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17 September 2016updated 25 Jan 2024 3:12pm

Occupy Wall Street, five years on: fire in the dustbin of history

On the fifth anniversary of the birth of the activist movement, Laurie Penny explains why its failure made a difference.

By Laurie Penny

There’s a feeling common among everyone I know from the weird, wild, fast-moving political days of 2011. It’s a feeling of having somehow gone down the wrong trouser-leg of time.

Five years ago today, the Occupy movement began in Lower Manhattan. Thousands of activists took over New York City’s Zuccotti Park, a square of semi-public land suspended between Wall Street and Ground Zero, and declared their intent to stay. Their goals were broad enough to appear incoherent: nothing more or less than total change to the political narrative, with jobs, healthcare, education and debt relief as transitional demands. The sheer gall of it started a global conversation about income inequality that continues to this day.

To remember it now — the all-night glow of the tech tent, the sound of rain on plastic, the police sirens, the taste of hand rolled cigarettes, the smell of unwashed bodies and the beginning of the end of the End of History —  is to feel a pang in the intimate, desiring part of your heart, the part that wanted something more from the future and still does. It’s something like sheepishness. Something like grief. Greil Marcus, in his essay on “the Dustbin of History in a World Made Fresh,” speaks about the sense of shame that followed the uprisings of 1989 and 1968, and the savagery with which they were written out of the political narrative:

“Everything you did was immediately written out of history.  Now your words sound childish: listen to yourself and your fellows. ‘Fantastic;’ ‘marvellous’; ‘a dream world’ — but even the comrades history denies you already sound strange, speaking from some netherworld.”

Here are some more voices from the dustbin of history.

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“Above the courts, beyond the 20 years in prison you can sentence us to — beyond even a life sentence — I see the dawn of liberty breaking. Knowing what is going on around you, you too are tired of it, disgusted by it. How can you remain calm when you see the proletariat constantly suffering from hunger while others are gorging themselves? We knew that the demonstration at Les Invalides would come to nothing, and yet it was necessary to go there.”
Louise Michel, the activist and Paris Commune organiser, from her memoir
The Red Virgin, 1886.

“Occupy was my first involvement in a political movement. It indelibly reshaped my hopes, my understanding, and my sadness and anger about the world we live in. I was a first year law student at the time, and because of Occupy I changed my focus to movement work. I lost and made friends and memories and I will never be same. There is nothing I can say that would do it justice. Just the weirdest, most beautiful beginning of something. I long for anything close to that certainty again.  Occupy seemed natural, like tomorrow, that would be it for capitalism, and it still seems so, but tempered with five more years of context. I am grateful and sad it’s gone, grateful and terrified of where we’re going.”
Daniel Massoglia, a lawyer, on Occupy Chicago.

“You knew, deep down, that this was coming. If the occupation of Wall Street was ever going to succeed as it was meant to, there were always going to be crackdowns. And of course it’s scary. It’s always scary when you take a stand in the face of power, because power tends to fight back when it is threatened, and you have certainly become a threat. You are a threat because you are clever, and angry, and peaceful, and you refuse to stop asking difficult questions, and you refuse to go away. Hundreds of you have already been arrested. There is every chance that more of you will be arrested tomorrow, simply for daring to dream of a different future, simply for demanding the individual and collective human dignities that most Americans consider theirs by right. When the NYPD refused to let you march through Wall Street a week ago, you chanted, hundreds of you with one voice: ‘who are you protecting?’ It is a question you must keep asking until you receive an answer you can bear to accept.”

That last one was me, five years ago, and yes, I know. I was an adorably twee newly-hatched anarchist, and I still am one, which is even more adorable. I arrived in New York City on 30 September 2011, two days after my 25th birthday, having cleared out my savings for the flight, knowing almost nobody in America, knowing only that something terribly important was happening. I was, and am, a journalist, an activist, a chronicler of popular protest. I had already had my sense of what was possible altered permanently by the British student uprisings of 2010. I came in on the red-eye — put my bags down on a friend’s floor and instantly got the subway to the southern tip of Manhattan. The financial district. The belly of the beast of finance capitalism. And what I found there, reeking of paint and ringing with the sound of drums and construction, was about an acre of freshly-baked future.

