An Overview of the U.S. Occupy (Wall Street) Movement

I have been asked to write an article that provides for a European audience an overview of the Occupy Movement in the U.S. – no small task, and one I take on with a deep sense of humility, for this is a broad, somewhat amorphous, and still emerging and developing social phenomenon.

By Andrew Winnick

The Origins of the U.S. Occupy Movement:
Ironically, the U. S. Occupy Wall Street (often referred to as OWS) movement has its origins abroad.  The events of the Arab Spring and the Spanish Indignados movement, which began in Madrid in May 2011, had begun to spur discussions among progressives in the U.S. as to why similar demonstrations had not begun in the U.S.  We observed the widespread economic distress that had followed the financial crisis of December 2007 and was continuing for millions of Americans despite what was formally called a recovery (which technically began in July 2009) and we wondered why so little outrage.  We understood that since the 1970’s, the American middle class had been under increasing economic pressure, with the distribution of income growing steadily more inequitable, especially since the 1980s. Academics had written books and hundreds of articles about this, but with little political or public effect. Then, on July 13, 2011, the Vancouver, Canada-based, anti-consumerism Adbusters Media Foundation created the Twitter hash tag #OCCUPYWALLSTREET and via Twitter and emails sent out the proposal to begin a demonstration in New York City on September 17th (U.S. Constitution Day) to express outrage over “the growing disparity in wealth and the absence of legal repercussions for the bankers behind the recent global financial crisis.”  Via emails and social networks, with the hackers group Anonymous jumping in to help, the idea spread quickly. And on the day suggested, in Zuccotti Park near Wall Street in New Your City, the Occupy Wall Street movement began its encampment and demonstrations. (This site was chosen because it was a privately owned public space and not subject to the city’s curfew policy for public parks.) Immediately, regular marches from the park to Wall Street began, with demonstrations in front of various financial institutions. While there was some media attention, it was initially quite muted and limited.

Nevertheless, what was amazing was that within weeks, similar Occupy demonstrations and encampments sprang up in more than 800 cities in the U.S. spurred on by communications via the Internet. Virtually instantaneously, the tent became Occupy’s symbolic form of free speech, the symbol of their determination to stay in place until change occurred.  By January 2012, only four months from its beginning, there were (and in many cases still are) Occupy efforts in more than 1400 U.S. cities, including in at least 59 California cities.  Also, within a month or two of the initial OWS effort in September 2011, there were Occupy demonstrations in at least 135 cities in 35 European nations, including 17 cities in England, plus others in 32 cities in 16 Latin American countries and others in 14 Asian nations.  By mid-January 2012, the Occupy movement identified efforts in 2,773 communities across the world.  This had truly become a global phenomenon.

One does need to acknowledge immediately, that the OWS movement cannot and does not “claim credit” for most of the European efforts.  Clearly, as noted, some of these (Spain in particular) preceded and inspired OWS.  The austerity programs initiated by the British government clearly provoked many demonstrations in the UK long before OWS emerged.  Nevertheless, many of the demonstrations in Europe since September 2011 took on the title and tactics of the OWS movement, chose to label themselves with the “Occupy” designation, and adopted the “We are the 99%” slogan.

