Photo: Coco Curranski
SLOGANS WERE EVERYWHERE in the winter of 2011. A person couldn’t turn on the television, get online or, in some cases, go downtown without hearing, “We ARE the 99%”, or “Protect Medicare — NOT Billionaires,” and “Banks got bailed out; we got sold out.” February marked the fifth anniversary of the eviction of the last of the “Occupy” encampments — OccupyDC in Washington DC’s McPherson Square.
But the movement didn’t fizzle out. Although its encampments were broken up in a coordinated effort by federal agencies working through local law enforcement, the Occupy presence has grown and has become the largest threat to the status quo in recent times. There are progressive movements today that had their roots in Occupy. Some even influence the presidential campaign.
1. Rolling Jubilee
Rolling Jubilee buys debt for pennies on the dollar and abolishes the debt instead of collecting it. Although the group cannot buy specific individuals’ debt, it helps liberate debtors at random through a campaign of mutual support. It works by being a transparent counter-option to traditional banking. Banks sell debt for pennies on the dollar in a shadowy and speculative market of debt buys who then try to collect the full amount from debtors. Rolling Jubilee interrupts this by purchasing debt — which keeps it out of collectors’ hands — and then abolishes it. Rolling Jubilee doesn’t participate in the marketplace to make a profit, but rather to help each other out and highlight the predatory lending system which affects communities.
2. Income inequality
Income inequality is a problem that 2016 presidential candidates are grappling with; they can’t afford not to. It is a legislative and political success of the Occupy movement. While economic populism spreads, inequality and the wealth gap are core tenets of the Democratic platform, a gain spurred by OWS.
3. Higher minimum wages
One of OWS’s unrecognized victories is the momentum it established for a higher minimum wage. OWS influenced fast-food workers in New York City to walk off the job. This sparked a movement to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour. 2014 saw many cities and states — including four Republican-dominated ones — vote for higher pay.
4. Strike Debt
An Occupy campaign called Strike Debt helped 2,500 students see their debts eliminated. The loans became available when the banks holding the defaulted loans put the debt up for sale. The group purchased the loans — then forgave them. The funds to acquire the loans came from donations and as of September 2015, the group had wiped out more than $20 million in student debt.
5. Banning the practice of fracking
Occupy reshaped the environmental landscape as it prompted a grassroots movement that pushed cities to bar the controversial drilling process. Even President Obama had to respond to the pressure by mandating new carbon cuts and vetoed a Republican measure to push Keystone. The changes brought by Occupy were not just abstract. Concrete actions sprung from the movement.
6. Occupy the SEC
Occupy the SEC (OSEC) was brought together during the occupation. Its goal is to represent the 99% in the regulatory process. First attracting attention in 2012 when the group submitted a 325-page comment letter on the Volcker Rule, the group continues to be engaged in the regulatory process. In March 2015, OSEC filed a “friend of the court” brief to the Supreme Court in Bank of America, NA v. Caulkett as well as a 33-page comment letter to the Financial Stability Oversight Council discussing asset managers and systemic risk.
7. Alternative banking
Another offshoot of the Occupy movement calls itself the OWS Alternative Banking Group. Established during the occupation of Zuccotti Park, the group published a book titled “Occupy Finance” and distributed copies. FT Alphaville gave the book two thumbs up for policy proposals and the New York Times Dealbook calls it “a guide to the financial system and the events surrounding the financial crisis.” The group continued to meet weekly at Columbia University and started a blog, still ongoing, in the Huffington Post in 2014.
Occu-Evolve coordinates the activities of OWS-related groups and is a “hub of thought, information action, and empowerment.” Occu-Evolve has organized May Day rallies, Black Friday Actions, Occupy Sandy Walks and is involved in actions against the Stop and Frisk Policies of the New York Police Department. Occu-Evolve continues to have open assemblies. For the last two years, the group has organized actions in support of fast-food workers. Currently organizing actions to back Liberato Workers who are fighting for worker rights, Occu-Evolve has organized almost 20 actions for the Black Lives Matter Movement. On Feb. 28, 2016, Occu-Evolve coordinated a global protest in support of #OscarsSoWhite. The movement promotes Democracy/Justice Money out of Politics. In this capacity, the group works with organizations to get money out of politics and end corporate personhood.
9. Occupy Sandy
An organized effort created to assist victims of Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast Occupy Sandy consists of OWS protesters and former non-Occupy volunteers. A US Department of Homeland Security report says the Occupy Sandy movement has worked well. In the months following Hurricane Sandy, Occupy Sandy became the leading humanitarian group for survivors throughout New York City and New Jersey. At its peak, it had more than 60,000 volunteers — four times as many as the American Red Cross. Occupy Sandy continues to care for individuals and homes who were affected by the hurricane. The group is slowly branching out into other parts of the Northeast as well as giving depth to their working structure within the region.
The Occupy movement and Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders’ success in shaping discussions about the economy reminds observers of how OWS did the same. Crony capitalism wasn’t part of the country’s national speech until OWS made it so. Decades of stagnant wages, government bailouts, corporate welfare, and tax loopholes had finally struck a nerve and opened the door for Sanders to embrace them as planks in his campaign platform. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Sanders is surging in the polls. The desire for change — ignited in OWS — is fueling support for Sanders’ campaign.
The impact of the movement continues to grow stronger and clearer. No one in Washington has the answer on how to fix the problems, but everyone — it seems — is clawing for a solution. Finding a solution won’t be easy. Taking power from the ruling class is a challenge. Ending big money’s grip on politics in America is the spiritual core of OWS. Business, as usual, must change because the planet — and people — can’t wait.
Occupy got the diagnosis correct. It charted the course for reform. As millions of Americans learned following Obama’s election, real change doesn’t come in slogans. It comes when the people demand it.