What was Occupy? Glittering lights strung up, the people learning movement songs together, gathered up in fellowship eating meals prepared by many hands, food from kindhearted strangers and grocery store dumpsters: on the best nights, it was like that.
But then again. Rain pounding on tent roofs, couples quarreling, the odor of garbage coming up from the street, police prowling the edges of camp: some nights were like that, too.
For some it wasn’t more than another news segment, a blip in history, background noise. For others, it was a collective cry of anguish, a confrontation and a reckoning and a promise, the opening shots of revolutionary action—and the forging of bonds between ragged, downwardly mobile people who were lost and needed each other. Where they loved and lost and found direction and went astray. A precursor to movements to come. A warning.
“It was such a long time ago, Katie,” everyone says.
I met some of them when I was a lost hippie kid growing up in Washington, D.C., a sheltered suburban teenager. I dipped in and out of Occupy a few times, but mostly, I watched it from afar. I was just too young to camp out, but I did go there just to see it, to listen to the music and serve oatmeal and help organize the camp library, to get lost in the marches as the crowds crossed my path. It ended, as it began, in my senior year of high school, but the ghost of Occupy would follow us through the years. Its language and gestures and habits and patterns would re-emerge, in newly invigorated left organizing and environmental movements and mutual aid amidst disaster, and in many other spaces created by the spark of action and the collective efforts of close comrades.
The movement roared to life almost exactly ten years ago: September 17, 2011. Deploying language that evoked class warfare and economic inequality in a way that hadn’t been seen in at least two decades, accompanied by the striking visual of colorful, twenty-four-hour protest encampments in public squares, what began as a cry against Wall Street soon spread all throughout the country and the world, inspiring admiration and fear. Billionaires began to invest in bunkers. Christopher Nolan projected the elite fear of the mob in his hamfisted Batman films. The Washington Post tried to make jokes about “Occubabies.”
But on the street, people stumbled into camps all the time; for some, it grabbed them and it held them tight. Now, ten years later—riding on the movement’s wake after all this time—I wanted to check in with the people who’d been deep, deep in it, the people who’d camped out on the streets for it, gone to jail for it, screamed their throats hoarse in the halls of power and puzzled through consensus models and byzantine working groups, many engulfed in their first experience of mass struggle.
Occupy D.C. was the encampment I went to, and the one whose alumni I’ve interacted with the most. It is they that I reached out to on this ten-year anniversary, and it is they whose experiences are reflected here. Their stories are not meant to stand in for the whole of the Occupy experience, but instead to put a mirror up to it, illuminate something about these ten years since.
Mike got to Occupy on the heels of a deployment to Iraq. Eighteen years old, patriotic, protective of himself as the one of the few Black people in Anchorage, Alaska, Mike had believed he was serving his country when he interrogated local men about weapons of mass destruction. “I told one detainee I was here for democracy, and he laughed in my face,” Mike says. “He said, ‘I’m not even religious, I’m fighting you because you killed my friends and family.’”
Mike returned home three months later with not much to his name but guilt and a PTSD diagnosis. What’s more, he returned to a country in the depths of the Great Recession. Nobody had a fucking job. So Mike went to D.C., drawn to, he says, “the heart of power.” He didn’t have much going for him either, so when he saw an Occupy flyer at a store, he decided to check it out.
The camp had just gotten started at McPherson Square. Tents had gone up, and the overnighters were camping out twenty-four hours a day. The communal kitchen, the lending library full of movement books, the stage, the welcome tent all came to life. It was more than an urban camp-out, though. The weeks were filled with righteous rage, with the confrontation of power—a confrontation Mike hungered for. Soon after that Mike found himself in a group that interrupted a House subcommittee meeting. Mike gathered up all his anger about his years of service, and shouted it right in the defense secretary’s face. It was his first arrest, and but for Mike, it was triumphant. “It was cathartic,” Mike says. “I remember crying.”
Mike wasn’t the only one whose politics flipped a switch in camp. Another camper, Antoinette, was unemployed, a downwardly mobile recent college graduate from a Mexican family. She used to want to be a cop. She saw something about Occupy online and decided to see for herself. Occupy gifted her with her first arrest, too, with all the strange indignities attendant to that. She remembers eating bologna sandwiches in jail. “They treat you like a piece of meat.” You could hear the smile through the phone. “I’m a pretty hardcore abolitionist now.”
