Occupy at 10
A Love Story
SUMMARY: We’re nearly 10 years on from Occupy Wall Street. We wanted to get a jump on the retrospective before every mainstream news outlet hops on and gives it perfunctory treatment and dismisses it as a failed movement. It wasn’t a failure. If anything, it was the scariest movement the establishment has seen since the anti-Vietnam War protests. It was fast but it was furious. And aspects of it continue to resonate through our society. It was the grand awakening from our post-9/11 haze and the people took to the streets to revolt against a system of inequality and systemic oppression. Occupy might have been brutally cleared from Zuccotti Park, but the spirit of the movement lives on through Progressives today and the lessons from it will carry us into the future. This is Occupy at 10: A Love Story.
SHOW NOTES: The first teaser episode of UNFTR dropped quietly last year on October 9. Since then we have been at it nonstop so for the next couple of weeks we’re taking a little break to recoup and pour some attention into the next series of shows that won’t disappoint. Having said that, there won’t be a break in the feed. After this Occupy Wall Street episode we’re dropping a Best Of UNFTR Skits episode guided by our engineer and producer Manny Faces. Then our regular show will return with an episode dedicated to Canadian politics. We’re extremely stoked about that one so hopefully you’ll tune in for it.
Our Unf*cking Coffee will still be available at UNFTR.com and the discount code for SubF*ckers (Code: Subfuck) will remain active for the month of July, so make sure to stock up and support the Native Coffee Traders. Your orders (and reorders!) are making a huge difference in our ability to provide high quality episodes and make a positive impact on the tribal members of Poospatuck, so keep it coming!
You know how we’ve been talking about how our system will burp, spit, vomit and puke out the vast majority of the population every few years or so?
How capitalism is built on the concept of boom and bust cycles?
How we literally build a “healthy” level of unemployment into the system to maintain balance and order?
And then every ten years or so, catastrophe. The masses lose wealth. The top picks all of it up. We elect leaders who prey on our weakness during these struggles by promising the world as they double down on the structural mechanisms of inequality that ensure nothing changes the next time around.
Economy taking a shit?
Give the rich a tax break.
Investment banks gamble consumer depository funds?
Not a problem. Here’s a trillion dollar bailout.
Bury scientific evidence that your industry is killing the planet?
Here’s a subsidy. Don’t stop.
Did the pandemic prevent you from working? Here’s some money to stay at home so you can “Netflix and Chill” or glue your eyeballs to a Zoom call. Unless, of course, you’re an indentured servant of the system. Stock groceries, deliver packages, haul the garbage? You, my friend, are an essential worker.
Even better… You’re a hero.
Just know that when this is all over, for all that we’ve given you… we’re going to need it back.
Not you, Elon. No, not you Jeff.
You, Unf*cker. All of you Unf*ckers. You’re the blood suckers. You with your demands for healthcare. For education. For food. Bloodsuckers every last one of you. Did I say essential?
I meant disposable.
The Walton family needs more.
Don’t you see? Musk, Gates, Bezos. They have divorces to fund and planets to conquer you miserable little pukes. Pukes with your debt. And your needs.
Watch as they run.
Run around working one or two jobs, side hustles in their free time delivering food through Uber Eats and DoorDash.
Make weed legal. That’ll shut ‘em up.
There! They’re taking to the streets again! Who let all of this riff raff out of the room?
Quick. Manufacture a crisis in a country we’ve never heard of before.
Send them another stimulus check to tide them over and keep them online shopping.
Or better yet, build the wall!
It’s not us, it’s those greedy raping Mexicans. Or maybe they’re gang members from Guatemala or El Salvador. Hide your babies. Turn on the news and keep it on.
Don’t look away.
Shh. Just listen. Up next we’ve got an expert who will tell you that taxes and immigrants are the death of democracy and communist teachers are going to tell children that slavery was real.
They’re coming for your guns.
They’re coming for your bibles.
