(MintPress) — One year ago, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement captured the nation’s attention as a small group of protesters answered the call to confront economic injustice by physically occupying the financial center of the U.S. — Wall Street. The encampment quickly swelled, bringing together many Americans from the “99 percent” outraged by corporate excesses, rampant Wall Street speculation and government austerity.
Critics charge that the movement remains nebulous, without a clear direction or message after authorities evicted Occupy encampments last year. Media coverage has, at times, lambasted protesters, denouncing Occupy as the work of radicals and hippies.
However, the cacophony of disparate messages will remain relevant as the economy continues to falter and Congress cuts funding to public education and critical social programs, forcing the middle class to shoulder the burden of post-2008 economic recovery.
In the leadup to the anniversary of Sept. 17, “S17” organizing committee has put out a call to action, requesting occupiers to return to New York City for “three days of education, celebration and resistance to economic injustice with permitted convergences and assemblies, concerts and mass civil disobedience.”
Thousands are expected to descend upon lower Manhattan for the action as local Occupy groups will gather in similar demonstrations of solidarity across major U.S. cities. The one-year anniversary will be an important moment to prove that OWS is still a relevant movement with the staying power to influence policy on a national scale.
Zach Stein, a participant in Bay area Occupy rallies, believes that this is a big moment for the movement to regain lost momentum, commenting in a recent MintPress interview, “They had a good message but they didn’t back it up with strong ideas about how to change things. One of the main successes was bringing the ‘99 percent’ and the ‘1 percent’ dichotomy into the American vernacular.”
The Occupy National Gathering held in Philadelphia, Penn. June 30-July 4 attracted approximately 200 people, a smaller turnout than organizers were expecting. A different unaffiliated group called the “99 Percent Declaration” organized the Continental Congress 2.0, believing that forming a unified set of demands would help activists enter mainstream political activity.
While many have embraced the tactics of the 99 Percent Declaration, a much larger number of ardent Occupiers reject the assertion that their activism take the form of a structured political party.
Regardless of tactics, there have also been times when Occupy has been front and center on a national stage, mobilizing huge numbers of people for rallies. Approximately 10,000 people marched to protest the NATO summit in Chicago earlier this summer. While many represented other anti-globalization groups, Occupy groups from across the U.S. attended as well.
Organizers are hoping that the one-year anniversary will bring similar numbers to New York to revitalize the movement. According to the event website:
“Last September 17th, as part of a wave of global protest, people from across the country raced to the heart of New York’s financial district to occupy Wall Street. In the face of big banks foreclosing on our homes, killing our jobs, buying up our democracy, and turning our environment into just another toxic asset, you showed up, and we became the 99%.”
The broad outpouring of public action, supported by a bevy of faith based groups, labor unions and anti-war coalitions serves to show that the movement, while struggling to effectively organize the mass protests of last fall, remains true to the now ubiquitous slogan, “We are the 99 percent.”
Impact of Occupy and the localization of action
While the messages calling for reform are far from unified, the root cause of OWS and similar movements remains largely unaddressed. The 2008 financial crisis led to a loss of trillions of dollars in personal wealth and the elimination of thousands of jobs. The foreclosure crisis continues to affect communities across America as more than 10 million homes have been foreclosed upon in the past decade, many of them the result of predatory lending associated with the “sub-prime mortgage” debacle.
Additionally, student debt surpassed more than $1 trillion earlier this summer, surpassing all other debts owed by Americans.
William Black, an expert in white collar crime, believes fraud is one of the root causes of the 2008 financial collapse, saying in a recent interview, “Fraud hyper-inflated the bubble that caused the economic crisis in the United States. So the people who control the bank loot it, they get rich, the bank fails, but the rich people walk away from the failure of the bank.”
The Justice Department has yet to arrest any of the major players in 2008 financial fraud.
While the root cause is clear, the resulting social and economic problems are manifold, affecting a broad swath of the American middle class. Occupy Wall Street attempted to give voice to the anguish and frustration felt by millions of Americans suffering from the 2008 economic crisis, the worst decline since the Great Depression.
It is for this reason that while the central sounding board, New York City’s Zuccotti Park, became the de-facto headquarters of the movement, groups mobilized to address a bevy of local issues.
