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This Day in Labor History: September 17, 2011

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On September 17, 2011, a group of activists started protesting in Zucotti Park in Lower Manhattan. Soon gaining the nation’s attention and spawning similar groups across the country, Occupy Wall Street became the first major grassroots protest against inequality in the New Gilded Age. While it in itself did not lead to long-term victories, it spawned a new era in America’s fight for economic justice and began the careers of a new generation of activists that resonates throughout progressive and leftist movements today.

The 1980s and 1990s were years of go-go capitalism. The Reagan years were followed by the rise of the tech industry and the fall of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t just that America had a capitalist system. It was that CAPITALISM HAD WON! Therefore, a fast and fundamentalist capitalism began to dominate America. Employers busted unions. Commenters told unemployed workers to move to Texas or learn to work with computers. The government undid much of the social safety net. Things did not get better on these fronts under Bill Clinton, who signed the North American Free Trade Agreement and presided over the continued booming economy. The dot com bust in the late 90s was but a blip as George W. Bush stepped in and attempted to slash the safety net even more, even to the point of trying to privatize Social Security, which did not happen mercifully. Throughout all of this, Americans were told that capitalism was glorious and the American style of it–an increasingly extremist style influenced heavily by Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman as its intellectual giants–was morally correct. People going to college in the 90s and early 00s believed the future was bright. Sure, there was plenty of evidence that things were not great. Income inequality grew rapidly, as the very rich became richer and the middle and working classes stalled out. But the overall atmosphere was a triumphalist vision of capitalism.

And then the housing bubble burst and the Great Recession began.

For many Americans, the unemployment that resulted, the foreclosed homes, and the excruciatingly slow recovery because the government wouldn’t take the needed steps to act forcefully (the OMG INFLATION fears stemming from the 70s meant a lot more to policymakers than the lives of the poor) all was a big slap in the face. Like in the initial Gilded Age, the New Gilded Age saw a moment when a generation of people raised on the belief that the American economy would be good for all found themselves suddenly confronted with the fact that it was a big lie. Barack Obama came to the presidency based on this to some extent, but a neoliberal himself, Obama was far more comfortable with bank bailouts and auto bailouts that forced the United Auto Workers to sacrifice than he was with direct help to the working class. Very quickly, many Obama voters who had naively had faith in him to represent their dreams had a sour taste in their mouth.

Of course, there was a rump left in the United States during these years. To be facile about it, there was an older left that came out of the 60s and 70s that still held socialism as a high value, though often in limited and compromised form and without a lot of energy to push forward new ideas. And then there was a younger left, heavily influenced by anarchist principles. This had grown in influence among, borrowing from the radical direct action tactics of militant environmentalism, with anarchist beliefs in consensus decision making, and with an ironic vision of the world.

So in February 2011, one of the iconic publications of this younger left, Adbusters, released a call to protest against income inequality in Lower Manhattan on September 17. No one really expected it to lead to much. But here’s the thing about social movements–it is quite impossible to say why one event catalyzes a movement. There were lots of Black people who refused to move to the back of the bus in the South–including in Montgomery–before 1955 but it was Rosa Parks doing this at the very time that a young pastor named Martin Luther King had shown up in town that spurred the modern civil rights movement. And when that had stalled out after the Montgomery victory, it was four college students at North Carolina A&T in 1960 that demanded service at a segregated Woolworth’s that spawned a national movement that was the most important of all in fighting for civil rights. Gay people had resisted police violence many times. So why was it that resistance at the Stonewall Tavern led to the modern gay rights movement? It’s really just luck, combined sometimes with planning and the zeitgeist, to use a somewhat tiresome term.

So who knows why so many people showed up in Manhattan for what became Occupy Wall Street. Who knows why it soon spread across the country, with Occupy movements in cities around the nation, most prominently in Oakland but really almost everywhere. There’s no easy answer here except that people were pissed and wanted to do something about it.

The way Occupy ran itself over the next few months while it physically occupied Zuccotti Park and other public spaces is well known and often leads to unreasonable derision from liberals. Sure, the consensus decision making proved disastrous at such a large scale. Yes, in fact consensus decision making is markedly undemocratic as it allows a few people with the will to never agree to capitulate to hold things up while other people who are less intense drop away in frustration. No, they did not have concrete goals.

