Did Occupy Wall Street Even Make a Difference?

Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street was on every news station a decade ago. You couldn’t turn on the radio, tv or computer without hearing or seeing something about it. Yet, for all the attention it garnered, the Occupy movement didn’t seem to last very long. Is OWS gone? Did Occupy Wall Street even Make a Difference? We’ll take a look back at where it all started and follow where it led to see if this unusual protest changed anything.

What Caused Occupy Wall Street?

Occupy Wall Street probably would not have happened if not for the housing market crash in 2008. Predatory lending practices led to many people being unable to pay, which meant homelessness, bankruptcy, and worse. People expected the government to step in and help, and a few laws around home loans changed, but politicians did little else to address the issue. The housing collapse impacted so many individuals and families that people became more aware of growing economic inequality. Previous to this event, people were less personally aware of how corporate greed was impacting their lives because it trickled down in many small, primarily underreported ways. Within three short years, the ripple effect from so many people losing their homes and savings was at a fever pitch. According to the National Homeless Laws Center, the top cause of homelessness for families in 2011 was the lack of affordable housing. After that, unemployment, poverty, and low wages led the chart.

What Was the Occupy Movement?

In September of 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement began in Zuccotti Park. This peaceful protest aimed to bring national and international attention to economic inequality. Corporations’ greed and predatory practices, not just in New York and the USA, but worldwide needed to be brought to light.

Occupy Wall Street Timeline

Most of the events on this timeline were first reported by The Week in a 2015 article. June 9th, 2011- AdBusters, a Canadian anti-consumerist magazine, registered the domain name OccupyWallStreet.org. July 13th – Ad Busters calls for a protest beginning September 17th to demand “democracy not corporatocracy.” At Some Point Before September 17th- Around 200 people hold meetings at Tompkins Square Park to organize for occupying wall street. August 23rd – Anonymous, the well-known hacktivist group posts in support of the Occupy Wall Street protest. September 17th – Roughly a thousand, mostly younger activists occupy Wall Street, marching and eventually taking over Zuccotti Park.

September 19th and 20th – The first celebrity to endorse the Occupy movement was Rosanne Barr. The next day police began using an outdated law from the 1800s to arrest protesters wearing masks. Since this was long before the current COVID outbreak, public mask-wearing was typically associated with Halloween or robbers who were obscuring their identity. September 24th – Eighty protesters are arrested for having no permit as they march. Police use pepper spray on women, and the resulting video footage becomes part of the first widespread media coverage for the protest. A secondary demonstration also begins in Chicago. This would be the first of many sister protests worldwide. September 26th-30th – Numerous celebrities, including Susan Sarandon and Noam Chomsky, state their support. Michael Moore addresses the crowd, and Transport Workers Union Local 100 is the first union to support that movement. A hoax on the internet says Radiohead will play for the protest, and the crowd grows as a result. October 1st-3rd – Hundreds of protesters get arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. At this point, support is spreading like wildfire, and OWS becomes front-page news, and many large cities have their own smaller movements. People in costumes dressed as ‘corporate zombies’ also appear for the first time.

October 5th and 7th – A march in New York has between fifteen and thirty thousand members, including New York City’s largest labor unions and MoveOn.org, among dozens of others, join Occupy Wall Street. Police use mace and batons on the crowd. In Oregon, a smaller group of just four thousand fares a little better. The Republican presidential candidate and mayor of New York voice outspoken anti-Occupy sentiments. October 13th-14th – Owners of Zuccotti park declare that protesters must move for cleaning and they will not allow tents and sleeping in the park, but they quickly back down when no one moves. By October 15th, the Occupy movement was a worldwide phenomenon. Major cities around the globe have “we are the 99%” groups taking action to address and expose poverty, wage inequality, housing shortages, and other related issues. November 15th – Police raid Zuccotti Park, effectively ending the physical occupation. Many smaller occupations dissipate or are broken up by police and military forces around the world.

Is Anyone Still Occupying Wall Street?

There are no more tents or people holding signs on Wall Street and inside Zuccotti Park. However, that does not mean the Occupy Wall Street movement has ended. Instead of collapsing, OWS has evolved. Numerous groups and organizations came about due to the original Occupy movement, all of them working toward some form of economic equality or fighting against inequality. Although the massive manifestation in cities worldwide is no longer viewed as it was in 2011, the people and groups who participated are not gone, and they have not forgotten their goals. Websites such as OccupyWallSt.org are still educating and organizing to this day.

What Did Protesters Want?

What was the goal of Occupy Wall Street? What are its demands? It doesn’t seem easy to gauge the success of the ten-year-old movement without understanding why they took over a park in the first place. There are a lot of misunderstandings about the Occupy movement. The name often leads people to believe the goal of this effort was to shut down the stock market. While that would have been fine by the protesters, it wasn’t why they were there disrupting the status quo. Often called ‘screaming at the world,’ the point of Occupy Wall Street was to bring attention to corporate greed and income inequality. Parking people in tents, with no running water beside business places where people wore ties that cost a month’s rent was a vivid and brilliant juxtaposition. During the protest, it was easy to see (literally) the difference between the top one percent of income earners and the rest. The 99% were, and still are, tired of getting used and abused so the wealthy minority can maintain their elite status.