I asked every camper I spoke with to describe what it was like. They all struggled a little. “You try to explain this entire society that evolved this quickly, with intensity, with purpose…” Kelly says, and trails off. She’s thinking about explaining it to her kid, and her kids’ friends, who’ve never seen such a thing in all their days. “When you explain, some peoples’ eyes glaze over. Others wish there was something like that now. It seems so impossible, so magical.”
Jami’s words float out from a house somewhere in Austin, Texas, where she bakes bread and runs a cleaning business. She’s got dinner in the oven and she’s telling her kid to put on his pajamas one minute, reminiscing the next. “Who was there?” Jami says. “Hippie kids. New age types who’d end up going QAnon. Super anarchist. Super… Biden.”
Their lives would diverge, but in that moment, they were there on a gut feeling: that life was unfair and the people who’d made it so had names and addresses. That the system, such as it was, was unstable, untenable. It deserved to be toppled, in favor of something new and kinder in its place, and it needed a push.
They all came together in the General Assembly to, somehow, make decisions and give the movement direction. The GA was the core decisionmaking body of Occupy. Based off a consensus model, anyone who wanted to have their say could speak it to the crowd. Facilitators guided the discussions and eventually divided some GAs in some cities into working groups. All describe them as beautiful, chaotic experiments, liberating and also a pain in the butt. Jami says people hated them. “But that’s direct democracy. In representative democracy people take the mic for you.”
“Our unofficial motto was ‘Fuck the GA,” Rusty says, from somewhere in Minneapolis. It could evolve or devolve at a moment’s notice. It could rouse its participants to a night of action, into collective clarity and dynamism; it could mire them in hours of bickering and infighting. “Even in a group of rebels you have people rebelling against the rebels.” And anyone could walk off the street, join the GA, and block a decision, stalling the meeting out. But some of the GA’s innovations—twinkling fingers when agreeing to save time, facilitation tools like “progressive stack,” which brings marginalized voices to the front—persist in movement spaces to this day.
Everyone brought their trauma with them, as we will all bring ours into whatever brave new world we try to create. One night, a veteran had a full-on flashback to Iraq. Something in the lights had convinced him that he was back there. He ran around camp, ducking and hiding, screaming and threatening. Rusty, with the rest of the de-escalation team, talked him down, but it shook them bad.
Rusty is grateful to Occupy for teaching them to be careful about who they trust. Not everyone at camp was kind. Respected leaders used and abused women. Plenty of people were mistreated, assaulted, left with only bitterness and sorrow.
But despite its failings, Occupy became Rusty’s whole purpose. Unemployed at the start of the occupation, twenty or so years old, Rusty pinned their hopes on it, structured a life around it.
“One of the most amazing things Occupy did was create a place for people who were lost,” Kelly says. “It gave them hope. I’m sad that that doesn’t exist for a lot of people right now.” Kelly was older than many participants at 35, and was an atypical camper in that she had a house and a child. But they all made sacrifices. “Being there came at a cost to almost everyone,” Kelly says. “A lot of people gave up everything, dropped out of school, left home. Afterwards there wasn’t a plan. They were screwed.”
In February, after five months of sustained protest, police tore the camp down. Participants say that even as camp encountered difficulties, the death knell came not from within it, but from the months of state surveillance and harassment, and, that day, wholesale destruction. In D.C., Antoinette, Rusty, and others made a last stand in their blue Peace Tent around the statue of Civil War-era Union General James B. McPherson, until they were picked off one by one. After that, in D.C. and elsewhere, the movement inevitably declined. Many found that as the camp fell apart, so too did all of their support, their meals, their home. They were out on the street.
For almost two years, Rusty and around fifty other ex-Occupiers strung together a life from couch to couch, from street to shelter. And Rusty was lucky—they had friends to crash with and family an hour away. A substantial number of the kids who had come to camp were runaways. Maybe a couple were trust fund kids, but most were poor. They were gay kids kicked out of their houses, small-town kids looking for adventure, kids with unstable homes, with nothing to lose and no real support system or reliable family to return to.
Jami had traveled to Occupy with a crew of houseless traveling kids like that.
