The financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession, which killed the euphoria around Barack Obama victory over John McCain, produced two competing narratives. On the left there was the familiar idea that corporate America had too much power, that in the wake of the repeal of Glass-Steagall the big investment banks had gambled heavily on the real estate market and lost, making it inevitable that they would have to be bailed out by the federal government. On the right, on Fox News and among the various libertarian subcultures that had grown up in the wake of Ron Paul’s run for the Republican nomination in 2008, they blamed the government. The Clinton administration, they argued, had issued too many government backed loans to people unable or unwilling to pay them back.
From 2008 to 2011, in spite of the fact that the Democrats controlled all three branches of government, the far right bullied the media and the Obama administration into submission. Any time a small group of “Tea Party” protesters decided to disrupt a congressional town hall on healthcare or a not too subtly racist conspiracy theorist shouted “where’s the birth certificate” it received extensive, and at least from my perspective, largely favorable media coverage. The left just seemed to be in shock, blindsided not only by Barack Obama’s stacking his cabinet with corporate neoliberals like Tim Geithner and Rahm Emmanuel, but by the fact that everybody in the Republican Party and on cable news seemed to consider him a secret Muslim and a socialist born in Kenya. Arguing with your racist Boomer uncle at a family reunion felt a bit like being part of Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch. The more you pointed out how Obama had protected anybody and everybody in the financial industry from prosecution or how he had continued George Bush’s “war on terror,” the more your racist Boomer uncle seemed to believe that he was a secret Bolshevik being manipulated from behind the scenes by Bill Ayres and the ghost of Saul Alinsky. “Where’s the birth certificate!”
On September 17 2011, a small group of protesters met near the Wall Street Bull on lower Broadway, a few blocks away from the New York Stock Exchange and the Federal Reserve. Neither the NYPD nor the few tourists in the area — it was a Saturday — seemed to think very much of it, another small left wing protest that would go nowhere, yawn. After being turned away from the New York Stock Exchange and Chase Plaza, the protesters finally set up shop in Zuccotti Park, hardly a park at all but a dreary slab of concrete near the old World Trade Center. For the next week, the small encampment lingered on, largely kept alive by the fact that some people on the traditional New York left were willing to use it as a base to protest the impending execution of Troy Davis. Remember him?
Nevertheless, all through that first week, momentum was building, mainly through the daily breakaway marches that would emerge from Zuccotti Park, do a loop around the Federal Reserve and One Chase Plaza and continue up Broadway to Union Square. There was no ideological consistency. Some of the protesters carried signs with Karl Marx, hammers and sickles. Others carried signs that said “End the Fed,” but everything seemed to be a refreshing change of pace from the authoritarian, top down anti war protests of the Bush years, where you showed up at a permitted rally, held up a sign for an hour or two while listening to a long list of speakers drone on and on, and then went home feeling vaguely demoralized and useless. As small as those early break away marches were, you felt that they were your marches, not some shadowy organization’s, that you were in control, that you were finally at long last speaking for yourself, not just parroting someone else’s canned talking points.
On September 25, a week after the original occupiers set up in Zuccotti Park, the NYPD “kettled” a group of protesters near Union Square, trapped them behind barricades and started making arrests. A high ranking NYPD inspector named Anthony Bologna who decided that he wasn’t going to leave the dirty work to some 23-year-old recruit, took out a can of pepper spray and assaulted a group of young women at close range. The video, which can still be seen here, “went viral,” and suddenly Occupy Wall Street came to symbolize an American working class under attack by corporate America and by the government. Just a quick note, “Bologna” is a major city in Italy that is not only the site of the first university in Europe, but also a traditional stronghold of the Italian Communist Party. Perhaps, like in an Assassins Creed game, “Tony Baloney’s” intellectual and left wing ancestors were using their moronic descendent to spark an anarchist revolution in the United State of America.
