When Democracy Is In the Streets: An Appraisal of the Occupy Movement

In September 2011, a social worker I’ll call Roscoe Harris made his way to a plaza in lower Manhattan ...
Police in front of Bank of America

In September 2011, a social worker I’ll call Roscoe Harris made his way to a plaza in lower Manhattan where he’d heard some activists had gathered to protest the greed of Wall Street. A soft-spoken education counselor who lived in Brooklyn, Harris did not think of himself as the protesting type. At the demonstrations he’d attended in the past, he’d always felt like he was being asked to raise his fist for someone else’s cause. But, like many people, he was angry—about the billions being spent on wars while schools were crumbling, about the bailout of the banks under Barack Obama, in whom he’d invested high hopes. And so, on a whim, he decided to find out what was happening in Zuccotti Park.

Nothing especially remarkable seemed to be happening at first—some signs, some sleeping bags, a makeshift kitchen, a drum circle. This was the scene in the 33,000 square-foot park at the juncture of Broadway and Liberty Street, where a band of protesters had descended on September 17 after learning that their original destination, One Chase Manhattan Plaza (the headquarters of JP Morgan Chase), had been cordoned off by the police. What exactly would come of their encampment? Harris wasn’t sure, and he didn’t stay long, but, a few days later, he came back, this time with a message emblazoned on a handmade sign of his own:


War in Iraq – ✓

Recession – ✓

Unemployment – ✓

War in Afghanistan – ✓

Who’s Making Money?

Wall Street Profiteers


The sign captured the spirit of what it soon became clear was happening: a blunt, spontaneous expression of mass discontent at a system that seemed rigged to reward those at the top. This, too, might not have been especially remarkable, if a one-time opportunity to vent some anger is all people like Harris got. But Zuccotti Park offered something else: a place for citizens with a shared set of pent-up grievances to gather and talk, not once, but many times, in a quarter of the financial district defiantly transformed into a jubilant, freewheeling democratic assembly where the only qualification for participation was showing up. Harris was soon showing up in Zuccotti Park (a.k.a. Liberty Plaza) every night, and when he wasn’t there, talking about little else. He wasn’t alone, and as similar encampments began springing up in cities across the country and reporters started flocking to the sites, it suddenly seemed like something truly momentous would come of the movement he’d joined. “I was walking up and down the trains on the subway,” Harris recalled of this heady moment, “telling people there was a revolution happening.”

There was, of course, no revolution, and, today, it is easy to look back at Occupy Wall Street (OWS) with a jaundiced eye. Some of the most scathing assessments of the movement I’ve heard have come from participants who got swept up in the excitement only to grow disillusioned and burn out. But before getting to why this happened, it’s worth pausing to marvel at what Occupy Wall Street managed to pull off. With virtually no resources, no institutional backing, and no warning, a grassroots movement spearheaded by unemployed college graduates put the most ruinous social trend of recent decades—the growing chasm between rich and poor—at the center of national debate. A year before they did so, I had organized a panel discussion on inequality at the New America Foundation, a think tank based in Washington. The speakers included the political scientist Jacob Hacker and the sociologists Orlando Patterson and Katherine Newman, distinguished scholars who have devoted their careers to studying and arguing publicly against the deleterious effects of inequality. At the same session, the economist Jeff Madrick catalogued the exorbitant earnings of leaders of the financial class before and after the global economic meltdown. The facts were galling and—inside the Beltway, where groveling about inequality has for years been dismissed as “class warfare”—barely noticed.

How did Occupy Wall Street manage to change this? The easy answer is that the movement came up with a catchy slogan—“We Are the 99 Percent!”—that transformed inequality from a wonky policy debate into a trendy Internet meme that started popping up on myriad Facebook pages and places like the Tumblr blog “We Are the 99 Percent,” where anonymous contributors were invited to send pictures and first-person testimonials about how the financial crisis had upended their lives. Several months before that blog was launched, however, the Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz published an article in Vanity Fair titled “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%,” in which he argued that the inordinate wealth of the super-rich was intimately bound up with “how the other 99 percent live.” Nobody rushed to the headquarters of JP Morgan Chase to protest.

