This week marks the third anniversary of protesters descending on Wall Street to protest the havoc wrought by the 2008 Financial Meltdown, which had hit all Americans hard, except for the ones who had caused it.
What began as an open call from Adbusters to show up with a tent grew from dozens to hundreds, to thousands, to tens of thousands. Far from rejecting the extended sit-in, area businesses plied demonstrators with food and support. Those who could not make it to New York started their own hometown Occupy protests in solidarity, hundreds of them, across the country and around the world.
Adhering to the advertised mantra, “What is our one demand?” the Occupy activists connected with like-minded organizers in social justice and helped paint a portrait of the larger malfeasance plaguing society today: Bankers who had pushed derivatives industry-wide as a credible investment, while knowing they were bogus funds made of worthless mortgages, had led the stock and housing markets into a punishing recession, while using government bailouts to give themselves obscene bonuses despite their negligence. At this same time was an emerging generation of unemployed millennials saddled with unprecedented student debt, as the banks had consolidated the student loan racket with high interest rates and no chance of bankruptcy protection under President Bush.
And who was looking out for Americans in this modern Depression? Basically, no one, because things got so bad in the first place because our elected leaders have become so beholden to their campaign donors. Since the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United allowed unlimited outside spending in elections, candidates had dropped all pretense of serving their constituents, instead shifting their attention (and positions) in deference to billionaire kingmakers and Super PACs.
When beholding such a zero-sum option, it might seem clear why the only option left would be to get everyone you know to go out to the streets and bring this messed up paradox to the attention of everybody. Which is why, for whatever Occupy Wall Street is remembered for at its height, it should be considered an intervention for the country — a staged disruption by those who care, trying to alert an ailing entity to the damage it is inflicting. In this case, that entity with the destructive addictions is our modern political process, where who has the most money makes the rules, at the cost of all else — if it’s a Texas fertilizer plant exploding near a school, a chemical company polluting drinking water for all of West Virginia, or gun manufacturers decrying regulations despite massacred children.
With that is mind, assessing the impact of Occupy Wall Street might be best done by considering the goals of those who camped out in Zuccotti Park. For one, this was a protest, not a political party, so comparisons to the Tea Party are like apples and oranges. While the Tea Party turned outrage at the government into electoral gains (with a lot of help and money from the Kochs), Occupy Wall Street was at the opposite end of the spectrum – the end of the spectrum that views officeholders as courtesans for the corporate class. Asking Occupy activists why they didn’t just start a political party and run for office is like asking an atheist why they didn’t just pray harder.
Another essential in gauging the importance of Occupy Wall Street is recognizing that the Occupy movement did not simply fizzle out or lose steam. The fact is, Occupy encampments were broken up in a coordinated effort led by the Department of Homeland Security working with local police departments. This coordination was reported by Jason Leopold after acquiring DHS documents through the Freedom of Information Act. Far from losing momentum, the Occupy presence had grown so intense nationwide, gaining sustained media coverage, that this had become the biggest threat to the status quo in modern times. In widely documented raids, police drove protesters from public lands with blunt force, tear gas, and arrest, then proceeded to blame Occupy protesters for the mess that was left behind. Young protesters sprayed in the face with pepper spray without warning or provocation, rubber bullets fired at peaceful demonstrators, police charging with batons, this is what oppression looked like in 2011. This marked the era of the militarized police force, which has come under scrutiny in the wake of the Ferguson PD’s effort at martial law in Missouri.
So, besides the realization that heavily armed police forces consider themselves at war with their own communities, what else can we attribute to Occupy Wall Street with the benefit of hindsight? The immediate impact seemed to be how the debate in America changed almost overnight. No sooner had President Obama assumed office in 2009 than Republicans and conservatives began howling about deficit reduction. This sounds like a normal thing you do when you are running a first-world nation, but a more accurate way to look at it is that Republicans and Tea Partiers were demanding that Obama pay off the credit card charges from Bush/Cheney’s trillion-dollar war, as well as their $2 trillion giveaway in taxes to the very rich. And they were acting like these bills arrived with the Obama family in the White House. Without fail, the mainstream media and Beltway punditry wrung their hands about what Obama was gong to do with this mess, that he better do something or we’d go off the fiscal cliff that John Boehner just made up, and it would be all Obama’s fault that Boehner refused to hold a vote on basic government funding like every Congress before him.
But a funny thing happened when a few folks started talking about the richest one percent using their money to work the political system to get even richer. “WE ARE THE 99%” became the rallying cry of a generation. The simplicity and inclusivity was said to be worthy of Madison Avenue. At once the conversation had shifted, and in that discourse, a word started coming up that used to seem unspeakable: class. To at once dispel that American notion that we are so different from other countries while decrying staggering inequality made the struggle of others real. Not like a news piece on a family clipping coupons during a recession. Real, like this weighs on you, and becomes a sense of indignation for your fellow American, the way you were outraged when you saw New Orleans submerged from broken levees and its citizens struggling for days following Hurricane Katrina.
That awareness was more than a narrative, more than a meme, more than a point in a debate. The broad perception was that America wasn’t just on the wrong track, it had been held up by railroad bandits.
What this really did was set the stage for the 2012 elections.
Through the drifting clouds of tear gas, stepping over the trampled bodies of demonstrators, and grinning into the same cameras that just showed all hell breaking lose, came Mr. Magoo, the most awe-inspiring tone-deaf candidate for president at the worst/best possible time. With Bain Capital affirming his vulture cred, an income so huge he refused to reveal his tax returns, he ran on absolutely nothing except saying what we have now isn’t working, even though it seemed to be working fine for him.
This was the guy with his finger on the pulse of America who insisted, “Corporations are people, my friend,” presumably thinking he was talking to a corporation. Corporate personhood had been a target of ire for Occupy Wall Street since it tends to indemnify financial criminals, and also because Citizens United had granted corporations VIP access to politicians. If Occupy Wall Street had been criticized for calling out how 1% of the people own 40% of the wealth, it sure seemed kinder than insisting that 47% of Americans would never take care of themselves and only live off of the government. When he lost by five million votes, he was the only one surprised, and blamed the weather.
But the disconnect was real, and continued. It seemed every few months there was another tortured outburst in print from some of the wealthiest men in Manhattan about how unfair the scorn was they faced, even though this was years after the protesters left Zuccotti. The people who seemed to be taking Occupy Wall Street the most seriously were the ones that it was intended for.
As I screen my documentary PAY 2 PLAY, I am asked sometimes what happened to Occupy, since it is included in our film about outsiders trying to have a voice in our political system. I will tell them about how I have met others at our screenings that preface their activism by saying they got motivated first from Occupy Wall Street. I met a young woman in Seattle who had mobilized first as a local Occupy organizer, who had since been elected to city council. Some of the very entities hosting our film about the problems with money in politics were off-shoots from local Occupy groups.
But I think more than anything, the point of Occupy was using your voice to speak out and finding out that you are not alone, there are many who feel the same way, and you are energized by this shared recognition. And once that common reality and strength is realized, you can go back to sleeping in bed and still live in accordance to your own mission.
Maybe someday we’ll have a reunion for the Class of 2011. But for now, our gratitude and admiration go out to all who occupied and inspired. Thank you for showing us that we are not alone. Our patriotism and compassion will push this pay-to-play system into the dustbin of history.
John Wellington Ennis’s documentary PAY 2 PLAY: Democracy’s High Stakes is now having an extended run in NYC, LA, and DC.