Occupy Wall Street marked its one-year anniversary yesterday with a series of direct actions and mass convergences in the Financial District. In Part One of Ultimate Occupy, NYU Local looks back on the movement’s first year.
The polarizing movement first began on the afternoon of Saturday, September 17, 2011. That evening, a few hundred protesters held the first General Assembly in Zuccotti Park, just blocks from Wall Street. They had spent the day marching throughout the Financial District, much of which had been closed off with the soon-to-be-ubiquitous NYPD barricades. As the privately-owned public park’s 10 pm curfew came and went, the movement’s first participants realized they had achieved their first victory: They could spend the night.
Check out NYU Local’s photos from Day One of Occupy Wall Street.
Throughout the first week, the protest grew. Messages of support – and pizza orders – flooded the park. Participants organized themselves via “General Assemblies,” an autonomous decision-making structure adopted from earlier occupation-style protests in Spain. Through that body, participants began to tackle questions about what the movement represented, what it demanded, and how it would operate.
By the following Saturday, the ongoing protest was grabbing headlines across the nation. Occupations were beginning to form in cities across the country. In Manhattan, thousands turned out for a march that flooded city streets and wound a circuitous route to Union Square. After a short assembly, marchers turned back towards Zuccotti Park; however, they hadn’t gone far before the NYPD began forcing marchers onto the sidewalk. The march devolved into chaos.
Of the dozens of arrests filmed that day, one incident grabbed national attention. A cell-phone video shows a group of women standing against a wall, where they are being held by a section of NYPD orange mesh fencing. A white-shirted supervisor walks up and sprays the women with pepper spray. As they fall to the ground screaming, he holsters the chemical weapon and walks away.
Although the apparent excessive force was widely condemned, debate continued about the methods and message of the protesters. To provide more context to Local readers, editor-in-chief Zoë Schlanger filed this inside look at the movement.
That week, NYU Local’s Sidewalk Talk surveyed student thoughts on the movement.
The next Saturday, the protest was larger still. Thanks to the growing visibility and the viral pepper spray outrage, thousands turned out. An afternoon march headed north along Broadway but turned onto the Brooklyn Bridge. Hundreds took to the roadway – where they met an NYPD barricade after just a few hundred yards. Police closed off the back of the march, and arrested all 700 people caught in the middle. (Full disclosure: I was one of those arrested, while my parents watched from home on a livestream. When they texted to confirm that it was me that they had seen being cuffed and carried off, I referred them to my Twitter, which I was updating from the back of the paddywagon [#priorities]. Local also heard from another arrestee about her experience that day.)
Divisive as it was, the encampment was dense with stories. The seemingly never-ending drum circle inspired some controversy within the park after Occupy attempted to self-impose quiet hours through the General Assembly. Others were fascinated with the General Assembly model, and its organic amplication system known as the Mic Check.
As with everything, vocal critics emerged at NYU. Local staffer Kyle Zinn opined that Occupy Wall Street is “Making Noise, Not Change.”
Nonetheless, the movement continued to grow, and Occupiers in downtown Manhattan showed no signs of moving. In fact, as semipermanent structures began to appear in Zuccotti Park (which Bloomberg called a “tent city”), organizers began looking for larger venues. Washington Square Park looked attractive — Occupiers cited its wide spaces, history of activist traditions, and dramatic archway under which marches could begin and end.
On October 15, organizers put out a call for Occupiers to flood Washington Square and prepare to stay. The evening began with a full park, but as closing time neared a massive police response was mobilized. Hundreds of NYPD officers stood ready, mounted officers protected the marble arch, and police vehicles lined Fifth Avenue as far north as Rubin Hall on 10th Street. By curfew, the park was nearly empty but for NYPD officers. 14 activists stayed behind and were promptly arrested.
That week, nightly assemblies continued in the park, but a permanent presence was never established.
Nonetheless, the movement’s impact on campus would continue to be felt. Student organizers created the People’s University, a series of free public lectures in the Washington Square Park. NYU professors shared their relevant radical knowledge in the open air, a safe distance from the crowds down in the Financial District.
By the beginning of November, there was no denying that Occupy was a national force to be reckoned with. West Coast participants decided to test their collective might with a general strike and shutdown of the Port of Oakland, one of the largest ports in the world. Meanwhile, in New York City, the NYPD confiscated generators from the park as the temperature started to drop.
On November 14th, in a surprise 1 am raid, the NYPD cleared Zuccotti Park. The night-long operation sparked dozens of clashes and arrests. From blocks away, crowds could hear screams and the grating of trash trucks as tents, backpacks and books were discarded. NYU Local also filed this photo report.
Days later, the two-month anniversary of the movement drew thousands to lower Manhattan where they expressed their outrage over the eviction and attempted to shut down the stock exchange. That evening, over 10,000 people gathered in Foley Square in one of the largest assemblies yet.
Although the central Occupy encampment had now been cleared like dozens of others across the country, organizers who had been inspired by the movement and its techniques turned their attention to their own local communities. NYU4OWS, an NYU affinity group, grabbed the student body’s attention when they confronted university president John Sexton at a town hall event. Watch students mic check President Sexton.
For contrast, here’s some people mic checking the actual president.
Without an ongoing physical encampment, and with winter nearing, mass actions dropped off – but an energized community remained active within NYU and at neighboring schools. In particular, the growing student debt burden shared by students across the country attracted widespread criticism.
The movement kept its hold on schools nationwide:
- At The New School, a group of students splintered from a march and occupied a student lounge overlooking Fifth Avenue .
- At Baruch, twenty-five people were arrested at a rowdy protest against a rise in tuition.
- At Columbia, students interrupted a lecture by NYPD Chief of Police Ray Kelly.
- At Princeton, recruiters from big banks were met with pushback.
- At UC Davis, protesters got pepper-sprayed thoroughly.
Over the winter, NYU Local got to know Brandon Watts, whose bloodied face was featured on an iconic Daily News cover.
We were also introduced to NYU student Sara Ackerman, whose elaborate email drama with NYU admins over an assignment concerning OWS went viral.
Bored by debates over student debt? No worries – the NYPD was considerate enough to smash one Occupier’s head through Brittany Hall’s glass door.
As the spring warmed up, organizers sought a new home for the movement. Union Square looked to be it, until the NYPD reacted with more arrests and began closing the park at night.
The next week, Occupy won back some New Yorkers when they opened subway gates and turnstiles across the city — but not everyone thought that was a great idea.
Despite organizers’ efforts, and a widely promoted May Day general strike, the so-called “American Spring” failed to take off.
This is not to say that people across the country weren’t hard at work. Nationwide, self-organized Occupy-style communities of activists worked within their communities on issues from anti-fracking to anti-evictions to LGBT rights.
This also not to say that the movement didn’t achieve some unstated goals. Occupy campaigns blocked dozens of bank evictions of families, got billions of dollars transferred out of commercial banks, and inspired a widespread conversation about wealth inequality and corporate influence on politics for the first time in many years. What you think of those outcomes is a matter of opinion, but it’s hard to deny that’s a pretty wide impact for a movement dreamed up by a Canadian anti-consumerism magazine.
Yesterday the movement started back up. (Catch Part Two of our Ultimate Occupy coverage in a few hours.) The record of Occupy Wall Street’s first year should make it clear that attempting to predict the future of the movement is generally unwise. At the very least, the anniversary reminds us that Occupy did and does exist — and that for a while, we were quite preoccupied with it.