You know what? Who cares! Again, Occupy Wall Street reminds me a lot of various one-off Gilded Age movements to respond to the sudden inequality people faced in a broken system they really wanted to believe in. I have often compared OWS to Coxey’s Army, the 1894 unemployment march on Washington. It was poorly organized, inchoate, lacking a real plan. And yet, it captured a ton of attention, scared power figures in Washington and Wall Street, and focused the nation’s attention on the inequality of the Gilded Age. No one knew what to do in the face of Gilded Age inequality in 1894 and no one knew what to do in the face of New Gilded Age inequality in 2011. So they just took whatever tools they had and tried to make it work. Sure, it fell apart. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t make a massive difference in the United States.

First, the framing of the 99% was absolutely genius and still resonates a decade later, remaining politically useful. It also brought a lot of new blood into the activist world. No, their initial ideas might not have made change–the movement was barely designed to do that because it wasn’t really designed at all. But many of those people became union organizers. They ran for office. They worked in the Bernie campaign or other political campaigns. They became lifelong activists in the political system. One counterfactual worth asking is whether the Democratic Party would have moved so far to the left on economic issues in the last 10 years without the anger that Occupy channeled and then spun off. We can’t know, but I think there is a very strong case to make that it would not have done so. Of course, there is a long way to go within the Democratic Party still, but it is still vastly to the left of where it was in 2011.

When Occupy started, unions and other activists were like “whoa, what is happening here!” So they came to the protests. Being extremely anti-institution and having a rather suspicious view of unions, the Occupiers were like “Don’t co-opt us!” This I always found hilarious. That’s not because I don’t think the unions wouldn’t have done so if they could. Some would. It’s because unions are not nearly dynamic enough organizations to actually have the ability to co-opt anyone in 2011. But it went to show just how skeptical of any kind of institutional change the hard core Occupy activists were.

One thing Occupy also did, which I find tremendously useful, is demonstrate that the cult of horizontal leadership popular at the time was not workable outside of small organizations. The anarchist trend of the late 90s and into the early 10s reflected the extreme dislike of institutional structures mentioned above. But as many have learned over the years, horizontal consensus leadership is no leadership at all. And no leadership makes a non-movement. Getting things done matters. A lot of people learned a lot about this in the various Occupy protests and that’s been really valuable. It’s not an either/or–there are many ways that decisions can be made and opinions expressed and dealt with, but moving away from unworkable utopias is always useful and Occupy was around long enough to demonstrate to enough people that some of these ideas like the People’s Mic were simply unusable.

In terms of the timeline of Occupy, it’s less important than the impact, but we can run through that pretty quick. The first protestors arrived on September 17, it grew rapidly from there, soon getting the attention of national news. Pretty quickly, the city allowed camping in the park. Meal services were developed and other basics of life. Lots of sympathetic people donated money, food, equipment, etc. Michael Bloomberg announced on October 13 that the park must be cleared by the next day, but the people in charge of that refused to go through with it. Over time, a lot of occupiers began slipping away and like much of the nation, it took on more of a homeless camp than a political movement. A lot of the organizers simply were not equipped to deal with this, particularly the mental health issues that many homeless have, including violent behavior. By late October, people really were asking what the end game was and no one knew. Again, this was not exactly expected to take off and no one could really agree on what specific action would be the kind of victory that would end this. The taking of public space became the point in itself to many people. Other people had no interest in this and so, again, people slipped away. Finally on November 15, the NYPD cleared out the park and the protests largely ended, despite some attempts to retake the park on December 31 and again in 2012.

Other Occupy chapters did come up with longer term organizations to create change. Occupy Homes did some very useful work resisting evictions. Occupy Sandy did bring people together to provide hurricane relief in the face of state failure to do so. In Providence, the occupation of Burnside Park, hilarious given what a reactionary Ambrose Burnside was, ended when the city offered concrete improvements in homeless services, reflecting who was still involved by that time.

Again, criticisms of Occupy for not accomplishing much directly and not having goals are incredibly short-sighted and often leveled by liberals who think that the only legitimate political action is within the Democratic Party. Occupy helped create the mechanisms to move the Democratic Party to the left and it did this while avoiding the party entirely. It’s influence in movements for economic justice in the decade since is undeniable. So many now well-trained, smart, and effective organizations cut their teeth in various Occupy protests. And it’s not as if anyone else had better answers to fighting economic inequality in 2011. Barack Obama sure as hell didn’t.

This is the 407th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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