Pillar 1: Establishing an Historical Context for the Occupy Protests

No one could have known that when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in a public square, it would incite protests that would topple dictators and start a global wave of dissent. In 2011, protesters didn’t just voice their complaints; they changed the world. (Andersen, 2011)

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This section of the analysis, the first of the three sub-studies, will identify and elaborate upon topics related to the historical context of the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City in mid-September, 2011, in keeping with the “imaginative” theoretical and methodological framework presented in Chapter 2. Drawing upon the News and Academic data sets for data, this study examines the statements made by media pundits and academic experts for insight. For the purposes of this study, the term “historical context” is understood as the “setting” of the protests, encompassing the two broad subjects of Time and Place.

The first half of this study will elaborate on the subject of Time, highlighting the parallels that exist between Occupy Wall Street and other acts of social unrest that took place internationally in 2011, creating an historical timeline of major international uprisings that took place in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Wisconsin and New York City in the months leading up to the Occupy Wall Street protests in September. The timeline is used as a means of exposing the parallels that exist among the precedent setting protests. What is revealed later in the chapter and throughout the study is that Occupy Wall Street possesses many of the same features as these protests, lending academic weight to the idea that Occupy is, in actuality, a culmination of all the protests that preceded it that year. The second half of this study focuses on the subject of Place, discussing topics related to the notion that the act of “occupation” (a key feature of the Occupy protests) took place in both physical and virtual reality, having a significant, visible presence both on public streets and on the internet. Analysis of the source material reveals that this dual strategy for mobilizing support and garnering media attention, was instrumental in helping Occupy reach a national and international audience, becoming engrained in popular and political discourse during that time in history. Themes that are identified upon comparative analysis of the topics discussed in this sub-study, will appear in Chapter 6.

The Subject of Time: Precedents & Influences

On December 14, 2011, Time Magazine published its annual Person of the Year edition, proclaiming “The Protester” to be the most influential global figure of 2011. The exposé, written by Kurt Andersen, is an overview of a series of “massive street protests” that took place in the Middle East, Europe and North America in 2011, most notably, in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Wisconsin and New York City. The image on the cover is an anonymous figure wearing a mask, ambiguous enough that it is impossible to determine the gender or ethnicity of the figure, or whether he/she was part of the “Arab Spring” in Tunisia or Egypt, the indignados in Madrid or Barcelona, or any of the hundreds of Occupy camps that emerged throughout the United States (Alexander, 2013: 21). To reinforce his assertion that “protest” constitute the defining characteristic of the year, Andersen (2011) claims that, ”do-it-yourself democratic politics became globalized,” and that the act of protest went “massively viral.”

Aside from elaborating upon the various protests and demonstrations that took place, Andersen (2011) presents an argument that the timing of each protest was not coincidental; that the initial “Arab Spring” protests that began in January 2011, set off a domino effect of worldwide dissent, with each successive protest borrowing elements and tactics from the previous. Andersen (2011) is only one of the many authors, scholars and news pundits who support the statement that Occupy Wall Street draws direct inspiration from the international demonstrations that preceded it that year (Barnard, 2011; Hardt & Negri, 2011: 1; Pepitone, 2011; Bennett, 2012: 37; Gaby & Caren, 2012: 368; Hatem, 2012: 401; Hickel, 2012; Kern & Nam, 2013: 199; Milkman, Lewis & Luce, 2012; Pickerill & Krinsky, 2012; Wagner-Pacifici, 2012). Hardt and Negri (2013) argue that a thorough understanding the Occupy Wall Street protests from a political standpoint requires one to “situate it alongside the other “encampments of the past year,” and once the protests are examined in connection to one another,  an “emerging cycle of struggles” can be identified (1). Friedman, in one of his articles written in The New York Times in November 2011, suggests that the string of social protests that year are telling signs of some larger phenomenon happening globally that requires definition and examination, pointing out two schools of thought that immediately intrigue him: the first, suggesting that 2011 is actually the beginning of “The Great Disruption,” another that suggests it is part of a “Big Shift.”

