever grows a movement in way that can really win. But this article seems a bit like a random anarchists-are-doing-it-wrong on the basis of the fact that of course Occupy was never going to last for ever. Yes it was a good big media stunt, it'd be nice if there was more stuff like that. But we're not going to change society with one big media stunt every few years, long protest camps and being beaten by police wear people out, they aren't sustainable forever.

    You might find the numbers and the goals unexciting but it's the ongoing alternative-world building of squats, education projects, food projects, fighting repossessions, anti-debt initiatives and community gardens that are born from and give birth to huge mobilizations. They grow slowly, they improve people's lives directly and they build a real understanding of solidarity.

  3. #3 Barbara 19 Sep 12

    I find it ironic that the media has declared Occupy dead, but they have failed to cover its activities. Some high profile members of the Occupy movement who had some media coverage in the early days (Like Occupy the SEC and Occupy the banks) have approached the networks only to be told that they are no longer covering Occupy and will not invite them on to update their activities. But the activities continue. There was an Occupy National Gathering in July in Philadelphia...almost no press, but lots of police presence. There is InterOccupy which has weekly conference calls of its members.
    There is activity, there is just no press coverage.

  4. #4 ANTONIO BERNAL 20 Sep 12

    From San Francisco to Cairo to Damascus to Bangladesh the occupy movement is responding to the same phenomena, because capitalism has become worldwide through globalization. Wall Street occupies both the US and other countries. Imperialism is both local and international. Capitalism is the the new fascism, and anyone who thinks the occupy movement has any chance of dying down before capitalism is defeated is dreaming. That is why there was the Cairo spring--then things were more or less quiet, now we have the Mohammed uprisings everywhere-which is not about religion, but about the West overpowering resources and further pauperizing the Middle East. The people must have dignity, a standard of living, and must be respected. Capitalism tries to brutalize them turn them into draft animals. Capitalism is not the only economic system possible. It has reached a point where it no longer provides for human well being. It has become a poison that destroys everything it touches. It will be defeated.

  5. #5 andrew 21 Sep 12

    I first heard about the occupy movement 6 months ago, from a m a wson video. I am glad that it is remembered a year on.

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This article was originally published in issue 455

New Internationalist Magazine issue 455
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