Occupy veterans' first birthday wish is to continue the fight
A year after New York demonstrators sparked a global outcrop of tented protests, Toby Green asks if they left a lasting legacy
Twelve months ago today, it would have been hard to guess Zuccotti Park was about to become the centre of a global movement. A rather non-descript plaza in lower Manhattan, a little north of Wall Street, there was not much more to it than being somewhere for workers to sit and eat their sandwiches.
Yet, by the afternoon of the following day, a crowd of close to a thousand protestors had gathered in the park, with many ending up sleeping there that night. Occupy Wall Street had begun.
By the time the campers were evicted by police two months later, the Occupy movement had spread across the world including, of course, to London. Yet on the eve of Occupy Wall Street's anniversary, little remains of the movement's protests, with Zuccotti Park unoccupied and the tents long since cleared from outside St Paul's Cathedral. So what has been the legacy of Occupy and where does it go next?
Although he dislikes being called its "founder", Estonian-born Kalle Lasn was a major figure in the genesis of Occupy Wall Street. He is the co-creator and editor of the Canadian anti-capitalist magazine Adbusters which, back in the summer of 2011, created a poster of the Wall Street bull statue with a ballerina perched on his back accompanied by the question, "What is our one demand?". This was accompanied by a Twitter hashtag #OCCUPYWALLSTREET, a date – September 17th – and a simple command: "Bring tent".
Speaking now, Lasn claims that the "mainstream commercial media is happy to pronounce Occupy dead". However, he says, while "the feeling is that the Zuccotti model, that encampment model, that may be dead … the spirit of Occupy is still alive, very much alive all over the world".
He points to the student strikes in Quebec and Pussy Riot's protest in Moscow, among others, as signs of this: "We don't feel it's dead, we feel it's actually morphed into something new and much more interesting."
It would be almost a month after the first tents appeared in Zuccotti Park until protestors in London – having failed in their original aim to occupy Paternoster Square, home of the London Stock Exchange – ended up outside St Paul's Cathedral.
At the time the Rev Dr Giles Fraser, was the cathedral's canon chancellor, although he was one of a number at St Paul's to resign amid internal divisions over how it approached the protestors' presence. Now priest-in-chief at St Mary's Newington in south London, Fraser believes Occupy "made possible a much greater public participation in that conversation about what sort of society we want and how it's shaped by the City and finance".
Since the St Paul's protestors' eviction in January, a series of revelations have knocked the reputation of the financial sector even lower. Fraser agrees that, after Occupy, the public was quicker to react to scandals such as Libor-fixing: "I think people were much more conversant with some of the issues, they were much less trusting of what was going on in the City".
Robert Gordon is the manager of St Paul's Institute – the Christian think-tank linked to the cathedral which says it "exists to engage the financial world with questions of morality and ethics" – and he points out that if "you look at some of the language that was being used such as the '99 per cent', you can see that's being used in various different places around the world so Occupy certainly has added to the language of the conversation."
Lasn agrees: "We changed the global narrative and got the whole of US and the whole of the world talking about the inequities between the rich and the poor, and the '99 per cent' and the '1 per cent'."
As to whether Occupy has changed the attitudes of those in the financial world, Gordon claims that St Paul's Institute is seeing "more interest in the events we run from people in the City – whether that's a direct influence I can't say, you'd have to ask them."
Not so sure about its effect on the Square Mile is David Buik of financial spread betting firm Cantor Index and a veteran of the City. He made the trip to St Paul's a number of times to talk to protestors, and says that while "they didn't agree with anything that I had to say, which is fair enough … they did listen".
However, he believes the protest failed to change the way the City operates because it "didn't gather any momentum", saying they ended up staying too long: "In my humble opinion they should have gone after a week, then come back with 10,000 people, and then left it and come back in a month's time or two months' time with 100,000 people."
Any legacy, he says, has been forgotten "because the last thing that stuck in people's minds is irritation, when they still have got a very good message."
In terms of the criticism that the Occupy movement has failed to present a coherent argument, Lasn believes that those "first magical many months when we refused to have leaders and we refused to have any specific demands … played itself out perfectly". Now, he claims, there is more of a focus.
The big thing Adbusters has been working on, he says, has been "trying to get economic students all around the world to start some sort of a little insurrection in their departments", and he and the publication have put together a book, Meme Wars: The Creative Destruction of Neoclassical Economics, out in November.
Among a number of events to mark the anniversary, Occupy Wall Street plans to create a human wall around the New York Stock Exchange tomorrow. Despite those who claim it has died away, Lasn's aims for the movement remain high: "Hopefully one of the legacies will be that we played our role in this creative destruction of the global economic system that we've operated under for so long."
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