There is some disagreement in the text, however. Pickerill and Krinsky (2012), and Wagner-Pacifici (2012), remind us that, although many similarities exist between Occupy Wall Street and the protests those that preceded it internationally, we cannot discount the “local circumstances and politics” that may have influenced the protest tactics employed (Pickerill & Krinsky, 2012: 284). That, even though obvious parallels exist, there are also many fissures that muddle the progression from the Arab Spring to similar demonstrations in the West (Pickerill & Krinsky, 2012: 279).

The protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Spain, sparked a wave of global dissent that inevitably found its way to the Western world in Wisconsin, ultimately contributing to the organization and execution of the “Bloombergville” and Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City. This section of the analysis, which makes up half of the first sub-study, will attempt to establish an historical timeline for the Movement, starting with revolution in Tunisia, leading up to the initial Call to Action for OWS published by Adbusters. It will elaborate on the five protests – Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Wisconsin, U.S., and “Bloombergville” in New York City – mentioned most frequently in the source material as being a precursor to Occupy. This portion of the sub-study will conclude with a discussion about the similarities that exist between the protests, highlighting the features adopted directly by OWS organizers and supporters. Topics, sub-topics and themes that emerge from this timeline will be listed and comparatively analyzed in the Discussion found in Chapter 6. A table is provided in Appendiz 1.1, offering an at-a-glance reference of the key characteristics of each protest discussed in this section.

The Arab Spring

Many who have examined Occupy with some diligence, including both academics and members of the press, tend to agree that Occupy Wall Street draws inspiration from a series of major protests and revolutionary movements that took place in the Middle East starting in January, 2011, in countries including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, that collectively came to be known as the “Arab Spring” (Abouzeid, 2011; Hardt & Negri, 2011; Kerton, 2012; Alexander, 2013: 343). The Arab Spring earned its name, according to Hatem (2012: 402), because it offered a “refreshing” challenge to the regimes that had been in power in Tunisia and Egypt for several decades. Regimes, which he claims, align with “crony capitalist” and “authoritarian national security states” that enjoyed overwhelming international support particularly in the last three decades (Hatem, 2012: 402).

The consensus in the source material is that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt both operated under a single goal, the “demand for new democratic politics” (Ross, 2011; Hatem, 2012: 410; Pepitone, 2012), which Hatem insists is the fundamental feature that connects the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. As a whole, the demands of the protestors were not reflective of any one citizen’s political affiliation, but instead, were reflective of broad-based political and economic concerns (Hatem, 2012: 409). According to Hatem (2012: 410), the majority of citizens in Tunisia and Egypt experienced economic deprivation, fueled mostly by the absence of decent and well-paying jobs. Protestors in these regions still supported democracy, viewing it as a vehicle for the reconstruction of the economy, but demanded that changes be made in order promote and ensure their political engagement and participation (Hatem, 2012: 410). The Arab Spring’s pursuit of a new, refreshing outlook, hindered on two important factors: the participation of liberal, mostly secular youth, and the utilization of the internet and social media for the purposes of disseminating fact and mobilizing support. The uprisings illustrate the complexity of concerns of a large and influential generation of youth (Hatem, 2012: 409)

Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia

The suicide of Mohammed Bouazizi is widely recognized as the primary catalyst that sparked the demonstrations and riots leading to the downfall of the Tunisian dictatorship of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, starting a chain reaction that would ultimately result in a series of similar protests in neighboring countries (Abouzeid, 2011; Andersen, 2011; Fahim, 2011; Ross, 2011; Writers of the 99%, 2011; Hatem, 2012: 408; Kerton, 2012; Walt, 2012). In an article written by Peter Beaumont in The Guardian on January 20, 2011, Bouazizi is portrayed as a loving and humble 26-year-old fruit vendor who struggled to provide financially for both his mother and younger sister living in Sidi Bouzid. Rania Abouzeid’s investigation into Bouazizi’s death, published in a Time Magazine article entitled “Bouazizi: The Man Who Set Himself and Tunisia on Fire” (January, 2011), describes Bouazizi as a poor and desperate man, consistently harassed by police officers who would frequently close down his fruit stand for lack of proper licensing, which Bouazizi claims, is the result of having his application routinely and arbitrarily denied by local government. According to Abouzeid’s (2011) account, it was during one of these typical police “shakedowns” on December 17, 2010, that Bouazizi reached a tipping point for his anger and frustration. This particular shakedown was unique, in that, Bouazizi was lead to believe that his entire livelihood (i.e. the vegetable cart and its contents) would be confiscated, rather than closed down temporarily as was the norm up until that point (Abouzeid, 2011; Beaumont, 2011; for a similar account, also read Fahim, 2011; Writers of the 99%, 2011: 5; Hatem, 2012: 408; Walt, 2012).

Bouazizi’s attempt at a bribe, which often amounted to a good day’s wages (the equivalent of $7 USD), was apparently rejected by a policewoman, who witnesses allegedly saw slap and spit on Bouazizi’s face while being subjected to insults about his deceased father (Abouzeid, 2011; Beaumont, 2011; Fahim, 2011; Hatem, 2012: 408). After demanding to speak to municipal authorities located in the provincial government headquarters found in town, and being rejected, Bouazizi returned to the building’s decadent front entrance, poured fuel over himself and set himself on fire (Abouzeid, 2011; Fahim, 2011; Hatem, 2012: 408; Kerton, 2012; Walt, 2012). The self-immolation did not end Bouazizi’s life right away, as he remained in critical condition in hospital for four days, during which, President Ben Ali made an attempt to visit him to try to quell some of the anger and blame that was being directed his way following the event (Abouzeid, 2011; Fahim, 2011). The immense public outcry that emerged as a result of his death on January 4, 2011, saw protests engulf the country, until, on January 14, they forced President Ben Ali to step down — the first Arab leader ever to be overthrown by a popular uprising – ending his 23-year dictatorship (Abouzeid, 2011; Fahim, 2011; Walt, 2012).

Bouazizi’s suicide, Mabrouk (2011) argues, could have been prevented had efforts been made to address areas of public distress evident during Ben Ali’s regime (629). His two decades in office saw the increased liberalization of public policy, which argues for a reduced role for the state and a bigger role for the private sector. Governments and corporate business collude to share power, creating a cozy relationship between Tunisian businessmen and bureaucrats, necessarily giving corporate interests stake and influence in policy making (Mabrouk, 2011: 629). This overwhelmingly had negative social consequences, widening the net in terms of the number of marginal persons susceptible to exploitation and corruption by government and law enforcement officials during that time (Mabrouk, 2011: 629).

Tunisia’s nationwide unemployment rate in 2011 hovered around 14%, with the rate in Sidi Bouzid over double that, at approximatey 30%, a group consisting primarily of youth (Fahim, 2011). This disenfranchised group of young and educated men, according to Fahim (2011), felt consistently neglected by successive government regimes; regimes, “seized with corruption and rife with nepotism.” Sheer idleness stemming from unemployment likely contributed to the collective decision to demonstrate publicly, but recognition of larger social issues plaguing the country was also a factor,  horrendously unequal distribution of wealth, high inflation on essential items and fears over tawrith (family inheritance of the throne) (Aysha, 2011: 29)