The Phrase “We are the 99%”
The awareness of the growing disparity in income and wealth between the richest 1% of Americans and the other 99% certainly did not gain notoriety only with the Occupy movement in the fall of 2011. Many books and articles had been written about this for years. The issue was raised as far back as 1987 in a book by Professor Batra of SMU (The Great Depression of 1990) that was # 1 on the New York Times best seller list, and in a book I published in 1989, entitled Toward Two Societies: The Changing Distributions of Income and Wealth in the U.S. In the 2000 Presidential elections, Al Gore accused George W Bush of supporting “the wealthiest 1%.” There was a documentary film entitled The One Percent by Jamie Johnson in 2006.  In May 2011, Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel prize-winning economist, published the article “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%” in Vanity Fair magazine. But then, in August 2011, an “anonymous 28-year-old New York activist name ‘Chris’” launched a Tumblr blog with the title “We are the 99%” and this instantly became the political rallying cry of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The facts validating the concern over the growing gap between the 1% and the 99% are well known.  According to official U.S. government data, the richest 1% held a peak proportion of U.S. income of 23.9% in 1928.  This proportion then fell rather steadily to only 9.1% by 1980.  But then, starting with the Reagan Administration, the proportion increased again to reach 23.5% in 2007, before pulling back a bit with the financial crisis. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office, a respected non-partisan agency, reported that from 1979 to 2007, the income of the top 1% increased by 275% while that of the poorest 20% increased by only 18%.  During the same time period, the average pre-tax income of the bottom 90% actually decreased by $900, while that of the top 1% increased by more than $700,000. The after-tax proportions were even more striking as the income tax rates paid by the richest Americans fell steadily from 1980 to the present.  In fact, Obama is the first U.S. President in more than 30 years to propose raising the taxes on the very rich.  According to the most recent Commerce Department figures, the share of income produced in the U.S. that is flowing to workers as salary and wages has been steadily shrinking since the mid-1970s and is now the lowest since record-keeping began in 1947.

Moreover, both public and private agency studies (including work by the OECD) have confirmed that inter-generational income mobility has slowed greatly in the U.S. and now lags that in many European nations.  That is, it is growing less likely that someone born into one of the lower income categories will move into a higher one as a result of their own efforts and circumstances.   In addition, recent opinion polls in the U.S. have revealed that for the first time ever, the current generation does not expect its children to lead a better life. So, not only has the extent of inequality (which many feel is really inequity) gotten much worse, the hopes of the American people that “things will get better” for their children have dimmed.  In fact, in a January 2012 study by Charles Murray (Coming Apart: The State of White America: 1960-2010), it is argued that, even setting aside racial and ethnic differences, a new, mammoth cultural and economic gap has emerged since the 1960’s between the top 20% and the bottom 30% that is unlike anything that has occurred in the U.S. before. This study confirms and expands upon a trend I wrote about in 1989, reflected in the title of my book (mentioned above) Toward Two Societies

The point is that the facts have been well documented for a long time, but it was not until the Occupy Wall Street movement took up the issue and chose, brilliantly in my view, to identify themselves with the slogan “We are the 99%,” that the issue really captured the public’s attention. By choosing this slogan, OWS avoided the divisiveness of pitting the poor and working classes against the middle class and avoided ethnic and gender divisions. They chose a unifying slogan that allowed the majority of Americans to feel that the OWS movement was speaking on their behalf.

But who are the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators? What are the goals of this movement?  What had it achieved in only its first four months of existence (mid-September 2011 to mid-January 2012, as this is being written)?  And what role will this movement likely play in the future?

Who are the Occupy Movement Demonstrators?
From my own observations, and from many articles about and videos and pictures of the demonstrators, a pretty clear picture begins to emerge.  To understand who is participating, it is important to note that while large groups of people have been involved in the actual encampments in cities across the U.S., the demonstrators regularly leave their encampments to march in protest to key sites: city halls, large banks and other financial institutions, the U.S. Congress, etc.  For example, demonstrations occurred on January 17 (the four-month anniversary) at each of the eleven Federal Reserve System regional bank headquarters.  These marches attract many who cannot or will not engage in the encampments themselves, but who nevertheless clearly want to demonstrate their identification with the Occupy Movement, and with the slogan, “We are the 99%.”  (It should be noted that in other cities, the movement takes on the name of the local site: Occupy L.A., Occupy Cleveland, Occupy (Washington) D.C., etc.

