Occupy Wall Street Anniversary: Why OWS Still Very Much Matters in Local Politics, One Year Later


Since Occupy Wall Street first gathered in Zuccotti Park 365 days ago, people have debated the movement's impact and where it might go in the future. Most of the one-year anniversary coverage has been focused on the commemorative marches happening across the world, protester arrest statistics, the shrinking member numbers, and critiques of the movement. Beyond New York, critics in cities ranging from Seattle to San Francisco have questioned the direct actions that have taken place under the Occupy banner, as well as the loosely-organized network's overall ability to create real political change.

Occupy has stayed true to its roots as a leaderless, grassroots movement with no specific agenda. But since September 17, 2011, the movement has evolved into a catch-all network of activists protesting and advocating change in their local cities and towns. Despite all the media coverage about the one-year anniversary, it doesn't really matter what happens today in (or in support of ) the Zuccotti Park protest. What matters is what Occupy has done in the past year, and what Occupy activists will do for their local communities in the future.

Just look at a few of the numerous examples of what Occupy Wall Street has already inspired. Occupy branches threw support behind a November 5th "Bank Transfer Day" that shifted over 40,000 people and $80 million from banks to credit unions on that day alone. On December 12, 2011, West Coast Occupy groups called attention to the working conditions of port truckers with coordinated port shutdowns. Midwestern Occupy branches helped draw attention to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's attacks on public sector union collective bargaining rights. Furthermore, Occupy branches have sprouted beyond the United States into a global movement that has supported everything from Quebec students striking over a 60% tuition hike to the million-strong mass protests in Tel Aviv over rising costs of living, housing, and education in Israel.

In Chicago, the local Occupy branch has taken part in several city-centric direct actions with national and global ramifications. They led protests against the NATO summit that took place this past May. During the Democratic National Convention, the group marched to President Barack Obama's downtown Chicago re-election HQ with black coffins marked with "Hope" and "Change." Perhaps their most significant move in the last year has been their unceasing support for the Chicago Teachers Union during their contract negotiation battle and subsequent strike (Full disclosure: Occupied Chicago Tribune republished a piece I wrote about Mayor Rahm Emanuel's connections to Republican and anti-Chicago Teachers Union donors).

Ten months ago, I wrote a piece for PolicyMic called "Stop Occupying Wall Street, and Start Doing The Real Work." In it, I advised that the Occupy participants take part in traditional political activities beyond public protest. And in some respects, I still agree. For example, a few members of Occupy Chicago recently staged a public burning of their voter registration cards – an action many of the group's members opposed, and one that won't allow them to participate in the local office races where individual votes count the most.

At the same time, Occupy Chicago has protested issues beyond the reach of direct electoral politics. Nobody in the city was asked if they wanted a NATO summit. Nobody in the city (or country) has been able to vote on whether the Obama administration should be allowed to use unmanned drones to attack targets across the world. Chicago City Council committee members have shot down proposals to let citizens elect members to the Chicago Board of Education instead of allowing the mayor to appoint them. In the places where ballot boxes can't seem to reach, Occupy-sponsored activists have brought attention and public pressure against politicians wherever they've seen injustice and corruption.

The overall impact the movement is hard to precisely measure, and people will never stop debating the merits of anything ever done in the name of Occupy. But whether or not you agree with their tactics, effectiveness, or seeming lack of focus, Occupy is now a part of the local political fabric of towns and cities across the world. And regardless of what the groups spawned by Occupy Wall Street have done in the past year, the movement's most significant work may be yet to come.