Bouazizi became such an influential figure and popular symbol among young Arab man, many of whom considered Bouazizi to be a martyr, that his actions were emulated (Abouzeid, 2011, Mabrouk, 2011). With the help of mobile smartphone technology, devices commonly equipped with cameras and internet capabilities that enable the user to take photos and video recordings and instantly post them online, captured incidents of copycat martyrdom (Mabrouk, 2011: 632). At the same time, information was also shared online regarding the whereabouts and location of security forces – a particularly important function served by the social networks in the early days of the Tunisia’s revolution (Mabrouk, 2011: 632). According to Mabrouk (2011), the success of the Tunisian revolution hinged on the system by which information was transmitted and broadcasted to the masses, both nationally and internationally. The horrific and shocking nature of Bouazizi’s death propelled the story through the internet extremely quickly, going viral through the help of various social media channels like Twitter and Facebook (also see Walt, 2012). According to Andersen (2011), on the second day of protests a middle-class 29-year-old software developer, recorded video of masses of people taking to the streets, as well as the response by police officials, on his BlackBerry. This video was uploaded to Twitter soon after, receiving a million views in under 24 hours, the exposure of which, many believe, forced President Ben Ali into exile in Saudi Arabia, where he would remain for four weeks until his official removal from political office (Andersen, 2011).

According to Mabrouk (2011), social media websites also became powerful tools needed to combat the “official” narratives presented by the mainstream media; a narrative that suggests the protest amounted to little more than a riot by criminals and terrorists, providing justification for the brutal and lethal forms of repression practiced by security forces against rowdy protestors in the interest of self-defense and general public safety (632). Rehabilitating the image of protestors was not as taxing as one would assume, as public opinion became easily swayed by the viral spread of media content including video clips showing security abuses and financial corruption linked to the ruling regime. Such detailed documentation of their abuses created a vivid impression amongst the wider public, inciting it to ever greater mobilization in order to reach its revolutionary goals (Mabrouk, 2011: 632).

Cairo, Egypt

For Andersen (2011), evidence of the Tunisian protest model in Egypt can be found both by examining the events that unfolded, and by speaking to protest supporters themselves, “Among all the Egyptians I met, there is absolute agreement about one thing: Tunisia was the spark of their revolution.” He suggests that the protests in Tunisia were a kind of learning experience for Egypt, referring to the events in Tunisia as being both “inspirational” and “practical,” a sort of “user’s manual” as one Egyptian was quoted as saying (Andersen, 2011). Based on his interviews with Egyptian protest organizers and supporters, Tunisian protestors were actually instrumental in supplying information and strategic guidance:

In January, Tunisians “sent us a lot of information,” says Ahmed Maher, a Cairo civil engineer and one of Egypt’s most prominent activists, “like use vinegar and onion” — near one’s face, for the tear gas — “and how to stop a tank. They sent us this advice, and we used it.” (Andersen, 2011)

The first protests took place in Cairo on January 25, 2011, and by the 31st, approximately 250,000 people had begun to occupy Cairo’s Tahrir Square, one of the central hubs of protest activity in the country (Writers of the 99%, 2011: 5-6; Lubin, 2012: 186).

Many credit the actions of 31-year President/Dictator Hosni Mubarek for being the impetus behind the revolution. The protests and riots are believed by some in the source material to be a direct response to decades of neoliberal policies enacted during Mubarek’s reign, which radically transformed Egyptian society by transferring social power to the hands of an elite while disempowering both workers and the peasantry (Joya, 2011: 370; Hatem , 2012). Mubarek began his presidency in 1981 after quickly ascending to power following the assassination of the previous president, Anwar Sadat (Ahmed et al., 2011). Changes were introduced to the country almost immediately. That year, Egypt implemented a major Economic Restructuring and Adjustment Program (ERSAP), which entailed the privatization of public sector enterprises, the liberalization of trade and prices, the introduction of flexible labour legislation, and the removal of “progressive social policies” (Joya, 2011: 370). The privatization of state enterprises served to transfer public resources and wealth into the possession of a newly emerging economic elite, who had allies within the ruling National Democratic Party (Joya, 2011: 370). In the years to follow, worker strikes were organized to demand higher living wages in order to afford the rising cost of food, housing, and health care, a consequence of the privatization of these industries (Joya, 2011: 370). As recently as January 2011, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned that rising food prices, high levels of unemployment and the uprising in Tunisia would mean that the Egyptian state would have to increase subsidies and social welfare in order to maintain social stability (Wahish 2011; as discussed in Joya, 2011: 367).

