Exactly one year ago today, on September 17, 2011, activists began camping out in New York’s Zuccotti Park, the spearhead of a new movement that soon spread around the world. Known as Occupy Wall Street, and inspiring a movement that became known as the Occupy movement, the New York encampment was inspired by an Adbusters article in July, which was in turn inspired by the revolutionary movements that had swept the Middle East at the start of the year — in Tunisia and Egypt, where two dictators had been toppled by people power.
“#OccupyWallStreet,” Adbusters announced. “Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?” they asked, continuing, “On Sept 17, flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and Occupy Wall Street.”
One year on, and the Occupy movement’s novel power — taking over public spaces and refusing to go home — has been defeated, often with violence, and much of the mainstream media is either ignoring the movement or deriding it, but that, to be honest, is irrelevant, as the mainstream media, more often that not, are part of the problem and not the solution.
With reference to the movement’s great bequest to political thinking — the struggle of the 99 percent against the 1 percent — those who put it down represent the 1 percent, the elites, while the movement itself is made up of the 99 percent, the people. These concepts provide the frame of reference for the ongoing struggle of the modern world, a struggle that involves the people finding ways to challenge the unacceptable power and influence of the 1 percent — the corporations, the banks, and politicians, who continue to demonstrate that they are interested only in enriching themselves and not in catering to the needs of the people, or, indeed, providing any kind of vision for the future beyond the one that feeds their shareholders, and feathers their own nests.
Four years on from the global economic crash of 2008, the need for a people’s movement is as strong as ever, as the rich continue to look after themselves, while, for the most part, initiating savage austerity programs to make the people pay for the crimes and self-interest of the elites. In the UK, this has involved the Tory-led coalition government launching an unprecedented program to destroy the state and to slash spending, even though that is economically suicidal. Along the way, as far too many people ignore Britain’s economic death spiral, those who have been made the scapegoats for the crisis and are being pushed into debt and penury are those who can least afford it — the poor, the young, the old, the ill, the unemployed and the disabled.
In terms of social justice, Britain is a basket case, a nation of zombies led by vultures. America is no better, of course. The world leader in turbo-charged capitalism, America has been draining hope from an increasing proportion of its population since the Reagan years, and the trend shows no sign of being reversed. This year’s Presidential election is a competition between two sides of the same coin. One side, admittedly — the Romney side — would be worse domestically and internationally, but the other, Obama and the Democrats, have no vision to offer, and the party is enslaved to the banks, the corporations and the military-industrial complex to the same alarming degree as the Republicans.
In America, at least, where Occupy began, there has been a noticeable attempt to bring the Occupy movement back to prominence on its first anniversary, with three days of activities in New York (known as #S17), and numerous other actions across the country, building on the protests and teach-ins that have been taking place all year, despite not being reported widely, and despite regular incidents of police obstruction and violence, as my friend Jan the Cosmic Surfer explained to me recently. As she stated, while the media have mostly been looking the other way, “there have been teach-ins in every city and town across the US multiple times a week,” and marches too, although “every march generates a confrontation with police but they are blacked out.” Furthermore, when it comes to confronting politicians, “‘free speech zones’ are set up as a matter of course blocks away from events and police herd everyone in. When activists do break out, that is when arrests are made.”
In the Nation (via Tom Dispatch), the author, journalist and activist Rebecca Solnit provided a good round-up of the last year’s achievements, explaining how “some of the people who came together under the Occupy banner have been working steadily in quiet ways all along, largely unnoticed … meeting weekly, sometimes just to have a forum, sometimes to plan foreclosure defenses, public demonstrations, or engage in other forms of organizing.”
She went on to explain:
On August 22, for instance, a foreclosure on Kim Mitchell’s house in a low-income part of San Francisco was prevented by a coalition made up of Occupy Bernal and Occupy Noe Valley (two San Francisco neighborhoods) along with ACCE, the group that succeeded the Republican-destroyed ACORN.
It was a little victory in itself — and another that such an economically and ethnically diverse group was working together so beautifully. Demonstrations and victories like it are happening regularly across the country, including in Minnesota, thanks to Occupy Homes. Earlier this month, Occupy Wall Street helped Manhattan restaurant workers defeat a lousy boss and a worker lock-out to unionize a restaurant in the Hot and Crusty chain. (While shut out, the employees occupied the sidewalk and ran the Worker Justice Café there.)
