Occupy Wall Street (OWS) was the name of an anti-capitalist social movement that evolved in autumn of 2011 in New York City and attracted worldwide attention and imitators through its popular claim “We are the 99 %”. Inspired by the earlier mass protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and Spain, several activists started to call for actions against massive social inequalities, referring to the fact of 1% of the US population owning at this time 38 % of the society’s wealth. They were followed soon by hundreds, later thousands of protesters, who held a camp lasting for weeks in Zuccotti Park, right in the financial district of Manhattan. Until the site was evicted by the police on the 15th of November, it was an innovative space for political participation and protest culture. Due to its leaderless and fluid structures, it was hard to fit into common political categories — and while it entered the stage with broad emancipatory claims and actions, it was also partly criticized for its open flank to antisemitism and other forms of discrimination. When I went to New York City, I wanted to talk to some of the people who were a part of OWS about the weeks in 2011 and the present and future of political activism in the US. Because, these days — from an outside perspective — US politics seem to offer even more reasons to hit the streets. Reflecting on the critical perspective that the movement had on representation, this text assembles fragments of three separate interviews I did with former OWS activists Marisa Holmes, Priscilla Grim, and CK during my visit to New York City in February 2019.
CK: One day, in one of those mailing lists that tell you the various activist events and protests, I got word about people organizing for the September 17 occupation. I’d heard about the call before and was skeptical. Generally, I felt many protests were poorly organized, as people don’t like doing the boring work of actually managing logistics. So, when I saw the E-Mail, I thought to myself that perhaps I could help with that, particularly with food, given my experience in FNB [Food not Bombs, a US activist group]. It’s funny, during those weeks leading up to the main event — filled with four-hour meetings and multiple conference calls and giant E-mail threads — I thought that was the most intense thing I’ve ever done in my entire organizing life. Of course, then September 17 began and, well, I realized just how much more intense things could get!
Marisa: I’ve been an activist since I was 15, and I was 25 when Occupy happened. I wanted to build a mass movement in response to the economic crisis. I also was a part of the class of 2008 — I graduated from my undergrad in 2008 and there were no jobs, it was very precarious. I had time because I couldn’t find full-time work. So, for me and many others it was like: What are we going to do? Instead of sitting around and waiting for somebody to fix everything, we might as well try to fix it ourselves. So, 3 years leading up to OWS there was already that feeling we got sold out in various forms, whether it was labor unions or community organizations or individual activists. And then 2011 is also the context of uprisings in North Africa, in the Middle East, in Europe — and we were thinking about all of that when we started to plan Occupy. I came back from Egypt and there was this call from Adbusters [a Canadian anti-consumerist magazine] that I was very dismissive towards in the beginning — they weren’t organizing on the ground, they were just a magazine or whatever. But then there was a meeting that happened at Bowling Green in the Financial District in response to that call, and it was quickly taken over by anarchists and various libertarian/socialist/anti-authoritarian folks. And that first meeting became the New York City General Assembly which continued to organize throughout the summer until September 17. So, most of the key infrastructure came together before the occupation. And many of these people didn’t know each other before.
Priscilla: Occupy Wall Street started in my estimation with the amazing inspirational writing of Adbusters and with the group of activists of Bloombergville [a two-weeks protest camp against cuts by former NYC major Michael Bloomberg]. That core group joined pretty quickly the call to Occupy Wall Street after it was put out on the web. Another group of activists started meeting in Tompkins Square Park [the NYCGA that had met earlier at Bowling Green Park and the Irish Potato Famine Memorial]. I joined one of the meetings in mid-August and volunteered myself immediately to get the word out online. Then September 17 happened and we stayed the whole night in the camp in Zuccotti Park. The police didn’t arrest anyone, and after that, it was on. The camp was broken down on November 15. And then a lot of the activists who all had come into this big viral sensation of a thing, they all went back to where they were from but radicalized and with a greater imagination of what was possible.
CK: The blog We are the 99 Percent getting lots of attention was an important milestone. I never, ever expected such a massive response to something that, frankly, I put together in one night. But within days we were getting hundreds of contributions per day. The inbox would fill up as I watched it. Most of the time on the Internet, it’s like shouting into the void. It’s so difficult to get people’s attention, to stand out among the millions of voices competing for space in people’s minds. But for one brief moment, the blog was being shared all over the web. People had very strong opinions about it! I’ve been online for a long time, and usually I’m the one expressing very strong opinions about a random internet phenomenon. It was interesting being on the other side of that. It’s also interesting in retrospect that I spent far more time and energy on kitchen and food stuff than I did on the blog, yet it is the blog that has endured in people’s memories far more.
