Making Sense of Occupy Wall Street

By Barbara Joye

 

The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement

By Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky
228 pp., Oxford University Press, 2015

 

Even as protesters filled Zuccotti Park/Liberty Square in New York City, commentators were analyzing the phenomenon known as Occupy Wall Street (OWS). With The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement, sociology doctoral candidate Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky may have written the definitive book to date. He comes to the subject as a participant-observer, narrating the rise and fall of OWS in a lively, engaging style and sorting out “the kaleidoscope of interpretations” and questions OWS raises. His observations are augmented by quotes from some of the 80 interviews he conducted in New York City and elsewhere.

 

Some of Gould-Wartofsky’s conclusions contradict the corporate mythology that OWS has had no lasting impact in the United States. Instead, he places it within the “99 Percent movement,” to recognize its many antecedents (the Spanish indignados, Tahir Square, the Wisconsin Capitol sit-ins, other NYC mini-occupations, and so on) and the subsequent projects OWS spun off or influenced. Throughout, he emphasizes the fallout from the Great Recession that motivated most of the participants—student debtors with uncertain futures, unemployed and underemployed people, the foreclosed and homeless, beleaguered union members, and disillusioned voters.

 

Occupy_panel.jpg
Left to right: Nelini Stamp, Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky, and Cecily McMillan, Photo by Reid Jenkins.

At a book signing and panel discussion this spring in Atlanta, DSAer Cecily McMillan and organizer Nelini Stamp joined Gould-Wartofsky to comment on OWS’s continuing influence on their lives and political work and on progressive movements throughout the United States. They argued that the influence can be seen in #Black Lives Matter, the Fight for $15, and Occupy Our Homes.

Despite the many differences among OWS participants in terms of ideology and socioeconomic status, says Gould-Wartofsky, their key message—“We are the 99 Percent”—resonated long after police drove them from the park. “Occupy was a catalyst for people to think differently, act differently. . . .We couldn’t go back to normal after Occupy,” observed Stamp, a Brooklyn native who at the time was the youth engagement director for the Working Families Party.

 

McMillan, in 2011 a Young Democratic Socialists National Coordinating Committee member, continued to participate in Occupy-related events following the eviction. Later convicted of a felony for assaulting an officer who assaulted her while she attempted to obey police orders to exit an Occupy reunion in the park, she served two months in Rikers Island prison and became an advocate for prisoners’ rights. She currently lives in Atlanta and is writing a memoir about her experiences, while serving a five-year probation. “It’s never really been over for me,” she says.

 

After working with the Dream Defenders youth action group in 2012, Stamp also moved to Atlanta, where she co-directs Rise Up Georgia, which works on issues such as the criminalization of black people, affordable housing, and public transportation. “I and my co-director Shab Bashiri want to combine the best of traditional organizing, working for real gains for real people, with the excitement of movements like Occupy,” she said.

 

Despite the many contradictions and limitations of OWS, Gould-Wartofsky concludes that its message “enabled the occupiers to bring class back into U.S. politics without alienating U.S. publics. . . . Amid the aftershocks of the financial crisis, the rise of the 99 Percent coalition may well have played a role in the reemergence of class conflict as a force in U.S. politics.” Not the final conflict, not by a long shot. Still, he is hopeful that “the 99 Percent movement is likely to persist, to proliferate, and quite possibly to radicalize in the years and decades to come.”

 

This article originally appeared in the summer 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

 

For further analysis of the impact of OWS, see Maurice Isserman, “The Legacy of Occupy Wall Street,” Democratic Left Winter 2014 now on the Democratic Left blog site.

  

Barbara_Joye2.jpg Barbara Joye is the recording secretary of Metro Atlanta DSA and a member of DSA’s National Political Committee.

 

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

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