Written by Caitlin Endyke
As we mark the second anniversary of the start of the first encampments in Zuccotti Park that sparked the movement now known as “Occupy Wall Street” (though its reach represented a much wider geographic area than downtown Manhattan), Rick Cohen at Nonprofit Quarterly reflects on the movement’s successes and failures thus far.
First, Cohen points out that Occupy was extremely successful in adjusting the frame of the national conversation about the economy. Cohen notes, “the Occupy movement translated the concept [of the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent] into an on-the-ground framework for societal grievances” and he credits the movement for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to backtrack from his original plans to lighten the tax burden on New York’s top 1 percent of earners. President Obama referenced Occupy by name during his 2012 campaign. Occupy veterans in the New York area used the organizing experience they gained in the movement to establish one of the biggest grassroots relief efforts following Hurricane Sandy last fall.
Yet despite real successes, Cohen (among others) says that Occupy can’t claim outright victory. After all, two years after the start of the movement the numbers show that while the top 1% of American earners continue to reap the benefits of the economy’s recovery, the median income for the middle class is lower than it was in 1989, when adjusted for inflation. Worse, the nation’s poverty rate remains at a “stable” 15%.
Cohen’s outline of both the highs and lows of the OWS movement reminds us that movement building is often messy. In addition to the limits of Occupy’s impact on the political and economic environment, Cohen notes key points where organizers missed opportunities for galvanizing further support or widening the approach of the burgeoning protest. For example, because of OWS organizers’ refusal to commit to a specific agenda, they missed out on a potentially valuable opportunity to partner with other organizations that focused on campaign finance reform as a way to subvert the power of the 1 percent.
The messiness of Occupy – and any social movement – isn’t something to just gloss over or avoid discussing. Too often we romanticize the histories of successful movements, avoiding mention of tensions between factions or sexism amongst the ranks of organizers. Instead we can continue to hold up Occupy’s maybe-failures as a way of highlighting that building a movement isn’t always easy. Sometimes, you have to take a few wrong turns on the path to social change.