Eight years ago, Wall Street bet against American families and caused the Great Recession, an economic collapse on a scale that hadn’t been seen in 80 years. Voters then elected Barack Obama, a self-proclaimed activist, promising to decrease the power of corporate lobbyists in Washington.
But Obama did not check the influence of Wall Street; he doubled down by bailing them out. Democrats, labor leaders, and so-called progressives provided left cover for Obama by failing to mount a fight-back against the bailouts. While the Democrats declared cutbacks were a necessary act of belt-tightening, unemployment rates surged and inequality widened. Even after the banks and their profits had been saved, average Americans were suffering – the foreclosure crisis hit its peak in 2009.
With no serious resistance from the labor movement to Obama’s blank check bailout, the right-wing Tea Party movement gained traction, feeding on the mass anger of working people. While framed as a grassroots movement, it was conspicuously backed by the Koch brothers, Fox News, and other big business interests.
The global economic crisis wasn’t just opening up fault lines in American politics: in Tunisia and Egypt, explosive mass struggles emerged to topple well-entrenched dictators. The whole world watched as average citizens uploaded video footage to YouTube showing thousands of Egyptians facing down water cannons and teargas canisters in their demand for democratic rights.
When a wave of Tea-Party-backed candidates took office in 2010, working people felt the full impact of their billionaire-approved, conservative, anti-immigrant, anti-worker policies, and many took note of the monumental struggles in the Arab world and Southern Europe.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker sought to break public sector unions and slash public education, and tens of thousands of workers and young people fought back. Wisconsinites showed off “fight like an Egyptian” placards during an occupation of the State House, confirming that the working-class struggle is international.
As anger at the banks and the super-rich reached a boiling point, Adbusters, a left publication, made a clarion call: Make the bankers pay! Occupy Wall Street!
On September 17, 2011, about 1,000 protesters converged on Wall Street. Over the next few days, they would turn nearby Zuccotti Park into a national flashpoint to push back against the power of the super-rich. The anger against the bailouts, about the looming cuts to the federal budget, and about billionaires’ blatant influence over politicians – all were made succinct in the rallying cry “We are the 99%.”
Billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYPD assumed that this would be a protest like any other: put on your riot gear and push these lefties out of the streets. But with even mainstream media increasingly reporting that the lion’s share of financial gains since the 2008 recession had gone to the top 1%, the message of Occupy Wall Street gained resonance across the country.
Cell phone footage of police brutality against peaceful protesters quickly went viral and served to widen support for the movement. Occupy activists marched on Wall Street alongside airline pilots who were fighting for a better contract and postal workers who were facing major cutbacks, showing the potential for Occupy and the labor movement to link up. It didn’t take long for copycat encampments to spring up in cities all over the country.
From coast to coast, Occupiers tried out different ideas: In Boston, massive student marches overtook the city; in Minneapolis, activists confronted the foreclosure crisis with physical blockades of evictions; and in Oakland, a call for a general strike resulted in mass sick-outs by teachers and, with the support of longshore workers, a successful shutdown of the port. But as Occupy spread, the ruling elite carefully planned their next move. In mid-November, there was a coordinated crackdown on all the encampments after mayors of major cities held private conference calls with Obama and Homeland Security.
The enormous support for Occupy reflected a major shift to the left in society. The energy and audacity of the people who participated in Occupy showed a desire to break with decades of cutbacks and attacks by big business. It represented a major turning point in struggle by showing that our power comes from uniting against the 1%. But because of the loss of traditions of struggle, and especially the weakness of the labor movement in the U.S., there were also major weaknesses in the movement.
Consciousness was starting from a historic low following the decades of neoliberal onslaught. Crucially, the movement lacked a clear set of demands, which meant that the intense energy and anger couldn’t be directed at winning concrete victories. Articulating such a program would have helped significantly widen the active base of the movement.
Only a small percentage of those who supported the movement were actively involved. The encampments, which were the main feature of the action, grew isolated from many working people with families and long workweeks. Most importantly, Occupy lacked a plan to challenge the political establishment, which gave space for Democrats to feign sympathy to the movement.
200 Occupy candidates
The urgent need was to take the mass support that existed for challenging inequality and the domination of the 1% and give it political expression. As the 2012 election season began to heat up, Socialist Alternative called for 200 Occupy candidates to run independently of the corporate-controlled parties and represent the young people, union members, activists, and homeowners flocking to the Occupy banner.
While Occupy, unfortunately, did not take up this call, the movement continued to spur bold action against the 1%. Immediately after the big-business charade of the 2012 elections were over, New York was again the epicenter of developments, as over 100 workers walked off their low-wage fast-food jobs demanding a $15 an hour minimum wage.
Occupy’s focus on inequality clearly helped lay the basis for the struggle to raise the minimum wage. And, like Occupy, the idea was taken up across the country as strikes and marches escalated the demand. This movement also sought to shine a light on how billion-dollar companies were profiting from giving their workers such low wages that they were forced to seek out food stamps and housing subsidies – essentially another taxpayer bailout of big business!
A new wave of social struggle
As the fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage gained steam, a struggle broke out in a suburb of St. Louis. Ferguson, a predominantly black and low-income community, with underfunded schools and high rates of unemployment, trigger-happy cops and a history of racial profiling, became a rallying cry as black working-class communities across the country declared: “Black Lives Matter!”
Just as the names Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and Citibank had been an indictment of how Washington’s policies prioritized the 1% over the 99%, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and Renisha McBride became an indictment of a system that systematically murdered black and brown bodies. Two years on, polls show that a majority of young people of all races now support the Black Lives Matter movement.
Occupy helped set the stage for BLM, which has had a number of phases but, if anything, continues to gain strength two years on and in the end may well have a more profound effect on American society than Occupy itself. The Movement for Black Lives coalition of fifty groups recently produced a comprehensive program which, despite weaknesses, represents a political step forward from Occupy.
From Occupy to the political revolution
Bernie Sanders’ call for a political revolution against the billionaire class channeled the emerging class consciousness implicit in Occupy’s “the 99% vs the 1%.” Sanders’ popularity spread rapidly among students, activists, and those long disenchanted with establishment candidates – the same base that supported Occupy. Bernie’s message had wide support in sections of the white working class and increasingly among Latino and Black workers and youth.
He used his platform not only to rail against Wall Street greed and the subservience of establishment candidates, but to call for mass movements in order to accomplish the agenda of the 99%. He also popularized democratic socialism to hundreds of thousands. Unfortunately, Bernie chose to accept the limitations of the corporate Democratic Party, a fatal mistake, but his campaign underscored the very real possibility of running a campaign without corporate cash and on the basis of the politics of Occupy.
Those who participated in and were inspired by Occupy are continuing to organize. The Standing Rock Protectors have cited Occupy as a wellspring of inspiration. Yet, even with the significant victories that grassroots movements have won over the past five years, the contradiction of massive inequality in a country of massive wealth that spurred them on have not been solved.
Mass working class anger will continue to find outlets for struggle and 2017 will be another year of mounting fightback in the United States. With public opinion among young people continuing to shift in favor of socialism, these struggles are likely to take on a political character that seeks to challenge capitalism and its ruthless domination of our lives.
By Emily McArthur