The Revolution That Got Away: Occupy Wall Street Four Years On

Sometime ago a small publication appeared, a pamphlet, apparently written for the needs of those who undertake cultural trips through Europe – of whatever use such a brochure could possibly be. It offered a concise catalogue of artistic festivals during this particular summer and the autumn as well. The reason for such a scheme is obvious: it permits the cultural traveller to divide his time and to seek out that which he thinks will be of interest to him – in short, he can plan his trip according to the same principle which lies behind the organization of these festivals: they are all embraced and controlled by a single comprehensive organization. Inherent in the idea of the festival, however, and of the artistic festival as well, no matter how secularized and weakened it might be, is the claim to something unique, to the emphatic event which is not fungible. Festivals are to be celebrated as they come; they are not to be organized only from the perspective of avoiding overlapping. Administrative reason which takes control of them and rationalizes them banishes festivity from them.

-Theodor Adorno, “Culture and Administration”


Calling out around the world
Are you ready for a brand new beat…


What exactly was Occupy Wall Street?

It’s been almost four years.

The culture at large seem to have forgotten it insofar as they knew it and those who knew it have repressed it insofar as they couldn’t forget it. The Wikipedia page captures nothing of what it actually was. The excited buildup, the community, the seeming realization of the left in the framework of a Millhauser story-the ones about buildings and amusement parks that grow to almost encompass the entirety of the world til a jealous God burns them to the ground out of spite-everything antithetical to formal histories, lost in the encyclopedia’s protocol whole Earth but present in Zuccotti Park, a town that popped up overnight, a place I could call home that just as soon disappeared while I was sleeping…

The only adequate form to convey what it was might be a love letter, a love letter written by someone young enough to know better than to know better. In writing my memoir of my time there, I stumbled into composing such a letter; my mind kept circling around the park and the women I’d briefly dated whose retrospects were still clouded by magic. For a 22 year old given to the matryoshkas of memory they were the park in miniature and the park was them, in the shared briefness of my association and in the possibilities they suggested by the enormity of the negative space of time before and after their presence, wide open fields where an over-active imagination can skip and curse. I eventually realized my mental relationship to these women was unhealthy and reading those portions of the book now brings on cringes. But the specter of Zuccotti remains and a better metaphor has yet to come to me.

It called out for love letters and all we got were journalists. Many of the journalists refused to go especially far into the park for fear the residents were “dirty.” Many non-journalists refused to explore the park because the people were “dirty.”  At the time this annoyed me. Now, having been out in the world a bit more and having had many unfortunate dealings with these kinds of journalists, I wish I could smell enough like garlic to ward them off without the attendant collateral damage.

The past might be tainted by the indiscretions of the self-proclaimed leadership; the Justin Wedes’, the shadowy self-seriousness of the Media and Accounting work groups that eventually tried to seal themselves off as an administration over the gloriously ordered chaos of the park itself by renting office space, who took a lot of the money and never accounted for how it was spent. But these things don’t seem to bother me much; perhaps I can separate the opportunists from the other aspects of the park because the opportunists generally acted like pompous dicks when I had to deal with them at the Info Table. It was a movement that denied leaders and claims to leadership, that defined itself from the bottom up; the petty actions of an avant-party too chickenshit to call themselves such doesn’t seem especially relevant to the larger story.

The experience of the park itself was America more than America ever realized itself as America; everyone co-existed with common cause but not under the umbrella of a false cordiality or superstructure of capitalism; there were numerous arguments but that’s because it was a place where you could actually argue with people. It was frequently compared to the Tea Party because the possibility of something not contrived by the moneyed was a threat to anyone too afraid to imagine there could be something that could work on anything besides the rationalizations on which they’d constructed their banal existences.

It took me a while to readjust to the outside world afterward. Society outside the park ran on carefully polite presentations of mutual disinterest between people who’d probably rather not have anything to do with each other, who denigrate as “not realistic” anything that stands in the way of their uninspired grabs for small amounts of power and the comfort of ignorance.

Ye shall know them by their call: “Get a job you fucking hippies!”

I’d try to describe what it was like to be there but it was like describing a UFO landing. Except because it was on the news so much, the listener was put in the uncomfortable position of not being able to write me off immediately as being crazy. In the park boomersplaining, wherein the generation that sold us out tried to explain how to protest, was present but it was recognized for the cynical garbage that it was and is. On the outside, the boomers have (some of) the money; the boomers remembered their failed revolution as simply an excitement of their youth to be written off with long condescending monologues reinforced to the level of unconscious conspiracy. They’d never wanted more from the world than tiny versions of themselves to reassure them on major holidays they weren’t going to die alone. Like they took the nonsensical Keynesian reassurances that “the market will come back around”, they took the privilege of the unprecedented economic opportunity of the time and place they were born as false legitimation of the rightness of their imparted “wisdom.”