The only way to prevent the communists, socialists, fascists, atheists, marxists, queers, lesbians, transgenders, illegals, negroes and welfare queens from taking what’s yours is stay tuned to this channel, arm yourself, grab a tiki torch, join a militia and send your donation in to this party or the other - it doesn’t really matter.
Text FuckMe to *666 to enter the American Capitalist Lottery.
(Standard rates apply as we steal your identity and sell your information.)
We. Are. The 99%.
Like MMT last week, today’s show was also one of the first ones we mapped out over a year ago as we take a look at the legacy of Occupy Wall Street. We’re coming up on the 10th anniversary of this affair and I wanted to get out of the gate early before the mainstream media hops all over it and fucks it up.
In a couple of months there will be all sorts of podcasts, special reports and news clippings covering that time a bunch of unwashed kids gathered in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan to air their grievances. The left will gloss over it and pay it some lip service, the right will talk about how disgusting it was. Some will be sentimental. But mostly the anniversary will come and go without proper credit being given for what really went on there.
I’ve alluded to my former life in media and journalism in the show before. Today’s episode is a little more personal because it takes me back a decade into the thick of this time in my life and a very, very strange time in America. Which is funny, because I remember thinking that it couldn’t get any stranger. Oh well.
Anyway, I want to share something I published on the ten year anniversary of 9/11. As a Manhattan resident during 9/11 it was and will always be a fresh wound, ready to open at a moment’s notice. But ten years on my thoughts about our nation had changed pretty radically.
Here’s an excerpt:
And since Wall Street was attacked it too became sacrosanct. Only it wasn’t Wall Street that died that day. It was people—people who deserve more than the resurgence of unrestrained capitalism and who are worthy of being remembered for all that liberty truly stands for. Like helping our fellow citizens in their time of need—not vilifying the poor while lining the pockets of the rich; or establishing just and equitable laws that protect every American—not just those who can afford to be protected.
If these words are abrasive, then perhaps you are still asleep, immune to the truth that there are those who have capitalized upon America’s grief by plunging our youth into two unforgivable wars and plundering our coffers with misguided economic policies that fattened the wallets of a pitiful few at the expense of the trusting many. Their triumphant legacy? Our food is unrecognizable, the air is poisonous, and our jobs are overseas. America is fat, polluted and broke. After a solemn decade of reflection upon the chicanery of those who promised to defend our freedom it is time to speak out on behalf of those who are asleep but desirous of truth and those who are awake but unsure of how to speak it.
At least I’m consistent, Unf*ckers.
A few weeks after writing this, Manhattan was rumbling again. But this time it wasn’t from above, it was from below. On the ground.
Unf*ckers have heard me reference my buddy Bobby from Brooklyn before. Well, I remember distinctly when he called me about something brewing downtown. “I’m telling you,” (he starts most stories with this phrase), “you gotta get down there. This has you written all over it. Fucking get on it.”
And so, I fucking got on it.
Out of the Blue
In the days and weeks following the encampment in Zuccotti Park, the word ‘occupy’ was suddenly on the lips of pent-up radicals and dissidents around the country. A movement had taken hold of lower Manhattan and was infecting young people around the nation. Before long, San Francisco had it. So did Boston. It spread to Phoenix, Chicago and even made its way across the border to Toronto. In the beginning the media would only acknowledge it when it shut down a bridge or there was clear evidence of police brutality. But for the most part, the talking heads and pundits were dismissive of the unfolding drama. Glenn Beck famously said Occupy would lead to “gas chambers, guillotines” and “millions dead.”
Occupy Wall Street became a stubborn, plucky, organized movement with staying power - weather and cops be damned. It was, for a while, an undertaking so captivating it garnered grassroots support throughout the country despite obvious and ignominious attempts to stamp it out.
As it turns out, America’s youth was keenly in touch with its rebellious nature and wholly capable of harnessing it through social media and on the ground. What’s more, they knew exactly how to protest derivatives and tax loopholes. Occupy Wall Street was not an exercise; nor was it a group of out-of-work malcontents and spoiled brats as some pundits and commentators tried to make us all believe. Most of the coverage, however, was disgraceful.
Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and other hack, ratings-hungry news operations did their level-best to seek out the most outrageous or ill-informed members of the movement in an effort to discredit the entire affair. Or as we would later learn, agent provocateurs. This served only to embolden the members of the occupation. The Occupy media center was so unbelievably organized and nimble in the face of multiple attempts to stifle the movement’s outreach or ability to coordinate activities in the park that the Bloomberg administration had great difficulty gaining the upper hand.
Most of the news reports and the people I spoke with about Occupy Wall Street had the same question at first: “What do they want?” It’s little wonder why the reporting was so poor because the question itself failed to grasp the meaning of the gathering. Asking “What do they want?” was entirely besides the point. It’s not that it’s a bad question; it was simply impossible to answer. The purpose of Occupy Wall Street was to begin a dialogue among disconnected citizens and encourage a process of self-discovery. Although they posted a declaration of principles it only served to provide the framework for a larger discussion. They weren’t asking for anything. They were lighting a fire in the heart of capitalism and demanding the world take notice. And so it did.
Behind this grassroots and organic process there was an organizational brilliance in their restraint. By not asking for anything in particular, they were inclusive of every person and every idea in general. In modern-day parlance, this movement was “open source.” Anyone was free to add to it, alter and improve it. It’s why dimwitted reporters had a hard time grasping it and why renowned authors such as Chris Hedges and Jeff Sharlet stood shoulder-to-shoulder with young people in Ron Paul tee shirts, Vietnam Veterans, union construction workers, lawyers and even some Tea Party activists. They managed to truly make this the “people’s movement.”
These weren’t new ideas. The protestors had decades of language and concepts to build upon. But for most Americans, it was the first time they were introduced to Bernie Sanders, who had been yelling from the rooftops about economic inequality and injustice since he was the mayor of Burlington, VT.
When people try to downplay the effectiveness of Occupy or call it a failed movement, I cringe. People in Vermont or lifetime progressives might disagree with what I’m about to say, but I believe it to be true. If not for Occupy, there’s no Bernie revolution. Then again, if not for the Arab Spring - trust me on this one, I saw the organizers of Occupy up close - there’s no Occupy. And if not for the filthy murderous greed of the corporate and political class sucking from the teat of the Chicago School gangsters, there’s none of this.
Again, the themes of Occupy were present in music and culture long before protestors took over Zuccotti Park. Tom Morello, a frequent guest and performer in the park, walked through in wonder as hundreds and sometimes thousands gathered to watch him perform songs he’d written 20 years prior. And these songs were built on themes from social commentators like George Carlin. And everyone was building on old themes put forward by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Poor People’s Campaign. And so on, and so on, and…
So, no. The ideas weren’t new. The words weren’t even new. But the approach was so old it was new again. And it worked. It imbued a new generation with a sense of purpose and indignation. They were organized and tech savvy, prepared for the long haul and one step ahead of the establishment if only for a couple of glorious months.
Life In The Park
As for life in Zuccotti Park, the scene was rather surreal. Between the time I first visited the encampment on Day 4 and Day 18, a mini-city had emerged. Rules of conduct were posted along the walls of the park. There was a media center, a volunteer booth, food line, barrels of drinking water, a compost pile, rows of books and a tobacco-rolling station. They even had their own newspaper, the Occupied Wall Street Journal.
Every evening at 7 p.m. they held a General Assembly meeting where the faithful would gather to air their grievances, plan for the days ahead, and coalesce some of the more substantive ideas that have percolated throughout the long days of demonstration, learning and discovery.
What was puzzling to me as a writer at the time was how little media attention the movement garnered in the first few days. It was clear to me that this was organized by professional dissidents, and my interactions with live streamers and planners in the park who had been part of the Arab Spring movement. As much as it was organic, it was guided.