Young people and very young people and not so young people of all backgrounds and flavours had created a refugee camp from late capitalism, right in the heart of the banking district. Towers higher than any I was used to in Britain glittered high overhead. A huge march was scheduled, and thousands of people tried to occupy the Brooklyn Bridge. As we walked towards the river, one of my friends said “they can’t possibly arrest hundreds of people on a bridge.” I stopped dead, having seen the police do exactly that in London. I turned on my heel and returned to the camp, avoiding a night in a New York City jail.

On that first day, I met a young man who was earnestly trying to levitate the mattress he was sitting on. A young brother and sister, homeless and taking care of each other, sleeping on the bus to the Chicago demonstrations. The shop stewards and medical students and street cleaners sharing their most shameful secrets, those everyday stories of American brutality. The debt they were in. The college debt. The medical debt. The daily struggles to survive as a teacher, a shop worker, an office worker. These are stories Americans find it particularly hard to tell. There is such shame involved in not coping. If you can’t make it, even in a recession, you are weak. You are unworthy. Possibly un-American. But telling these stories in the shadow of the big banks made the enemy very clear. And telling them with friends around you and free food from the kitchen camp made the enemy less intimidating.

There was a desperate, stupid beauty to all of it. The raw energy of desire sloshing around that square acre of marble and concrete and makeshift tents and soggy sleeping bags, the friendships and relationships forming so quickly, so keenly, in the creeping Autumn chill. The placards, everywhere, spawning slogans that went viral as soon as they could be photographed and uploaded to Twitter. One of the most popular was “You can’t stop an idea.” The most resonant, perhaps, the one that still sticks with me in its crass, inevitable accuracy, was “shit is fucked up and bullshit.” Making out with someone new and cute while the sirens blared in the street, your bones aching from nights sleeping on the hard ground — a lot of that, inevitably. It was one way to keep warm. I imagine there are a good few four-year-olds called Zuccotti toddling about today, and an awkward name is going to be the least of their worries given the geopolitical shitshow they’re going to have to deal with when they’re grown. For their sake, I’m glad we tried. I’m glad so many of us are still trying, in the manner of a Samuel Beckett quote that I saw tattooed on at least one clavicle down at the occupations: ”Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Fail again. Fail better.”

To stay at Occupy Wall Street was to be constantly cold, anxious and precarious — but that didn’t matter, because most of us had been all of those things for a long time, and there was relief in being able to talk about it openly. The cliche that “you had to be there” is more correct than usual in this case — because what made the crucial difference was space. Being in those spaces, having conversations, eating together, working together, with everyone pitching in. The free libraries. The teach-ins. The endless, dreadful drum circles. The inevitable communist newspaper hawkers engaging in historical re-enactment while the rest of the camp broadcast every police outrage live on the internet. The lack of bathroom facilities. The consciousness-raising that took place in the toilet queue in the local McDonalds. The space was critical, and was, fundamentally, its own demand. Occupy Wall Street was both a tactic and a question, the answer to which has still not arrived.

The whole place was charged with symbolism — even down to the time and location, exactly ten years and a few hundred feet from Ground Zero, the raw wound on the narrative of American self-confidence. Throughout those weeks, you could hear the clank and roar of Freedom Tower being built, someone else’s vision of future might and security, so close, and yet a world away.

In CS Lewis’ novel The Magician’s Nephew, two children witness the first days of Narnia. The soil of the new dream-country is sympathetic: everything you plant there becomes a tree. Our boy hero buries a toffee in the ground — the next morning a sapling has grown, and its fruit tastes strangely of toffee. Occupy was like that. A magic space where any accident of logistics became a metaphor, a meme. The Mic Check refrain evolved as a simple verbal response to police banning amplified sound in the area, but the call-and-response tactic spread all over the world. Everything echoed at Occupy. The echoes continue today, but fainter.

There were so many dreams trying to grow in these little hothouse spaces that they almost crowded each other out. People made so many different demands. A repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act. An end to college debt. Action on violence against women. And bigger, more secret wishes, the ones you daren’t let yourself think where your boss might hear you, the ones that seem so counterfactual you fear they’ll wither if ever exposed. That a different kind of future was possible. That empires could fall if we asked them to. That we could change the story. That people could live together with dignity, rather than scraping by frightened and alone, crowded together and repelled like iron filings moved by some great magnetic charge. Occupy was a challenge to the consensus. That’s why it had to be crushed.

