It was a cold night in late January 2012. The New York subway doors opened and a tall, dark-haired, 30-ish young man dressed entirely in black—leather jacket, jeans, and boots—stepped into the car. Hanging from his backpack were an orange plastic bullhorn and a small drum; tied on top was a thin sleeping mat.
No one knew where the movement was going and what it was going to do next
He was one of the small army of Occupy Wall Streeters who had been driven from the park on November 15—two years ago today. He and some friends had been camping out in a vacant house to prevent the bank from foreclosing on it, he told us, but the winter weather had forced them to leave.
After protesters like him were evicted, no one knew where the movement was going and what it was going to do next. Two years later, though, the answers to those questions are beginning to become clear.
One way to get a handle on what became of the Occupy movement is to track the continuing work of its participants, five of whom we’ve profiled here. All of them were active in Occupy encampments, and now they are focused on channeling the energy and commitment to direct social action that fueled the movement into ensuring that Occupy groups born in the parks will continue to grow and work for lasting change.
Healthcare for the 99%
Just a week or so into the occupation, Laurie Wen and other members of Physicians for a National Health Program joined a solidarity march and then camped out overnight in Zuccotti Park to advocate for single-payer, publicly financed universal health insurance.
“That is still the mission of the group,” she says.
At the group’s speak-outs and teach-ins in parks around the city, doctors and patients talked about what is wrong with the nation’s healthcare system and how to fix it. “The doctors would talk about how painful it is to see their patients suffering because they don’t have enough insurance or have the wrong kind,” Wen says.
During “99 Doctors Give Flu Shots to the 99%,” an event the group held on November 13, 2011, members gave a couple hundred flu shots to people in Zuccotti Park. They also held rallies and marches—some targeting private insurance companies “because their mission is profit, not necessarily to provide care,” Wen says. “And that very much jibes with the central tenet of OWS—corporate greed versus human need.”
Physicians for a National Health Program continues to advocate for putting human needs first, she says. Right now they’re working on a bill that would provide universal single payer healthcare in New York state, and pushing for its passage. “We have majority co-sponsorship in the New York State Assembly—enough legislators to pass the bill if Speaker Sheldon Silver would just bring it to the floor.” The group also supports the proposed “Robin Hood tax” on financial speculation.
“That money could very well fund a lot of human needs,” she notes, “including health care.”
Occupy Our Homes Atlanta
Atlanta’s chapter of Occupy Our Homes came out of conversations in downtown Woodruff Park after Occupy assemblies in Atlanta began in October 2011, according to organizer Tim Franzen. “We were thinking about how to challenge the financial institutions that crashed the economy,” he recalls, “and some of us started talking about [fighting] foreclosures and evictions as ways to do that.”
The first step in that process came through social media. As an experiment, Occupy Homes put out a tweet saying they wanted to put a face on the foreclosure crisis. First to respond was a law enforcement officer facing eviction along with his wife and three kids. The group mobilized quickly—surrounding the house with tents, dropping a banner over it that said “THIS HOME IS OCCUPIED,” and maintaining a presence day and night. After a press conference that got a lot of media attention, other cities caught on to the idea—culminating in a nationwide day of home occupations on December 6. The most active chapters of Occupy Homes at the moment are in Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles, according to Franzen.
The Occupy Homes website contains a petition page that makes it easy to mobilize support for resisting a foreclosure or eviction. “Once they get 100 signatures,” Franzen explains, “an organizer calls them and coaches them through the process of creating a public pressure campaign: how to get press, organize bank protests, negotiate with their lender or landlord.”
The national movement has launched over 350 housing campaigns, he says, and the growing Atlanta group has won over 20 campaigns locally—with many more ongoing. “These are people who need a place to eat and sleep, and if we can fight the financial institutions that treat our communities like ATMs, then it’s a worthwhile fight—even if it’s not the pure revolution we’re hoping for.”
Grace Davie met Rev. Michael Ellick of New York’s Judson Memorial Church—one of the founders of Occupy Faith—at a spring awakening in Central Park in 2012. “He said they were talking about creating a Truth Commission on the 2008 financial crisis,” she recalls. She was impressed, and after she joined the group “one of the first things I did was go to Albany with a number of faith leaders to call for a moral budget.”
She also got very involved in the ongoing planning for the Truth Commission project, which is partly modeled on the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated the killing of anti-Ku Klux Klan protesters in 1979. Davies says she feels a similar process could be applied to the 2008 financial collapse.
“So many people were harmed by the foreclosure crisis—and about 14 million Americans are still facing foreclosure.” She says the group is hoping to create a space—like in Zuccotti—where people can come together to talk about what happened to them, explore the root causes, learn from one another, and come up with a plan of action.
