Occupy Wall Street
Occupy Wall Street: an Overview
Occupy Wall Street (or OWS) is an ongoing protest against corporate influence on democracy and the growing inequality between rich and poor in the U.S. On 9/17/11, protesters took over a privately-owned plaza in Lower Manhattan, near the Financial District. Between 100 and 200 people slept in the park each night, and hundreds more joined the occupation during the day, until police evicted them in mid-November. The protest inspired similar demonstrations around the world.
The group’s slogan, “We are the 99%”—referring to the great majority of Americans, who have not shared in the growing wealth of the top 1%—seemed to resonate with many across the country. Some Democrats embraced the concept, and used it in their speeches; many Republicans accused the Occupy movement of preaching class warfare and the politics of envy.
By December, 2011, many cities in the U.S. (including New York, L.A., Philadelphia, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Boston) had cleared away the encampments. Many of the removal attempts resulted in violent confrontations between police and protesters—most notably in Oakland, California, site of perhaps America’s most strong-willed occupation.
It’s not clear if spring, 2012 will bring revitalized protests, or if the movement will fade.
How did it start?
Taking their cue from the massive street demonstrations that toppled authoritarian governments in Tunisia and Egypt, the Adbusters Media Foundation (an anti-consumerist group based in Canada) proposed a peaceful occupation of Wall Street. The idea was circulated in an email to Adbusters’ supporters, and other activist groups promoted it.
The protest began with 1,000 people marching through the streets of downtown Manhattan on 9/17/11, and occupying Zuccotti Park (formerly known as Liberty Plaza), a few blocks north of Wall Street.
What are they protesting?
From Occupy_Wall_Street.org (an unofficial website): “OWS is fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations. The movement… aims to expose how the richest 1% of people are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future.”
The protesters include liberals, independents, socialists, libertarians, anarchists, and environmentalists. (Different polls show different breakdowns by ideology: see the Douglas Schoen and LBO News articles below, under “Opinion.”) According to a poll of 200 protesters in mid-October, 52% had taken part in political movements before, and 65% believed that government has a responsibility to guarantee access to affordable health care, a college education, and a secure retirement.
What are their demands and goals?
The protesters have been criticized for failing to make specific demands. There is disagreement on this point within the movement: some want to formulate demands, while others prefer to let the protest remain what it is, an expression of grievances that is also creating a new kind of community.
Though no specific goals have been spelled out, the message of the protests is clear: that the richest 1% exercise disproportionate control over wealth and political power in the U.S., and that Wall Street’s greed has damaged the economy and the financial security of the poor and middle class.
Week 1, 9/17-9/23: The protests began on 9/17, with 1,000 people marching through the streets.
Week 2, 9/24-9/30: Police used orange mesh nets to contain protesters in small groups. In an incident captured on video, a police official pepper-sprayed women penned in the orange nets. (See the video here.)
Week 3, 10/1-10/7: Protesters tried to march across the Brooklyn Bridge; police arrested more than 700 of them for blocking traffic. A few days later, union members, students and unemployed people joined the protests; about 15,000 people marched through the Financial District. Occupy rallies spread to more than a dozen U.S. cities.
Week 4, 10/8-10/14: British protesters followed the OWS lead and occupied London’s financial district.
Week 5, 10/15-10/21: Tens of thousands of people rallied in 951 cities around the world.
Week 6, 10/22-10/28: An Iraq War veteran suffered a skull fracture when he was hit by a tear-gas canister fired by police in Oakland during a violent pre-dawn attempt to clear away protesters. The vet was unable to speak as of 10/31.
November, 2011: The protests spread to college campuses. On many campuses, the protests focused on rising tuition rates. When police pepper-sprayed students at a demonstration at the University of California, Davis, video of the incident swelled the ranks of student protesters across the country.
11/13/11: Police in Denver, Salt Lake City, and Portland, Oregon evicted protesters from their encampments. Officials said the protesters were free to demonstrate, but not to camp on public property. For details, see CNN.
11/14/11: Police tore down the Occupy encampment in Oakland, California. See CNN for details.
11/15/11: At about 1 a.m., NYC police began evicting Occupy protesters from Zuccotti Park, citing health and fire hazards. Officials said the protesters would be allowed to return, but not to set up their tents, tarps and sleeping bags again; and a 10pm curfew will be in effect from now on. More than 100 people were arrested. Later the same day, a New York Supreme Court judge upheld the move. For details, go to CNN.