Ultimately, many hoped to effect widespread and more immediate change. The revolution that some protesters anticipated didn’t happen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the efforts were all in vain. Occupy reached cities all over the nation and beyond. In Egypt, protesters in Tahrir square initially helped to inspire the movement. Later they came out to support it and occupied the square again. They showed the world that being poor and oppressed anywhere is a lot like being poor and oppressed everywhere, which helped bring people together. Naysayers argued vehemently that the people of Egypt protesting for freedom from more overt oppression was unrelated to the Occupy movement. They didn’t see the irony. Moreover, those who wanted that claim to delegitimize Occupy probably weren’t aware of the deeper connection. Ahmed Maher, a leader of the Egyptian revolution, even traveled to the US to help advise protesters. According to PBS, Maher was corresponding with Occupy for weeks beforehand. He helped educate people on how to organize and maintain nonviolent protests such as sit-ins.

Did Occupy Wall Street Even Make a Difference?

Occupy Wall Street brought national and international attention to the rise in economic inequality. By forcing the media to show the poverty epidemic, and why it was happening, OWS changed the dialogue about why people are poor. Rather than accepting the narrative that everyone who is unhoused is ‘too lazy to work,’ Occupy shined a light on how corporations and wealthy investors profit off of creating and maintaining an ever-increasing lower class. Every time you see a Gen-Z youth saying they are angry about the generational wealth gap, complaining about working three jobs or bemoaning the insane rise in the cost of college tuition, that is an indirect result of Occupy Wall Street. Meanwhile, whenever you hear someone reference ‘the 99%,’ it directly results from the movement’s work. Because OWS had no specific leadership to target, there were no martyrs. There s no single head to arrest and break apart the movement. Rather than creating an ultimatum or detailed goal list, the campaign opened itself to fighting equality issues everywhere. There has always been economic inequality, but people didn’t talk about it on the massive level of today until after the Occupy movement began. Anyone is invited to the table rather than a small group of people discussing these issues in back rooms.

Current Effects of Occupy Wall Street

Senator Bernie Sanders was never afraid of a good fight rooted in social justice. However, his popularity over the last decade has risen sharply. Part of this is due to the ripple effect of Occupy Wall Street. People seeking social justice and equality are more likely to recognize and support it than those who merely feel beaten down and hopeless. Earlier this year Mr. Sanders proposed the 99.8% Act. The idea behind this act was to tax the rich at progressively higher rates based on their income. As outrageous as the modern wealthy find the idea, it was once standard practice.

The incredibly popular Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who recently made waves for wearing a borrowed gown that said “Tax the Rich” to the Met Gala, vocally supports this sort of taxation. Both have pointed out that historically, the taxes on the wealthy have reached as high as 90% during the Eisenhower administration. Politifact checked this and discovered it was actually 91%. Neither Bernie’s tax proposal nor AOC’s daring dress happened spontaneously. Both of these well-thought-out actions are made possible by the Occupy movement. Or, more accurately, they are made meaningful because of OWS protests a decade ago. The name for Bernie’s bill would be different, and far fewer people would take it seriously without Occupy. Similarly, the media would have treated AOC’s dress as laughable instead of threatening and offensive to the super-rich attending the event. Forward progress is slower, and often more subtle than a big protest in a park, but it all started there. Business Insider did a story this year on how Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, went at least two years without paying any taxes between 2006 and 2018. In 2000, or 1990, that would hardly have raised an eyebrow. However, OWS created a sense of righteous social outrage at the ridiculousness of the loopholes that allow this sort of behavior. Although we don’t point to protesters in Zuccotti Park and say, ‘we understand this and can do something about it because of these people,’ it is nevertheless a significant contributor. Actions don’t need to be directly attributed to the Occupy movement for them to be a part of its effect on society and the world. For example, President Biden’s idea to tax the rich and feed the poor isn’t new. Robinhood (fictionally) did the same thing as early as 1377. However, Biden’s Capital Gains Taxes aren’t affected by a centuries-old fairytale. What shines a light on the need for this type of taxation is work done by Occupy Wall Street. The changes in our social dialogue are unquestionably a success of the movement.

Final Thoughts

Occupy Wall Street has had far-reaching repercussions that most people don’t notice or credit. Information dissemination is one of the longest-lasting effects. When the older generation infers that the only reason younger people are ‘broke’ today is a lack of motivation, it is easier to explain the wealth gap. Common sense facts about the rise in the cost of living, inadequate wages, and corporate greed certainly don’t get mentioned much in school. Public awareness of the poverty-related issues plaguing recent generations is OWS’s legacy, and much of the recent positive change has its roots in this movement. Ten years later people all over the world know what ‘We are the 99%’ means. The Occupy movement is larger than ever, and it continues to make a difference.

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