The Legacy of Occupy Wall Street

Three years ago this fall, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) set up its tents in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park and hunkered down for a long stay. Occupy has yet to receive the in-depth historical examination it deserves, but one thing that the movement’s chroniclers will almost certainly agree upon is that it “changed the conversation” about income inequality and Wall Street’s economic and political dominance.

Young Democratic Socialists prepare to march on October 5, 2011, the day Occupy Wall Street and its labor allies shut down the Brooklyn Bridge

The political mix in Occupy sites across the nation varied from locale to locale (and sometimes from day to day), but in almost every site where there was a DSA chapter, DSAers and voices for democratic socialism were involved. The Zuccotti Park encampment got the most media attention. Its prefigurative, counter-cultural style of politics, acting out the utopian future through an anarchist-style (and often glacially slow moving) form of self-government, plus its reluctance to formulate demands, were among the defining features of the New York occupation, but there were political counter-currents beneath the surface, including democratic socialism. Cecily McMillan, a member of the Young Democratic Socialists Coordinating Committee, was present at the creation of Occupy, and argued throughout the fall for it to adopt a set of formal demands. (More recently, she became famous as “the last Occupy defendant,” when she was tried, convicted, and sent to Rikers Island for an alleged assault of an NYPD officer in Zuccotti Park.)

Sarah Leonard, at the time an associate editor of Dissent, was one of the youthful editors of Occupy Gazette, which brought out four issues. Three years on, she remains appreciative of Occupy’s achievements, but also offers an explanation for its dissolution:

There are very few ways that Americans are trained to organize now and very few strong institutions to support growing mass movements. It’s also true that the same anarchist framework that was responsible for creating a surprising, brilliant protest did not have much interest in building mass membership organizations or institutions. Most important, the cops in New York made the protest a scary place to be, particularly for people of color.

Historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote that third parties in American politics (and insurgent social movements more generally) were like bees: they sting and then they die. But what a sting Occupy delivered before its death. Veteran New Left activist Todd Gitlin’s sympathetic outsider’s account, Occupy Nation (2012), traces the shift in Barack Obama’s speeches in the months following the occupation of Zuccotti Park, as the president found it politically expedient to embrace the concerns and even the signature catch-phrases of Occupy. Denouncing the “breathtaking greed of a few” in December 2011, Obama pledged his support for policies that would make the United States a country where “everyone does their fair share . . . ” and “everyone plays by the same rules.” “These aren’t 1 percent values or 99 percent values,” he concluded. “They’re American values. And we have to reclaim them.”

Is Occupy a sustainable model for future protests? Probably not, although vestiges remain in such projects as the Occupy Finance book, the Flood Wall Street demonstration the day after the People’s Climate March, and Occupy Sandy. Is Obama’s conversion to economic populism sincere? Almost certainly not. What needs to be understood, however, is that, because of Occupy, the political terrain has shifted since September 17, 2011, in ways that have provided new opportunities for progressives in the Democratic Party (Elizabeth Warren, Bill De Blasio) who are genuinely concerned with economic inequality. Occupy is dead, but the sting remains.


Maurice Isserman is the author of several histories of the American left, including The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington. He was a frequent visitor to the Occupy Utica (New York) encampment in the fall of 2011.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2014 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

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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