Whatever happened to Occupy?

A year ago, thousands converged on Wall Street, leading to a wave of global anti-capitalist protests. Laurie Penny visits Zuccotti Park in New York and talks to the remaining 'Occupiers' trying to rejuvenate the movement

Laurie Penny
Monday 17 September 2012 15:38 BST

Rina can't sleep. It's two-thirty in the morning and on Wall Street, on a small strip of pavement outside Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan, about 50 people are sleeping rough. They are rolled in blankets and sleeping bags, hoods pulled up around their ears against the drone of traffic and far-away sirens. One police car is on patrol to keep an eye on them. They smoke and ask passers-by for water. Some of them are a bit grubby. A slogan chalked on the pavement reads: "The dirty ones are on Wall Street."

There's a point being made with this strategic sleeping.

"Look, here in the heart of the financial district of the richest city on earth there is still the puzzling problem of homelessness," says Rina, who is 19 and wearing pyjamas under her dress. "There are abandoned spaces in urban centres all over America, and yet people still don't have homes. Why is that?"

One year ago, a few feet down the road, Occupy Wall Street began – the first protest camp at Zucotti park igniting a wave of anti-capitalist, anti-austerity protests across the world, from Melbourne to London. Tonight it's just these few sleepers and one reporter, me, where a year ago you couldn't move for press. What happened between then and now?

Contrary to popular opinion, Occupy never entirely went away. There are still hundreds of people across New York, and thousands across America and Europe, whose lives are still devoted to what became known as the Occupy "movement".

Many gave up everything to be part of the occupations that sprang up across the world and now they have nowhere else to go.

In the city where it all started, regular meetings still take place, and organising is going on in the boroughs, but media interest has dwindled. Celebrities and big brands are no longer falling over themselves to access this twist in the zeitgeist: radical is no longer chic. Last week, multi-millionaire rapper Jay-Z, who cashed in at the height of the Occupations with T-shirts reading "Occupy All Streets," told the New York Times that he never really knew what the whole thing was about anyway.

Across the world, the question being asked in time for the anniversary is: "What happened to Occupy?" The question implies that the occupations simply drifted, that the activists involved lost interest and lacked direction. But none of the major camps disbanded of their own accord: all of them, from New York to London and beyond, were evicted by force, with batons and tear gas and hundreds of arrests, by police forces bent on ensuring that sustained dissent against big banks and government-imposed austerity would not be allowed to continue.

Without police intervention against peaceful protests would many of the occupations – some of which withstood blizzards – still be there?

"Support from the mainstream has slowly dwindled, and it's dwindled for the wrong reasons," says Logan Price, a long-standing organiser with Occupy and other groups in America. "The police had a carte blanche to do whatever they wanted to, and acted within the interests of the mayors and Homeland Security, to go and break up the occupations and never let them come back. Here in New York, it's become normal that every time anybody tries to protest, the police will react heavy handedly. In effect, the right to civil assembly has been suspended in New York."

Back outside Wall Street, another young man is arrested. His crime was knocking on the window of the police car to wake up an officer who had fallen asleep on the job, at which point five more officers swooped to cuff him and take him away. The noise wakes most of the sleepers: those on their feet yell: "We love you, Will!"

Will was one of around 25 protesters to be arrested during one of the first days of action planned for the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. These include plans to surround the New York Stock Exchange this morning. Hundreds are flocking to New York to take part, and the officers of the NYPD are waiting for them.

In the past year, more than 7,500 activists have been arrested for being involved in peaceful Occupy actions in America alone, drawing criticism across the world, including from the UN's "special rapporteur" for the protection of free expression, Frank La Rue, who said crackdowns appeared to be violating the demonstrators' human and constitutional rights.

The impact on the "Obama generation", who elected a government on their campaign promises of hope and change, do not remain unaffected by the treatment of the protesters.”

"I wouldn't vote in this election even if I could," says one protester, who'd just turned 17 and gives his name as "Envy". "This election is kind of funny. It seems like we can either choose between going downhill gradually, or going downhill fast."

Envy sits swinging his feet off the scaffolding, a young black man watching police officers drag away another young black man involved in the protests. It would not be an unusual sight in the deprived boroughs on the outer edge of Brooklyn. This, however, is the financial district.

"In the beginning, Occupy was a sanctuary, a safe haven for me," he says, his multiple piercings sparkling as his face moves. He says he dropped out of school because there didn't seem to be any point in attending, but has gone back because he has experienced a loving community and something to fight for.

"I will never forget my 16th year, ever," he says.

In years to come, when people tell the story of Occupy Wall Street, it will not be a great, big tale but a constellation of small stories, such as Envy's.

One of the police officers who arrested Will comes back to remonstrate with the sleepers camped on the sidewalk. "People are trying to sleep around here," he says.

The occupiers tell him that they are being robbed by the people across the street at the stock exchange and could he possibly deal with it?

The officer tells them all to keep it down. "It's been a year," he says. "The police have been more than patient with you people," he adds. "Please, just be quiet now."

The camps, 12 months on

Hong Kong: One of the longest-running Occupy encampments came to an end earlier this month after a court order allowed bailiffs to forcibly remove groups of activists from outside HSBC's Asian headquarters.

London: The Occupy protests reached London almost a month after the first tents began appearing in New York. Activists were evicted from their encampment outside St Paul's in January, but some say their efforts have made the public more likely to react to financial scandals.

Toronto: Supporters of Occupy Toronto plan to march to Parliament Hill today to "Stop [Prime Minister] Harper and demand real democracy". The group says it plans to hold a rally with speakers, followed by a "peoples' parliament" gathering.

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