Occupy Wall Street, Year Two

Approaching its anniversary, the movement isn't dead. It's growing up.

Strike Debt, a project still in its early stages, looks to build a movement around the broader world of debt—not just mortgages but also student loans, credit card debt, and even municipal and sovereign debt.

Organizers are planning a debt strike in which participants refuse to pay back their onerous loans. They're also laying the groundwork for a "rolling jubilee," buying old debt at pennies on the dollar and forgiving it, using the savings to pay it forward in a self-perpetuating cycle of debt nullification.

Another project, Foreclose the Banks (commonly abbreviated to "F the Banks"), began by attempting to pressure prosecutors and elected officials into pursuing criminal charges against the worst offenders on Wall Street. That has been somewhat successful. Protesters claim credit for creating an atmosphere in which the LIBOR rate-fixing scandal is finally being investigated.

Kevin Vanden/wordpress.com

"Everybody knew that LIBOR was fucked up back in 2008," says Alexis Goldstein, a former finance worker who now works with F the Banks. "Occupy made it really clear that in this election year, you need to do something to at least make people think you're trying to do something about the corruption. That investigation is a direct by-product of Occupy and the political climate that it created. The banks are so powerful that you need that cover for anyone to do anything."

Still, it has become clear that there won't be any meaningful prosecutions of the crimes that caused the crisis, so F the Banks is pivoting to a new strategy: a public shaming campaign against bank executives subject to internal investigations. "Wanted" flyers have already been posted on the Upper East Side and other neighborhoods where the offenders live, and there are plans to use projectors to display incriminating information near their homes and at places such as the Lincoln Center.

"The idea is to make sure all their socialite friends see this," says Aaron Bornstein, an activist involved with the project. "To make them social pariahs."

Even as the project list of the Occupy diaspora grows, there is a new humility among Occupiers. The early sense of exceptionalism, fueled by the youth of many Occupiers, led some to dismiss unions, nonprofits, Democrats and their inside-the-beltway affiliates, and all the other pieces of the institutional left. These groups hadn't brought the change Occupiers sought. At best, they were ineffective. At worst, they were complicit in maintaining the status quo.

That dismissiveness and a steadfast resistance to co-option by these groups made Occupy an especially prickly partner for more experienced organizations looking to make common cause with the new activist juggernaut.

The skepticism remains, but one year in, there's a growing recognition among Occupiers that there is room for collaboration with other groups, coupled with a confidence that Occupy brings something unique and valuable to the table.

"We're getting clearer about what our role is," says Dana Balicki, who's working on the PR side of the anniversary plans. "We're not just another organization co-sponsoring an event. We're here to push the hardest and the farthest, to push the envelope, so others can fill in behind."

That radicalism is tactical as well as philosophical, says Shapiro. "Occupy has a lot of people who are willing to get arrested and put their bodies on the line, and that's useful.

Unions have found Occupiers' willingness to join strikes and pickets especially valuable.

"There are very restrictive labor regulations in this country," says Jackie DiSalvo, a member of Occupy's Labor Outreach Committee. "When the Communication Workers of America have a picket, there are rules about how many people they're allowed to have there. But we're not a union, so when we join them, we can have as many people as we want there."

Beyond this conception of its role as the political vanguard and protest shock troops, Occupiers say they see an even more important role for themselves in social movements going forward. Occupy's radically inclusive, participatory structure doesn't entitle it to dismiss the more hide-bound, hierarchical organizations of the left, they say; it offers an opportunity for Occupy to broker new and closer collaborations among a legendarily fragmented American left.

"More than anything, Occupy is a set of principles and a way of interacting that allows us to create a sort of glue that can bind these different groups together," Bornstein says.

Occupiers claim direct credit for brokering the coalition of labor and immigrant advocates they helped bring together on May Day, a coalition that will continue to bear fruit in the future, they say. Some believe this new atmosphere of collaboration was also on display last month, when locked-out Con Ed workers attracted an almost unprecedented coalition of unions and other organizations to join their cause.

"A lot of these groups were always aware of each other, but they hadn't worked together," Bornstein says. "In the frame of Occupy existing, they see the value of working together in new ways." 

As September 17 approaches, activists across the country are planning to mark the movement's anniversary with a series of actions centered on New York.

Organizers are also deeply aware of the lessons learned over the past year. They are leery of billing September 17 as another make-or-break one-off spectacle and equally reluctant to be drawn into fruitless conflicts with police over efforts to re-create a long-term physical occupation.

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