garnered media attention last year for expressing his indignation at the greed of the banking sector in a creative manner – by painting pictures of banks on fire. Schaefer is hugely frustrated at how little has been done in America to hold the financial sector to account for bringing the country’s economy to its knees, and he recently started a new trend that is beginning to catch on in various cities. He calls it “chalking” – a form of civil disobedience that involves drawing information about bank wrongdoing in chalk on pavements outside bank buildings. “It needs to be a constant reminder,” Schaefer says. “It’s a different protest than a march. This is a way to just casually do it consistently. I wish every bank would wake up to this on this sidewalk every morning.” So far Schaefer has been arrested once for vandalism, but the charges were eventually dropped. He says the tactic was in part borne out of a deep dissatisfaction that nothing was being done to address the issues raised by the Occupy movement. “Nothing has changed, it’s ridiculous,” he says. “Occupy is an uphill battle. The problem is that Occupy was only a fraction of the population. There are so many more people out there that need to get upset before a change is going to happen.” In England, activists speak of the same frustration. Occupy spread to London in October last year, with a large encampment established outside St Paul’s Cathedral near the city’s stock exchange. Small campsites eventually formed in a number of cities across Britain – from Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland to Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, and Sheffield in England. But most of the camps were either evicted or slowly disbanded as the cold bite of winter set in – and some protesters feel that they failed to agree on a coherent message across the different sites. “Even from London to the regions there was a huge difference in scope and aims,” says Daniel, 34, an activist from Liverpool who spent time at Occupy protests in England and America. “I felt aspects I was experiencing at occupations abroad, particularly in the US, did not translate locally. What we saw regionally was more a kind of nebulous protest, and the camps ended up quite detached from the global movement.” Daniel says that he found Occupy in London to be “quite brilliant” and well organised. An empty office block that was squatted by the activists in London’s financial district and turned into a giant makeshift community centre called the Bank of Ideas also impressed him. However, in Liverpool he says groups including the Socialist Workers’ Party “appeared intent on co-opting, while not overtly supporting the movement, which was predictable and divisive.” And at some Occupy camps he visited, the initial energy which had catalysed the movement became diluted. Other protesters had similarly negative experiences of camps outside London. In Birmingham, activist Tom Holness said the camp had included people who believed in “Jewish banking conspiracies” and a member of the far-right English Defence League, which dissuaded new people from joining. “The Facebook pages were a mess of arguments and conspiracy theories and that put a lot of people off,” he says. Yet despite its flaws, Occupy as a movement is likely to persist in some form at least for the foreseeable future. The issues driving it, such as rising unemployment and a growing disparity between rich and poor, have not been addressed. And many activists, though they are tired and frustrated, are still intent on pushing for change. In Spain, the movement that preceded Occupy may offer a glimpse of what is to come. Thousands took to the streets across the country last summer to protest against austerity measures, corporate power and political corruption, camping out in public squares and holding lengthy debates in a bid to find solutions to economic problems. Calling themselves the Indignados (the indignant) they continue to organise demonstrations and political actions, weary but energised by groups in other parts of the world. “It’s been absolutely inspiring to see how some other movements have been out in the States and in London and everywhere,” says Beatriz Pérez, a 31-year-old activist who has been involved with the Indignados movement since it began in May last year. “We share the sense of frustration and rage with a lot of other people.” As a result of the Indignados movement, locally organised public assemblies are now held regularly in cities including Madrid and Barcelona for anyone to come and address grievances. Though unemployment is soaring in Spain and the protesting has not managed to achieve substantive political changes, it has brought people together in a way that has in itself had a positive and lasting impact. “Life in Spain, in Madrid, has changed a little bit for everyone that has been in the movement,” says Pérez. “I feel like in my city there is a lot more love out there – it’s a romantic thing to say but that’s how I feel. It’s less individualistic here than it was. And I think that has got to be a very good thing for our lives.”
The 99 per cent
Occupy Wall Street describes itself as a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colours, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that per cent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 per cent. We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants.”
The “we are the 99 per cent” slogan has come to symbolize the movement, and was used by protesters in countries around the world. It is intended to draw attention to the disparity between rich and poor and is a reference to the statistic that in the United States, the upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year.
The phrase is thought to have originated from an article written by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who wrote in May 2011 that “the top 1 per cent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 per cent live.”
Occupy Wall Street reportedly sparked copycat protests in more than 80 countries across the world. Protesters marched and formed Occupy groups in countries including Australia, England, Canada, Belgium, France, Denmark, Italy, China, New Zealand, Ireland, Scotland – even Armenia and Nigeria. The movement also attracted a diverse selection of supporters: from rapper Jay-Z to supreme leader of Iran Ayatollah Khamenei, who predicted that Occupy would “bring down the capitalist system and the West."
The Occupy movement is widely considered to have begun on 17 September 2011, when activists in New York set up a makeshift campsite in the city’s financial district. The American protesters took influence from pro-democracy revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt, and they were also greatly inspired by a Spanish protest movement that was launched in May 2011 by a group calling itself the Indignados (the indignant). The Occupiers structured themselves without formal leaders, reaching decisions by consensus often after long debates attended by hundreds of participants.
Like all protest movements, Occupy has spawned many chants. Some of the most popular include:
“All day / all week / occupy Wall Street”
“Privatisation / deregulation / that will be the agony / of the nation”
“A better world is possible / we are unstoppable”
“Show me what democracy looks like / this is what democracy looks like”
“One per cent you can’t run / revolution has begun”
This article first appeared in issue no.945 of the Big Issue north magazine.