In Minnesota, an Occupy Homes group emerged in an attempt to tackle the foreclosure crisis afflicting the twin cities area. A handful of activists adopted non-violent methods of resistance by occupying foreclosed houses and helping homeowners to regain control of their homes.
The group has successfully ended foreclosure actions on six homes while drawing attention to the plight of homeowners subject to predatory lending practices nationwide.
The “Move Our Money” campaign led by the Occupy movement became another method for individuals, organizations and cities to divest from big banks, prompting local support for fiscally responsible lending institutions. Thus far, the action has resulted in over $296 million to be moved from Bank of America, Chase and other major banks.
Part of the New Bottom Line consumer advocacy group, the Move our Money campaign “is a new and growing movement fueled by a coalition of community organizations, congregations, and individuals working together to challenge established big bank interests on behalf of struggling and middle-class communities.”
One of the crowning achievements of the group occurred earlier this summer when the city of Buffalo, N.Y. decided to move $45 million from JPMorgan Chase to a local bank. Since then, a number of faith based groups and community organizations have joined the burgeoning movement to bank locally. The Move Our Money campaign has set a goal to move $1 billion out of big banks.
In a separate action, hundreds of occupiers helped support a legal action to strike down the indefinite detention clause of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The lawsuit successfully challenged the provision of the bill allowing the government to arbitrarily detain U.S. citizens found “substantially supporting” a terrorist organization, at home or abroad.
Judge Katherine Forrest stated in her ruling last week that “First Amendment rights have already been harmed and will be harmed by the prospect of (the law) being enforced. The public has a strong and undoubted interest in the clear preservation of First and Fifth Amendment rights.”
Journalists Chris Hedges, Naomi Wolff and professor Noam Chomsky, among others, challenged the NDAA claiming it violates citizens’ rights to due process and free speech. A New York federal court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, declaring the NDAA detention clause illegal.
These actions, among many others, took place in the span of a year with the help of local Occupy groups. The seemingly spontaneous generation of local occupations addressing a patchwork of local and national issues has become part and parcel of the broad Occupy message of economic justice and regulatory reform.
While there have been some successes, many within the movement believe that the lack of a national “party platform” will hinder the ability of participants to affect changes in national economic policy.
Going forward: A new labor party?
The reliance upon a leaderless, horizontal consensus building model has kept the messages broad, without a concrete set of demands. However, some elements within the movement have seen the strengthening alliance between students and union workers as evidence of an emerging labor party, similar to European political parties confronting government austerity and EU mandated reforms.
The common issues facing workers, students and the unemployed has helped to build cross-national ties among similar activist groups. At the Student Power Convergence 2012, students from the U.S., Canada and Chile met to discuss their respective student movements, while sharing strategies for resisting cuts to university budgets and increased tuition.
Students from across Quebec, continue to oppose proposed government increases to tuition. Although the provincial government has tried to crack down on the protests through the implementation of emergency laws, large demonstrations at times surpassing 200,000 people bring students and sympathetic Quebecois together in mass opposition to increases in tuition.
Similarly, labor in the U.S. has been buoyed by the nascent Occupy movement and the strength of public sector workers lashing out against government austerity. Shortly after 26,000 Chicago teachers went on strike this week for better pay and an improvement in classroom conditions, all unions in Greece announced that they would leave work for 24 hours on Sept. 26 to protest cuts to wages, benefits and pensions.
However, with the one-year anniversary, participants should be cognizant of their tactics, because a protest without demands, many contend, is merely symbolic.
“Don’t fall in love with yourselves. We have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then?” said Slovenian professor and social commentator Slavoj Zizek when he addressed the Zuccotti Park encampment October 2011.
Zach Stein, a participant at Bay area rallies, believes that the best days of the movement may have passed, saying in a recent MintPress interview, “I think it had its heyday, it had its day in the sun and it didn’t change when it needed to. Occupy allowed more radical members to take hold of the movement.”
However, others believe that the movement is successful and remains relevant in the broad national discourse on matters of economic justice. Marina Sitrin, author of the “Occupy Language” pamphlet, wrote in a Huffington Post op-ed:
“When people begin to organize all over the country they are doing so with assemblies, struggling against hierarchy, thinking about the question of leadership and power, and trying to create ways where all can be leaders. When people are organizing today it might not always be with the word Occupy, but the spirit of assemblies, direct action, and creating power together is there for sure. The mark of Occupy is there for sure.”
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