So who are these demonstrators, many of whom are also staying at the encampments for various lengths of time?  While they are primarily young, mid-teens to early 30s, in fact observations and pictures show many with gray hair, including many who are clearly quite old.  In interviews with these various demonstrators, one soon hears the voices and sees the faces of:

  • young recent college graduates who cannot find work in their professions, or often cannot find any work at all
  • college graduates who are overwhelmed by student loans that they cannot repay because they are either unemployed or earn too little to make the payments and survive.
  • high school graduates who cannot afford to go to college and who cannot find work
  • retirees who have lost their life savings and cannot survive on Social Security, and who often have lost their homes in the housing crisis
  • working people who lost their jobs and are unemployed, or who have found work, but at less than half what they had earned before, and as a result may have lost their homes
  • couples who are working at such low wages that even with two full-time salaries they cannot earn much more than the poverty level of income, and again may have lost their homes
  • veterans of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars who cannot find work
  • school teachers, all with Bachelor’s degrees, many with Master’s degrees, who have been laid off as the money to support education has been cut back drastically because of budget crises at the state and local levels
  • other public employees who have similarly been laid off, and again many of these people have either lost their homes or are about to
  • construction workers who have in many cases not worked since the housing industry collapsed some four years ago.  Why build new houses when millions are on sale as foreclosures at a fraction of the price they originally sold for?
  • workers who built or installed carpets, household appliances, roofing materials, or plumbing fixtures, but who are unemployed since there is no demand for these products or services since new housing construction is at the lowest level since World War II
  • auto and steel workers who are either unemployed, or who have been re-hired but at wages about half what they earned before being laid off – and who now cannot afford the payments on their homes
  • occasionally, small business owners who have suffered during this economic crisis and whose once reliable ties to banking institutions (for small business loans) have collapsed, even as those banks (which caused the crisis) were bailed out by the government
  • a surprisingly large number of people who have not been particularly impacted by the financial crisis, but who are very upset by the growing inequity in the distribution of income and of political power
  • and finally, in many cities, officials and rank and file labor movement members who recognize in the Occupy Movement allies in the labor movement’s own on-going struggle for the interests of working people.

The list goes on and on describing a broad cross-section of the American public, across all ethnic lines, and from both big city and small town America.  These encampments and demonstrations truly do encompass much of the 99% of the American people.  In fact, this broad participation in the Occupy movement is a testament to the accuracy and relevance of the “We are the 99%” slogan,” and at the same time is proof of its widespread appeal.

An interesting sidelight of this phenomenon is to watch the reaction of U.S. politicians. Most of those in the U.S. Senate and many in the U.S. House of Representatives are clearly in the 1%, many in the top 0.1%.
Some react by objecting to the slogan as un-American class warfare; some simply ignore their own income level and say they support the 99%; others, including Obama, concede that they are in the 1% (in his case due to the royalties from his books), but make it clear that they support the analysis and goals of the Occupy movement and the 99%.  But since September 2011, none of them can any longer ignore this divide.

Who are the 1%, and Is The More Relevant Issue Those in the Top 0.1% of the Income Distribution?
When one hears the term “the richest 1%,” the inclination is to immediately think of millionaires, even billionaires, in terms of wealth and/or income.  But that is not factually correct. To be in the top 1% of income recipients in the U.S. in 2009 took less than $350,000 in income.  (It is estimated that at the moment, early 2012, it takes a bit more, $380,000, to qualify.) On the other hand, while that was the minimum in 2009, the average income of the 1.4 million households in this group then was $960,000; that is, just under the $1 million mark. This threshold changes every year, primarily due to changes in the stock, bond and various secondary markets where these folks hold much of their wealth and from which they derive much of their income.  But what is even more interesting is who these 1%ers are. Financial professionals (the bankers, hedge fund managers, stock brokers, etc.) make up only about 14% of this group, while executives, managers and supervisors outside the financial industry make up more than twice this proportion, 31%.  Interestingly, medical professionals make up another 16%, while lawyers constitute about 8%. That leaves 31% to be found scattered among the rest of the occupational categories. 

