Remember Occupy Wall Street?

Remember Occupy Wall Street? What about Occupy London? Or any of the other Occupy protests that sprung up across 92 cities in 85 countries? The global Occupy movement that brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets around the world to protest corporate manipulation of governments seems to have become just another curious historical aberration. So what happened to Occupy and why are we not talking about it anymore?

Image courtesy of Shankbone_49, © 2011, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Shankbone_49, © 2011, some rights reserved.

2011: Year of Protest

Occupy began in a year rife with protests. Along with Occupy, 2011 witnessed the start of the Arab Spring, the Spanish Indiginados, and the European austerity riots. Perhaps we’ve forgotten about Occupy because it seemed like the least meaningful of all these movements and because it did not seem to achieve anything comparable. In Egypt the protesters actually succeeded in overthrowing a government and in Syria they are still fighting a civil war. In Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen the people were protesting something much more tangible and calling for obvious change. They wanted democracy and an end to oppressive authoritarian governments. Occupy, on the other hand, did not have a manifesto or make demands. Occupy amalgamated protesters from all types of social movements into one until it became unclear what exactly Occupy wanted and who the Occupiers were. To many it seemed like a confused and unguided assembly of vagrants. The media industry was quick to write off Occupy as a movement of the lazy and homeless, as something un-American and not in the spirit of liberal values.

The Arab Spring also gave us the most salient image of protest from 2011: that of mass occupation in Tahrir Square. The Tahrir Square movement brought about a new conception of occupation; occupation not as something that the government does with its military, but as a public reclamation of public space from an oppressive regime. This new conception of occupation gave rise to the new discourse of political and civil disobedience that would become the Occupy movement. In the West we were perhaps unable to make the connection between the two movements and their occupations. The Arab spring was foreign; it was about people in the East overthrowing dictators. When we saw pictures of the protesters occupying Zuccotti park compared with pictures of occupiers in Tahrir square, we thought they must be different phenomena because, as one scholar commented, “we are perhaps unused to the idea of the vote-wielding citizen as ‘weak’, as ‘dispossessed’, and as having to call upon similar tactics to those at the global periphery”. Occupy failed to have a lasting impression because it was not perceived as being a legitimate protest.

What casual observers failed to note was that Occupy and the Arab Spring were born out of the same sentiment: a belief in the eyes of the occupiers that the government had failed to do its job and had therefore lost the right to represent the people. It was not just another old protest calling for an end to something like global warming. The Occupy movement could perhaps therefore more accurately be described and understood as the American and European Spring. Where the Arab Spring succeeded in bringing about a change in governments, the Occupy movement succeeded in starting a new discourse on corporate influence in politics and increasing public awareness of inequality in America.

That said, the foremost reason for why Occupy ‘failed’ (if a movement that did not have goals can be said to fail) and why we are not talking about it anymore is because Occupy did not conform to the existing discourse on social movements. It did not fit a ready-made category and it could not be aligned with any political party; in fact it publicly refused to align itself with any party. People therefore had a hard time categorizing and understanding Occupy and this frustrated them. Because it was difficult to understand it was ignored and soon dropped by the media as people lost interest. But instead of ignoring a social phenomenon as extensive as Occupy simply because we can’t understand it, we should take this opportunity to come up with new categories and definitions for Occupy in order to understand it. Scholars are indeed beginning to investigate Occupy and take it seriously where the public has not.

Though no longer as visible, Occupy did not end per se, rather the occupy sites were closed. Occupy Wall Street was shut down just over a year ago on November 15th, 2011 when police forcefully evicted the occupation at Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan. The longest lasting major global Occupation, Occupy Central (located in a plaza beneath the HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong’s Central District), ended in September of this year when it too was forcefully cleared by court bailiffs. It is safe to assume therefore that had they not been criminalized, the protests would still be going on. So one can’t really say that Occupy is over. We can expect a return of Occupy, as the problems that it identified have not gone away. Just as the Egyptians have once again taken to the streets to protest Morsi’s power grab, we should expect to see Occupiers once again occupying public spaces to protest perceived injustice if there is another financial crises or scandal uncovered in the banking industry.

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