Occupy Wall Street: Two Years Later

Two years ago today, on September 17, 2011, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) was born.  Spearheaded by the Vancouver-based progressive magazine Adbusters, a relatively small group of protesters set up an encampment at Zuccotti Park, a quasi-public space in downtown Manhattan, to protest malfeasance in the financial industry.  The Occupy Wall Street movement quickly gained spectacular momentum, attracting hundreds of thousands of protesters in outcroppings worldwide.

A common criticism of the movement then, and one which persists to this day, is that OWS has sought nothing and has achieved nothing.  Each of these criticisms is flatly wrong.

At its foundation, OWS was an expression of popular exasperation with a financial industry that had propelled the global economy into the worst downtown since the Great Depression.  Too Big To Fail banks placed excessively speculative and under-capitalized bets that led to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, bailouts of AIG and hundreds of other financial institutions, stultification of the credit and housing markets and the consequent global recession.  That recession negatively impacted virtually every person and every business with any meaningful connection to the economy.  The Federal Reserve reported that, in the three years between 2007 and 2010, the median net worth for the typical American family fell almost 40%.

Yet, despite an initial dip, the financial industry continued to enjoy ever-rising profits, lavish bonus structures, and seeming immunity from regulators and prosecutors.  In the face of these pathetic conditions, it was all-but-inevitable that a popular uprising like Occupy Wall Street would emerge.  Indeed, protests against perceived injustices are imbricated in the essential fabric of American history, and date back to the Revolution and before.

The zeitgeist of OWS has not been limited to economic concerns, however, as the energy behind the movement galvanized around many other progressive issues, ranging from foreign policy to local police brutality.  Indeed, the primary “demand” of OWS has simply been a demand to be heard.

In the 1978 movie Network, Oscar-winning actor Peter Finch played Howard Beale, a disenchanted veteran news reporter.  In a seminal scene in the movie, Beale talks directly into the network’s cameras and recounts some of the troubles of the day, including inflation, crime, the prospect of war with the USSR.  Beale admits that he does not have the solution to all of these problems, but insists, quite poignantly, that before they can be addressed, “first, you’ve got to get mad.”  He instructs each member of the audience to get up, open the window, and yell out “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” The initial Occupy Wall Street protesters followed in this vein, choosing Zuccotti Park instead of their windows.

A second common criticism, that OWS achieved nothing despite its vehemence, is also a myth.  To some extent, recognition of one’s own oppression can be an achievement in of itself.  Goethe said that “none are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”  At the very least, OWS protesters understand the constraints of power that frame their lives.

Even so, the movement’s impact has hardly been circumscribed to the protesters themselves.  By raising the possibility of truly progressive politics — a possibility that had been largely abandoned by the Democratic mainstream — OWS served as a counterbalance to the conservative agenda disseminated by the Koch Brothers, Fox News and the Tea Party.  The movement’s emphasis on progressive causes arguably shifted the political discourse towards the left, paving the way for Democratic victories in the 2011 and 2012 elections.

Activists in various subgroups within OWS have also taken concerted and sustained actions to advocate for specific changes.  Occupy the SEC has advocated before members of Congress, submitted amicus briefs at the Circuit Court and Supreme Court levels, and recently filed a federal lawsuit against financial regulators including the SEC and the Federal Reserve over their delay in implementing the Volcker Rule.  OWS Alternate Banking Group has staged protests against HSBC and recently published a book on the financial system.  Groups like Occupy Our Homes and Occupy Homes Minnesota have successfully battled against unfair home foreclosures.  In April of this year the Rolling Jubilee Fund announced that it had bought out and forgiven over $1 million worth of medical bills owed by over 1000 people.  When Hurricane Sandy devastated the New York metropolitan area in October 2012, even traditional first responders marveled at the efficiency and diligence of Occupy Sandy volunteers who assisted with food delivery and reconstruction efforts.

In the course of two years, the Occupy movement has sought change and has effected change.  Unfortunately, OWS activists have their work cut of for them.  Even in the face of sanguine news reports regarding stock market rallies and economic growth, the struggles of the poor and disenfranchised have not abated since 2011.  A recent study based of IRS statistics revealed that the disparity in income between the top 1% and the 99% is now the worst it has been in a century.  The country could really use a resurgence of the activist spirit that overtook Lower Manhattan two years ago.

- Akshat Tewary

About A. Tewary