"More than just Wall Street": How the Occupy movement penetrated America -- and what it means today

Michael Gould-Wartofsky tells Salon about his new in-depth history of the Occupy phenomenon's history -- and future

Published February 25, 2015 1:30PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Adrees Latif)
(Reuters/Adrees Latif)

Unless you're Isaac Asimov, trying to predict the future is a bit of a mug's game. But it's still probably fair to say that when people think of U.S. politics during the second decade of the 21st century, the phenomenon known as Occupy Wall Street will be one of the first things that come to mind. Yet although the iconic "occupation" of a park in downtown New York City, which lasted for more than a month, still resonates for many people in the American and global left, can it be said that Occupy actually accomplished anything? (Besides, of course, introducing to the world this unforgettable phrase.)

That's the question Salon had on its mind during a recent chat with Michael Gould-Wartofsky, the journalist, historian and activist whose new book on the Occupy movement was just released by Oxford University Press. Titled "The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement," Gould-Wartofsky's book is a sweeping overview of the Occupy moment that also functions as an insider's view history. Our discussion touched on Occupy's relevance today, as well as what its organizers have learned in the years since and the under-appreciated role state-sanctioned violence played in its ultimate dissolution. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

It's been more than three years since the occupation of Zuccotti Park. Why does Occupy still matter?

That's a very good question. You have people who will answer that question differently than I would, but my answer is that Occupy Wall Street was about more than just Occupy, and more than just Wall Street even. It was about the nexus between state power and corporate power in this country; between public authority and private wealth and their encounter at a very critical juncture in American history, where our very democracy was at stake— and still is.

It meant a lot of things to a lot of people, but I think the one common point of unity remains what many people see as an irreconcilable opposition between the power of the 1 percent and the power of the 99 percent. This 99-to-1 strategy is still resonating and reverberating through the present, through many Occupy offshoots, and I think you can see the fruits of some of that organizing today in the larger movement for economic justice.

Is it even possible to discuss Occupy as a singular entity? Or does its lack of centralization make it so you can only really understand it on a case-by-case basis?

I don't think you can talk about Occupy as one thing. The book is titled "The Occupiers" for a reason; there was something very plural about this and it was an incredibly diverse movement, both in its social base and its political composition. There was common ground, and it was kind of a point of convergence for multiple movements, I would say...

There was a convergence of all those movements in the United States, from labor and housing to the longstanding movements for racial and economic justice. I think it's better to see it as many movements rather than a single entity unto itself. If you see it that way, you can see the ways in which it has lived on.

A lot of criticisms of the Occupy movement center on the idea that it didn't know what it wanted, and that that lack of direction is part of why it fell apart. Do you think that's fair?

You can pose all kinds of counterfactuals about, what if we had done something differently? But really the first question to ask is, what if the powerful had dealt with it differently? What if it hadn't been repressed? I think Occupy was not given the time that it needed to develop an agenda, a set of common aims and common principles.

There was just two months, really, that the square was occupied, and in hundreds of cities you saw Occupiers talker about what it was that they wanted. Some of them wanted to make demands and some of them didn't, but I think, ultimately, the strategy of first containment and then control and then eviction really foreclosed the possibility of coming up with any coherent long-term strategy. I think that was really the issue; there just wasn't enough time.

On the other hand, there often seemed to be some uniformity in how figures of authority responded to Occupiers. What did that general approach look like? And why did it work?

From day one, you saw an aggressive and increasingly sophisticated response from police forces tasked with the protection of private wealth and private property, and that was expressed in all kinds of ways. There was a kind of variation in how municipal and state managers responded at first; some wanted to negotiate, some wanted to manage, some wanted to marginalize, and some wanted to simply put their foot down and say, we're not going to allow people to assemble in public anywhere downtown.

In New York City, many of us were surprised to see the Occupation endure as long as it did. In a place like Chicago, there really wasn't an encampment that was permitted in the first place, and in other places it was preempted. Eventually ... there were over 7,000 arrests in 122 cities. I think the crackdown was effective not just because of its effects on the Occupiers themselves, but was also effective on the other side of the barricade, on those watching, on people who might have participated but then saw that it was an arrestable offense to assemble in public.