It turns out that the really influential group is those in the top 0.1%, not ‘merely’ in the top 1%. These 150,000 households earn a minimum of around $1.6 million per year; while a yet wealthier group, the top 0.01%, have minimum incomes of $5.5 million and account for about 11,000 households.  It is really the latter who can afford to give campaign contributions of millions of dollars, often tens of millions, emboldened by recent Supreme Court decisions that for the first time allow for unlimited contributions. This is happening in the Republican Presidential primary campaign now underway.

What are the Goals of the Occupy Movement?
One keeps hearing the questions: But what do they really want? What are their goals?  What do they expect the 1% to do? What do they really think the political establishment and political institutions can or should do? How can they expect to achieve much of anything if they do not present a clear list of well thought-out demands? Given the breadth, depth and diversity of people who identify with the Occupy movement these are not easy questions to answer, but in fact the answers are there and are really quite discernible.

First, in looking for the Occupy movement’s goals or demands, the issue is where to look, to whom to talk, what to read.  The point is that a foundational element of the Occupy movement is its structure, in particular its decision-making structure.  A key element of the movement is its commitment to grassroots, participatory democracy and its sincere and deep-seated aversion to the identification of visible leaders or spokespersons. At each of the Occupy encampments, the only decision making-body is the General Assembly, whose meeting time and place is very publicly announced in advance.  This group consists of whoever shows up.  Everyone has equal rights to speak, and having any one individual dominate a discussion is not tolerated. Civility of discourse is a priority and to this end they have developed a series of silent hand gestures that are used when seeking to speak (these run from a simple request to talk, to a desire to directly respond to a previous point, to seek to clarify a point, or to raise a point of order) or when expressing one’s views on an issue (including hand signals for agreement, simply not agreeing, strongly opposing, or being willing to try to block an action).  Use of these hand signals is a way to prevent shouting and yelling out and to encourage civil discourse, while still being focused on reaching a consensus when possible, or at least a strong majority, on a given decision. 

Media and other observers who come to an encampment or to a meeting of its General Assembly are encouraged to talk to whomever is there: typically no one is designated as “the spokesperson” and certainly not as “the leader.” (There is sometimes a “media group” that is designated to interact with reporters on a particular day.) Nevertheless, each group makes clear decisions as to the site of a demonstration, what key slogans to emphasize, what points need to be made to those encountered along the way or at the demonstration site. While some strong personalities can often be identified at a given site at a given time, and these may be sought out by the media for their comments, the movement has been remarkably able to prevent the emergence of visible leadership per se. Many in the movement have indicated that this is a conscious reflection of the desire to maintain their broad base and broad appeal and to live the ideal of being “we the people” in the democratic sense in which that term was used in the U.S. Constitution.

Moving from the issue of process within the movement to an examination of its goals, one of the movement’s influential members (Robert Jensen, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin) has stated:
“There’s one question that pundits and politicians keep posing to the Occupy gatherings around the country: What are your demands?  I have a suggestion for a response: We demand that you stop demanding a list of demands.  The demand for demands is an attempt to shoehorn the Occupy gatherings into conventional politics, to force the energy of these gatherings into a form that people in power recognize, so that they can roll out strategies to divert, co-opt, buy off, or – if those tactics fail – squash any challenge to business as usual.”
Instead, Jensen urges the movement to focus on sharpening its understanding that the problems that stem from the concentration of wealth and power in the U.S. have to be understood as being systemic in nature, and not simply the result of some group of corrupt or greedy corporate executives or politicians. His overarching point is that issuing demands while the current political-economic system remains in place is a useless exercise. Even more useless is to demand a change in personnel within the system, while leaving the system intact, since others who would be subject to the same political-economic pressures and values would quickly replace them.