I distinctly remember this scene unfolding on the fourth or fifth day of the Occupation. I was literally the only one with credentials wandering around and speaking with people. During a conversation, I sensed tension. The kind of tension that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. The blue shirt cops, who were remarkably aligned with the protestors - something that is largely unacknowledged - were suddenly gone. They were aligned because most of the movement was in support of the working class, of which the blue shirt working class cops were very much a part of. They too had been systematically fucked over for decades by the system. But they disappeared and in their place a wall of white shirts appeared and shit got real.
This was Bloomberg’s real army. The white shirts from command central descended upon the park and proceeded to bust heads and attack defenseless protestors with a violence that frankly shook me. Tables were turned over. People were thrown to the ground. Some were dragged away and bloodied. Makeshift tents and tables were shredded and confiscated and everyone was in a panic. And then it was over. In the maelstrom, I lost my credentials and snapped as many pictures as I could before hightailing into the street and away from the park.
Bloomberg’s white shirts were just there to hand out beatings, nothing more. Sent in to break the Occupier’s spirit. These people were protesting the big banks and Wall Streeters, every one of which spent their days staring at Bloomberg terminals. The irony was lost on no one.
In the weeks to come actors, musicians, poets and luminaries would make their way through Zuccotti to show their support. It was common to see Mark Ruffalo, Kanye West, Tom Morello, Cornel West, Chris Hedges and others. But through it all, the park belonged to the people.
The movement against Corporatocracy had taken hold and found its footing in the park. And while the media struggled to parse a bumper sticker message from the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Occupiers continued to grow in numbers, awakening America’s dormant revolutionary spirit. Bank Transfer Day on November 5th became one of the first tangible manifestations of the Occupy phenomenon whereby Americans were encouraged to move their money from large public banking institutions to community banks and, more specifically, member-owned credit unions.
Millions of Americans did exactly that. Occupy was having an impact.
As the Occupiers celebrated this tangible victory, the Bloomberg administration continued to vehemently crack down. I visited the park as often as I could, but my trips were sporadic. As a member of the press it felt awkward at times to simply observe what was happening, as the temptation to participate was palpable. As the days wore on and the weather worsened, conditions in the park became grim. But Occupy was scoring victories and finally having an impact in the media.
The Empire Struck Back
On November 15th I awoke to the news that Zuccotti Park had been cleared overnight. Most knew this moment would arrive, but it was still disheartening. Two days later I returned to lower Manhattan and wrote the following piece.
The police barricaded the corner of William and Pine streets in lower Manhattan, preventing the tributary of protestors who had broken off from the main throng from doubling back toward Wall Street. Cordoned off, several chose to sit in the street and accept incarceration in the name of civil disobedience.
It’s 9 a.m. on Nov. 17, the International Day of Action for the Occupy Wall Street movement. The arrests are just beginning.
I’m aware of the time because, for a moment, everything is eerily silent but for the sound of the bell from Our Lady of Victory Church tolling above us. The din of the helicopters overhead and the shouts of “Shame!” as protestors are dragged into the nearby NYPD van fade away while the bell rings for what seems like an eternity.
As the last chime echoes in the street, the cacophony returns as though someone is controlling the volume button to the soundtrack of dissent. Gradually, my eyes return to the scene unfolding in front of the church door, which bears a quote from Cardinal Spellman that reads: “This Holy Shrine is dedicated to Our Lady of Victory in Thanksgiving for Victory won by our valiant dead, our soldier’s blood, our Country’s tears, shed to defend men’s rights and win back men’s hearts to God.”
How strange that a church, born during World War II and forged in blood, should serve as the backdrop for the nation’s symbolic struggle against the excesses of the neighborhood it calls home. America’s new Civil War is spilling onto the streets of cities throughout the country; and here, in this moment, it is raging beneath a monument to our spiritual and temperate selves.