Priscilla: As a working-class individual it was very exciting for me to be a part of the We are the 99 percent blog. I couldn’t think of a better action that could happen to have a critique on a systemic inequality that is driven by capitalism than to get people’s stories out there. We didn’t publish it in the typical blog style. Most of the time, when you have a blog, you publish like one or two entries a day. And at that time we started, we could have totally scheduled them to go out just like three a day. But reading through everybody’s these stories and seeing how desperate they were for somebody to hear them, made us decide that we need to assault the person who unwinds on the blog with how many stories there are. So we would publish 100/ 200 a day. At that time I had just left a job as a fundraiser for the Bronx Zoo and for the New York Public Library. So, I came out of four years researching the wealthiest one percent of the world and assessing them for how much money they could give to non-profits. That totally radicalized me. Because all of a sudden I was noticing that e.g. this organizing space was completely run by volunteers, but it was owned by a descendant of the Vanderbilt/Lehmann clans. And I realized that all of these philanthropic efforts were not being led by the people who were most affected by whatever situation it was. It was completely enraging.
Marisa: I was a part of the independent media group that tried to establish a counter-narrative to whatever would be shown in the mainstream media. We were representing our own selves and also trying to document what was happening with the movement as progress, and the live stream was part of that. The idea was to have a constant 24/7 feed to be parallel to the 24/7 occupation — a permanent revolution happening. But, you know, there were also basic everyday things that most people were concerned about: How are we going to have food and shelter? How are we going to be respectful to each other? Who has a voice in the assembly or not? I don’t think the most immediate concerns were: “How are we posting about this on Twitter?” I mean, I was concerned about that, but for people who were sleeping out every night mostly, it was more important to ask: “How do we stay warm?”
Priscilla: Through the Hashtag OccupyWallStreet all of the information about the action was being reported to people who wanted to join in. And then you also had the live streamers — so for the first time, you had an unmediated view into a protest, where you saw everything from the very bad of cops arresting and beating people up to the very good of those moments of comradery that happened inside of an action. It was demystified to people finally, what a big public demonstration actually looks like from the inside. Literally, I had friends of mine who were calling me asking “Can we go down there?”, and I said: “I’m sending you a video. Let me know, what you think.” And they showed up the next day.
Marisa: Of course some people were trying to engage with us only online and not in the park. So, the discourse online was sometimes separated from the discourse and the actual material realities happening in the park. And so, we totally lost control over that. The digital strategy worked very well in terms of sharing the event and a story — we were growing very quickly. But it was harder to have a directly democratic, participatory space digitally than in person: In the park, you can always have an assembly, have working groups and people knowing each other. But online anyone could start an Occupy X account and then pretend to do something, e.g. raising money. There were several ridiculous attempts to trademark the name Occupy. But of course, we also lost control because we didn’t control the means of media production – we didn’t own Facebook.
CK: Through the Internet, we opened this movement up to a bigger tent than we could really handle while maintaining any sort of ideological cohesion. To me, I had always conceived of this as a radical movement, where, yes, I may be an anarchist and you may be a Marxist but we both agree that this current system has got to go. Connecting to the wider Internet landscape around Occupy, well, disabused me of this notion. I saw people online say, with absolutely no irony at all, that, no Occupy is really about getting money out of politics and ending crony capitalism, and all these radicals are just trying to coopt it. You fucking asshole. I tried to push back against this, I really did, over and over and over again. But those people not only reframed the movement — they defanged its radical edge.
Priscilla: Nobody out of the group of core organizers ever judged the people who felt that they couldn’t come in. For example, the programming team that came up with occupywallst.org was called Transgender Superheroes. They were trans women living in a house in Bushwick called Aftranistan, they were amazing! But they were very shy and didn’t want to be abused by these entitled young white men from the suburbs who came in. I mean, they always mess up everything, but specifically they went after them in a really particularly cruel way that completely disenfranchised and hurt them in a way they’re probably still recovering from.
CK: Another matter was a class divide that began appearing between the kitchen and everyone else, and then within the kitchen itself. It all came down to meetings. The kitchen was intense work, and you just didn’t have the time to go to a four-hours meeting where important decisions are made. So many decisions were made about us without us. Incidentally, as time went on, the kitchen increasingly began to be made up of People of Color, working-class folks, and generally other marginalized communities. I disliked this dynamic, it recreated the same neuroses of the regular world too much. Yet, at the same time, they were also the ones with the most experience in food service industries. Meanwhile, once the kitchen began growing large, a certain group began emerging as the ones who make Real Decisions. We would prepare, transport, and serve food and overall handle the logistics of the kitchen; they would talk to suppliers, talk to the press, secure kitchen space, and hold meetings.
