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“Another World Is Possible”: How Occupy Wall Street Reshaped Politics & Kicked Off New Era of Protest

StorySeptember 17, 2021
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On the 10th anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, we examine the legacy of the historic protests with three veterans of the movement: Nelini Stamp, now the director of strategy and partnerships at the Working Families Party; Jillian Johnson, a key organizer in Occupy Durham who now serves on the Durham City Council and is the city’s mayor pro tempore; and writer and filmmaker Astra Tayor, an organizer with the Debt Collective. Occupy Wall Street “broke the spell” protecting the economic status quo and marked a major shift in protests against capitalism, Taylor says. “Occupy kind of inaugurated this social movement renaissance,” she tells Democracy Now! “We’ve been in an age of defiant protest ever since Occupy Wall Street.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As Congress debates a $3.5 trillion bill to expand the nation’s social safety net and to increase taxes on the rich, we look back at Occupy Wall Street, the movement, how it reshaped the national debate on economics and inequality. Yes, it was 10 years ago today, September 17th, 2011, when Occupy began. Democracy Now! was one of the only national outlets to report on the first day of the action. Our producer Sam Alcoff filed this report.

SAM ALCOFF: On Saturday, thousands of protesters took to the streets of downtown Manhattan for what was described as an action to “Occupy Wall Street.” Inspired by the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring and the European anti-austerity movements, Adbusters, a Vancouver-based culture-jamming magazine, put out a call for Saturday’s protest on Wall Street in July. The goals were various, from limiting corporate contributions to political campaigns, to auditing the Federal Reserve, to challenging all of global capitalism. Protesters included 71-year-old Mary Ellen Marino of Princeton, New Jersey.

MARY ELLEN MARINO: I came because I’m upset with the fact that the bailout of Wall Street didn’t help any of the people holding mortgages. All of the money went to Wall Street, and none of it went to Main Street. Now, we’ve just learned that Geithner was actually asked to split up the Citibank, and he didn’t do it. And Obama didn’t do anything about it.

SAM ALCOFF: The plan wasn’t simply for a one-day protest, but an ongoing and creative occupation of the Financial District itself. Organizer Lorenzo Serna.

LORENZO SERNA: The idea is to have an encampment. Like, this isn’t a one-day event. Like, we’re hoping that people come prepared to stay as long as they can and that we’re there to support each other.

SAM ALCOFF: But on Saturday, after hundreds arrived, the NYPD shut Wall Street down itself, barricading activists off of Wall Street and forcing a move to the nearby Zuccotti Park. Despite sometimes tense standoffs with the police, hundreds slept in the park and have maintained that they will stay until their demands are met.

AMY GOODMAN: Two days later, Democracy Now! interviewed the activist and anthropologist David Graeber, who’s been credited with helping to coin Occupy’s defining rallying call, “We are the 99%.” He talked about how Occupy had been inspired by earlier protests in Europe.

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, what people are doing in Europe is essentially trying to reinvent democracy. The idea is that, you know, all of the political parties have basically bankrupted themselves. They’re all essentially bought and sold by the financial elite that’s created this crisis. There’s no possibility of their actually coming up with a solution. And sometimes you have to start over. People have to, like, go into their public squares, meet each other, start talking to each other, and start brainstorming of ideas. I mean, essentially, the idea is the system is not going to save us; we’re going to have to save ourselves. So, we’re going to try to get as many people as possible to camp in some public place and start rebuilding society as we’d like to see it.

AMY GOODMAN: How many people turned out?

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, at first, we were a little worried at Bowling Green, but more and more people kept showing up. So I ended up helping to facilitate a meeting which was at least 2,000 people. … It was mostly young people, and most of them were people who had gone through the educational system, who were deeply in debt, and who found it completely impossible to get jobs. I mean, these people have felt — really feel very strongly that they did the right thing. They did exactly what they were supposed to. The system has completely failed them. And they’re not going to be saved by the people in charge. You’re just going to have — if there’s going to be any kind of society like we — worth living in, we’re going to have to create it ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s David Graeber speaking on Democracy Now! September 19, 2011, two days after the start of Occupy Wall Street encampment. David died last year in Venice, Italy, at the age of 59.

Protesters would go on to sleep in Zuccotti Park for nearly two months before the New York police raided the encampment. The Occupy movement spread across the nation and the globe. And the impact of Occupy is still being felt in countless ways.

We spend the rest of the hour hosting a roundtable looking at the legacy of Occupy. Joining us from Philadelphia is Nelini Stamp, the director of strategy and partnership at the Working Families Party. Ten years ago, she was part of Outreach, Labor and Facilitation Working Groups during Occupy Wall Street. She later helped start the Dream Defenders.