This may seem like an unfair generalization. Not all boomers boomersplain, but then not all men mansplain either.

The promise of a world devoid of this bullshit, where the vapid cruelty of a narcissistic populace could be confronted head on by anyone willing to sit in a park and display the will to resist in whatever means they could muster or contribute, difficult and contentious as it sometimes was, paranoid as it often got, as unkempt and sprawling as it ended up, despite the eventual heartbreak of a brutal and coordinated crackdown by the powers that be that was cheered on by the blowhards, was the beauty of Occupy Wall Street.

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9 comments

  1. wish I coulda seen it myself in person.

    1. It was pretty great. Keep an eye peeled, it’ll return. It won’t be called Occupy Wall Street the next time, that’s the only detail I’m sure of.

  2. I said it to many people at the time: Occupy should have given that $500,000 to a member of the National Lawyers Guild (or members) to divvy up and place in their attorney trust accounts for safekeeping. Don’t know why nobody took me up on my offer. Attorney trust accounts are subject to strict rules, and if you siphon off client funds, you’ll lose your license and go to jail. The money would have safe and would have been accounted for, and would have funded a lot more activity in 2012 and 2013.

  3. What really sold me on Occupy Wall Street was seeing people quote the leaders of the French Revolution as if they were still relevant in 2011.

    I also mark the beginning of Occupy Wall Street’s decline as the day the handmade signs on the north side of the park were moved to make way for those silk screened T-shirts.

    From handmade signs to branded T-shirts, there’s no better description of the careerist takeover of Zuccotti Park.

  4. I’d wager that the number of boomers like me, who were working their assess off bringing money, food, clothing, material aid, and organizing skills to assist, as well as documentary coverage (like my friend Ann from the NLG), and so many more things, far outweighed the few hardcore left assholes who stood at the Northeast corner every night waving the banner for the next proletarian revolution that they were going to insist on leading their way.

    So were the number of boomer massage therapists, doctors, chefs, and other people offering skills and conducting workshops and coming down to visit, which included dozens of boomer celebrities such as Susan Sarandon, Cornel West, Chris Hedges, Angela Davis, and so many others. I think that taking gratuitous potshots in this essay instead of focusing on the many wonderful things that boomers did (including the ceremony of the elders) does Occupy a great disservice and feeds into the ageist narrative that lumps all boomers together as irrelevant.

    When Joan Basez gave her speech about passing the torch, she echoed my sentiments entirely, and a sump of Occupy that is missing this is in a very big way, missing the entire point.

    And as far as boomers selling out our revolution, we managed to do a pretty damn good job of permanently tweaking and changing the culture. Gay rights, women’s rights, the environmental movement, non-intervention in foreign countries,daycare, democratized and non-toxic medicine, consciousness-raising groups, and so much more, are because of us. And a lot of us like me have ended up alone (mostly women) because of the enormous personal cost it took to struggle to change gender roles and power dynamics in relationships and to have a life of one’s own that was not breeder-centric.

    1. I’m writing this from the vantage point of having dealt with whoever showed up to the info table. I may have a bias toward whoever seeks out a guy at a table with a “The Doctor is In, 5 cents” sign tacked to his head. Boomersplaining is all around though, as much as mansplaining. Language creates collateral damage, and I think you’re associating yourself far too much with the abstract boomer label, but then maybe that’s gen ysplaining.

      1. 1.) There are good Boomers
        2.) There are good Millennials
        3.) There may even be good Gen-Xers

        The issue isn’t individuals. It’s the slow decline in American opportunity from the 1960s to the 2010s. That was done under the watch of the Boomers, and to a lesser extent, Gen-Xers but not the Millennials.

        I’m surprised people born in the 80s and 90s haven’t strung all of us up yet.

        I will accept full responsibility for my generation (people born in the 1960s). Most of us were conformist, apolitical, greedy wankers. We rarely, if ever, protested in college. It’s partly our fault a university education is so far out of reach for most people these days.

        Had I been born in 1995 instead of 1965, I never would have gone to college. I would have ended up with only a high-school diploma, and with the choice of either the military or working as an “on call” retail clerk at Walmart.

  5. […] his excellent essay The Revolution that Got Away, Daniel Levine looks back at Occupy Wall Street and asks a question. “What was it?” The […]

  6. […] here. I already wrote a retrospective article for the site a couple months ago, which you can read here, but I do have some comments on this […]

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