#Occupyhistory 2012: a few reflections on the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street

It was only a year ago when Occupy Wall Street gathered at Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011. What an exciting prospect it seemed, a timely intervention to the malaise instilled by years, if not decades of neoliberal stagnancy. For a born-again 18th-century radical, it truly was Wordsworthian bliss to be alive in that dawn. And for those who were young and in the thick of the activities, it must have been “very heaven” indeed.

Flash forward to 2012. It’s hard for some not to feel discouraged by the subsequent diminution of the OWS presence after a year of repeated police crackdowns. To mourn that what began with a bang ended with a whimper–or at least, according to newspapers across the globe. Has all been lost?


Let’s start by crediting OWS for waking up the nation with a clarion call. This is not to say that concerns about our widening social inequity, income disparity, or the disproportionate burden of taxes on the vast majority of Americans were entirely new in 2011. But it was OWS that articulated these injustices so cannily, reminding us that “We are the 99%.” The same goes for their indictment of the big banks, casino capitalism, corporate corruption, and Citizens United. Again, although none of those topics were particularly fresh or novel, thanks to the financial crisis of 2008 and the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens in early 2010, it was OWS that brought them to front and center stage in their Declaration of the Occupation of New York City:

we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.

OWS’ central messages have resonated powerfully–despite the popular media’s strenuous efforts to sideline, if not deride them outright. We’re all familiar with the allegations repeated ad nauseam— “Their message is vague and scattered,” some claimed. “Long on words, short on action.” “Those nasty, filthy protesters need to bathe and get a job!” Etc. In short, the same, tired insults which have been levied at reformers and progressives throughout history (e.g., “Tom Paine is a leveller!”). Nonetheless, we knew something was right when even Wall Street pundits and politicians began to agree with some of the key ideals voiced by OWS, albeit reluctantly–and when the 1% embarked on the building of personal safety shelters in their mistaken fears of OWS violence. Even jocular references to OWS–for instance, as seen in that distinctively tongue-in-cheek Interactive Brokers ad, “Join the 1%”–demonstrate just how much the movement has entered into public consciousness.

But that’s not all. More crucially, OWS has proven to be not only a conduit for meaningful discussion and analysis of our crisis today, but also for genuine activism.

Consider the offshoot venture, Occupy our Homes. Launched back in December 2011, OOH has cooperated with local Occupy groups in helping victims of foreclosure retain their homes or modify their loans. In Atlanta, for instance, OOH prevented foreclosure auctions in the courthouses of DeKalb, Gwinett, and Fulton counties. 24 OOH protesters were also able to halt the eviction of a family by encamping on their lawn. And in Detroit, OOH, Occupy Detroit, Moratorium Now, and Homes Before banks also prevented the eviction of a Detroit couple from a house they had owned for over 22 years. Similar victories have been scored in Cleveland, Nashville, Rochester, and St. Paul.

More recently, members of Occupy Sunset Park are currently lending a hand to local immigrant communities in their rent strike against a landlord who refused to remedy faulty wiring, rodent infestation, and a mile-high pile of rubbish in the basement: there are already plans to have tenants form their own association or an affordable housing cooperation.

And only a few short weeks ago, OWS helped Manhattan restaurant workers unionize a Hot and Crusty restaurant after defeating the former boss and resolving a worker lock-out.

Occupiers have also extended their efforts to the environment, particularly the gas industries and the industrial agricultural system. Many have been involved in protesting tar sands oil, fracking (along with other means of extraction), and genetically modified foods (GMOs). Indeed, over the last few days, Occupy Monsanto managed to shut down receiving and shipping access points at Monsanto’s Oxnard, CA seed distribution center as a prelude to a week-long protest beginning today in order to draw attention to the lack of labelling on GMOs (“monstraception” as some call it): a protest that begins in earnest today and will be spread over at least a week.

Of course, it remains difficult to chart the future trajectory of OWS. The course of history, after all, reveals a long trail of struggles between the 1% and the 99%, a shared sense of grievance that the kings, nobles, mill owners, CEOs have always sought to bend legislation and justice to their own ends while the 99% remained largely subject to their abuses. History has shown how some populist, revolutionary movements have proven more successful than others in their immediate contexts, regardless of initial prognostications. We know that the seemingly unstoppable English peasants’ riot of 1381–a rebellion against the excesses of serfdom led by Wat Tyler–ended in defeat, as did the German Peasants’ war of 1524-6. And we know that despite the victory of the Roundheads in the English Civil War, the communal Diggers, the very first “occupiers” of unclaimed grounds and commons, eventually came to be routed. Similarly, we know all too well just as the French proceeded through no less than three revolutions more than a century and a half later, many British Chartists would not live to witness the fulfillment of any of the aims from their 1838 Charter (e.g., the secret ballot, universal male suffrage). Finally, even in America, it’s hard to forget that the separate struggles for our rights were long, wavering, and unpredictable, beginning with our own revolution. Who could foretell back in 1764 that the outrage over the Stamp Act would lead to the eventual overthrow of the world’s most powerful empire then by an odd assortment of ragtag colonists lacking any formal military training? Yet, however we view these struggles, it is a true testament to the people’s collected will over the centuries that whatever the initial setbacks encountered by the many reformers, much of the West did eventually grant universal suffrage to its citizens, to acknowledge the injustice of slavery, to enact labor and safety laws, and more importantly, retain some awareness of the need to redress extreme socioeconomic inequity.

OWS is very much a part of this process–along with the English peasants of 1381, the German peasants of 1524, the Diggers, American colonists, French Jacobins, Chartists, suffragettes, and so many others. Maybe OWS won’t be able to eradicate inequality and poverty entirely, but it might just revive our hopes and dreams for a more equitable government and a livable planet that have thus far been oppressed by our Tweedledees and TweedleDUMBs, our 1% neoliberals and neoconservatives. The fact is, our movement is no longer Occupy Wall Street but Occupy Everywhere. If it’s shrunk in terms of actual physical presence–fewer tents, fewer parades–it is also bigger, badder, and bolder than ever as it battles big banks and multinational corporations. The fact of the matter is that the movement is proving to be unstoppable. Another world is indeed possible–because we know we have it in our power to begin the world again.

History IS on our side.

Copyright © 2012 HISTORY IS ON OUR SIDE (Frances A. Chiu)