In Durham, North Carolina, we’re joined by Jillian Johnson. Ten years ago, she was a key organizer in Occupy Durham. Today she serves on the Durham City Council and is the Durham’s mayor pro tem.

And in Asheville, North Carolina, we are joined by writer and filmmaker Astra Taylor, who was involved in Occupy Wall Street and co-edited the Occupy Gazette, which featured reports from Occupies around the world. She’s also an organizer with the Debt Collective, an organization with its roots in the Occupy Wall Street movement. She has just co-authored a piece in New York magazine headlined “Occupy Wall Street Changed Everything: Ten years later, the legacy of Zuccotti Park has never been clearer.”

So, Astra, let’s begin with you. Talk about how it changed everything, and where — how you see it has affected everything today.

ASTRA TAYLOR: Well, to understand how Occupy changed everything, I think we have to remember what it was like before. Occupy sort of broke the spell. It was really hard to talk about class, talk about capitalism, talk about inequality. We were in the world of Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, where there was no alternative to the status quo. It was a kind of bipartisan consensus around neoliberal capitalism. So, part of what created the conditions for the banking crisis was the repeal of Glass-Steagall, which was a Depression-era law. And that was repealed under the Clinton administration. Also, there was the period after September 11, 2001. It was very difficult to protest in New York City. Part of what made Occupy seem so improbable was that it was actually illegal to have unpermitted gatherings of more than 20 people. So, there was just this — you know, the left was very demoralized. The left was really fragmented and beaten down.

And something changed in that year. And, you know, your reporter touched on this. People were watching these movements around the world, from the Arab Spring to the movement of the squares, the movement of the indignados in Spain, and elsewhere. And people started to think, you know, “We’ve got to do something. Maybe we can actually protest and make a difference.”

And so, that first day, 10 years ago today, you know, I have to say it was — I went. I went to Zuccotti Park, marched from Bowling Green up to Zuccotti Park. And, you know, it was powerful, but not because there were so many people, not because there were thousands and thousands of people, but because it was a space where those of us who felt that things were wrong could come together and meet each other and talk and decide we had to express our discontent, had to express our outrage. And so it was a major shift.

And so, 10 years later, I think we can see that Occupy kind of inaugurated this social movement renaissance. We’ve been in an age of defiant protest ever since Occupy Wall Street. The political landscape has really changed. People are now — you know, we have not stopped talking about capitalism. We haven’t stopped talking about class. We haven’t stopped talking about debt. And, you know, people have figured out how to challenge the political establishment. So I think it’s had a tremendous legacy. And its offshoots actually — you know, we’ve never tallied them up. All over the country, Occupy sprouted different efforts, different initiatives, and changed lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Nelini Stamp in Philadelphia. You were part — you’re now with Working Families Party, but, then, you were part of the Outreach, Labor and Facilitation Working Groups during Occupy Wall Street. Much of the power was the community that was created there. Can you talk about the decision-making and why you even chose to go to Occupy Wall Street, and how it has shaped you and this country today?

NELINI STAMP: Yeah. I mean, I was — even before Occupy, I was a part of the Working Families Party but knew the limits of electoral process and work. And I was very skeptical. I wasn’t at Bowling Green. I came and rolled in when people were just at Zuccotti already. But what motivated me was something different. There was something different about saying, “We’re going to stay here, and we are going to collectively work together to build another world, because we believe another world is possible.”

So, what really — you know, I say this every time I say what really, really hooked me, was the general assembly that evening, where people could, as Astra said, tell their stories. And it was the first time I said I was a high school dropout. I hid it for years. I mean, some people knew. But it was the first time I could say to a big crowd I could not afford to go to college. I wasn’t actually one of those people that went to college and came out with the economy. I couldn’t even afford it then. And I remember just everybody together collectively uptwinkling, because part of it was direct democracy.

And that’s, you know, the decision-making, the teams, the working groups. Immediately when they said, “Here are different working groups, and you should create more,” I felt like I could take ownership of it. That evening, I was like, “Definitely outreach. I know how to organize.” I didn’t know about direct action or anything else. And I went to the outreach group.

We said we were going to support every single — we wanted to map out every single labor issue and labor dispute in the city of New York, or at least Manhattan, and that we would show up with our cardboard signs saying “You are the 99%.” Labor unions are definitely a part of the 99%. And we did. We showed up at the Verizon building when CWA was — the communication workers were fighting against Verizon. We showed up at Sotheby’s with the Teamsters. We showed up at so many different labor disputes. And it was something that, because of my background in building electoral politics with labor, was heard and felt in the labor movement, and they started to open their doors to us so that we could have meetings in places like DC 37 and the communication workers, that had offices nearby.