More broadly, at every Occupy site one hears the clear message that the overarching systemic change that must be wrought is to severely limit the influence of the rich and powerful and of major financial and other corporations on American society, on its government at all levels, on its cultural, educational, political, journalistic and other institutions. There is a growing awareness throughout the U.S. that a series of recent Supreme Court decisions (the best known of which is the Citizens United decision in January 2010) have established that money is an expression of free speech, that corporations and the rich can use unlimited amounts of their own money to influence elections, and that it is permissible to keep secret the sources of massive contributions of money used to support electoral campaigns. The Occupy movement around the country has often joined voices with many others to call for a constitutional amendment to overturn these decisions. (For example, official resolutions to this effect have been passed by city councils in New York and Los Angeles and even by states such as Montana -- and are pending in many other jurisdictions.)

Balancing the emphasis on severely limiting the influence of the rich is the clearly and often expressed desire to re-focus society’s institutions on addressing the needs of the 99%. Particular emphasis is put on the need to end, indeed to reverse the terrible housing foreclosure process that has driven literally millions of American families out of their homes in the last 3 or 4 years. At virtually every Occupy demonstration there are calls to force the banks to renegotiate people’s home mortgages to reflect the drop in housing prices (of 40% or more since 2008) and to reduce the interest rates (to the current level of under 4%).

But beyond these specific issues, the Occupy movement reflects a growing awareness that the political economic system in the U.S. is fundamentally broken (as seems true in many other nations as well), and that the recent financial crisis (of December 2007 through 2009 in the U.S. – and on-going in Europe) is something much more than just another in a long list of periodic crises and recessions.  Rather one hears more understanding that the shift toward a growing middle class and a shrinking gap between rich and poor in the U.S. which had occurred from 1945 to the mid-1970’s has been reversed since then. Instead, the gap has been widening for more than 35 years, during which time the wealthiest elements in American society have steadily undermined the sense that there is an effective, functioning democracy. So the concerns of the Occupy movement go far beyond calling for a list of specific, marginal changes within the current structure of American society, rather what is being sought is a major restructuring.

Some (Jensen, Bayer) have suggested that those structural changes which the Occupy movement seeks can be grouped into three topic areas: economics, empire, and ecology. Under economics, it is argued that it is not merely the distributions of income and wealth that need to change, but rather it is the underlying capitalist economic structure that has generated those distributions, and will always tend to do so, that needs to be changed. It is not that economic markets and private property are not a viable form of organization; Occupy is not a socialist movement. Rather, the Occupy movement argues that those markets must be closely and continuously monitored and regulated in the interests of the 99%. Occupy contends that taxes and government spending must support the needs of the 99%, especially in the areas of housing (particularly forcing the renegotiation of many mortgages to end many of the foreclosures and to provide housing for the homeless), education (including colleges), healthcare, the improvement of the public infrastructure, and also support for small businesses which employ the majority of workers and whose owners are also part of the 99%.  We can see how difficult waging this argument will be as the topic begins to be debated in the current Presidential campaign. The Republican party takes as its central focus attacking President Obama for the steps he has taken to pursue some modest regulation of the financial sector, stronger enforcement of environmental and product safely regulations, and slightly higher taxes on the rich and corporations.  He is accused of waging “un-American class warfare,” being “anti-American and anti-capitalist,” and of wanting to move America to be more like the “failed socialist nations of Europe.”

The focus on empire is revealed in the many signs and comments that state the need for the U.S. to withdraw from its empire and use the money for “nation building” at home, to stop viewing itself as the self-appointed policeman of the world, and to resist the claim of “American exceptionalism” in foreign policy generally.  On the ecology / environmental front, the Occupy demonstrators consistently support moving to green energy sources, environmentally safe production technologies and products, and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emission and slow climate change.

