Maeve Higgins: Putting a different spin on popular Occupy Wall Street movement

A decade after the initial protest in Zuccotti Park, many of the people who mocked the Occupy Wall Street movement have changed their tune, realising that they are the '99%' railing against the injustice of a class system that sees the '1%' lording it over the rest of us, writes Maeve Higgins
Maeve Higgins: Putting a different spin on popular Occupy Wall Street movement

An American flag stands amidst tents in the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011 in New York. AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

In a spin class in Greenwich Village this week, the instructor bawled into his microphone “Ok you guys, last push, let’s put all that great energy you got and all that love and send it out to New York City, God knows we need it! Four, three, two, one...”

Spin instructors always say this kind of thing in my gym, and I find it either charming or disgusting depending, I think, on the mood I happen to be in. 

We all cycled furiously on, except for the instructor. Standing God-like on his lighted plinth, he back-pedaled, at least verbally. “Or, you know what you guys? Keep that love and energy for yourself! You’ve put in the work; you deserve this!” I grinned behind my mask and sweated on.

Sharing anything in this city is a chore, it seems, even when it’s just some imaginary love whipped up in a room full of people paying too much to get shouted at on a stationary bike. 

Striving toward a greater good as opposed to focusing on individual success is not something intrinsic in this city or this country, which is why I am still intrigued by the wildest and most unexpected experiment in communal living, horizontal structure and long-term protest this city and this country ever saw; the Occupy Wall Street movement, which turns 10 years old this month.

In July 2011, the left-wing anti-consumerist Canadian Adbusters Magazine featured a ballerina posing on the top of the famous Charging Bull statue on Wall Street, with the question “What is our one demand?” printed above her in red letters. That was it; there was no answer provided, no demand listed. Some instructions were included though: “#OccupyWallStreet. September 17th. Bring tent.”

After that, the magazine didn’t have much to do with what went down. And what went down, exactly? In short: a few hundred people, mainly socialists, anarchists, academics and activists marched on Wall Street on September 17 of that year. 

They were protesting inequality under capitalism and the injustice of a class system that sees 1% of people lording it over the rest of us. Their cry of ‘We Are The 99%’ resonated, and gradually hundreds more began to show up at their encampment in Zuccotti Park, a small square in the financial district.

Two of the early occupiers, the filmmaker and political organizer Astra Taylor, and the researcher and organiser Johnathan Smucker, put it this way in New York Magazine this week.

“Millions of people immediately recognised themselves as part of Occupy’s ‘99 percent,’ the supermajority of working and indebted people exploited by the wealthy and powerful ‘one percent’ — rhetoric so intuitively powerful that it has since become embedded in the popular imagination.” 

The Occupy Wall Street movement was, in part, inspired by the extraordinary sights coming from countries across the Middle East, as the Arab Spring blossomed. In turn, the Occupy Movement spread to Europe, in Ireland it included Occupy Galway and Occupy Dame St. 

In October 2011, CNN interviewed protestors in Zuccotti Park who had arrived eager to connect with others who were suffering and enraged. 

The grim effects of capitalism were now clear; massive inequality, poverty, and class distinctions meant if you were poor or working-class, even your life expectancy was shorter than the rich. 

In 2011, frustration ran higher than usual because the rosy glow of the Obama administration had faded into the aftermath of the Great Recession.

The pain only increased as capitalism failed in ways bigger and faster than ever before, the injustice of that fact compounded by the fact that massive bail-outs from the US government saved the system. Occupy Wall Street bolstered the people who took part. 

It was a physical space for them to meet others and to talk and take action. “We’re showing that we the people, really are here, present, from all walks of life.”

Tammy Bick, 49, an unemployed former medical secretary told the CNN reporter: “It’s a meeting of the minds and a voicing of our issues. That alone makes it the best single experience of my life.” On the radio show The Majority Report, Astra Taylor spoke about how important that physical space was. 

“Occupy, in a way, protested everything. It was saying the whole system is broken. We need to revitalise and reinvent democracy. We need to make the 99% feel empowered. So there were these philosophical arguments, but it was also absolutely about bodies and space and also bringing back an age of defiant protest.”

In that way, and it is a rare thing, theory and practice were together in those months of the occupation of Zuccotti Square. It was having a place and a space to do that that made all the difference. 

In her memories of that time, when she opened her apartment close to the square to journalists and activists and documented the protests herself through drawing, the artist and scholar Molly Crabapple writes: “These streets on which we stand are not private property, the preserve of the wealthy, mere arteries for conspicuous consumption, patrolled by their goons.” 

The movement's cry of ‘We Are The 99%’ resonated, and gradually hundreds more began to show up at their encampment in Zuccotti Park. Photo: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
The movement's cry of ‘We Are The 99%’ resonated, and gradually hundreds more began to show up at their encampment in Zuccotti Park. Photo: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Crabapple continues, in The New York Review of Books this week, “They [the streets] are ours, they are the public square that belongs to all of us. And that goes for the country, too.”

The police escalated their attacks on the protesters, which served to draw more attention to the cause. Predictably, many in the political establishment felt threatened by Occupy Wall Street, as did many in the media. 

For many liberals, the unwieldy and innovative protest proved a little too uncomfortable. The Daily Show with John Stewart and their then-correspondent John Oliver mocked the optics of the ongoing event. Still, the movement grew, spreading across the country and across the world. 

Asking today whether or not the Occupy movement was a success is a misdirect, because there is no answer. While the protestors' demand went unnamed, deliberately, it was obvious: they were a big middle finger aimed squarely at the center of global capitalism in the midst of an economic crisis.

Today, many of the people who mocked, chastised or simply disagreed with the Occupy Wall Street movement have changed their tune to one that sounds a lot like those chants that boomed around Zuccotti Square a decade ago. 

“The 1%” has been planted firmly in the lexicon, it has become shorthand for the wealthy and the powerful, and allowed the rest of us to understand that actually, we are in the supermajority. In other words, we are the 99%.

The escalating cruelty of inequality was not solved by Occupy Wall Street, but it was identified and it was named. The protestors were hardly the first to start a movement: from the civil rights movement to the disability rights movement there is a proud history of direct action by courageous and organised groups in this country. 

Occupy Wall Street fanned the embers of that history, and stirred people into action once more. In the years since the camp at Zuccotti Park was torn down by the police, the protestors dispersed and arrested, the legacy of the movement is still unfolding. 

I’ve witnessed Americans back on the streets in record numbers. They take up the space that is already theirs and cry out against police brutality, they demand action on climate chaos and an end to American wars, they rally for safe passage for refugees and for a better world — not just for themselves, but for us all.

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