“I don’t know who I was before,” Jami says. “I was an idiot. I was a fuckin’ hippie kid. I was a traveler. We were free.”
But when the police tore the camp down, the dreams of freedom dissipated into an urgent need to survive. Jami and her friends moved into houses together, tried to continue the work. They whiled away the strange, nebulous aftermath at a place called the Peace House, hosting protests and campaign meetings. A core member passed away, revealing fissures and cracks in the house’s delicate social network. The deceased had paid the bills and organized the house’s teach-ins and events, governed its rhythms. Jami, too, paid bills, leaving her resentful of those who didn’t. Others in the house, for a variety of reasons, struggled to hold down jobs or were hostile to the idea of doing so. They yearned for the simpler and more straightforward struggles of camp, and for the onward drumbeat of what felt like revolution. Petty disagreements turned into feuds, dishes went unwashed, lovers turned to enemies. Even the building itself seemed to be falling apart. “The house felt sick,” Jami says.
One night in D.C., Jami sat in vigil, staring at the cold, marble facade of the White House, police cars lining the street alongside. No one is looking out for me, she thought. What am I going to do with the rest of my life? In a moment of clarity, Jami decided to strike out on her own.
From afar, she watched the Peace House’s first incarnation finally crumble away, evicted by a liberal landlord for non-payment. Erased from the gentrifying downtown, it reconstituted on the outskirts, in a Maryland suburb. (Not one of the rich ones.) The Peace House eventually got some of its groove back and today runs self-defense trainings, mutual aid projects, and political campaigns, just as it had in those first uncertain days after Occupy’s destruction. The Peace House is one of the many contemporary enclaves of radicalism where the energy and ethos of Occupy lives on, or has been resurrected.
As to all the other erstwhile kids? Some of them are still on the street. Some are dead. Some of them found their way eventually. Some of them are okay, or okay as you can be, making it out in the world.
“It was so long ago, Katie.”
Like any movement history, Occupy’s legacy has been warped by a decade-long game of telephone. Many tried to capitalize on its name, from social media pages that slowly outlived their usefulness, to nonprofits with carefully staged and well-funded direct actions with little intention of truly challenging capitalism, to Micah White, a man claiming to have founded Occupy, who attends Davos and wrote a book calling for the end of protest.
Through all of it, Mike kept his ear to the ground, trying not to lose sight of his principles. He felt burned out after Occupy, but continued to join organizations in hopes of finding a new movement home. Some bummed him out, with their overwhelming whiteness and political stagnation. The Bernie Sanders campaign seemed to grow directly from Occupy class discourse, and that was promising to Mike, but still not quite it. He saw Black movements pursuing unapologetically radical demands and followed their lead. At Occupy, Mike was around more Black people than he ever had been in Alaska, and he loved that, but he still had to contend with the movement’s blinkered racial attitudes there every day. “They didn’t realize how divisive and privileged they were,” Mike says.
Black-led movements like the Ferguson protests of 2014 and the George Floyd Rebellion of 2020 seemed to Mike like a natural evolution in response to multiple entangled injustices: a movement with a lineage separate from Occupy, but with a similar fire and spark, And it also evinced a cogent racial politics, and a willingness by white participants to take risks for Black lives. “White people destroying stuff because a Black man was killed by police?” Mike says. “That’s progress.” What’s more, these movements are winning concessions. Victory is far from theirs yet, but the demands are at least coherent. Unlike Occupy, Black radicalism has clearer view of what a real win is, and what it isn’t.
“The things Occupy talked about are coming to a head now,” Mike says. Most of the younger Occupiers, however their lives have unfolded since those days, are under the same strains faced by their elders in 2008. When they were eighteen, at least some of it was theoretical. But with kids and aging parents to care for, the mounting pressures of student debt and stagnant wages—and now with storms and fires that swallow cities, wars that have lasted for a generation, a pandemic, further crises on the horizon—the old words take on a new level of urgency. Mike is raising a kid, now, back in Anchorage, where he cuts trees for the city. He’s not paid nearly enough, and he lives in subsidized housing. An okay life, he says, but it could be a lot better.
Jami admits she’s kind of conservative now, in a way she didn’t expect to be. To hear her tell it, nothing has come easy, and she feels she’s earned what she has. Stability is a gift, and baking and running her cleaning business have made her feel free in a way sleeping on the street never did. She thinks of her old Peace House comrades and feels sad sometimes. They came in screaming for help, she says, and they never got it.
