Today is the two year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, and without regurgitating all the other relevant commentary elsewhere on the internet, we’d like to dwell a little bit on what that means through our particular lens as organizers working in affordable housing in New York City. In that vein, two of Occupy’s themes resonate deeply with our work, and have transitioned into mainstream dialogue and political conversations. We’re talking about economic inequality and protest/direct action.
Yesterday we wrapped up a bitter mayoral primary season in which the winner, Bill de Blasio, courted voters through a relentlessness campaign against inequality in New York. He hammered home his Tale of Two Cities: the growing disparity between the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor in New York. The electorate responded favorably. But even more significantly, de Blasio was successful in pulling the entire field of mayoral candidates to the left by talking about economic inequality. (Even Joe Lhota is promising universal pre-K.)
But de Blasio probably owes some of his success to Occupy Wall Street. Just a few months after September 17, 2011, media commentators noticed that the term “income inequality” was used five times more than it had been used just two months before. The term then became a major sound bite in the 2013 NYC mayoral campaign, pointing to the lingering resonance that the Occupy Wall Street movement has within public discourse.
The Furman Center’s annual State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods contained some shocking data this year: as rents increased significantly, incomes fell. Homelessness is higher than during the Great Depression. Inequality, when combined with rising rents, contributes to a great sense of unease in the buildings we organize. It is both economically and psychologically damaging, and in terms of real social progress and racial equality, it sets us all back. Long term and newer tenants, often divided along race/class lines, live side by side, negotiating how to interact with one another. When long term tenants see new, young, white tenants treated differently (and those same people don’t, for example, join tenant associations), the damage wrought is unquantifiable. And this is one of the most damaging and difficult things about gentrification and displacement. It’s no great secret that landlords try and profit off the wealthy and displace the poor; increasing economic inequality makes this easier. Too many landlords attempt to force out lower income, long term tenants to raise rents and bring in higher paying tenants. They do this through buy-outs targeted a low income and minority renters, a decrease in services, illegally charging higher rents, and tacking on non-rent fees.
But this leads me to our second takeaway from the Occupy Wall Street movement: there is a real excitement around the idea of organizing and protest, and there is more appetite than ever for empowerment through collective action. And like inequality, protest and direct action have remained in the political mainstream. This summer, de Blasio was arrested (in a political but powerful move) defending the SUNY’s Long Island College Hospital. He was not the only politician arrested this summer protesting hospital closings – Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, among others, followed suit. In 2011, Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez was injured and arrested during a raid on Occupy Wall Street. Two years since Occupy Wall Street, protest and unlawful civil disobedience remains firmly embedded in mainstream ideas of how to demand social change.
One of the enduring strengths of Occupy Wall Street is the local neighborhood coalitions that have emerged in its wake. As the crowd in Zuccotti Park dispersed (or was evicted), groups like Occupy Sunset Park and the Crown Heights Assembly have turned their focus to organizing in their neighborhoods, against displacement and gentrification. We’ve been organizing against those issues for years, but Occupy Wall Street brought attention, and in some ways even a renewed legitimacy, to tactics and actions that organizers use to protest inequality and injustice. Now, the language of inequality and class injustice is familiar, and it resonates, and that’s an enduring legacy that those of us who were organizing before and after both notice and enjoy every day. If at times Occupy Wall Street seemed to lack strategy and cohesion, it certainly achieved the goal of politicizing people, gaining media attention, and making it more acceptable for New Yorkers to protest.
Today, activists in Zuccotti Park are holding teach-ins, protests, and celebrations. Check out the schedule of events here and visit the park!