The difference in the fall of 2011 had less to do with the emergence of a trendy slogan than with the fact that the outsized power of the one percent was suddenly being denounced on banners that festooned places like Ogawa Plaza in Oakland, Penn Valley Park in Kansas City, and Liberty Plaza in New York City’s Financial District.  By taking over symbolically charged areas of public space and refusing to leave, Occupy Wall Street thrust the debate about inequality into the streets of an increasingly stratified country where the effects of class warfare have been all too real, creating an uproar that eventually forced elected officials across the political spectrum to acknowledge their grievances. Two months after the protests began, the conservative political strategist Frank Luntz was urging Republicans to respond to the movement’s sympathizers with three words: “I get it. I get that you’re angry. I get that you’ve seen inequality. I get that you want to fix the system.”

It’s ludicrous to think 99 percent of Americans sympathized with Occupy, of course. But there is a reason why politicians could ill afford to act as if they didn’t get it. As Todd Gitlin notes in his brief but insightful book Occupy Nation, “Unlike any other movement on the American left in at least three-quarters of a century, this movement began with a majority base of support.” The civil rights movement, the campaign to end the Vietnam War, the women’s and gay rights movements all fought for goals that were initially unpopular. Before a single tent had been erected in Zuccotti Park, by contrast, three-fourths of Americans said they supported raising taxes on people making more than one million dollars a year. Nearly two-thirds strongly agreed with the statement: “The current economic structure of the country is out of balance and favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country.”1

Occupy Wall Street transformed inequality from a wonky policy debate into a trendy Internet meme

At its peak, Gitlin estimates there were ten to fifty thousand Occupiers nationwide, buttressed by a larger pool of progressives and union members who began turning out for marches, along with three million Americans who self-identified with the movement by “liking” an Occupy-related Facebook group or page. The figures are impressive, and, along with the initial wellspring of sympathy, beg the question of why, barely a year after Occupy Wall Street burst on the scene, the streets are once again so quiet. In a country where angry citizens fed up with the status quo are clearly not in short supply, why was the movement unable to convert this sympathy into something more lasting and tangible?

Here, too, there is an easy answer, which is that Occupy fell victim to the twin forces of bad weather and draconian police. As fall turned to winter, the ground in the encampments got colder, the media lost interest, and the cops in many cities got serious about clearing people out. But the truth is that even with less inclement weather and more accommodating police, the movement likely would have struggled to sustain its momentum, certainly the current within it whose objective was not to call for radical change, but to enact this change by turning the camps into microcosms of democracy where all voices were equal and no hierarchies were recognized.

This was the vision espoused and endorsed by people like David Graeber, the scholar of debt and proponent of anarchism who repeatedly accused those who advised Occupy to anoint leaders and stipulate its demands of failing to understand what it was about. “It is hard to imagine worse advice,” argued Graeber, since what made the movement different was its refusal to request demands from the authorities in a system that was fundamentally corrupt, along with its embrace of horizontal democracy, which gave ordinary citizens a sense of how exhilarating and empowering working together could be. To judge by the likes of Roscoe Harris, Graeber had a point. What brought Harris back to Zuccotti Park again and again was the spirit of goodwill forged among people who dared to imagine their cooperative efforts could amount to something—an audacious idea that fostered a sense of camaraderie that Harris said he’d never felt in a political movement before.

Anyone who visited Zuccotti Park last fall and sat through a General Assembly meeting, where decisions were made by consensus and the floor was open to everyone, could sense this spirit. It was an inspiring thing to witness. But for people with limited time and busy lives, it was also likely exasperating. At many meetings, hours passed without anything getting decided, much less done. How could people struggling to make a living and support a family be expected to sit through such meetings night after night? They couldn’t, which is why, inside the encampments, the movement representing the 99 percent was populated overwhelmingly by a fairly unrepresentative (and fairly privileged) cohort of white, skilled college graduates who didn’t have jobs. Roscoe Harris did have a job. He also had a wife, and gradually came to feel he was putting these things in jeopardy by coming home at midnight, drained and bleary-eyed. “I could not keep it up,” he told me. “My wife was like, where are you? My relationship took a hit. I was exhausted. It was interfering with my work.”

Like other activists I got to know, Harris also found it difficult to continue pouring energy into a movement that pointedly refused to specify its aims. When people curious about OWS first started asking him what its demands were, Harris would smile and say, “I don’t know—nobody knows—and that’s a beautiful thing.” Eventually, however, the smile gave way to a small wince. “After a few months, I’d say this, but the ‘beautiful thing’ part, I was becoming disenchanted with that. After so much effort, I wanted to see some goal or result. It felt like a lot to go full throttle and not really know what you’re fighting for.”

In societies where wealth is increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, disturbing the peace is the only way to bring about meaningful social change.