That desperation was never quite as salient for Antoinette. She came to Occupy with curiosity and came out with purpose. She’s a lawyer now, defending tenants from eviction in Chicago, attempting to use her privilege as best she can.
Rusty aches for a time when the stakes felt lower. Sometimes, they head out into the street to counter-protest the kind of fringe reactionaries that seemed like less of a force in 2012—the kind of people who stood on street corners with huge pictures of blue-eyed babies and screamed abortion is murder, the kind of people who made up a movement parallel to Occupy called the Tea Party, many of whom are now called the alt-right. “There was a protest with twelve marching in 2012,” Rusty remembers. “In 2017 there were hundreds. And then thousands in 2021, storming the Capitol.” The latter group including Rusty’s own father. Then came riots in D.C., where reactionaries stabbed multiple people. “Because people organized out in the open,” Rusty says. “We need more open organizations to fight the alt-right.”
“New radicals are more radical,” Rusty says, with a hopeful tone. Rusty espouses the common understanding that Occupy normalized class-conscious language and fueled the later left resurgence, paved some of the way. Rusty also expresses amazement at how many engage in movement work now, and how young they all are, many at an age that Rusty spent spiritually at sea and economically drowning.
As for Kelly, she’s been running anti-fossil fuel campaigns, chaining herself to natural gas pipelines, fighting for the survival of the planet in her chosen way. She’s seen so much carry forward from that time: the language of the 99%, collective decisionmaking models, affinity groups and direct action tactics. Occupy’s time is past, she says, but she’s proud of where she’s seen people go since it ended, even if life is tough.
“It feels like the house is burning down,” Kelly says. But when you have a longer perspective, you see things are changing a lot. Things are not done… If you lose whatever fight you’re in right now, take a minute, collect yourself, and do it again. It’s always roiling. You can tag in and out.”
Jami’s tagged out for now, Rusty’s in, Mike’s in, Kelly’s in, Antoinette says she’s somewhere in between. I’d say that’s where I am too. I think maybe we all wonder where we’ll when it happens again—or what the next inevitable Occupy or Ferguson George Floyd Rebellion is, even as we still feel the ramifications of the last. Where is the next net to catch us all, in our discontent?
Mike doesn’t think he’d try anything like it soon. He’s looking to build slow, shift thinking and culture, obtain concrete wins and deliver on promises. Movements can’t bloom and wilt like flowers, he says. They need to be protected by organization and discipline and dedication—a long-term vision that’s about more than a spectacle, even one as intoxicating as the occupations. “When we collapsed, it was demoralizing,” he says. “I don’t want to do that to people again. Asking people to become revolutionaries is asking a lot, and we need to be able to explain ourselves every step of the way.”
When I’m back in D.C., I sometimes cross McPherson Square on my way to wherever I’m going. The memories bound up with that place flash like lightning across my mind. I want to stumble into another moment, share it with the people of my city, flood the streets and huddle together with my chosen family at the end of the night. If it came, would I drop my life, toss it aside with abandon, and let myself be swept again into the streets? Maybe I would, in these lonesome times.
The utopian dream was far from being realized even in the best moments of Occupy itself, and by some accounts, it had grown ragged and tired even before the state stamped it out. But the ground we walk on today feels if anything less solid than it did then, and we have to wonder when it’s all going to slip again, toward some next great cry out into the world.
And if that next counterattack against capital is gathering strength, what will it mean for the spark to nourish something sustainable, to gather the tinder on which to build another fire? Will it speak more truly to working people than the call of the alt-right? Will it make promises it can keep, hold its own accountable to creating a new world in their actions as well as their ideas, organize in the open? Is it waiting in the wings for people to call upon it, or is it already here, has it been here, all these ten years and more? These are questions the Occupiers ask, as somewhere and everywhere that gnaw of discontent churns in the hearts of working class young people and the people who were their age when Occupy first flooded the streets and squares—in the echoes that have resounded, again and again, all throughout the long decade since.♦
Katie Myers is a writer living somewhere between east Tennessee and east Kentucky. She works as a reporter for WMMT FM, a community radio station in the Kentucky mountains.
Cover image by Glenn Halog. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0).