In Providence, Rhode Island, the Occupy encampment broke up late last January, but only on the condition that the city open a daytime shelter for homeless people. At Princeton University, big banks are no longer invited to recruit on campus, most likely thanks to Occupy Princeton.
There have been thousands of little victories like these and some big ones as well: the impact of the Move Your Money initiative, the growing revolt against student loan debt peonage, and more indirectly the passing of a California law protecting homeowners from the abuse of the foreclosure process (undoubtedly due in part to Occupy’s highlighting of the brutality and corruption of that process).
Solnit also had some words of wisdom about the movement as a whole:
But don’t get bogged down in the tangible achievements, except as a foundation. The less tangible spirit of Occupy and the new associations it sparked are what matters for whatever comes next … Occupy was first of all a great meeting ground. People who live too much in the virtual world with its talent for segregation and isolation suddenly met each other face-to-face in public space. There, they found common ground in a passion for economic justice and real democracy and a recognition of the widespread suffering capitalism has created.
Bonds were formed across the usual divides of age and race and class, between the housed and the homeless as well as the employed and jobless, and some of those bonds still exist. There was tremendous emotion around it — the joy of finding you were not alone, the shame that was shed as the prisoners of debt stepped out of the shadows, the ferocity of solidarity when so many of us were attacked by the police, the dizzying hope that everything could be different, and the exhilaration in those moments when it already was.
People learned how direct democracy works; they tasted power; they found something in common with strangers; they lived in public. All those things mattered and matter still. They are a great foundation for the future; they are a great way to live in the present.
Over the next five days, the movement’s attempts to take advantage of the opportunities for publicity offered by the anniversary, and to boost support, will continue in New York through dozens of events at the Free University of New York City in Madison Square Park from September 18 to 22.
Globally, too, the Occupy movement is planning for a major event on October 13, known as Global Noise, when, echoing the Argentinian people’s uprisings against economic injustice in 2001, international activists involved in the Indignato and Occupy movements will take part in a worldwide cacerolazo, or casserole march. As they explain, the plan is that “local Occupations and Collectives will take up the call to march, using the method of a casserole march to highlight whatever issues are the most important to their community.”
So on Occupy’s first anniversary, here’s to the future of the movement. As Aditya Chakrabortty explained in today’s Guardian, after dismissing the movement’s critics :
[W]hat Occupy has got right is its targets. That the economic model is broken shows in the policy exhaustion of those still trying to patch it up four years after Lehman’s collapse — and now retrying all the options that have failed already. Last week Ben Bernanke opted for a third round of quantitative easing, which will surely do more to lift gold prices than to bring down unemployment. And for proof that US politics are bust, one need only look at the finding by political scientist Martin Gilens that poor and middle-class Americans have almost no influence on which policies are made — even while laws favoured by 20% of the richest Americans have a 20% chance of being adopted by politicians. He says: “A democracy that ignores most of the public has a tenuous claim to legitimacy.”
When a Princeton professor makes statements as alarming as that, cynics would be better off directing their ire at the system, rather than any ideological naivety of its opponents.
That’s an extremely valid point, and, in conclusion, the only disappointment I will express on this anniversary — for which I must also bear some responsibility — is the silence from activists here in the UK. With the most right-wing government in living memory still waging war on the British state, and on the 99 percent here in Britain, the silence is depressing.
In an article to follow, I will look at how resistance to the Tories might best be achieved, but if you’d like to think about it as well it’s quite simple — people need to begin mobilizing in their own neighbourhoods, to change politics locally. The bigger political picture is important, but as in the US it is crucial to recall that all the major parties serve the rich, the banks and the corporations — the 1 percent — and not the 99 percent, and we need to find ways to take back control at a level that is feasible — in our own neighbourhoods, building networks from the ground up as we do so. If you have any suggestions, please get in touch.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed — and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
I am not rich – far from it.
Why does #OWS represent my interests?
I think because those involved have been asking the right questions, Ed, about who is in charge of our lives, and whose interests they’re serving, and because the main political parties represent the interests of the 1 percent. Having said that, I also think that what’s needed now is action at a local level to create jobs and genuinely affordable housing, to protect the poorest and weakest, to stimulate growth and to challenge those who exercise and maintain power through exploitation. Occupy activists have been doing this, largely unreported, but they are not the only people to be doing so, of course.
Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
Email Andy Worthington
Please support Andy Worthington, independent journalist: