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The Surprising Legacy Of Occupy Wall Street In 2020


For the last decade or so, America and the world have been rocked by mass protest movements - the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter and the latest pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and elsewhere. At times, these moments have seemed scattered and unfocused. Does that mean they failed? Well, NPR's Sam Sanders looks at one disorganized movement and the effect it's had on today's politics.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: The Occupy Wall Street movement officially began on September 17, 2011. The country was still reeling from the financial crisis. Protesters and activists gathered to protest extreme inequality. They took over Zuccotti Park, right in Manhattan's financial district.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Occupy Wall Street all day, all week. Occupy Wall Street...

SANDERS: Nelini Stamp was there on that first day.

NELINI STAMP: I mean, I wasn't even going to stay that first night. I remember talking to somebody and they're like, eh, you'll be OK. It'll be gone by Monday. But then when we went - when we did that first march to opening bell...

SANDERS: The opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange. That's when Stamp said, hey, this could be something. I feel it.

STAMP: That sensation that I get when something is about to happen.

SANDERS: What does that sensation feel like?

STAMP: It's just like - it's a spidey (ph) sense.

SANDERS: Protesters occupied Zuccotti Park for three months. Other Occupy encampments popped up all over the country. Eventually, Occupy was front-page news. But by November 2011, those protesters were kicked out of the park. Headlines faded. This was an occupation no more - well, not quite.

Once the park is cleared, where did that energy move next?

JONATHAN MATTHEW SMUCKER: It moved a lot of different places.

SANDERS: That is Jonathan Matthew Smucker, former occupier, currently with an activist group called Pennsylvania Stands Up. He says after Zuccotti, organizers worked on the foreclosure crisis. They helped start Black Lives Matter. They fought for minimum wage increases. And later...

SMUCKER: There was the Draft Warren campaign in 2015, which didn't succeed, and then those folks went into drafting and supporting Bernie Sanders.

SANDERS: Both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders were convinced to run for president in large part by Occupy activists. And you can hear it. They both rail against big banks. They both talk about the billionaire class and the 1% and inequality. But Sanders and Warren never really say the word occupy.

David S. Meyer is a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine. He studies social movements. Meyer says from the start, Occupy and a lot of other recent protest movements, they organize themselves in ways that make them unfriendly, if not downright icy, to traditional politicians and the hierarchies they represent. Meyer points to one story involving a member of the U.S. House.

DAVID S MEYER: John Lewis, the civil rights hero, went to Occupy Atlanta, which was in or near his district, and he wanted to offer a statement of support.

SANDERS: Before Lewis could speak, first Occupy debated whether that should happen. There's video of this on YouTube.




UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: ...About Congressman...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: ...About Congressman...



UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: ...Addressing the assembly...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: ...Addressing the assembly...



SANDERS: Meyer says this went on for a while.

MEYER: And John Lewis stayed for about 20 minutes while the discussion went on, and then he left. He never addressed the crowd.

SANDERS: Occupy was so disorganized they couldn't even agree to let a civil rights hero on stage. Charles Lenchner worked on digital strategy for the Occupy movement. He went on to help found People for Bernie. Lenchner says there also was no structure in place to ensure that Occupy lasted.

CHARLES LENCHNER: So let's say that there was a millionaire somewhere who said, I love this energy; I have a check for $10 million. There would be nowhere to give it. There would be no effective way to spend that money in a productive way. And let me tell you - people tried.

SANDERS: Occupy couldn't even agree on how to take a check. In spite of that, Nelini Stamp, former Occupier now with the Working Families Party, she says whether you recognize it or not, Occupy wins exist everywhere - sometimes in really concrete ways.

STAMP: The minimum wage raises that we've seen across the country. We talked about wages. We talked about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Like, here we go.

SANDERS: And former Occupier Daniel London Heart (ph), he says it fundamentally changed the Democratic Party.

DANIEL LONDON HEART: Occupy created a kind of party within the party, a counterculture within the Democratic Party.

SANDERS: So much so that one of the leading Democratic candidates for president, Bernie Sanders, he is not in the Democratic Party; he calls himself a socialist. Seeing something like that as a victory for Occupy - really seeing any victory for Occupy - it requires changing the way you look at the life cycle of a movement, any movement. It doesn't end at the park or even when the march is done.

Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.