It has been 10 years since Occupy Wall Street shook the United States and spread like fire across the planet, part of a new era of political consciousness that included movements like the Arab Spring and the Spanish Indignados. Originally launched on 17 September 2011 by members of the Canadian political magazine Adbusters, and famous for temporarily occupying Zuccotti Park in Manhattan’s Financial District, Occupy spread to more than 900 cities in countries across the world within a month. By its end, hundreds of thousands of people had engaged in a broad political struggle against the prevailing political order of economic inequality and the unaccountable capitalists who had driven the world into recession only a few years prior.
Occupy was dismissed for years as ineffective, but time has disproven the cynics. If anything, the Occupy movement showed what is possible when a ragtag group of organizers turn private suffering into public action. Occupy not only helped redefine the political conversation in the United States, it served as a dress rehearsal for many organizations and movements that followed. Through policies proposed and passed in its wake, to the individuals it set up to lead a new generation of social movements and political institutions, Occupy Wall Street has left a powerful legacy.
Political uprisings are usually categorized as successful or not based on what policies they achieve at their peak. But this is not the only means of measuring a movement, as noted by theorists Paul and Mark Engler. The Englers, authors of the 2016 book This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century, argued that movements can also be measured by their ability to shape public opinion and articulate new solutions, many of which need more longstanding organizations to carry them through.
The Fight for $15 movement, for example, began in New York soon after Occupy Wall Street, with fast-food workers demanding a fair wage from the one-percenter bosses who controlled the industry. The movement also borrowed from Occupy’s political strategy, initially focusing more on dramatic protest than the slower organizing methods of labor unions and community organizations. Despite this break from traditional labor strategy, Fight for $15 was heavily supported by one of the country’s biggest service worker unions, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which also provided support for Occupy Wall Street. Since Occupy, 33 cities have increased their minimum wage to $15 or more.
Occupy’s largest and most obvious impact was shifting the rhetoric of the Democratic party. While the party remains tied to capitalists, as made clear by its prioritizing the healthcare industry during the pandemic, how the Democrats talk about economics has certainly shifted. During the 2020 Democratic primary, even the most moderate Democrats on stage were spouting policies that borrowed more from the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders than from Barack Obama. While Obama’s 2008 rhetoric focused on increasing access to private medical insurance, the more recent Biden and Buttigieg platforms emphasized expanding coverage through Medicare. And while Obama had no initial plan to forgive student debt, Buttigieg argued that four-year colleges should be free for most students and called for an automatic enrollment in income-based repayment plans with loan cancellation after 20 years. The centrist Rahm Emanuel, a former mayor of Chicago and Obama’s chief of staff, spoke to this shift when he conceded in a 2020 op-ed that “today’s landscape is much friendlier for progressive ideas than it was when either Mr Clinton or Mr Obama was running for office.”
This shift can of course be seen as an outcome of Bernie Sanders’ impressive showing in the 2016 election season and his status as the country’s most popular senator. But Sanders himself relied on the rhetoric and the alumni of the Occupy movement. His digital team was packed with Occupy alums like Brett Banditelli of Occupy Harrisburg and Charles Lenchner, who once helped run websites for the 2011 movement. For Sanders’ 2016 campaign, Occupy activists even returned to the birthplace of the movement, Zuccotti Park, to make phone calls for his primary fight. At the end of the primary, Sanders declared that his campaign was “about creating an economy that works for all of us, not just the 1%”, much like in 2020 when he tweeted: “[T]he top 1% may have enormous wealth and power, but they are just the 1%. When the 99% stand together, we can transform society.”
Almost immediately after the initial wave of the movement and its call for an uprising by the 99%, new organizations were forming around its broad mission
The electoral success of Occupy didn’t end with Sanders, either. Occupy alumni like Max Berger would go on to develop organizations such as the Justice Democrats, which helped elect progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cori Bush. Other Occupy alumni like Mimi Hitzemann and Guido Girgenti helped build Momentum, an American social movement training center (not to be confused with the British organization with the same name) focused on applying lessons from Occupy to more traditional forms of social change, in the way that the civil rights movement combined public spectacle with grounded grassroots organizing. Leaders from Momentum went on to create organizations like the Sunrise Movement, which has championed the Green New Deal, and Black Visions, which popularized the “Defund the Police” demand that swept the country amid the George Floyd uprising. And while these organizations may appear more distantly connected to Occupy, there are a handful of fruits closer to the root.
Almost immediately after the initial wave of the movement and its call for an uprising by the 99%, new organizations were forming around its broad mission. Strike Debt was one of the first; the collective was formed in 2012 with the aim of supporting debtors in resisting their own personal debt and the system of debt as a whole. They released a Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual which aimed to “provide specific tactics for understanding and fighting against the debt system so that we can all reclaim our lives and our communities”. The collective’s most well-known project was the Rolling Jubilee, a project in which they purchased $15m of medical debt and erased it. The group lives on today in chapters across the country and as a new consumer union called the Debt Collective.
Other organizations like Occupy Sandy and Occupy Homes also took up the mantle of fighting for people who need help. Of Occupy Sandy, which provided relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the New York Times said: “Where FEMA Fell Short, Occupy Sandy Was There.” Similarly, Occupy Homes fought to prevent foreclosures after the 2008 housing crash. Remnants of Occupy Homes’ work can be seen in organizations such as Occupy Philadelphia Housing Authority, which last year forced the city of Philadelphia to agree to establish a community land trust and permanent low-income housing.
There was never, say, a big “Occupy Wall Street” bill from Congress that immediately addressed the concerns of the movement. But Occupy’s greatest legacy may be showing the world that movements are more than just the legislation they pass or the regimes they topple. They are training grounds for what comes next, practice for new generations finding their footing on political terrain. Movements can redefine how political parties speak, and how future organizations wage struggle. By those measures, Occupy was a success. And due to the organizations and individuals inspired by its work, the next Occupy may deliver all that the first could not.