Marisa: There were various caucuses within Occupy: There was the PoC caucus, there was a women’s caucus, a queer caucus. And all of these caucuses pushed through their particular interests: The PoC caucus pushed for more inclusive language in the Declaration of the Occupation, the women’s caucus was more concerned with sexual harassment and the day-to-day distribution of work to maintain the park. In response to the harassment and other conflicts in the park the so-called Safety and Security Cluster was formed: They worked with a combination of non-violent communication and physical interventions. Also, if people needed medical or mental help, they were attended too. So, on the one hand, people really stepped up and did that kind of work, but it still wasn’t enough, because the hetero-normative nature of everything we were doing persisted — and because we were exposed on a public square and constantly under surveillance.
CK: Occupy Wall Street was crowded, especially as the movement picked up. Walking from one end of the park to another took a lot of “Scuse me, coming through, sorry.” Imagine the experience of being at a crowded concert, and wanting to get closer to the band. That was what it was like moving through the camp at its height.
Occupy was every scammer, opportunist, sociopath, crackpot and cult leader coming out of the woodwork to claim it for themselves, and maneuvering to stop them like you’re on god damn House of Cards or some shit!
Occupy Wall Street was a four-hours long General Assembly in the cold where someone decides to block a resolution simply because “it’s always better to block.” You have to pee so, so, so bad, but your item is coming up next. If only this debate over whether the blankets we’re buying are vegan-friendly weren’t entering its second hour with no signs of stopping.
Priscilla: The camps themselves ended across the United States by the end of 2011, but the online organizing still continues and a lot of the efforts behind Bernie Sanders were led by ex-Occupy activists as well. So, now it’s more like it has morphed and evolved in things that weren’t possible 30 years ago.
CK: It died with Bernie Sanders. Within Occupy there had long been a tension between the more reasonable radical elements who understood that justice can only be brought about by dismantling the state and capitalist economic system, and the irrational reformists who clung tightly to this idea that we should be working within the system to change it, usually through elections or traditional craft unions. The Bernie Sanders campaign was the final split. I saw many former comrades from Occupy, people I respected, falling into the trap of electoral politics. What burns, in particular, is that they were somehow able to convince the media that they were the real Occupy all along, and represent themselves as to its heirs.
Priscilla: The field of engagement of electoral politics has fundamentally changed, making that a field of play that is possible for activists. Right now, we’re Socialists literally taking over Congress! What Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did was organizing a community. I do not think this is the answer to what ails us, but I do think it is a very important piece right now that we can use as much as possible. I mean it’s a limited scope: With electoral politics, you’re not going to end kidnapping children. With big public actions blocking ICE facilities [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement] shutting them down, inspiring people who are running for office to make sure this is a priority — those two things together are going to stop kidnapping children.
Marisa: In 2011 no one supported political parties — of any kind. From the very beginning, we were against representation altogether. We didn’t want to have demands, we didn’t acknowledge existing political institutions. Years later, in 2015/16 there was this whole Bernie Sanders campaign and people who were Social Media strategists for that campaign quite literally stole our Social Media platforms, Twitter in particular, and started pushing that “People for Bernie” narrative. It was very upsetting for me, and I guess it’s not going away, because now he’s running again. And I get it: People who weren’t that political before or tired and looking for some kind of more immediate change or were looking for a leader felt attracted… For me, it is a waste of time. I mean, it’s not that I want Trump to win or that I’m an accelerationist — I would rather see people have healthcare or maybe even time to think about alternatives. I just think that ultimately there has to be an independent movement that is pushing beyond the work of political parties.
Priscilla: The OWS Social Media handles that I still work on have been integral in sustaining a network of activists since 2011. Anything that has popped up since that time, we have been a force to help amplify those efforts, bring them to the public, unpack ideas online if that needed to happen: Black Lives Matter was a particular thing that I’m super proud of. I’m not proud of why we had to hit the streets, but I’m proud that we pivoted our messaging and efforts to fully support it in every way possible. We wanted to give the Yellow Vests in France a lot more support online, but we received two different Social Media graphic images that they wanted us to post. And I refused to post them until I had them translated. And one of them showed this yellow vest and words on each side of it. And it was really good up until point 10 where it just said: „Kill all the immigrants!“ And I was of course like: „Fuck, no! Where did this even come from?“ Another thing that we haven’t embraced fully was the March for Our Lives stuff, because nobody in the movement is really convinced that the only people who should have guns are cops. But otherwise, we have completely supported the whole #metoo movement. Anything that needs to get amplified — that’s what we do. And we try to breakdown these philosophies of anti-capitalism and anarchism and Local Economic Growth and worker ownership and all of those which are new ideas for Americans — because we’re a very young country, because they killed everyone.
