Now that the encampments are gone, what do we have to show for our movement? As it turns out, quite a bit.
Two years after the original occupation of Zuccotti Park on September 17, many things remain unchanged. Wall Street hedge funds and banks continue to siphon money out of our economy, the 1% has seized still more of our society’s wealth, and our public places have not become permanent festivals of direct democracy.
But transforming the foundations of our society doesn’t happen overnight, so you might have to look a little harder to see the practical, everyday ways that Occupy changed things for the better. Here are six social transformations that Occupy helped make possible:
1. You can refer to the “1%” and have everybody know what you are talking about.
Just a few years ago, merely talking about income inequality in the United States was almost forbidden, like a form of “class warfare.” It didn’t really matter if you were a plumber, a politician, or a pundit: if you said there was too much money concentrated at the top and that policy was to blame, you were not to be listened to.
But at least these days people on all sides of the political spectrum are aware that income inequality is a thing, and that the real concentration of wealth is in the hands of a tiny few. You can see the results through looking at Google’s records on searches for the term “income inequality,” which peaked strongly in late 2011 and never quite went back down.
2. You can fight back in court if you are stopped and frisked in New York City.
Stop and Frisk is a policy in New York City and some other places where the police stop people at random, ask them questions, and pat them down. When Occupy began in September of 2011, New York City police officers stopped and frisked New Yorkers more than 685,000 times, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. Nearly 90 percent of those stopped were black or Latino, and 86 percent were totally innocent. The police department had been slowly expanding the policy over a decade, and justified it by saying that the small number of arrests the program produced made it worth it.
The issue was already notorious among dedicated activists and engaged members of affected communities, while few others had ever heard about it. But Occupy made “Stop and Frisk” into a huge issue, repeatedly holding massive marches specifically about the policy. A lot of the momentum driving that came from neighborhood-based Occupies such as Take Back the Bronx and Occupy Harlem. The resulting coverage in the mainstream media significantly raised the profile of Stop and Frisk.
As word got out, Occupy stepped away and the New York Civil Liberties Union—which had already been organizing around this issue—began focused campaigns against it. This summer, it came to the New York District Court in the case of Floyd v. the City of New York, where judge Shira Sheindlin ruled the policy unconstitutional and called it “a form of racial profiling.” The police union has appealed the decision.
Meanwhile, New York’s City Council passed the Community Safety Act, which bans racial profiling in the NYPD and allows citizens to seek redress if it happens. Mayor Bloomberg attempted to veto the act, saying “There is no need for additional oversight of the NYPD,” but the City Council overrode the veto.
3. You can share things online without being immediately sued.
Just a few months after the heyday of Occupy Wall Street, Internet activists in the United States successfully fought off legislation that would have severely curtailed our ability to post and share online content. The legislation was called the “Stop Online Piracy Act,” or SOPA, and it was defeated (so far) through a remarkable collaboration between Internet companies like Google and Yahoo, nonprofits like Wikipedia and Human Rights Watch, and legislators like Nancy Pelosi and Ron Paul.
But Occupy played a role as well, according to Peter Higgins at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, setting the cultural and technological stage for an uprising against the bill. Higgins says that Occupy taught a whole generation to use social media tools politically. Occupiers got used to using Twitter and Facebook to communicate about politics, he told me, and that ended up being a tool they used again when the SOPA came up (as well as a related bill known as CISPA).
The longstanding alliance between Occupy and Anonymous also helped bring issues related to online freedom to the masses that had previously been talked about mostly among hackers and geeks.
4. Various new media projects.
Tidal is the media organization that came most directly out of Occupy Wall Street. The print and web magazine was originally the project of a working group called “Occupy Theory,” and the magazine’s URL remains occupytheory.org. Tidal continues to publish a gorgeous print magazine that keeps the key issues of Occupy front and center: economic fairness, liberation and joy in everyday life, and the way that solidarity among us—or the lack of it—determines our political fate.
“The DIY spirit of OWS helped my co-founders and I to realize that maybe we don’t need to throw ourselves at the feet of editors to get our work out there,” he wrote, “maybe we can do it without asking permission.”
5. Senator Elizabeth Warren.
If you haven’t seen the video posted below, in which Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts asks the officials responsible for regulating Wall Street when was the last time they actually prosecuted a bank, you are missing out. (They tell her they’ve never done it!)
While Warren’s advocacy for economic fairness makes her a somewhat lonely voice in the Senate, it’s good to know that she’s there. And Occupy helped make that possible: Warren was a relative unknown running an anti-Wall Street platform in a crowded Massachusetts democratic primary. She became a darling of the movement for her fearless willingness to call out bankers’ crimes, which raised her profile significantly. Republicans then sought to use her association with Occupy against her, but she never denied her solidarity with the movement, and ultimately she won.
6. A more deeply networked activist world.
If you spent enough time embroiled in Occupy activities, you almost certainly came away with new friends and acquaintances. And they weren’t just any friends; they were people who you had camped next to on rainy nights, people you’d locked arms with when the police suddenly ordered a march to disperse for no reason, people you’d debated tactics with until you each gave a little and finally reached consensus.
Of all the not-insignificant practical gains listed here, this is probably the most important and the toughest to quantify. There are the brick-and-mortar institutions that came out of friendships forged at Occupy, like Seattle’s Black Coffee, a cooperatively owned café. But beyond that, there are just a whole lot of people who are more likely to know their fellow progressives—both across the street and across the country—than the way it was before.
That creates a better environment for the social change projects we need so badly at this moment, and adds an element of warmth and fun to the often-exhausting project of changing the world for the better.