To fully realize the affects of things like movements, protests, even elections, one must wait.
The responsibility to evaluate the impact of an event of that nature lies in the hands of the historians — to try to evaluate them in the moment, while you are sure the affects are still evolving, is difficult, imprecise, and often incomplete. Writing this, four years after the first tents were pitched in Zuccotti Park, it’s obvious that the impact of Occupy Wall Street is incomplete. In fact, it’s fair to argue that its impact is still in its beginning stages. While many viewed the Occupy Wall Street movement as leaderless and lacking a clear path to action, the coming together of all different kinds of people brought attention and light to an issue that affects, well, 99% of us, and it brought the extreme problem of income inequality into the national conversation. The protests and occupations, no matter how they were erected or maintained, sparked debate and forced politicians and pundits to start talking about this monstrous issue. Their actions helped the nation realize that everyone is in this together — and even branded us with the unifying vocabulary to describe it all: the 99% vs the 1%.
Occupy Wall Street’s inception was in an unlikely place: Canada. In mid July of 2011, the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters began the idea for the occupation to be on September 17th, American’s Constitution Day, calling for “20,000 people to flood lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months” (Adbusters). Soon after, other activist groups began working together to make the occupation a reality. A month before the occupation began, a blog was launched entitled We Are the 99%, and it “encouraged contributors to post complaints about how the 99 percent have been set against each other, fighting over the crumbs the 1 percent leaves behind” (WeAreThe99%). Beginning on September 17th, 2011, 1,000 protesters began to occupy Zuccotti Park and participate in the first march on Wall Street, as well as a protest in front of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Within only a few days, the “Occupy movement spread to Chicago, where protesters marched from the Willis Tower to the Federal Reserve Bank” (Greene). Chicago, Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, Madison, Washington DC and Boston all saw, at some point, occupations, protests, or both. President Obama finally spoke out on October 6th, saying “I think it expresses the frustrations the American people feel, that we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, huge collateral damage all throughout the country … and yet you’re still seeing some of the same folks who acted irresponsibly trying to fight efforts to crack down on the abusive practices that got us into this in the first place.” On October 15th, the Global Day of Action, thousands marched from lower Manhattan to Times Square, as well as in various cities within Asia, Europe, and Australia. The main occupation of Zuccotti Park lasted from September 17th through November 15th, when NYPD forcibly evicted everyone from the park. For the following year, smaller protests and demonstrations still popped up throughout the country, even though the main occupation was over. Adbuster’s call to action had manifested itself beyond it’s wildest dreams, and above all else it began forcing politicians to talk about wealth in America.
The main time line of the occupation and the demonstrations nationwide happened to coincide with the 2012 election cycle, and Republican candidates were quick to opine about its merits. While anchors often had them on to talk about the protests and the occupation itself, it inevitably lead to glimpses into their beliefs, and began a conversation about their opinions on wealth inequality. Most notably, and representative of a majority of the Republican candidates, Herman Cain said “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!” This same sentiment was all over the Fox News Network, with their most prominent host, Bill O’Reilly saying: “Most of these people don’t know the big picture. They’re just out there protesting whatever beef they may have. The commonality here is that the protesters despise capitalism, believing it unfair,” and then went on to call them dangerous, violent, and loons, two of which could be proved definitively not true as Occupy was known for being surprisingly civil. Prominent figures from the left voiced support, with then Speaker Pelosi saying “I support the message to the establishment…change has to happen. We cannot continue like this. People are angry.” President Bill Clinton voiced the most enthusiastic support yet in an interview with Forbes magazine: “I think what they’re doing is great,” he said. “Occupy Wall Street has done more in the short time they’ve been out there than I’ve been able to do in more than the last eleven years trying to draw attention to some of the same problems we have to address.” While he did believe that their lack of a platform was a downfall, he believes that it ignited a national conversation. While these representatives of each political party seem starkly different, mainstream America seem to lack the same contrast.
In a piece for Slate, Jordan Weissmann dissects the results of two studies from 2011 completed by Dan Ariely from Duke University and Michael Norton from Harvard — its results will both bring you hope and despair. In the 1st study, “participants were shown three unlabeled pie charts meant to depict possible wealth distributions: one that was totally equal; one based on Sweden’s income distribution, which is highly egalitarian; and one based on the U.S. wealth distribution, which is wildly skewed toward the rich.” The subjects were then asked where they would like to live if they would be assigned a spot on that economic ladder randomly, leaving their fate to chance but within the economy of their choice. Surprisingly, with American’s general abhorrence to anything related to the word socialism, “92 percent of Americans opted for Sweden’s pie chart over the United States,” with Sweden being one of the most socialist countries in the world. Weismann goes on to reference that 45% of Republicans specifically believe we need to address income inequality, even if there are partisan divides on how to do it.
The second study that Weismann refers to helps to explain why Americans find themselves overwhelmingly choosing the economy that depicts a country drastically more egalitarian, though not equal, than America itself. He asked participants to make two estimation graphs, one of how wealth would be distributed in an ideal world, and one of how they believe it actually is distributed in American today. “Americans had little idea how concentrated wealth truly was. Subjects estimated that the top 20 percent of U.S. households owned about 59 percent of the country’s net worth, whereas in the real world, they owned about 84 percent of it. In their own private utopia, subjects said that the top quintile would claim just 32 percent of the wealth.”
In a short You-Tube documentary, a group entitled “Politizane” helped everyone understand this study better. In it, the narrator puts it this way: “The top 1% has more of the country’s wealth than 9 out of 10 American’s believe the entire top 20% should have. The ideal is as far removed from our perception of reality, as the actual distribution is from what we think exists in this country.” While how unaware we are is startling, there is also hope within this. People are agreeing, “people from all walks of life—Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor, all over the world—have a large degree of consensus in their ideals: Everyone’s ideals are more equal than the way they think things are” (Ariely). This leads to two conclusions: One being that, as a whole, Americans are completely clueless as to how bad it really is. Secondly, we unanimously agree that there is too much inequality, even if we disagree on when there will be enough and how to go about getting more of it.