And so, that was just — it was really beautiful to be able to — for people to have ownership. And I think that was also what was radically different. It wasn’t, “We’re going to tell you what to do.” Those facilitators that first night, which included David, which included many of our friends, they were like, “This is yours now,” just because we were the folks who were building it. “This is yours now.” And that revolutionized what movements have come since, where it is everybody’s and people can take something and make it their own.

So, having those processes of general assemblies every evening — now, there were problems that happened with that, as well, but having that, having direct democracy, coming up with guiding principles together and being free to make decisions in our principles of working — so, direct action can make the decisions of the opening and closing bell, labor can make decisions for this and that, and so on and so forth — was actually more inviting for people, because people could show up for a couple days and participate at a higher level than them showing up and being a body at an action. And that was what I think really transformed the way we were able to relate and build with one another.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Occupy Wall Street wasn’t, of course, just in Zuccotti Park. It was all over the country and, actually, all over the world. Jillian Johnson, you are now the mayor pro tem of Durham, North Carolina. You were a key figure in Occupy Durham. Talk about how you came to that, what you were looking for, how it changed your city, and your choice to get involved with electoral politics afterwards.

MAYOR PRO TEM JILLIAN JOHNSON: So, we had heard about the occupation that was happening in Zuccotti Park and were following it really closely, the movement community in Durham. And after a couple of weeks, we saw these other occupations sprouting up all over the country, and we were like, “Well, we’ve got to get in on that.” And we were just so inspired and excited by the growth of this movement. And it was unprecedented, what we were seeing.

And so, a friend of mine and I, my friend Ben, who had just been kind of following the news and getting more and more excited, just decided to call for an Occupy Durham general assembly in the middle of our city, in a downtown plaza that we quickly renamed the People’s Plaza. If anyone’s ever been to Durham, it’s the one with the giant bull statue. And we had about 400 people show up. And we were just so excited by being able to be a part of this growing global movement.

We moved quickly into starting to have general assemblies, having more and more people come out, trying to figure out what this looks like in the context of a midsize Southern town. Durham at the time had, you know, just over 200,000 people. But it was also beginning to go through some serious economic struggles, gentrification, housing displacement. There were a lot of people in Durham who were really struggling. And so, we really resonated with the message that was coming out of New York and with the same conversations that people were having about income inequality, about housing inequality.

I ran for office just four years after Occupy, in 2015. And I think at first it was kind of a leap of faith. I didn’t really have a sense that I was going to be able to change things from an elected position. I was hoping that there was an opportunity there. And I think our movement was started to turn more and more toward the idea that electoral politics could provide some opportunities for us to make change and to leverage resources for the benefit of working-class and communities of color.

And I’ve been able to do that in ways that I didn’t expect. I think the transition has been — it’s been difficult in ways, but it’s also been very empowering and exciting to be able to put my organizing skills and movement skills to work in a different context. And I think bringing more people into the electoral world, through some of the work I’m doing with a national organization called Local Progress and just folks in my community talking to other movement people, younger people who might be interested in moving into the electoral realm someday, I’ve felt like I’ve been able to gain skills and knowledge and then pass those skills and knowledge on to other people within the movement. So, it feels — it’s felt really rewarding — difficult, of course, at times, but ultimately I feel like I’ve been able to do something good in this position, and I’m excited about passing the torch on to somebody else.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a few months later, November 2011, during the Occupy protests, about a thousand students marching in New York City outside a meeting where CUNY trustees — that’s City University of New York trustees — voted to authorize annual tuition increases. This is Julian Guerrero of Students United for a Free CUNY.

JULIAN GUERRERO: [echoed by the People’s Mic] Me, myself, I’m in debt $70,000. I actually got a letter from Sallie Mae saying that if I don’t start paying today $900 a month, they’re going to have more aggressive attempts at collecting my debt. And so, I’m going to burn this right here and now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Julian Guerrero of Students United for a Free CUNY, using the whole idea of the mic check and the open mic and the mic repeats that we’ve come to see that are so familiar. Astra Taylor, you are a key member of the Debt Collective. Talk about how that movement has evolved to today.

ASTRA TAYLOR: Now, the Debt Collective is an organization for debtors that fights for the cancellation of all kinds of debt and the provision of the services, the public goods we all need to survive and thrive. It has its roots directly at Occupy Wall Street.

So, just like Nelini felt that space to talk about her condition honestly, you know, for many of us who were in debt, Occupy was a similar space, where we could see that we were not alone — and that is actually the Debt Collective’s slogan: “You are not a loan” — A space L-O-A-N, right? — a space where we could come together. And debt was actually part of the protests around the world at the time. Tuition hikes sparked protests in Latin America. And later, in Quebec, there was a wave of protests.

