Occupy Turns One, A News Analysis

An Occupy protester in a Guy Fawkes mask mimiks police Sept. 17 during Occupy Wall Street’s one-year anniversary in downtown San Francisco.
PHOTO BY ALEX EMSLIE

By Alex Emslie and Danielle Steffenhagen
SF State Xpress

After a group of protesters began a social movement in New York City one year ago, decrying systemic inequality in the U.S., the group Occupy Wall Street West flooded downtown San Francisco Sept. 17 to celebrate Occupy’s birthday and demonstrate that the movement is not over.

“No, Occupy isn’t dead,” said Occupy SF Action Council Member Magick Altman. She added that media may have portrayed it that way, but it’s been here all along. “What we’re really doing is reaffirming life—we can do this.”

The Occupy movement can be difficult to analyze. Its chapters are decentralized and highly localized, even though its goals and struggles are global. The movement is leaderless and has no official spokespeople; instead members of the movement use a system requiring consensus — near 100 percent agreement — through direct democracy. And the list of social issues Occupy combats is long and disparate, from fighting foreclosures and pushing financial regulation to reforming public education and the criminal justice system.

Protesters descended on the Wells Fargo at 464 Montgomery St. Sept. 17 in celebration of Occupy’s one-year anniversary. More than 400 protesters marched around San Francisco’s Financial District. Some ripped up symbols of their debt, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment highlighted the work of several foreclosure fighters and a splinter group of about 100 ended the evening by reoccupying Justin Herman Plaza.

“I think it’s changed the dialogue of national politics and put into the consciousness of Americans that there is this huge inequality,” recent SF State graduate Kevin Coleman said. He added that the turnout for Occupy’s anniversary in San Francisco was bigger than he thought it would be.

As the dust of celebration settled, some Occupy participants and scholars following the movement weighed in on the successes and failures of the movement after one year.

“Since the boot of the empire stomped on us so severely, we figured out we’d have to regroup in several ways,” Altman said.

Altman discussed the inner workings of the Occupy movement and what they’ve done since it began. Fifty-two homes have been saved from foreclosure in Noe Valley and Bernal Heights. Some members of the movement also stopped the auctioning of 300 homes and are now trying to save City College of San Francisco from losing its accreditation.

“What we’re really trying to do is make a connection,” Altman said. “We’re working with people. We’re not claiming to do any of it alone.”

According to James L. Taylor, University of San Francisco politics department chair, before Occupy, there was no popular response to the 2008 economic crisis.

“Without Occupy, the idea of class as a social reality would not be part of our national discourse,” Taylor said.

Altman, agreed with Taylor’s point about the response to Occupy, and took a mental step back to look at the movement on the whole.

“We are part of a worldwide revolution, and we know that,” Altman said. “Once we can change it here, we can change it for everyone.”

But the amorphous, leaderless movement characterized by masses occupying public spaces in tent cities, reminiscent of Hoovervilles during the Great Depression, did not develop in a vacuum. Spurred by the disinegration of the middle class’ American dream since World War II, Occupy was also preceded by a labor uprising in Wisconsin, the Indignados movement in Spain and a battle between citizens and entrenched pro-capitalism regimes in the Middle East.

“I think that these movements are symbiotic,” Taylor said. “They may be totaly unrelated in terms of the particulars on the ground. But whether we’re talking about a kid in Detroit or a middle-class person in the West Bank, we’re talking about a global reaction to global capitalism — the way in which resources are being atrophied and huddled by the elite in the world. Are they identical? No. Does one idea inspire the other? Maybe, but the sources are the same.”

Chabot College communications major Jessica Hollie, commonly known by her UStream handle Bella Eiko, never expected to become an occupier. Her first experience with Occupy was Nov. 2, 2011, when a crowd of nearly 10,000 people clogged the streets of Oakland and marched to the city’s port, disrupting its shipping operations for a few hours.

“I came out as an Oaklander who wanted to participate in a historic event,” Hollie, an East Oakland native, said.

That peaceful day of protest, which many occupiers point to as the movement’s greatest local success, disintegrated into violent clashes with police as night fell, Hollie decided to become more involved with the movement. She said she wants Occupy to find a way to connect with the poor.

“Sometimes I wish we could find a way to talk about other issues for people who have been disenfranchised for so long, besides unemployment, besides military police departments,” Hollie said. “Many people have never owned homes, so predatory home loans are so outside their radar. They don’t go to higher education, so student loan issues are off their radar.”

Taylor echoed Hollie’s remarks as a chief criticism of Occupy, though he doesn’t really blame the movement.

“Occupy was largely, if I’m not mistaken, a manifestation of middle-class white and young people’s disenchantment with the collapse of their expected futures, of what the country has promised since World War II,” he said. “Barrack Obama used Occupy to talk about the middle classes, but one would hope there would be some discussion about the poor. The poverty rate has maintained itself at about 15 percent, but nobody’s talking about the poor. Occupy has affected a discussion about the middle class, even if Occupy’s focus has been on the poor and the disaffected in society.”

A version of this story was published in the SF State Golden Gate Xpress on Sept. 19, 2012.

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