Over the past few years, I have made no secret of my contempt for Wall Street and the insidious corporate interests that run this nation. Admiration for the Occupy Wall Street movement has gushed from my fingertips and poured onto the page, as I am perpetually amazed at the breadth and fervor of the burgeoning revolution. Being here, seeing it evolve and take shape so quickly, so dramatically, has influenced every corner of my mind. Those of us who believe America has been co-opted by greed and fallen victim to radical nihilism view the agitation of the 99% as the manifestation of our nation’s morality, if such a thing can possibly exist.
The question of morality is central to America’s struggle. We perceive ourselves as a good and righteous nation, purveyors of liberty. At times this has been the case. Often, however, our actions belie this view of ourselves, particularly during imperialistic periods of expansion. To wit, we spent the better part of the 19th century expanding our empire to its natural boundaries, squashing and annihilating the indigenous people of the continent every step of the way. Then we deified the likes of Andrew Jackson by imprinting his likeness on our currency, thus bestowing him with the greatest honor of a capitalist society. These are not the actions of a moral nation, but victories such as these in the name of Manifest Destiny have always served to rationalize our pursuit of omnipotence.
The first half of the 20th century held more promise. The country as we know it today was nearly assembled and America was finally recognized as a dominant player on the world stage. Our financial and military ascension gave weight to the Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary, which established complete hegemony in our hemisphere. Yet despite Teddy Roosevelt’s bellicose nature and hawkish views, his and most subsequent administrations tended toward isolationism. Between the great wars, which were seen as moral imperatives, there was work to be done at home. And during this time, America hammered out a legal, industrial and economic infrastructure that fully recognized our potential as a nation.
Internally, this approach also allowed us to focus on social issues such as equal pay and civil rights in the latter half of the century. Unfortunately, while the nation toiled away at crafting a system that recognized the rights of all of its citizens, we began behaving badly in the rest of the world. At precisely the halfway mark of the 20th century we became embroiled in the fighting in Korea. This conflict and the conjuring of bogeymen in far-off lands presaged an era of unprecedented immorality when we would conduct costly battles against phantom enemies. More precisely, it marked the beginning of the Military Industrial Complex.
In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn describes the dawn of this era as “an old lesson learned by governments: that war solves problems of control. Charles E. Wilson, the president of General Electric Corporation, was so happy about the wartime situation that he suggested a continuing alliance between business and the military for a permanent war economy.” Two million Koreans and 36,000 Americans perished in the formation of our newfound ideology, which continued into Vietnam and, most recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan. America has exported fear and death in the name of democracy but in the actual pursuit of oil and natural resources.
But our politicians did not go it alone. No one person owns these deeds. Over the past few decades the interests of Christian Fundamentalists, Wall Street tycoons, the ruling class and individuals of enormous wealth have gradually coalesced in the quest for a new world order. They are the 1%. They are the reason I’m standing almost nose-to-nose with a cop in riot gear, his club drawn and his eyes fixed on me as I chronicle the events by the church.
There are those who decry Occupy Wall Street as unpatriotic, misguided, or worse. These are understandable reactions to an uncomfortable reality. The reality is that OWS is more than a movement to restore sanity to the financial markets and equality to our economy. OWS is a cry for help from America’s id. It is the realization that we have strayed not only from the optimistic perception of ourselves but also from what we strive to be as a country.
Ultimately this is a test of our commitment, not to democracy, but to humanity. It is more than free speech or the right to peaceably assemble. This is about the right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” As a free, democratic society this is the penultimate failsafe, the last opportunity before total revolutionary collapse.
So as the Occupiers continue to refine their message, our political leaders would be wise to listen carefully. This is not a dress rehearsal. This is a very real battle; perhaps the first battle truly worthy of the inscription at Our Lady of Victory.
Capitalism has only succeeded to the extent it has because it inherently recognizes the most fundamental quality of our nature: greed. But capitalism can only thrive within a democracy that cradles, coddles and spoon-feeds free enterprise with regulations that govern conduct. It’s this necessity that is lost upon my libertarian friends who seek to abolish anything that would impede free markets and entrepreneurs as though successful Americans weren’t aided by laws that protect their ideas and property, infrastructure that allows the passage of trade and trustworthy currency with which to transact.