To many Egyptians, finding a solution to escalating food prices and unemployment rates meant removing the man who had assumed the leadership role in the country. Mubarek’s rule, as well as the riots and demonstrations, ended with his resignation on February 11, 2011, 18 days after mass protests began across the country, with a one-minute announcement by Vice President Omar Suleiman broadcasted on state television, declaring that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces would thereby “run the affairs of the country” (Ahmed et al., 2011; Goldstein, 2011; Joya, 2011: 367).

Barnard (2011) of The New York Times, lists some of what he considers are some of the obvious ways that Occupy Wall Street bears no resemblance to Tahrir Square, including, most importantly, the fact that no protestors were killed during OWS, at no point did protestors make a unified plea for President Obama to resign, and unfortunately, crowds in Manhattan’s financial district never swelled to the six-figure numbers that Tahrir Square saw. However, Hatem (2012) highlights several OWS tactics that were heavily influenced by events in Egypt, primarily the occupation of public space, which allowed for protestors to engage in political conversations about the major issues plaguing society, drawing enough attention to make these conversations part of the national and global discourse (413). Like protestors in Egypt, participants of Occupy Wall Street also created Facebook page, which enables an even larger audience to become part of the conversation (Hatem, 2012: 413).

To Nanabhaya and Farmanfarmaian (2011), the Egyptian protests are best understood by grasping the interplay between social media and mainstream media, with the activity of Twitter, Facebook, Wikileaks and Al Jazeera all being attributed to fueling the revolution (573; also see Alexander, 2013: 344). According to Andersen (2011), the Egyptians had their own Mohamed Bouazizi: an underemployed middle-class 28-year-old named Khaled Said. After being accused of hacking a police officer’s cell phone and lifting a video of officers displaying narcotics and large quantities of cash, Said was arrested and beaten to death (Andersen, 2011; Preston, 2011; Hatem, 2012: 408). Videos of this tragic beating went viral, prompting Wael Ghonim, a 29-year-old Google executive, to create a Facebook page entitled We Are All Khaled Said in order to commemorate his death, which also quickly went viral (Andersen, 2011; Preston, 2011;  Hatem, 2012: 408). In January, Ghonim returned from Dubai to Egypt to help plan a protest set for January 25, a day he called a “day of rage” in Tahrir Square (Andersen, 2011). Ghonim, whose Facebook page is credited with triggering the uprising specifically, having accumulated approximately 400,000 followers, was seized by security forces and held for 10 days for his actions (Ahmed et al., 2011; Andersen, 2011; Preston, 2011; Hatem, 2012: 408). These online social networking and news outlets provided individuals like Ghonim and many others with a forum to formulate and communicate messages which could then be broadcast to the entire country. A dynamic cooperative among protestors developed quickly and organically; activists on the front lines fed information onto social networks and to the media, which was then diffused nationally and internationally, serving to strengthen protestor resolve and bolster their numbers (Nanabhaya & Farmanfarmaian, 2011: 574).

Spain – Madrid & Barcelona

Numerous comparisons are also drawn between the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City, and the encampments that formed in the central squares of Spain beginning on May 15, 2011 (referred to as “15M”) (Andersen, 2011; Beas, 2011; Francis, 2011; Hardt & Negri, 2011: 1; Moreno-Caballud & Sitrin, 2011; Tharoor, 2011; Castaneda, 2012: 309). On May 15, protestors marched in masses numbering in the tens of thousands, united by slogans like “We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers,” calling themselves Los Indignados, or “The Outraged” (Andersen, 2011). Approximately 60 Spanish cities participated during the entirety of the 15M movement, with 6-8 million protestors setting up encampments (Las Acampadas) in public squares; the largest camps being established in major cities like Madrid and Barcelona. La Puerta del Sol Plaza in Madrid became one of its symbols (Andersen, 2011; Writers of the 99%, 2011: 7; Castaneda, 2012: 310)