The Occupy camps were, what the American anarchist author Peter Lamborn Wilson who uses the pseudonym Hakim Bey, called “temporary autonomous zones,” — spaces opening briefly like magic windows into other possible futures. Spaces that “can provide the quality of enhancement associated with the uprising without necessarily leading to violence and martyrdom. . . Because the State is concerned primarily with Simulation rather than substance,” he writes,  “the Temporary Autonomous Zone can ‘occupy’ these areas clandestinely and carry on its festal purposes for quite a while in relative peace.”

“Festal” is a coldly academic term for the pure joy I saw and shared at Occupy. The giddy delight of the unexpected gift, the mistletoe kiss, the spontaneous party. One night, shortly after the bridge arrestees had been released, a man with an earnest beard sang Woody Guthrie songs on the steps of Zuccotti, and for a minute hundreds of us danced, unself-consciously, to the tune of revolution from another time, laughing at our own silliness, because so much of it was silly. Silliness and fun are the first things to be scrubbed from the agenda when a movement loses its way, but there was no time for that: in nine weeks the park would be scrubbed bare. Disinfected.

I see ghosts, now, when I go to Zuccotti Park. Businessmen on their lunch breaks eat sandwiches on the same stone tables where activists stood to testify before the nightly General Assembly. Sweating flyer-men hand out promotional cards where the drum circle used to be. It comes back in kaleidoscopic detail, a jumble of jewel-like moments: activists handing out donated sweaters from the care working group, sweaters that nobody wanted anymore, sweaters with the slogan “Obama 2008.” The scalding sweetness of cheap hot chocolate handed out for free in the kitchens on the first day of winter. Watching from behind a police barrier in March 2012 as the activist Cecily McMillan flopped like a landed fish in handcuffs, having a fit under the flashing siren lights and the threat of further violence, until the ambulance finally arrived, and later reading that McMillan had been jailed for three months for assaulting a police officer.

More memories. The scent of traffic fumes and rain and frying meat from the gyro stands. Holding on to a set of scaffolding, watching a thousand young people trying to occupy the most symbolically significant street in America. Observing to the young reporter clinging to the rails next to me that one does not simply walk into Wall Street. Realising that they were going to try anyway, and finally understanding something about this huge, hysterical country and its contradictions as the occupiers were beaten back by police and started, as one, in outrage and shock, to chant the words of the first Amendment. “Mic check? Mic check! Congress shall make no law! Congress shall make no law.”

But Congress had already made the necessary laws to keep popular peaceful protest from infecting the body politic. In Britain and the United States, occupiers were arrested en masse and forced through drawn-out trials with the threat of extended jail sentences and felony charges, and bail conditions and plea deals did the job of crushing dissent far more effectively than simple sticks and boots.

It turns out that there are plenty of ways to kill an idea.

Ask any struggling twentysomething if they’d rather be saddled with a record that will prevent them from voting and leave them unemployable in a recession or take a beating. Most of them would take the beating, and not just because those wounds heal. Physical violence does not come with a cost of complicity. You can show your grandkids without shame the scars that taught you that even middle-class kids can’t expect to be served or protected if they make the wrong friends. You can’t take the same pride in the form you signed promising not to go out and protest again, so that the felony charges would go away.  The truth of every modern hegemony is that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man gets a savage kicking. But only in America is he then sued for the cost of new boots.

“Courts and violence and political maneuvering killed that magic,’ says Shawn Carrie, a former occupier who in 2011 was on his way with a scholarship to study classical piano at college. “For me personally it was a combination of growing up and being beaten down. There’s something that changes in you when four police officers hold you down while another one stomps on your face repeatedly.”

There was physical violence, too, of course: broken bones, serious brain trauma, chemical burns. I interviewed a young man in Canada who lost an eye to water cannon. Shawn Carrie’s dreams of being a pianist were crushed on March 17, 2012, when he had his hand broken by an NYPD officer. Carrie is now a journalist — he speaks to me over direct message from Turkey — and still has post traumatic stress disorder. He doesn’t, he says, “go near pianos, or protests.”