Marisa: Before Trump, we already lived in an increasingly totalitarian and proto-fascist environment in which the Department of Homeland Security and ICE were created and we had the War on Terror. Obama deported more people than any other president before him, he started drone wars. And even now the Democratic Party claims they’re opposing the wall on the Mexican Border, but still, they support 55 miles of this concrete slat construction. So, I don’t think that there’s allyship between the Democratic Party and an anti-fascist movement, because the Democratic Party is complicit and helps to create a structure of fascism. It’s really a mistake to think of Trump as an exception. It’s a structure that we’re dealing with, and that transcends to every political party.
CK: On the one hand, how can we not react to all this ugliness that pours forth from the White House? How can we not react to the toxic groups that have been empowered by this moment? How can we not react, to fight, when there are literally children being rounded up into concentration camps at the southern border? If it’s a fight you’re looking for, there are plenty of places to find it. On the other, this means that we must take energy from more constructive, proactive projects. We are fighting so, so hard simply not to lose ground, that it seems we cannot even conceive of going on the attack (metaphorically). We’re in a defensive crouch right now, which restricts our movement.
When I went to Zuccotti Park to look for traces of the movement that I had only read about up to this point, I couldn’t find anything that would tell the multiple stories of the unlikely uprising that OWS seems to have been. As Priscilla said during our interview: „Nobody lives down there. It’s only banks and tourists.“ So, starting the research, I was undecided whether this would be supposed to be some sort of oral history project, a contribution to protest mythology or a journalistic feature. I decided not to decide. Because talking to these people neither felt like talking about definite past nor about the definite present. It more felt like — in these chaotic political times, where almost anything can happen from one moment to another without a real surprise — it’s these activists and networks — whether they support or oppose representative democracy — that is carrying on, maintaining sustainable structures, awaiting the next momentum for changes on a larger scale. On March 2nd, attending the kick-off rally of the new Bernie Sanders campaign in Brooklyn College, freezing between thousands of different people who were embracing the well-written message of change, lifelong activism and intersectional solidarity — the future of the US looked bright for a two-weeks visitor from Germany. “How are you gonna beat that?”, someone asked his friend while they were leaving the site. And the friend just smiled a bit precariously, leaving it ambiguous, whether he didn’t know the answer or just didn’t want to think about alternatives.
Marisa: The square is a symbol for the whole society. And we definitely had this in mind —this idea of being a parallel city and building the world that we wanted with infrastructure and everything. It was kind of an example by which you inspire other people to take things on. And we really thought it’s not going to be only one New York City General Assembly, it’s going to be multiple assemblies, assemblies everywhere, all over New York, internationally and then there’s going to be some kind of confederation — like an interconnected network of assemblies. And it was this exemplary action that was more important, it wasn’t just the park. Actually, at a certain point maintaining the park was an impediment to continuing to do this larger movement work. After the occupation there were various attempts to take over spaces in the cities: There was an attempt to take over Duarte Square and have another camp. There were attempts to take over foreclosed homes in Brooklyn. There were 14 neighborhood assemblies all over New York, that didn’t exist before, there were people doing anti-eviction work. There was an occupied Town Square as some sort of a pop-up occupation with tables and places for people to connect and do workshops, like a temporary social center. All space-related in one form or another. But there was definitely a kind of slow painful death in the middle of 2013. It was when most people were burned out and leaving. There were solidarity protests with Brasil and Turkey that summer and going into the fall. But it was just the turning point globally because that’s when the reaction really took hold, e.g. in Egypt or Saudi-Arabia. And in the winter, there was the Ukraine situation. So, time felt different. All of a sudden it was very slow and fractured and there wasn’t a sense of possibility anymore. I was still going to meetings and doing different things, but it didn’t feel like a continuous movement.
Priscilla: Imagine if you had a weird weekend art project, and you were like: “Let’s see what happens!” And then all of a sudden, in less than three weeks, the Sunday New York Times comes out and it’s in 75 % of the paper — in every single section of the paper they figured out a way to cover it. You can’t predict that! That’s when you present something in the public sphere and everyone falls in love with it, because they all know that it’s the right thing that needs to happen.
CK: Occupy Wall Street was feeling electric, feeling like you were firing on all cylinders, feeling confident and competent in yourself in a way you haven’t felt since you were a child. You feel like you might actually win this thing. You’re aware that you’re living a historical event as you live it. You feel like one of those historical figures at the birth of a new nation hashing out major existential issues, because for once you feel like these questions could actually be pragmatically relevant in a few years.
Occupy Wall Street was loud. Really, really loud. The drumming. The chanting. The general chatter of hundreds of people in a tight space. Yet, it’s rarely distracting. The noise simply becomes a feature of the landscape, noticeable only in its absence once you leave.
Blog: We are the 99 percent
A movie about OWS by Marisa Holmes: All Day All Week
Story of the Adbusters call: The original email that started Occupy Wall Street
Header: Marisa Holmes photographed by Alex Fradkin