To mark the 10-year anniversary of the history-making Occupy Wall Street protest this year, Adbusters, the anti-consumerist magazine behind the original protest organized a worldwide general strike on September 17th.
On that same date in 2011, about 1,000 protestors set up camp in Zuccotti Park, two blocks north of Wall Street, the center of America’s finance industry. What began as a relatively small protest, widely ridiculed by the media as having no clear purpose or plan, grew into a global movement, spread across 951 cities in 82 countries around the world and lasting for months.
The general strike this year lasted just one day and, rather than a protest, took the form of a strike. Students did not attend class. Employees did not go to work. People did not shop or drive cars — all to call on leaders to declare the climate crisis a Code Red Emergency at the upcoming COP26 conference this November.
As the general strike calls attention to the climate crisis and inequality, let’s look back at the protests 10 years ago. Here’s what the Occupy movement was about and some of the ways it shaped American society.
What Was Occupy Wall Street?
On June 9th, 2011, Adbusters, a popular Canadian anti-consumerism magazine, posted this Tweet:
A month later, on July 13th, they sent an email out to their 90,000+ readers, calling on them to “flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months.”
The inspiration for the movement came from the successful revolution in Egypt earlier that same year which forced the resignation of then-President Hosni Mubarak, whose administration relied on state of emergency laws and police brutality to maintain power.
Despite the overwhelming media coverage calling the movement disorganized and lacking clear demands, the goal of the protest was to bring attention to how broken America’s democracy was and, more specifically, how that brokenness was largely the fault of the financial sector — which had just crashed the entire economy in 2007, devastated the lives of millions of Americans, and walked away from it with few legal consequences and a massive taxpayer-funded bailout.
The demand was simple: get money out of politics and hold the financial sector accountable for the destruction it’s wrought.
By 2011, voters had become disillusioned with then-President Obama, who’d campaigned on a message of hope and “change we can believe in” in 2008 but had since failed to implement banking regulations that would prevent another crisis and hadn’t even jailed any of the bankers responsible for the Great Recession.
Occupy Wall Street Helped American Voters Move Left
While the protestors would be evicted from most encampments by November 15th, the flaws in our democracy that they brought to light would continue to shape the politics of our country in the years to come. The months-long protest and national conversation about the protest unearthed the vast, systemic problems that Americans faced.
The result? American voters have become overwhelmingly and decidedly progressive, supporting a slate of socialist policy ideas previously labeled “too radical.”
80% of American voters are in favor of the Green New Deal, according to a 2018 survey by the Yale Program on Climate Communication, representing 92% of Democratic voters, 88% of Independent voters, and 64% of Republican voters.
A Reuters poll found that 64% of Americans support Medicare for all and nearly all of those who support it think that private health insurance should be abolished and replaced with only a government-run Medicare-for-all system.
A large-scale 2018 survey found that 75% of voters wanted to overturn Citizens United, a 2010 Supreme Court ruling which barred Congress from placing limits on the amount of funding candidates could raise or spend on an election, giving wealthy donors and corporations unlimited power to sway elections and the kinds of policies a candidate goes on to support if elected.
Even more telling, 88% of those in support of restoring Congress’s ability to restrict campaign funding rated the issue important or very important.
In the 2019 CNBC All-America Economic Survey, pollsters found that 84% of Americans support paid maternity leave; 75% support government-funded childcare; 60% want the federal minimum wage to be raised to $15; and 57% are in favor of making state and public colleges tuition-free.
Occupy Wall Street likely doesn’t deserve the full credit for sparking this progressive shift. More likely, it’s the culmination of decades of worsening economic and social conditions. Wages are stagnant while the cost of living and student loan debt skyrockets. Inequalities in access to healthcare, education, and even justice are starker than ever.
It’s the struggle of being an ordinary American in a country that suffers from a glaring lack of accountability for billionaires who don’t pay taxes; for police who kill and abuse the people they’re sworn to protect; for banks that continue to finance the fossil fuels that are causing widespread and relentless hurricanes, floods, fires, droughts, and heat waves that claim the lives of millions each year.
Occupy Wall Street may not have woken Americans up to the reality that something was and is deeply broken here — but it likely helped point the finger at the right target and start a serious conversation about exactly what kinds of policies we the people can and should expect from the government we pay for and (in theory) elect.
It gave us a way to talk about and envision what a better future looks like and showed, once and for all, that the desire for better wages, free healthcare, and free education that Americans once harbored in secret as a pipedream were actually shared desires and, it turns out, very reasonable and practical demands.
If We’re So Progressive Now, Why Doesn’t Our Country Look That Progressive?
I hear you. If that “overwhelming bipartisan support” for progressive policies is real, how come Donald Trump won the election in 2016? How come President Biden is still locking immigrants in detention centers and stopping refugees at our borders? How come the Green New Deal seems to be all but dead in the water? The list of very non-progressive realities about our nation that conflict with this portrait of progressive American voters could go on for days.
Here’s the thing.
Our voting system is deeply flawed. It’s full of lots of unnecessary steps that make voting complicated, tedious, and inconvenient. Between unnecessarily complicated voter registration and voting processes, voter suppression laws, the bizarre insistence on keeping the Electoral College, and partisan districting, American voters are everywhere being curtailed from having the full impact of their vote felt.
Gerrymandered and partisan-drawn districts alone account for a major portion of this gap between progressive voters and their staunchly conservative representatives.
In the 2016 election, for example, analysis of the votes found that Republicans won at least 22 additional seats in the House than would be expected based on voter results because of the way congressional districts were drawn. The party has achieved similar results with each election since the 2010 cycle of redistricting.
While both Democrats and Republicans do it, Republicans do it far more and with more notable success. In Ohio, for example, Republicans won 12 out of 16 House seats, meaning Republicans currently represent 75% of the state’s voters — despite receiving just 58% of the total votes in that state.
The 2021 General Strike and the Climate Crisis Emergency
While the call for action on the climate crisis might sound like a new and different goal from the original protests, the demand is actually closely related.
In 2011, Americans were reeling from a nationwide economic meltdown that left people homeless, unemployed, and scared for their future. That meltdown was caused by a financial sector that used its political influence to loosen regulations that protected the American people and subsidize its own gambling with taxpayer dollars.
In 2021, back-to-back natural disasters and depleting resources are causing death and devastation around the world. This climate crisis has been the making of the finance and energy sectors which have known the consequences of fossil fuels for decades and have not only ignored those consequences but actively used its political influence to dismantle environmental protections and block climate change policies.