The results of those studies make it easier to believe this: 59% of Americans said they strongly supported Occupy Wall Street. Another statistic shows only 27% of Americans in opposition to a 5% surtax on those earning $1 million or more per year (Cooper). With an overwhelming majority of people supporting Occupy Wall Street’s cries, and agreeing that the path to resolution should begin with increased taxes on the wealthy, the next logical step would be politicians speaking out, attempting to be the voice for this issue that was finally being articulated. And while there isn’t definitive proof, I’d bet that there is a correlation between the protesters and supporters of Occupy to the millions of Democrats flocking to the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who, just a few years ago, would have seemed like unelectable radicals.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, elected in 2012, quickly rose to fame in the wake of the economic recession and of Occupy Wall Street. As the conversations began about the 2016 race, more and more people began bringing up her name. A group entitled “Run Warren Run” has been attempting to draft her into the race due to her position as “the anointed leader of the most progressive portion of her party” (Kruse). In a piece about the draft efforts, Noam Scheiber of the New Republic spoke about this, saying that there are “a majority of Democratic voters, who are angrier, more disaffected, and altogether more populist than they’ve been in years. They are more attuned to income inequality than before the Obama presidency and more supportive of Social Security and Medicare. They’ve grown fonder of regulation and more skeptical of big business.” He goes on to say that voters under 30, who identify as overwhelmingly Democratic, “are increasingly hostile to Wall Street and believe that the government should rein it in.” Based on participation in Occupy Wall Street following the financial crash, and even more importantly, the media coverage of it, people were starting to learn about and comprehend the hurdles we are faced with, and their reactions are unmistakably progressive. In response to the question of just how progressive, realize that voters under 30 now “view socialism more acceptable than capitalism” (Shreiber). Cue Bernie Sanders.
Even more than Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders is the answer to the cries of the core Occupy crowd. A self-proclaimed democratic socialist, Sanders has even gained the support of Occupy itself, with a headline on their website stating “Why Bernie Sanders is the Only Populist Candidate for President.” In Sander’s announcement speech, he asked a few rhetorical questions that are perfectly emblematic of why he is the embodiment of the spirit of Occupy:
- “How does it happen that despite a huge increase in technology and productivity, Americans are working longer hours for lower wages?”
- “Income for the median family is about $5,000 less than that same family earned in 1999. How does that happen? Why?”
- “The top 14 people in America, between 2013 and 2015, saw a $157 billion increase in their wealth. That’s more wealth in a two-year period than what the bottom 40 percent of American people have. Is this what the people want, or is this economy rigged completely in favor of the wealthy?”
When he announced, the beltway press did not give him a chance at winning the nomination — they didn’t even really view him as a valid candidate. Rachel Maddow of MSNBC interviewed Sanders and disagrees with the beltway, not believing that he’ll necessarily win, but that he is doing extremely well for a candidate that other news stations aren’t giving a chance. He’s drawing huge crowds and raising more money in the first few days than any candidate on the Republican side, all without the aid of super PACs or billionaires. Huffington Post even wrote a piece entitled “Dear America: Meet Bernie Sanders. Properly, This Time,” after his unpredictably successful launch. Sanders is undoubtedly the voice of the occupiers and supporters alike, and “by critiquing [Hillary Clinton] from the left, he could pull her in his direction in order to satisfy primary voters,” and lead to an overall more progressive Democratic campaign, even if he isn’t the nominee (Waldman).
It will never be known whether or not his candidacy, or the surge in popularity for Warren, would have been possible if not for Occupy, but the correlation does exist, and there was undoubtedly a shift in the climate of opinion regarding wealth inequality in America during and after the occupation. It is unlikely that the affects of Occupy Wall Street will ever be fully known, but coupled with the economic recession, there is little doubt that this will be historically marked as a turning point in how we view what is truly the modern issue of our time. While racism and sexism still fully exist in today’s society, this distinction of social class and the lack of social mobility due to inequality, is truly the overarching issue of our time.
When I began delving deeper into the subject of American inequality and the systemic roots of what caused the financial crash, I was in awe. I couldn’t believe everyone had let it get this bad, couldn’t believe we let this all happen. My heart ached for the epitome of the 99%: the person that worked 3 jobs and still found themselves living in squalor, and my blood boiled at the thought that all the financial titans in charge then are not now behind bars. My mind failed to comprehend how we can allow Congress to be bought and sold like a precious commodity, and how we can spend trillions of dollars on a war based on lies, and welcome our troops back from that same war and allow them to become homeless — flinching at every sound because we can’t even provide proper health care. It makes me want to scream at the top of my lungs. It is often said, in regards to a number of things, that if thing A happens, the result will be “marching in the streets.” It is an overused phrase that often really means that the country will collectively sigh and shake it’s proverbial head. But Occupy was different. It was started by a group of people who didn’t know what else to do other than to, literally, start marching in the streets. So I can’t help but smile when people say “it’s wasn’t organized,” or “there was no agenda or leader.” I smile because that meant it was real, it means it was real people fighting for real change in the only way they knew how. It wasn’t a well oiled, fully funded, properly marketed, non-profit political organization — it was Americans that were mad as hell.
By Jorian Lewke, for her class thesis “determining where the private life ends and the political life begins”and posted on her blog here.
- I go to seek a great perhaps…
- Unity: when we are bound together by one overarching thing, everything else falls away.