Of course, gathering in the streets to disturb the peace can be a goal of its own, as James C. Scott points out in his new book, Two Cheers for Anarchism, which offers a robust defense of this impulse. Scott doesn’t merely think that disturbing the peace is admirable. In societies where wealth is increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, he believes it’s the only way to bring about meaningful social change. “Episodes of structural change … tend to occur only when massive, noninstitutionalized disruption in the form of riots, attacks on property, unruly demonstrations, theft, arson, and open defiance threatens established institutions,” writes Scott, a political scientist who chronicled the role that seemingly quotidian forms of everyday resistance can play in peasant societies in his renowned study, Weapons of the Weak (1987).

Creating a noisy public spectacle is indeed why Occupy Wall Street managed to draw attention to inequality in ways that polite institutional players like MoveOn.org (to say nothing of the Democratic Party) have failed to do, bearing out Scott’s contention that, even in liberal democracies, “the interests of the poor are largely ignored until and unless a sudden and dire crisis catapults the poor into the streets.” But propelling protestors into the streets doesn’t automatically spur reform. In the absence of a clear objective, it can also alienate potential sympathizers and fuel a backlash, a point conveyed to me by another OWS activist, an accountant from the Midwest who first heard about the movement on a news report, thought instantly of the Arab Spring, and, on an impulse, bought a plane ticket to New York, figuring that if history was going to be made he wanted to be part of it. The accountant, whom I’ll call Dave, began subletting a room on Long Island that he’d found on Craig’s List, spending his days in Zuccotti Park and ending them in an Italian restaurant with a working-class clientele that was initially sympathetic to the cause. Their sympathy ended after a march on a bridge delayed some of the restaurant’s patrons on their way home one night. “They were not happy,” said Dave. “They’d say to me: ‘You’re stopping traffic on the bridge. What do you want?  I’m working hard here, I want to support you—but what do you want?’ I had answers, but I couldn’t speak for the movement, and the movement was clearly saying, ‘We’re not making demands.’”

What the patrons of the restaurant came to see was a disruptive movement whose central preoccupation seemed to be sowing mayhem. In fact, the spirit of Occupy Wall Street was nonviolent: it was the police, not the protesters, who on several occasions behaved with shocking brutality, using tear gas, pepper spray, flash grenades, and billy clubs on peaceful demonstrators. (The FBI, for its part, dispatched counterterrorism agents to monitor the movement while sharing information with officials in the financial sector, according to government documents obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund.) Nevertheless, by December 2011, news stories about the movement tended to focus more and more on the battle between protesters and cops and less and less on the gulf between rich and poor.

None of this would have mattered if that gulf could be alleviated by ignoring the boring stuff of conventional politics—elections, the legislative process—and creatively applying the anarchist credo Scott champions—“mutuality, or cooperation without hierarchy or state rule.” Unfortunately, as Scott grudgingly acknowledges, it cannot be. “If relative equality is a necessary condition of mutuality and freedom, how can it be guaranteed except through the state?” he asks.

Members of the movement representing the 99 percent were not, in fact, in agreement about this. Some of the young people I met in Zuccotti Park were anarchists who wanted no state. Others held aloft signs—“Bring Back Glass-Steagall”—that suggested they wanted more state. These two visions are incompatible. Whichever one triumphs will tell us a lot about whether the American left will even aspire to shape the debate about issues like financial reform and climate change in the decades to come. Yet those who believe, as I do, that a strong state is necessary to address such problems on any meaningful scale ought to resist the urge to scoff at activists who, in the meantime, have taken the initiative to tackle them on their own—initiatives that can embarrass elected officials and offer examples for government to emulate. One recent outgrowth of the Occupy movement is Occupy Sandy, which distributed clothing, blankets, and food to victims of Hurricane Sandy. Another is Rolling Jubilee, which has raised nearly half a million dollars to buy distressed student and consumer debt at pennies on the dollar, not to collect this debt, but to abolish it. In neither case does a small band of activists operating independently stand a chance of addressing the magnitude of the underlying problem. But both show that the spirit of goodwill sparked by Occupy Wall Street has not been extinguished. Whether it spreads anew is up to the rest of us. icon

  1. The full statement on the November poll, according to Gitlin, is as follows: “The current economic structure of the country is out of balance and favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country. America needs to reduce the power of major banks and corporations and demand greater accountability and transparency. The government should not provide financial aid to corporations and should not provide tax breaks to the rich.”
Featured image: Police defending a Bank of America location targeted by Occupy Wall Street protesters, March 15, 2012 / Michael Fleshman via Flickr.com