Do people have an accurate understanding of just how important the use of brute force on the part of authorities was to the clearing of encampments? This is just my experience, but I often find that people who weren't part of Occupy or didn't pay too much attention to it don't have a handle on just how violent the state's response often was.

I do think that that's something that hasn't been appreciated as fully as it should be, the degree to which brute force was mobilized. This wasn't the first time we've seen this kind of violence against protesters in this country, but it was the first time it was so sustained and so systematic, and where it really shut down the capacity of ordinary people to gather in public spaces.

I think this is something people look at from other countries, and they probably see it the same way that we see those other countries when we're looking at the kind of state violence that happens in police states. I don't think this reached the level of the kind of repression you might see in Egypt or in some of the places where these movements were firstborn, but I do think it far surpassed anything that we might expect from a country that prides itself on its democratic tradition and on its civil rights and liberties.

Are there any overarching lessons that organizers who took part in the Occupy movement have taken from the experience and maybe applying to what they're doing now?

Absolutely. I think those lessons will be translated differently according to the context and the particular demands of the moment, so you'll have a different answer from the Fight for 15 than you'd hear from Occupy Our Homes or Occupy Democrats.

There are different lessons that people have taken, but there are several points I've heard in my interview. One of them is the need to meet people where they are, and Occupy Wall Street started to do this but was not fully able to translate what was going on in the park and in the financial centers into something that made sense for communities on the front lines of the crisis.

Before you continue, what does it mean to "meet people where they are"?

So, instead of seeing the politics as something to be brought to the masses, as it were, and delivered to them whole, it's something that requires people to come down from their high horse and really understand what the conditions of people who have lived the experience and what it is that they need.

It really requires a much larger conversation than one that happens among activists or among organizers; it requires broadening the sense of movement to include the people who are not yet necessarily on the same page but who might have something to teach the organizers and the activists. It sees politics as a much more mutual and reciprocal activity than what we ordinarily conceive of as politics.

OK, so you were talking about the lessons learned by organizers from the experience...

For one thing, the need for multiple avenues of action — where people can participate without giving up their jobs or their freedom as a price of admission .... You can't just expect everybody to get arrested every day! People have to live their lives and still be able to participate.

On a related note, the lesson that many people who participated in direct democracy as we saw it in the Occupy square would share is that the practice of [direct democracy] didn't always live up to the principle. You need real mechanisms to empower the participation of people who might not have as much time, who might not have the same kinds of resources or the same political know-how, that a lot of Occupiers did have. I think that requires a lot more popular education; it requires structures of democratic decision-making that don't just depend on who has the loudest voice.

Because the Occupy movements happened in a lot of big cities, often the people trying to shut down Occupiers were Democrats. How did that tension between the movement and the left-right political system manifest itself?

When Occupy came on the scene, I think you heard a lot of people advocating for it to become a Tea Party of the Left or an organ of the Democratic Party, and that just wasn't the MO. It wasn't built for that. You had a lot of people who were unaffiliated with any political party who were participating; you had people who were deeply disenchanted with their own parties (in many cases, the Democrats); and then you had people affiliated with third parties.

It was much more of a left flank in American politics than we've seen in a long time, but it ended up pulling both parties in a slightly different direction, rhetorically at least. I don't think we've seen any deeply transformative effects on the political system, but if you recall, the conversation in 2010 was about deficits and now it's about inequality. That's something that has affected both parties.

To close, how long of a long-view do you think we'll need to take before we can judge Occupy and its effectiveness?

I think that with our 24-hour news cycles, we often lose a sense of perspective on these things. If we don't see change in the course of a year or two, it's as if a movement has failed or has given up the ghost. But in my view, Occupy was one moment in a much longer movement that did not begin and end [in Zuccotti Park]. I think if we see it as part of a longer-term realignment or reorientation in American politics towards addressing economic inequality and the concentrated political power of the 1 percent, you can look back in maybe 10, 20, 30 years and definitely see the effects of that larger movement.

I don't know if we can isolate the effects of Occupy specifically or if we can isolate them from that larger movement, but I think that if we look at what the Occupiers are doing in 20 years, we're going to be seeing a lot of enduring political work. The answer to that question really depends on what happens next. I don't think that Occupy or the Occupiers did have a clear sense of what was the next step, so I do think we'll need a clearer sense of the horizon towards which we're striving.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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