In any event, the NYPD, who had initially taken little notice of the protests, now considered Occupy Wall Street to be their enemy. Their patience was wearing thin, so thin that on October 1, after a huge crowd showed up in Zuccotti Park after an ultimately false rumor that Radiohead was going to play a free outdoor concert, the police trapped another large breakaway march on the Brooklyn Bridge and started arresting everybody in site. Their intention, of course, was to isolate the leaders, trump up serious charges on anybody they considered to be a threat, and slap the rest of us with a summons and the hassle of a court date. But that’s now how it played in the media. Occupy Wall Street, it seemed, had stormed the Brooklyn Bridge, as iconic a structure in its own way as the Bastille, and the revolution had at long last arrived. Suddenly Occupy Wall Street, like the Tea Party in 2009 and 2010, had captured the zeitgeist. It was the place to be. Everybody in the media wanted a piece of it. Every photographer in New York wanted a photo. Every radio talk show host wanted an interview. It didn’t matter that the typical Occupier didn’t know exactly why he was protesting, that the ideological spectrum of the movement as a whole ran all the way from communist to to fascist, or that the shadowy “leadership” refused to issue any demands, a large group of protesters had taken over the financial district in New York City, had “stormed Wall Street.”
The NYPD at that moment had to know had badly it had fucked up. It had birthed a left wing movement that spawned copycat occupations in every major city and on almost every college campus in America. For a brief moment, Occupy Wall Street had become so popular that on October 14, when New York City’s plutocratic Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to clear out Zuccotti Park on the pretext that the occupation was a health hazard, so many people showed up over night that the NYPD decided not even to make any arrests, and the encampment would survive for another month. But of course, as I should have realized at the time, the outcome was inevitable. The beautiful late September, early October weather wasn’t going to last forever. What’s more, the NYPD and NYC tabloids like the New York Post and the Daily News, which had never been sympathetic to the movement, began to coordinate their efforts to smear and discredit the occupiers in what eventually amounted to a low level counterinsurgency.
It’s important to remember that the NYPD and the city government initially tolerated the occupation of Zuccotti Park because the entire area was at the time essentially a construction site, the “Oculus” (the huge upscale shopping mall at the site of the old World Trade Center) and the Battery Park Subway station that would anchor the hypergentrification of downtown Manhattan, still works in progress. But it was still valuable real estate and local merchants and property owners were already howling for the movement’s destruction.
While it took a few weeks, the writing was on the wall, Occupy’s 15 minutes of fame were up. The tabloids and local cable news outlets got to work in earnest, effectively painting Zuccotti Park as a filthy homeless encampment full of rapists and criminals so dangerous unless you were a heavily armed police officer you would be better off avoiding the area altogether. The New York Post published so many stories about rapes at Occupy Wall Street it began to feel like Berlin in 1945. Needless to say, the “me too” movement was still far off, and nobody in 2011 had any suspicion that the American ruling class was full of rapists, perverts and pedophiles like Andrew Cuomo, Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein, that your daughter was in far more danger of being sexually assaulted at Goldman Sachs than she was in Zuccotti Park. The American people are, if anything, fickle and easily propagandized. By November 15, when the NYPD finally cleared out Zuccotti Park and surrounded it with barricades, few people even bothered to take notice.
Social democrats and liberals, it seems, have decided that Occupy Wall Street was ultimately a success, that it “pushed the Democrats left” and created the conditions that would eventually give rise to the Bernie Sanders campaign and Black Lives Matter. Was it? I could offer up an opinion of my own but as we all know opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one. The rich have more money now than they ever had. The 99% and the 1% are more like the 99.999999% and the .0000001%. Medicare for All, while briefly a serious topic of debate, has all but disappeared from the national conversation. In March of 2020, all it took to destroy the Sanders campaign was one phone call from Barack Obama (the same man who probably coordinated police attacks on Occupy encampments in the Fall of 2011). But there’s no question that in some important ways the culture has changed. Looking at this video of Michael Moore getting booed at the Oscars is quite frankly shocking. Even the Hollywood liberal elites used to love George W. Bush. Protests against the police, even during the Covid pandemic, are so common they’ve essentially become part of American life. Unlike Barak Obama, who refused to shut down the American torture colony at Guantanamo Bay and allowed Hillary Clinton to destroy Libya and Syria, the moldy old right wing Democrat Joe Biden defied the military industrial media complex and pulled American troops out of Afghanistan. While Occupy’s demands — what were they again? — were never achieved, the political style Occupy invented on September 17th, 2011, has become mainstream, the way Americans protest. Occupy’s medium has become the message.