Ten years ago this month, Occupy Wall Street unexpectedly inaugurated a new wave of protest. The domestic manifestation of a worldwide explosion of digitally networked social movements, it scaled up rapidly, attracting enormous public and media attention. But the protesters were evicted from New York City’s Zuccotti Park and other occupied spaces after only a few months, and Occupy dissipated soon afterward. Some commentators have dismissed it as a meteoric flash in the pan, while others have criticized its “horizontalist” structure and lack of concrete demands.
After speaking recently with more than 20 activists who were centrally involved in the movement, we beg to differ with such negative assessments. “Occupy wasn’t a blip, it was a spark!” declared one, veteran organizer Nastaran Mohit. “It was a turning point, a spark that led to many fires.” Musician and educator Sonny Singh agreed: “It was the beginning of a movement trajectory that we’re still in. Occupy being the catalyst, socialism is cool now.” Mohit and Singh were among the 25 New York Occupy veterans that we interviewed earlier for a study funded by the Russell Sage Foundation and published in 2013, most of whom agreed to speak with us again this year. In that study, titled “Changing the Subject,” we argued that Occupy had shifted the national political conversation to focus on rising inequality and had transformed the political trajectory of the participants themselves—changing the subject in both respects.
As the 10th anniversary of the Zuccotti Park occupation approached, we reconnected with our interviewees to explore their political activities since 2011 and to hear their reflections on Occupy’s legacy. Our earlier research had targeted people who were key architects of the effort as well as others engaged in a broad range of related activities. Some of the interviewees were seasoned organizers with extensive experience in progressive movements; others were younger activists with formidable social media skills, including a few who had been radicalized in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.