Occupy’s Lasting Legacy

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Occupy Wall Street in 2011 was both exhilarating and frustrating. It captured the attention of millions of people around the world, but it seemed to sabotage itself by refusing to advance a program amid a major capitalist crisis. Along with some fellow DSA members and a scattering of other socialists, I was briefly involved in the Demands Working Group, which sought to remedy this perceived shortcoming.

Our efforts were not well received. The official OWS website denounced us. I recall a memorable exchange I had with a fellow Occupier after a general assembly meeting had rejected a number of our proposals. While we were debating the merits of consensus decision-making, I asked them whether they thought New York City could be run like OWS. “Sure,” they replied, “people can achieve any- thing they want if they set their minds to it.” I pointed to the bright red sculpture that looms over the park and asked whether someone could jump to the top of it if they just set their mind to it. “Of course,” they re- plied, “yogis do it all the time.” Then they disappeared into the cold Manhattan night, leaving me baffled and frustrated. 

It is hard to convey to newer DSAers how common this type of thinking was at the time. The need to organize politically, to contest elections, and to formulate demands and programs is taken for granted now. It was not always this way. From the end of the sixties through OWS, the Left was dominated by a kind of de facto anarchism. The common perception was that none of the existing social institutions—including those that remained from earlier periods of popular struggle—could serve as vehicles of progressive change.

The encampments across the country were exciting places, but they were also plagued by problems that eventually made them unviable. In the immediate wake of the evictions, it was easy to conclude that the phenomenon known as Occupy had wasted its time on the world stage. I certainly felt that way, but my judgment of the experience has softened with time. It’s likely that Bernie Sanders’s attacks on the top 1% would not have found such fertile soil if OWS hadn’t already plowed the ideological ground. More practically, OWS provided a crucial occasion for scattered organizers, thinkers, and activists to meet and build relationships. Here in New York, many of the relationships formed in 2011 helped to undergird the explosive growth of our DSA chapter five years later.

We didn’t know it then, but OWS marked the end of the post-sixties malaise and the start of a new period. What- ever its flaws, it cleared the way for everything since. I still cannot leap to the top of the Zuccotti Park sculpture, no matter how hard I try. But we have a stronger movement because of Occupy, and for that I am profoundly grateful.