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21 September 2016updated 07 Sep 2021 10:50am

The ghosts of Zuccotti park

How Occupy Wall Street changed politics for ever.

By Laurie Penny

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

Five years ago the Occupy movement began in Lower Manhattan. Thousands of activists took over Zuccotti Park in New York City, a square of semi-public land between Wall Street and Ground Zero, and declared their intent to stay. Their goals were broad enough to appear incoherent: they wanted a new political narrative, with jobs, health care, education and debt relief as transitional demands. The gall of it launched a global conversation about income inequality that continues today.

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 – is to feel a pang in the part of your heart that wanted something more from the future and still does.

Back then, I was an adorably twee, newly hatched anarchist. I arrived in New York City on 30 September 2011, two days after my 25th birthday. I knew almost nobody in the US, but I did know that something important was happening. I came in on the red-eye, put my bags down on a friend’s floor and got the subway to the southern tip of Manhattan. What I found there, reeking of paint and ringing with the sound of drums and construction, was an acre of freshly baked future.

Young and not-so-young people of all backgrounds had created a camp for refugees from late capitalism, right in the heart of the city’s banking district. On that first day, I met a young man who was trying to levitate the mattress he was sitting on. I heard shop stewards and medical students and street cleaners sharing their most shameful secrets, the everyday stories of American brutality. They spoke of the debt that they were in from college and medical bills, and of their daily struggles to survive as teachers, shop staff and office workers.

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In the US, there is shame in not coping. If you can’t make it, even in a recession, you are weak, unworthy, possibly un-American. But telling these stories in the shadow of the big banks made it very clear who the enemy was, and telling them with friends around you and free food from the kitchen camp made the enemy seem less intimidating.

There was a desperate, stupid beauty to it all, and raw energy sloshing around the makeshift tents and soggy sleeping bags. Friendships formed quickly in the autumn chill. There were placards everywhere that spawned viral slogans as soon as they could be photographed and uploaded to Twitter. One of the most popular was “You can’t evict an idea”. The whole place was charged with symbolism – even down to the time and location. Occupy began ten years after the 9/11 attacks and a few hundred feet from Ground Zero, the wound in the narrative of American self-confidence.

I see ghosts, now, when I go to Zuccotti Park. It all comes back in kaleidoscopic detail: activists handing out donated sweaters with the slogan “Obama 2008” from the care working group; the sweetness of cheap hot chocolate on the first day of winter; watching from behind a police barrier in March 2012 as the activist Cecily McMillan flopped on the ground like a landed fish in handcuffs. She had a seizure under the flashing siren lights until, at last, an ambulance arrived. I remember later reading that she had been jailed for assaulting a police officer.

There was plenty of physical violence: broken bones, brain trauma, chemical burns. I interviewed a young man in Canada who lost an eye. Shawn Carrié’s dreams of being a pianist were crushed on 17 March 2012 when an NYPD officer broke his hand. Carrié is now a journalist; I spoke to him in Turkey over the internet and he said that he still has post-traumatic stress disorder. He doesn’t, he told me, “go near pianos, or protests”.

Yet it was the psychic violence that finally killed off Occupy’s dreams. In November 2011, I stood behind a barricade and watched the police load thousands of books from the free library, the most beautiful part of the camp, into the back of a dumpster truck.

Seeing a movement that you have fought for consigned to the dustbin of history is painful and shameful. Did we ask for too much when we said that we wanted a liveable future? It was at once such a small and such a large demand, and my life was changed for ever by having witnessed it being made.

In some ways, being on the left is an exercise in learning how to fail. Yet a difference was made. The Black Lives Matter movement is just one of the inheritors of Occupy Wall Street, with its media-savvy sloganeering aimed at changing the narrative around state brutality and structural racism. Political candidates on both sides of the mainstream economic argument use terms such as “the super-rich” and speak of the “99 Per Cent”.

The silliest thing about the Occupy protesters was this: they were right. They were right that democracy was failing to deliver. They were right that income inequality was tearing nations apart. When they said that income inequality, debt servitude, climate destruction and the cannibalistic greed of corporations were species-level disasters darkening our collective future beyond the scope of foresight, they were right, and they are still right.

It hurts to say so, because to say so comes with the embarrassment of having watched something lovely smothered too soon – but that carries on living. The world is getting colder but there is still a fire burning in the dustbin of history. Fail again. Fail better. 

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