Moral Mondays is another idea the group has been interested in. She says the event started in North Carolina, organized by faith leaders and their allies. “Every Monday people go to the state house and engage in civil disobedience to protest cuts to the social service budget,” Davie says. “We need new ways for people to meet and become involved. And it may be that Moral Mondays could provide that.”
Right now she senses a new energy in Occupy Faith, and new actions on the horizon. “When the social safety net is shredded,” she notes, “it’s the churches and faith communities that see the effects and are asked to help.” Communities of faith also have a special language to express the ideas of love and nonviolence she sees at the heart of Occupy. “I feel the actions I went to were motivated not by hatred or anger, but by love. And if people misunderstood or ridiculed them, that was something [we] were ready to take.”
Cathy O’Neil had a Ph.D. from Harvard and taught mathematics at Barnard before a segue into finance in 2007 took her to a hedge fund where she worked with former Harvard University president and World Bank chief economist Larry Summers.
But he and others “clearly didn’t understand the shadow banking system—credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations and mortgage-backed securities … the whole thing to do with the housing bubble,” she says. From her position at the center of the crisis, she began to suspect that these supposedly brilliant experts had no idea what they were doing.
The AIG card from “52 Shades of Greed.” Art by Steve Simpson.
O’Neill also saw the “too-big-to-fail banks” had little incentive to change their way of doing business “because the taxpayers were backing them up in case they got into trouble.” So about a month after Occupy started, she helped to organize an Alternative Banking group to try to improve the financial system. They’ve been meeting weekly ever since, dedicated to “agitating for reform” by “educating the public about the current dysfunction.” The group’s first big project was a deck of cards—”52 Shades of Greed”—to celebrate their one-year anniversary. The idea started when a member of the Alternative Banking group brought in a deck of cards printed by the United States military that showed the most-wanted members of Saddam Hussein’s government. “Somebody said ‘We should do this for bankers,'” O’Neill explains.
In September 2013 they launched their second major project, publishing their handbook Occupy Finance in hard copies and on the web. It details how and why our financial system is failing, and proposes strategies for giving the 99 percent a representative voice in the political and regulatory processes. The group has started a book club to publicize it, and members are thinking about launching a public access TV show or organizing a conference or speaker series.
Meanwhile, they continue to work on what they see as key financial reform issues. “Right now we’re focusing on too-big-to-fail and too-big-to-jail as separate but related problems. We’re especially targeting HSBC this year—they were responsible for outrageous money laundering for drug lords and terrorists but only got slapped on the wrist.”
London-born Nick Mirzoeff studied history at Oxford and at the University of Warwick, where he got involved with British cultural studies—”understanding contemporary culture from a political perspective.” After moving to the U.S. he started teaching at New York University, and in his 2011 book The Right to Look observed that “we face a choice between continuing to authorize authority or democratizing democracy.”
So when Occupy started, he says, “I really felt like I couldn’t not be involved in it.” He attended a General Assembly, connected with the “Education and Empowerment” group, which was “very diverse and eclectic,” he recalls, “and lots of things came out of that intersection.”
One of them was the concept that became Occupy Theory. “The idea was basically that a lot of people are writing about the movement but we needed to have a place where we ourselves could have that discussion.”
The group’s primary project is the free magazine Tidal (www.tidalmag.org), which is collectively edited, produced and, often, written. “There is no radical action without radical thought,” Mirzoeff emphasizes, and Tidal is meant as a space for discussing movement-generated theory and practice. “Tidal understands that we are engaged in the early stages of an anti-capitalist struggle,” declares the magazine’s website. “Our immediately role is to…transform existing power structures.”
The first issue was distributed just after Occupy’s eviction from Zuccotti, and there have been three issues since. Themes have included the role and future of Occupy, the big 2012 New York May Day event, the Strike Debt campaign, and cities—”what we call learning from Detroit, both what happened to it and the visionary organizing that emerged because of all that.” In addition to the online edition, hard copies are distributed at bookstores throughout New York City, in several other U.S. cities, and in Tunis.
Next step for Occupy Theory: extending their educational outreach by creating “living/learning/organizing centers” worldwide. The centers will offer free classes and serve as places where people can come together to reflect on their political work. If they succeed, the centers should also strengthen the sense of connection that Mirzoeff believes the magazine has created. “It’s all about exploring what a different kind of democracy might be like. But mainly writing the Tidal is about trust, and the word used a lot around Occupy is love—not romantic love, not religious love, but a sort of bonding. And that continues.”
And the young man on the subway that cold January night? Has he found another way to carry the OWS energy forward? If he reports in, we’ll let you know.