For an example of the articulation of many of these, dare we say “demands,” see the Declaration of the Occupy D.C. group which has been encamped in Washington, D.C. since October 1, 2011 and which adopted its statement on November 30, 2011. (http://occupydc.org/community/declaration/)

The Tactics of the Occupy Movement and Its Successes To-date
With a few rare exceptions, the Occupy movement has been committed to non-violent protest and demonstration, and to doing so in a legal manner.  In most circumstances, the groups have not chosen the route of civil disobedience.  There have been a few exceptions when the authorities sought to close encampments and move people out of them – but even in those circumstances, most Occupy groups and participants chose to leave peacefully and did not seek to be arrested.  Oakland, California has sometimes been an exception to this pattern, in part due to harsh police tactics and the presence of some provocateurs.  In every encampment and at every demonstration, all members of the public are invited to join in, visit, talk and even participate in the General Assemblies.  The primary tactic, other than that of “occupying” public space (and occasionally foreclosed housing properties), has been communication via open face-to-face discussions, the Internet, signs and marches.

The success of this movement has been remarkable.  Until its beginning in September 2011, the focus of most political discussions in the U.S. was on reducing government expenditures and the size of government and on fiscal austerity generally, with only a few, lonely voices calling for higher taxes on the rich and corporations.  But even these modest calls attracted little support from Democrats and were rarely discussed in the media.  Now that has changed dramatically as much of the nation is focusing on the concerns articulated by the Occupy movement.  The change in the tone and content of political dialogue in the U.S. has been astonishing. One example was the sudden plethora of media articles, often in depth, about the growing inequality in income and wealth and about the influence of the rich and powerful on the political process. Even within the Republican party there has been an impact. Many doubt that Gingrich would have attacked Romney so strongly about his wealth (which is more than that of the last 10 Presidents combined) had it not been for the Occupy movement.  As a leader of the Communication Workers of America union, Robert Master, said:  “In three months, this movement succeeded in shifting political discourse more than labor had been able to accomplish with years of lobbying and electoral campaigns.” (New York Times, Feb.12, 2012)

At the same time, many of the encampments that initially were often supported by their local city governments, soon became unacceptable to those same agencies.  While all the cities said that they supported the “right to demonstrate,” they were unwilling to allow “camping,” that is, sleeping and eating in tents over an extended period. Some acknowledged that the tents were a form of symbolic speech, others refused to accept that premise. (In part, each encampment became a focal point for the local homeless to stay at, which was welcomed by the Occupy people, but resisted by city officials, who claimed deteriorating health and safety conditions.) But the Occupy movements in virtually all of these cities have stayed intact in various forms and continue to mount regular demonstrations, putting down roots in city after city, sometimes working out of donated office space and meeting in churches and other public spaces. In early February, Occupy activists, mainly from New York, undertook a five-week bus tour to forge personal links, exchange ideas and hold training sessions with like-minded activists.

The Future of the Occupy Movement
What impact the Occupy movement will ultimately have on the American public, on the various agencies of government, and on the Congressional and Presidential election campaigns now underway remains to be seen. But it is quite clear that this movement seems determined to endure, and most observers expect it to expand anew in the spring and summer of 2012. The New York Times recently (2/12/12) reported that “Far from dissipating, groups around the country say they are preparing for a new phase of larger marches and strikes this spring that they hope will rebuild momentum and cast an even brighter glare on inequality and corporate greed.” Building on a proposal that originated in Portland, Oregon, groups in 34 cities have reportedly agreed to “a day of nonviolent direct action on Feb 29th against corporations working against the public interest.” Plans are currently underway for large demonstrations across the nation on May 1st . This includes a possible call for something in the nature of a general strike where the 99% show their power by withholding their labor for a day.  However, so far, the labor movement, which would be crucial to the success of such a strike, seems cool to the suggestions. Nevertheless, as the labor leader quoted above said:  “We have different roles – as labor we are much more embedded in mainstream politics. But we understand that without the pressure of more radical direct-action tactics, the debate in this country won’t change substantially.” The Occupy Movement remains alive and well, and we shall all simply have to wait to see what its future will be.