Anniversary of Occupy

Monday 17 September 2012

It inspired people from Manchester to Moscow, led to thousands of arrests, and continues to generate debate. The Occupy protest movement, founded to oppose corporate greed and inequality, is this week celebrating its first anniversary. For many of those involved it has been an emotional and life-changing journey.

Occupy began in earnest on 17 September last year, when a group of protesters descended on New York’s Wall Street financial district. Angry over the banking industry’s role in the global financial crisis, the protesters wanted to come together to address what they called the “corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process.”

Inspired by the Arab Spring and a massive Spanish protest movement that had bloomed earlier in 2011, the Occupiers formed a make-shift tent-city a stone’s throw from Wall Street, where public assemblies and discussions were held. As the size of the camp quickly grew, international media attention soon followed. Before long, Occupy became a contagious phenomenon, spreading across America and across borders to more than 80 countries on almost every continent.

Ed Needham, 45, remembers the birth of Occupy well. The 45-year-old communications strategist was attending a conference for organisations working for progressive causes in Washington DC. He was approached by an activist who told him about a new protest called Occupy Wall Street in New York, which had begun a few days earlier. He decided to visit, was immediately impressed by what he saw, and joined in with the protest.

“For me Occupy represented a reaction to where we were as a society,” Needham says, recalling his first impressions. “I just thought that this was an extremely historical moment and that instead of some fly by night political party initiative or something, that this was the beginning of a social movement. And everything that has happened since has affirmed that.

“Rather than people coming together under the many different organisations or political entities, people were coming together under a much larger banner. It happened in a way that I think really captured the imagination of where we were – and still are – as a nation in terms of what has happened to us over the last 30 years.”

A crucial aspect of the Occupy movement was its cross-generational appeal. In the first few days it was characterised mainly as a youth movement, but as it grew that changed. Organised labour groups eventually got involved, as did senior citizens, war veterans, high-profile academics, musicians – even people who had worked within the financial sector. “At that point it just took off because people could no longer characterise the people down at the square as a bunch of hippie kids,” Needham says.

To date, there have been more than an estimated 7000 arrests of activists participating in Occupy protests across the US. The main camp in New York was evicted in November, but today the movement continues. The activists are currently collaborating on international actions to mark the one-year anniversary, and they still meet regularly and organise protests outside banks and run “teach-in” educational groups about economic issues.

Though some activists are pessimistic about the level of change they have managed to achieve, most believe that at the very least they have managed to shape mainstream political discussion by putting more focus on problems related to inequality. New splinter groups have also taken shape due to Occupy, with activists using different protest tactics to voice their discontent about the current status quo.

Los Angeles-based artist Alex Schaefer 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.”

Diverse supporters

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.

Occupy chants

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.