11/17/11: Two days after police evicted protesters from their encampment in Zuccotti Park, organizers called for a national day of protest to mark the two-month anniversary of OWS. In New York, protesters tried (but failed) to prevent workers from reaching the stock exchange by the opening bell, in an attempt to “shut down Wall Street.” Police arrested nearly 250 people. Demonstrations, mostly peaceful, also took place in L.A., Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Houston, Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Chicago, Miami, and Dallas, among other U.S. cities.
12/12/11: Occupy protesters attempted to blockade ports up and down the west coast of the U.S., in an attempt to “disrupt the economic machine that benefits the wealthiest individuals and corporations.” Most of these attempts were unsuccessful, but protesters did manage to shut down the port of Oakland, California overnight. See CNN for details.
2/28/12: Police in London broke up a four-month occupation outside St. Paul’s Cathedral.
5/1/12: After months of relative quiet, Occupy’s May Day protests brought demonstrators out across the U.S. The protesters did not succeed in their goal of bringing business to a halt on Wall Street. For details, see The Guardian.
“A horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based system with roots in anarchist thought”
That’s how protest organizers described the decision-making process at Zuccotti Park. Decisions are made “in an open, participatory and non-binding manner,” according to Occupy_Wall_Street.org, at the General Assembly, a twice-daily meeting in the plaza. Making decisions by consensus is a laborious process, but part of the point of the protest is to demonstrate a different way to organize a society. In the words of The Nation: “When they finally get to consensus on some issue, often after days and days of trying, the feeling is quite incredible. A mighty cheer fills the plaza. It’s hard to describe the experience of being among hundreds of passionate, rebellious, creative people who are all in agreement about something.”
Public opinion of the protests
In a poll conducted in mid-October, 54% of respondents said they had a favorable impression of the protests, while 23% said they had a negative impression. (In the same poll, 27% said they had a favorable opinion of the Tea Party.)
OWS has provoked a conservative backlash among a group of bloggers who say they belong to the 53% who pay taxes—and are tired of supporting the 47% who don’t.
The Tea Party comparison
Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party share a deep dissatisfaction with the federal government. Though they would agree on little else, partisans on both sides say that the middle class is suffering, and that government policies have a lot to do with the pain.
Both movements grew out of anger and frustration, but they come at the problem from opposite directions: OWS protesters believe the government should do more to help the poor and restrain the rich, while the Tea Party wants government to do less.
Just how rich are the top 1%?
According to this article from Vanity Fair, “The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent.”
What it was like at Zuccotti Park
According to New York magazine:
• Donations and volunteers enable the protesters to get free sleeping bags, blankets, clean clothes, toiletries, medical care, excellent food, and even cigarettes.
• The plaza is full of sleeping bags, blue plastic tarps, cardboard boxes, and backpacks: messy, but not dirty.
• Efficient volunteers bring donated food supplies to a nearby church, where lunches and dinners are cooked.
• Every night at 7pm, at General Assembly meetings, the protesters discuss the business of the day and make decisions.
Because they don’t have a permit for an amplified sound system, the protesters have created what they call the Human Microphone: speakers pause between sentences while those nearby repeat what was just said, loudly and in unison.
What is Zuccotti Park?
A plaza located between Broadway and Church Street, north of Trinity Church, Zuccotti Park is owned by Brookfield Properties, a large commercial real estate company. Its name comes from Brookfield’s chairman, John Zuccotti.
For photos of some of the cleverest signs at OWS, go here.
Andrew Ross Sorkin, “Occupy Wall Street: A Frenzy That Fizzled,” New York Times, 9/17/12: “But now, 12 months later, it can and should be said that Occupy Wall Street was — perhaps this is going to sound indelicate — a fad.”
Amitai Etzioni, “Why Occupy May Day fizzled,” cnn.com, 5/2/12: “ [T]he deliberately nonhierarchical Occupy Wall Street movement, with its fuzzy messages and vague goals, is not going to leave a major mark… The comparison [with the Tea Party]… highlights how weak the left is and how strong the right is in American politics. The tea party has a sharply edged message and has used its considerable following to elect public officials, who in turn have affected public policy… [T]he message of opting out of the prevailing system does not seem to bring out the masses who seek employment, to avoid foreclosure, or simply to make ends meet… [The movement] had better come up with a more cogent strategy, or it will soon be one more wasted force, one more protest movement that vented feelings but engendered precious little real social change.”