But we know now, Unf*ckers, where the roots of these concepts reach. They start in the Chicago School and spread throughout think tanks and Murdoch’s media, in the careerist hallways of the RNC and DNC, out across the nation in statehouses and in every boardroom in America.
If Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan and Rupert Murdoch and Mitch McConnell are still winning, then what was it for?
What should we make of the fearless cadre of revolutionaries who raged against the machine in the belly of the beast on Wall Street? The ones who tried to dismantle the system and captured the imagination of the next generation, but only for a moment. Why didn’t it work? What if it had?
Imagining the almost unthinkable collapse of capitalism brings to mind the words of Mao Tse-tung, who pondered this fate and concluded that “humanity left to its own does not necessarily re-establish capitalism, but it does re-establish inequality.”
If human nature presupposes that we are destined as Mao says to re-establish such a system with such unbearable inequality, then what are we to do with our empire, as it exists today? These are the questions I pondered then and am still in search of as we work through this audio journey together. Every ten years. Every fucking decade. One step forward, countless steps back.
The corruption of Nixon and our attempt to rebuild.
A decade later and the Reagan revolution obliterated the middle class.
A decade more and Clinton ushers in the era of Mass Incarceration.
Another decade on and Bush institutionalized Islamophobia in our foreign policy and slaughters hundreds of thousands of innocents abroad while pampering the 1% at home.
Another decade, another financial crisis and another feeble attempt to undergird the poorest among us with policies scripted by corporations and more giveaways to the 1%.
And now here we are. Another decade on and the struggle for equity continues.
So why cheer this moment? Why look back at the Occupy movement as a success and try to get ahead of the other shows before they offer their half-baked and paltry criticism and move on?
Because of the language.
Occupy is what inspired my work for a decade and prompted me to turn to this format and reach out to all of the Unf*ckers in the world. Occupy gave us a new shared language of dissent. The corporate class couldn’t hide from it.
The 99%. Income inequality. Indigenous rights. Mass incarceration. Modern colonialism. Occupy scared the fuck out of the establishment and gave rise to the modern progressive movement because the Occupiers got it right. They knew the buttons to push and the levers to pull. They went after the bastards on Wall Street and the feckless politicians who do their bidding.
In the beginning, it was laser focused and they succeeded in this one thing, and that’s all that matters. They succeeded in tying it all back to greed and inequality. When policy is pursued first and foremost through the lens of inequality, suddenly it’s all clear. Divided schools, crumbling infrastructure, wage stagnation, boom and bust, mass incarceration, structural racism, all of it.
It’s why the end of Dr. King’s life was dedicated to the Poor People’s Campaign. He understood after decades of agitation and protest that nothing would fundamentally change unless and until we altered the balance of power and created opportunity through equality.
To me, that’s the legacy and lesson of Occupy. That’s what it got right and what we inherited in our fight to restore balance to our politics and lift people out of poverty.
As for the Occupiers, well, that’s a different story. Some went full alt-right. In fact, the roots of the alt-right, the real scary shit online, can be pretty easily traced back to some of the hackers that helped kick off the movement. Others are still raging against the machine. Some hung it up. But the beauty of Occupy was that there was no head. No icon. No spokesperson. And with no fallen idol or titular head of the movement to degrade, it can live on forever if we choose.
Ultimately, I possess somewhat of a quixotic optimism. That despite the issues that plague our system, there is hope that we can still exact a proper balance between economy, ecology and morality.
It’s why I do this every week. It’s why you listen.
Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park in those initial weeks was perhaps the single greatest expression of democracy to occur in my lifetime. So far.
Here’s hoping there is more to come because as much as the language of dissent from Occupy matters, we are - still - the 99%.
Here endeth the tribute.