And yet it was the psychic violence that killed dreams most effectively. The surgical put-down of everything the camps stood for. On November 17, 2011, I stood behind a barricade and watched the NYPD load thousands of books from the free library, the most beautiful part of the camp, into the back of a dumpster truck. Fifty feet away, the last occupiers in the media tent were being doused with tear-gas for the temerity of asking for a fairer world.

Even now, five years later, I will not tolerate the suggestion that Occupy simply “fizzled out”, that it sputtered and extinguished because dirty hippies didn’t know what they were doing.  This is an arrant lie. It was the police. They dragged them off and threw their tents into the trash. Maybe, given time, Occupy would have fizzled. Maybe it would have evolved into something different and disappointed us all. We’ll never know, because it wasn’t given that chance. It was beaten down by batons and bureaucracy, ridiculed in the press, written out of the narrative. The consensus closed around the wound. Pack up your pamphlets, roll up your sleeping bag and carry on living, if you can.

Seeing a movement you fought for consigned to the dustbin of history is painful, shameful. “This exclusion, the sweep of the broom of this dustbin, is a movement that in its way is far more violent than any toppling of statues,” writes Marcus. “It is an embarrassment, listening to these stories and these cries, these utopian cheers and laments, because the utopian is measured always by its failure, and failure, in our historiography. Shame is history’s gift to those who lose, to those who lose because they ask too much of history.”

Did we ask too much? Is it too much to ask for a livable future? It is at once such a small and such a shocking demand, and my life was changed forever by having witnessed it being made. The taste of cheap meat-stand coffee, heating your hands through the paper, the sound of  construction echoing around high glass buildings, the susurration of police helicopters shuddering your nerves from high overhead. All these things meant freedom, to me, for a while, silly as that sounds when the very word has been tortured and abused into meaning its opposite. These things, they mean home.

Being on the left is, in some ways, an exercise in learning how to fail. Of course, all resistance movements eventually fail, because those which do not succeed in overhauling the existing order invariably become the existing order. Wilson, writing as Bey, reminds us that the Temporary Autonomous Zones are, by their nature, ephemeral. “Such moments of intensity give shape and meaning to the entirety of a life. You can’t stay up on the roof forever — but things have changed, shifts and integrations have occurred — a difference is made.”

A difference was made. Things that were once unspeakable — police violence, income inequality, the monstrosity of the American debt machine, the influence of money in politics — are now part of mainstream political discourse. The Black Lives Matter movement is just one of the inheritors of the energy of OWS,  with their media-savvy sloganeering, their use of technology to create networks dissent and change the narrative around state brutality and structural racism — along with better tactics and clearer demands. Political candidates on both sides of the narrow mainstream economic argument use words like “the super-rich” and speak of the ”99%”, which is, at heart, less of a slogan than a simple statement about strength in numbers. Still, the moment of change still weighs heavy in the memory.

“There was a moment in time when power could actually be challenged by numbers and peaceful resistance,” says Meredith Clark, a friend from that short winter of discount tents. “Occupy succeeded because there are so many movements happening now that use the same tactics and principles. Did it overthrow global capitalism? No, but a hell of a lot of young people believe that activism can make a difference. It wasn’t Occupy’s job to fix everything, but that decision created space for people to organise around what mattered in their communities.”

The silliest thing about Occupy, the laughable, unspeakable truth that we struggle to say now without blushing, is this: they were right. They were right when they said that democracy was failing to deliver. They were right when they said that income inequality is tearing nations apart. When they said that income inequality, debt servitude, climate destruction and the cannibalistic greed of corporations are species-level disasters darkening our collective future beyond the scope of foresight, they were right, and they are still right.

And it still hurts to say so, because to say so comes with the embarrassment of having watched something lovely smothered too soon, and yet to go on living, making breakfast, making rent, getting haircuts, crying at weddings, taking in your friends made sick and homeless by rising rents and shrinking wages, watching insurgent far-right movements sweep to power in your country, knowing all the while that shit is still fucked up and bullshit. Aaron Bernstein, a scientist who I met at the Wall Street camp, told me that “it was for me a moment where possibility itself seemed possible. Everything since that has felt to me a mix of the aperture widened by it but also the gaping lack that it made clear.”

The world is getting colder, but there’s still a fire burning in the dustbin of history. Fail again. Fail better.

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