Douglas Rushkoff, “Think Occupy Wall St. is a phase? You don’t get it,” cnn.com, 10/5/11: “[M]ainstream television news reporters… seem determined to cast it as the random, silly blather of an ungrateful and lazy generation of weirdos. They couldn’t be more wrong… [W]e are witnessing America’s first true Internet-era movement, which — unlike civil rights protests, labor marches, or even the Obama campaign — does not take its cue from a charismatic leader, express itself in bumper-sticker-length goals and understand itself as having a particular endpoint.”
Douglas Schoen, “Polling the Occupy Wall Street Crowd,” Wall Street Journal, 10/18/11: “The protesters have a distinct ideology and are bound by a deep commitment to radical left-wing policies… What binds a large majority of the protesters together… is a deep commitment to left-wing policies: opposition to free-market capitalism and support for radical redistribution of wealth, intense regulation of the private sector.”
For a very different breakdown of the political leanings of the protesters, go here.
Paul Krugman, “Panic of the Plutocrats,” New York Times, 10/9/11: “[T]he protests have already elicited a remarkably hysterical reaction from Wall Street, the super-rich in general, and politicians and pundits who reliably serve the interests of the wealthiest hundredth of a percent… [I]t’s part of a broader syndrome, in which wealthy Americans who benefit hugely from a system rigged in their favor react with hysteria to anyone who points out just how rigged the system is… Anyone who points out the obvious, no matter how calmly and moderately, must be demonized and driven from the stage.”
David Brooks, “The Milquetoast Radicals,” New York Times, 10/10/11: “If there is a core theme to the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is that the virtuous 99 percent of society is being cheated by the richest and greediest 1 percent. ¶This is a theme that allows the people in the 99 percent to think very highly of themselves… Unfortunately, almost no problem can be productively conceived in this way. A group that divides the world between the pure 99 percent and the evil 1 percent will have nothing to say about education reform, Medicare reform, tax reform, wage stagnation or polarization. They will have nothing to say about the way Americans have overconsumed and overborrowed. These are problems that implicate a much broader swath of society than the top 1 percent.”
“The main reason for the radical accumulation of wealth in the hands of the 1 percent is federal policy: changes to the tax structure that allow the wealthiest Americans to retain even more of their income and capital gains, and corporate welfare policies that effectively transfer money from the 99 percent to corporations. This reduces the funds available for childhood nutrition, education, job training, health care and all the other programs designed to combat the social inequalities Mr. Brooks decries. ¶The Occupy movement isn’t about jealousy, despite what Mr. Brooks insinuates. It’s about understanding precisely the link between the two inequalities that Mr. Brooks writes about and the dire, and ever worsening, results.” — Alison Perchuk, letter to the New York Times, 11/1/11
Eliot Spitzer, “Occupy Wall Street Has Already Won,” slate.com, 10/13/11: “Occupy Wall Street has already won, perhaps not the victory most of its participants want, but a momentous victory nonetheless. It has already altered our political debate, changed the agenda, shifted the discussion in newspapers, on cable TV, and even around the water cooler. And that is wonderful. ¶Suddenly, the issues of equity, fairness, justice, income distribution, and accountability for the economic cataclysm–issues all but ignored for a generation—are front and center.”
“…the question of the day seems to be, What will they do now? ¶That question misses the point. Whether the 99 percenters retake Zuccotti Park in New York isn’t the issue. The question we should be asking ourselves is, What will we do now? ¶The American democracy — our system of capitalism and free markets, the electoral system and tax policies — has been distorted by moneyed interests. The problem isn’t that some people are wealthy but that the playing field has been tilted to favor the wealthy. Our challenge is to revive America as a land of equal opportunity.” — Doug Hulette, letter to the New York Times, 11/16/11
For More Information
Adbusters, the organizers of OWS
Occupy_Wall_Street.org: “the unofficial de facto online resource for the ongoing protests”
For an oral history of the occupation of Zuccotti Park: “Revolution Number 99,” Vanity Fair, February, 2012
For ongoing news and commentary: Huffington Post
The Nation: Occupy Wall Street: FAQ
For photos of Occupy protests around the world: go to Boston.com
For an explanation of why police are allowed to evict protesters despite the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of assembly, see ProPublica.
For a short video documentary about the occupiers in Zuccotti Park, made by a 13-year-old, go here.
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Last updated 9/18/12