And so, you know, we followed the threads of debt, once the parks were cleared, because how we were thinking about it at the time was, you know, “Yes, we’re occupying Wall Street, but Wall Street occupies our lives. And how does it do that? Often in the form of debt. We’re forced to debt finance things that should be publicly provided.” And it was at Occupy Wall Street that we had the collective epiphany. We started to recognize that our debts, which were so burdensome, could actually be a potential source of power, a source of leverage.

And by consistently organizing, we’ve moved the needle on that issue. I think, you know, we now are in a world where leading politicians talk about student debt cancellation. The Debt Collective has won billions of dollars of student loan cancellation for debtors. And that demand started at Occupy Wall Street. And the media was very skeptical. They mocked the demand. They said, “It’s never going to happen. Isn’t Occupy so naive?” Well, look where we are today. We’ve really moved the debate. And so, I think that’s a really concrete, concrete result of this movement.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the issue of police repression of Occupy protests across the country. On November 18th, 2011, campus police officers at the University of California, Davis pepper-sprayed peaceful student protesters. Video of the police attack went viral.

PROTESTERS: Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students!

The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!

Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you!

ELLI PEARSON: I wasn’t aware I was going to be pepper-sprayed until people told me to protect myself. And then I have friends who were pepper-sprayed who said they did not know that that was happening and that that was coming. And we were actually expected — we were expecting to be shot in the back with something, because they were behind us. And we really had no idea what was going to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s UC Davis student Elli Pearson speaking on Democracy Now! after she was pepper-sprayed. And you have the whole coordination. It later came out — I remember that piece in The Guardian by Naomi Wolf, “Revealed: how the FBI coordinated the crackdown on Occupy,” the destruction of Occupy Wall Street and other places all over the country, well over a dozen cities. Nelini Stamp, if you can talk about what you understand took place, and how the police dealt with you?

NELINI STAMP: Yeah. I mean, you know, it was interesting, because the first — very early on, that first weekend, I remember going to an officer and saying, “Can my friend’s car be there?” And they were like, “Yeah. Y’all will be gone by Monday.”

And increasingly, as soon as we started — one of the first direct actions, regular direct actions, we did at Occupy Wall Street was the opening and closing bell. We would march for the opening bell and closing bell of the Stock Exchange and Wall Street. And that first Monday, we started getting shoved and pushed. And every single day that we were out there, things escalated to then a few arrests, to then a few more arrests. And I think things really changed on the Saturday.

There was a few things that I feel like people don’t understand, what happened those first two weeks, also in the nation. Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia — a huge case of misjustice and racial reckoning again. There was a huge debate in the city of New York around stop-and-frisk. And so, all of these tensions were underlying. But there was also this idea and original, you know, sentiment to say that the cops are the 99%, too, because most of them were not making — if we were really a uniting movement. So, it was this really interesting juxtaposition that was happening those first two weeks.

And that Saturday — we did weekly actions on Saturday, and I don’t remember if it was the 24th or the — I usually used to remember all of the dates in my mind. We took the streets. And it was civil disobedience like New York hasn’t seen in a really long time. And I remember getting to Union Square, and all of a sudden they had this orange netting all around us, which I think is now illegal in the city of New York for cops to do. But they had orange netting, and pepper spray was just going everywhere.

And that was kind of the — I think that was a radicalizing moment for a lot of our white comrades at Occupy Wall Street, who never had to deal with the police as those of us who come from communities of color in New York had to, or those of us who have a history of — when I was younger, I remember seeing Amadou Diallo’s murder on every single thing, and people marching on the Brooklyn Bridge. And so, for those who didn’t have that background or that personal experience, they finally did have that. And that’s when I think there was this awakening of a lot of young white folks or more affluent folks who didn’t come from overpoliced communities actually saying and trying to hold the police accountable.

So, what you see is, right after Occupy Wall Street, you see Ramarley Graham gets killed in the city of New York, and then Trayvon Martin gets killed in Florida, and people start to act up, you know? I flew down to Florida, because they wanted somebody to train them in direct action, and helped co-found the Dream Defenders. We marched for miles to Sanford. And then you see a big march in June of 2012 with 50,000 people that said, “End stop-and-frisk.” And I don’t think that would have been — that would have had the new people involved as it did, if we didn’t have so much, like, repression from the state. And I think part of it was to make people not come out, to make — people were really threatened by Occupy at that time. And I think that that’s what ended up happening, and it was really beautiful to see people get involved and actually call out police brutality after that.

AMY GOODMAN: Nelini Stamp, I want to thank you for being with us. This has to end this discussion today. Nelini Stamp of Working Families Party in Philadelphia; Astra Taylor of the Debt Collective, speaking to us from Asheville; and Jillian Johnson, mayor pro tem of Durham, North Carolina — all three involved in the Occupy movement 10 years ago. And we continue to cover it when we look at the bills that are in Congress right now and so much more. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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