It's been 10 years since Occupy Wall Street — What's changed?

·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

On Sept. 17, 2011, a group of roughly 200 protesters set up camp in an open square in the heart of New York City’s financial district. The makeshift encampment would remain in place for the next two months. Largely viewed as a curiosity when it started, the Occupy Wall Street movement brought the issue of income inequality to center stage and inspired protests around the world.

Employing the rallying cry “We are the 99 percent,” occupiers railed against the concentration of wealth among the rich, the outsized influence of major corporations and the perceived lawlessness of the financial sector. Polls taken at the time show that the message resonated with Americans, many of whom were still reeling from the Great Recession that had struck a few years earlier.

“I think it expresses the frustrations the American people feel, that we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, huge collateral damage all throughout the country,” then-President Barack Obama said. “And yet you're still seeing some of the same folks who acted irresponsibly trying to fight efforts to crack down on the abusive practices that got us into this in the first place."

Police forced the occupiers out of the encampment in a late-night raid in mid-November. Protesters returned to the location sporadically in the months that followed, but no long-term occupations have taken place since.

Why there’s debate

Many on the left say Occupy Wall Street played a critical role in the ascendance of the progressive political movement in recent years. They say the attention garnered by the two-month protest forced the public to confront the glaring inequalities built into the American economic system. That awareness, they argue, helped elevate politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who are pushing the Democratic Party to the left on a host of economic issues.

Others, including some former occupiers, are more skeptical of the movement's long-term impact. They point to the fact that Occupy Wall Street’s primary goals, like major reform of the banking industry, have not come to pass. In fact, income inequality has only become more severe in the past 10 years.

Others argue that the true legacy of Occupy Wall Street is the strategic breakthroughs it made that have been utilized by subsequent protest movements to great success. They credit occupiers for popularizing the flexible, leaderless structure and social media savvy that have been used by movements like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and climate activism — and to a certain extent, the far right — to great effect in recent years.

What’s next

A key test of how deeply the ideas promoted by Occupy Wall Street have been infused into Democratic politics is the $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill currently being debated among congressional Democrats. In its most recent form, the proposal included massive investments in social safety nets and climate mitigation, funded in part by tax increases on the wealthy and corporations. However, the size of the final package, if one passes at all, is still uncertain.

Perspectives

Occupy created a model for the most successful protest movements of the past decade

“At its core, Occupy made protesting cool again—it brought the action back into activism—as it emboldened a generation to take to the streets and demand systemic reforms: racial justice, women’s equality, gun safety, the defense of democracy.” — Michael Levitin, The Atlantic

Occupy seeded a misguided view of economics in the center of Democratic politics

“The banks undeniably contributed to the mess in which they found themselves, but theirs is just one, heavily regulated sector. Their mistakes say little or nothing about free markets as a whole, but that is not how the story has been told. Occupy Wall Street may have lost on the streets, but it was allowed to win much of the argument. ‘Capitalism’ was put in the dock — yes, yes, if only metaphorically.” — Andrew Stuttaford, National Review

Today’s progressive political movement was kickstarted by Occupy Wall Street

“[Sen. Bernie Sanders] had been making the same speech for 35 years before that. I mean, he updates the stats, which is admirable, but he’s got the same story. And suddenly, there’s an audience ready to listen to it, a larger audience ready to listen to it. ... So when we look at the campaigns about student debt, the Fight for $15, Occupy Homes, all of those things got a big boost from Occupy, even if they didn’t start with Occupy.” — Sociologist David Meyer to Marketplace

Occupy’s influence can be seen in President Biden’s policy agenda

“A new president, who was still a cautious, centrist Democrat back when the Occupy protests erupted, has since adopted a progressive agenda — already cutting child poverty in half, as Congress debates a slew of ambitious social programs and funding them by taxes on ‘the 1 Percent,’ a term launched by the 2011 protests.” — Will Bunch, Philadelphia Inquirer

The movement’s core message still resonates today

“Occupy was the birthplace of some left-wing ideas that have gained mainstream traction: Its ‘99 percent’ mantra, which decried the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few at the expense of the many, has endured.” — Emily Stewart, Vox

Working-class resentment of elites has been a powerful electoral force for both parties

“The Occupy Wall Street movement and the Tea Party both were striking the same nerve when they claimed that power was clustered in the hands of too few individuals who were indifferent to complaints about profligate spending and an emerging American oligarchy. Donald Trump tapped this energy to defeat more than a dozen more traditional contenders for the 2016 Republican nomination, and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren got close to winning the Democratic nod harnessing the same anger.” — Philip Elliot, Time

Occupy Wall Street didn’t accomplish its goals

“Capitalism ... survived pretty much unscathed.” — James Mackintosh, Wall Street Journal

Occupy was never about policy changes. It was about ideas.

“By its anarchist design, Occupy Wall Street wasn’t going to solve any political problems. But it did compile a list of such problems—both officially in its Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, and unofficially in the many ideas swirling around the movement. And Occupy brought together coalitions of people who went on to tackle many of those issues.” — Sean Captain, Fast Company

If anything, the country as a whole has shifted away from Occupy’s ideals

“Political and economic life continued as before in the US and elsewhere, and, if anything, there was a lurch to the populist right, embodied most egregiously by Donald Trump’s election in 2016.” — Andrew Anthony, The Guardian

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

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