On the 17th of September, 2011, a group of activists took to Wall Street, the finance capital, in order to protest against income inequality across the US. The group, who called themselves Occupy, wanted to draw attention to how the top 1% of the population hold the majority of the world’s wealth, whilst the other 99% struggle to pay off their debts. The movement soon won the hearts of many across the world as within 2 months, around 2,300 other protests began across 2,000 cities worldwide. But, were they successful?
Occupy is the first major public response to thirty years of class war.Noam Chomsky
When the protestors took to Zuccotti park, after having the police shut down their first two destinations, they were angry. With the 2008 financial crisis still in sight, the protestors felt that they had been sold out. In response to the crisis, many banks were bailed out by the government because they were “too big to fail.” Under the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act (EESA), the Treasury Secretary was able to buy up to $700 billion of troubled assets in order to restore liquidity to financial markets. In simple terms, the government used their money, much of it being tax revenue, in order to help the large banks out.
The first aim of the movement was to occupy the mainstream. They wanted to do this by first occupying space with tents and people. This was in order to get the attention of the media and henceforth, the global community. The protestors remained in Zuccotti square for just under a month before they were ordered to leave by police due to hazardous and unsanitary conditions. Before this time period, the police were unable to legally remove protestors from the park as it is private property and would require the permission of the owners. When police ordered them to leave, by dismantling tents and removing property, they assured the protestors could come back after the park had been cleared. However, they were told to not come back with camping equipment. Unfortunately, the removal of protesters was not that simple as more people started arriving at the scene after a mass text message was sent out alerting followers of the raid. Many protesters had to be forcibly evicted and many were arrested. This, however, was not the end of Occupy.
As mentioned earlier, the protest blew up across the world with people occupying places like Brooklyn, Long Island, the Bronx and even cities across Europe and Asia. This led to large media coverage across the world with large newspapers like the New York Times adopting language from the movement within their articles. In February 2012, they posted “why Obama will embrace the 99 percent.” By media outlets adopting language from the movement, Occupy became successful in occupying the mainstream.
There was a two to three month period in which the Occupy movement became more pessimistic. People started losing interest as the movement had no clear leadership. In a lot of movements, there is usually a leader who organises everything and ensures the success. However, the whole point of Occupy was to remove the concentration of power from the 1%. If they were to have a leader in the movement, then they would be undermining their argument about control and power. On the other hand, by not having a leader, they did not have organisation as there was not one way to go.
In order to continue to be relevant, the movement decided to diversify their tactics. They began to disrupt auctions where people’s stolen homes were up for sale. By doing this, they were able to expose the heartlessness and inhumanity of the system whilst also offering meaningful solidarity to those being crushed by it. Another way the movement chose to get heard was by going to an Obama campaign. The group had a tactic called ‘Mic Check.’ This was in order to get their voices heard in a large group of people. When ‘Mic Check’ was heard, the movement would listen to one person and repeat what they say in unison, so that more people can hear it. At an Obama campaign, they used this tactic in order to speak to the soon to be President about what they wanted. Within this rally, the group was successful in getting Obama to listen. He responded to them by saying “I appreciate you guys making your point. Let me go ahead and make mine. I’ll listen to you if you listen to me.”
However, with the process of diversifying tactics, with no clear leadership, violent protests began to erupt. Alongside the peaceful protests came the black bloc, a group consistently categorized as hooligans, thugs and youth who take joy in private property destruction. They were described as being “the cancer of the Occupy movement” by Chris Hedges. These individuals began shattering windows, sending flares and vandalising the streets and local businesses. As always, the press will focus on those within the movement who are causing the most damage as it will get the most views- that’s journalism! Due to this, the media completely changed their opinions on the Occupy movement. Large news outlets like Fox News began calling them “drug addicts” and “terrorists.” This earnt the movement a bad reputation in the mainstream which caused people to dissociate themselves.
Another aim of the movement was to end corporate personhood. This gives corporations rights and responsibilities similar to the natural person, under the law. As a result of this, corporations across the US have a right to free speech under the First Amendment. This gives them limitless individual contributions to political campaigns. Many financial institutions, therefore, began to pour money into the political campaigns for their chosen politician. As the price for campaigning in the US is extremely high, candidates, who want to be successful, are forced into the hands of the corporate sector. When it comes to the primaries, candidates surround their campaign with publicity and advertisement in order to tell people who they are and what they will do. Instead of this, candidates should be communicating with people through having town meetings and discussions. This will enable candidates to understand what the people want in their local area, in the country and with regards to foreign policy. Unfortunately, by collaborating with large banks and corporations, political candidates have to impress them rather than the people, as they are the ones funding their campaign. When Mark Hanna, a great political financier, was asked what is important in politics, he responded “the first is money, the second one is money and I’ve forgotten what the third one is”. This concentration of wealth within the corporate sector is what yields concentration of political power. This then gives rise to legislation that increases and accelerates the cycle.
The continuous campaigning to end corporate personhood became successful in 2012 as the New York City Council passed a resolution that opposed it. Resolution 1172 formally expressed disapproval to the landmark US Supreme Court decision which gave corporations the same first amendment rights as people. A statement released after said:
“As our support of this resolution demonstrates, restoring confidence in government and strengthening democratic participation is a core principle of the Progressive Caucus. We believe that corporations should not share the same rights as people, that unlimited and unreported corporate donations meant to sway the electoral process should not be considered freedom of speech, and that the government should regulate the raising and spending of money by corporations intended to influence elections. We cannot allow corporate money to manipulate our democracy.”
This resolution was a major success to Occupy who had been continuously campaigning for this. However, just because they were successful in New York, it did not mean that they had ended corporate personhood. In fact, it is still an ongoing legal debate.
As of 2020, the Occupy movement has died down. It is not expressed in the media and is not a daily conversation that people have with each other. Just because the movement is not spoken about to this day, it does not go to show that they were unsuccessful. In fact, as Noam Chomsky said, their greatest success was simply putting the inequalities of everyday life on the national agenda. Through influencing reporting, the movement was able to change the public perception. In fact, two thirds of the US population now believe that there are very strong/ strong conflicts between the rich and the poor. This was an increase of 19% since 2009. Whilst the movement were unable to achieve all of their aims, they were successful in educating people about the inequalities that persist within society.