Monday, September 10, 2012

Occupy Wall Street turns 1 year old


The “99%” during their occupation of Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan last year. Occupy Wall Street will mark its first anniversary next week. The movement, which had a global impact, was extensively covered by the Daily News

The 99% is turning 1.

Manhattan activist William Dobbs remembers exactly where he was that first day, Sept. 17: standing near the Bowling Green subway station with a ragtag band of about 500 people.

Some were riveted by an economics teach-in. Others were practicing yoga. Most were preparing to march up Broadway and settle in an unremarkable plaza known as Zuccotti Park.

Dobbs, a veteran of protest movements, says there was “some buzz” about the action that had been named Occupy Wall Street, the brainchild of the anti-consumerist outfit Adbusters.

But he could not have predicted the extraordinary events to come: the two-month encampment, the massive protests and violent clashes with cops, the slogan “We are the 99%” and the speed with which it rocketed around the globe.

“I could never have predicted that it was possible to have a camp in the shadow of Wall Street,” he said.

What started as a call to action by Adbusters quickly swelled into a full-throated — some say fleeting — condemnation of corporate greed and social injustice.

It might have fizzled faster, but for the decision of one cop, Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna, who pepper-sprayed a group of female protesters during a largely peaceful Sept. 24 rally.



Activists voiced their concerns and demands on cardboard signs.

It was the first in a series of flash points that pitted demonstrators against cops, generating serious attention from mainstream media and the now-iconic images of women pinned to the ground.



OWS took to the streets in lower Manhattan.

The number of people willing to take to the streets in support of Occupy Wall Street suddenly swelled.

Just one week later, 700 demonstrators were arrested trying to cross the Brooklyn Bridge. As city officials scrambled to restore order, the heady days of the movement took hold. It dominated headlines, political debate and cocktail party chatter.

“It got the unions’ attention,” said James Jasper, a City University of New York sociology professor who is an expert on protest movements. “That’s pretty unusual in a way, because Occupy, until then, looked like a bunch of scruffy twentysomething countercultural people.”

Hundreds of copycat encampments sprang up from London to Boise, Idaho, as videos of violent clashes with police went viral. “I knew it had incredible potential because it was exactly what was needed, at exactly the right time,” said Max Berger, 26, an Occupy Wall Street organizer. “But I don’t think we knew quite how big it could become.”

Zuccotti Park, a privately owned public space controlled by Brookfield Properties, became Occupy’s home base. A comfort station doled out blankets and clothes, a canteen supplied around-the-clock hot meals, a “people’s library” was stocked with thousands of books — all of it donated from supporters around the world.

Princeton University’s Cornel West gave a rousing speech to the masses one night, and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore wowed the crowd another. “There are plenty of people who now realize they can change the world,” Dobbs said.

Some will say that little has changed since the NYPD forcefully cleared the park in the early hours of Nov. 15: the 1% still has most of the wealth, the banks and corporations OWS targeted still stand, Republicans have a shot at the White House.

Zuccotti has returned to being a place where office workers take in the sun and eat lunch. Most of those who slept and volunteered there have returned to jobs and classrooms.



Protesters camped out in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan for weeks.

Still, many Occupy leaders insist lasting change takes more than 365 days. To mark the one-year anniversary of the first protest, organizers are planning a series of events around New York from Sept. 15 to 17 — dubbed S17.

It’s likely to draw thousands back to Zuccotti Park for a day of resistance, but it is not billed as a relaunch or the start of a new occupation.

Victoria Sobel, 22, who was on the OWS finance and media committees but is now minimally involved, says there’s no need for one.

“I’m personally not disappointed,” the Cooper Union art student said of the occupation’s end. “It was a concept-based movement. . . . To expect that kind of constant amassing of people wasn’t the goal.”

In fact, she says, the internal focus on Zuccotti was one of the downsides.

“There became a preoccupation with the idea of occupying public space,” she said. “People idolized our New York encampment.”

Since the city evicted protesters, many have turned their energy to “smaller, localized problems and initiatives,” Sobel said.

Ex-occupiers also take some credit for pressuring Gov. Cuomo to enact a millionaire’s tax and the prominent mention of student loan debt at the Democratic National Convention.

City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan), who was arrested during the protests, said Occupy’s fingerprints were on the Con Ed labor battle this summer, a huge May 1 march and the Rev. Al Sharpton’s “Occupy the Corners” initiatives.

“This movement will continue having a presence in the city,” he said.


Going forward, he said, he hopes that civil rights lawsuits filed against the city will change how the police respond to future protests.

The NYPD says that 2,446 were arrested at various OWS demonstrations — which cost the city more than $17 million in overtime to police.

Some 389 cases are still pending in court, and a special unit was set up solely to handle Occupy-related issues.

OWS, which collected more than $700,000 in donations, recently put a freeze on spending so what’s left can be used for legal costs.

Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson, who was Mayor Bloomberg’s pointman for the protests, defended the decision to clear the encampment and the NYPD’s overall handling of conflicts.

“I think we acted when the situation appeared to be heading towards a risky outcome,” he said last week.

“This was the place the whole country was watching. It was Wall Street and it was the first occupation,” he added. “I’m very comfortable in retrospect that we made the right call at the right time.”

Jasper said Occupy may owe much of its legacy to City Hall and the Police Department and the images of police corralling and pepper-spraying protesters.

“Usually, police nastiness attains its goals — it dissipates a movement,” he said. “But sometimes it backfires. That’s usually how revolutions happen.”

OWS, he said, was far from a revolution — but can be seen as a success for “refocusing attention on the huge growth in inequality in the country over the past 30 years.”

“Is that a lasting impact?” he said. “No. These things always fade.”

Another of the original organizers, Yotam Marom, said supporters and sympathizers should not be disheartened that they can’t point to a laundry list of concrete changes because “this is a long-term movement to create systematic change.”

He insists that Occupy Wall Street will have a lasting, if somewhat abstract, legacy.

“People believe that things are possible in a way they didn’t before,” Marom said. “They believe it’s possible to fight back.” 


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