The 15M protests were scheduled a week prior to the date set for national elections; an election where the majority of the electorate, according to Castaneda (2012), saw no viable alternative between a neoliberalized left, represented by Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodrıguez Zapatero, and a neoliberal and conservative right, represented by leader of the opposing Popular Party, Mariano Rajoy (Beas, 2011; Castaneda, 2012: 310; Taibo, 2012). The word Indignado was inspired by the influential 32-page activist manifesto written by French diplomat Stephane Hessel entitled Indignez-vous!, which calls on contemporary youth to search for injustices around them and mobilize into action (Hessel & Duvert, 2011; as discussed in Castaneda, 2012: 310). The term loosely translates into English as ‘The Outraged’. This outrage is believed to have developed as a result of budget cuts made to education, welfare and social programs that were first put in place during Zapatero’s rule, and later adopted by Rajoy (Castaneda, 2012: 309). These cuts were made as part of a package of structural adjustment measures promised by the Spanish government to international financial organizations, all while Spanish banks were being bailed out with taxpayer funds (Tharoor, 2011; Castaneda, 2012: 310).

As was the case in both Tunisia and Egypt, the Indignados movement created a venue for the discontented college-educated youth who were unable to find meaningful employment lucrative enough to cover rent and basic expenses (Castaneda, 2012: 309). Spain’s national unemployment rate at the time was approximately 21% overall, including 32% of foreign born residents and 43.6% for those under the age of 24 (Castaneda, 2012: 309). In total, it was estimated that 650,000 people between the ages of 16 and 29 were neither studying nor working (López Blasco, 2008; as discussed in Taibo, 2012: 156). Large organizations with a considerable online presence in Spain, such as Democracia Real Ya!, Juventud sin Futuro and No les Votes, collectively put out a call for people to occupy the streets on May 15 for the purpose of a “#SpanishRevolution” (Castaneda, 2012: 310). It wasn’t long before a critical mass of people began to form, with large organized groups taking their disenchantment with the existing political parties to the streets (Castaneda, 2012: 310).

According to Moreno-Caballud & Sitrin (2011), the defining element that connects that 15M protests with Occupy Wall Street is related to the notion of “inclusivity.” Unlike other movements that have strongly identified with concrete social groups (workers, students, etc.), both the Indignados and Occupy allow participation from anyone who supports the cause. The existence of solidarity slogans, such as “We are the 99%,” In both protests is cited as evidence to support this claim. Also, each of the movements were successful at mobilizing “many people who had never been to a demonstration before, and made them feel welcome and useful.”


Protests broke out between February 14 and 20, 2011 (after protests broke out in Tunisia and Egypt, but before they began in Spain) in Madison, Wisconsin, marking what some call the “first wave of American unrest” (Writers of the 99%, 2011: 6; Lewis & Luce, 2012: 43). Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker took office in January 2011, at a time when the state had no deficit in its current budget, and the long-term deficit, while still significant, was smaller than that faced by former governor Jim Doyle (Collins, 2012: 10). In the first week of Walker’s term, he gave away $137 million in tax breaks to corporations, transformed the state’s Department of Commerce into a public–private hybrid that was funded by (but not accountable to) taxpayers, and passed an executive order limiting lawsuits against corporations (Collins, 2012: 10). Even with all these immediate changes, Walker’s actions did not capture state-wide attention until February, when he introduced a “Budget Repair Bill” that threatened to prohibit public sector unions, most notably teachers, from collectively bargaining, all while saving the state an estimated $30 million in the current fiscal year, and $300 million over the next two years (Curry, 2011; Writer’s of the 99%, 2011: 6; Collins, 2012: 10; Lewis & Luce, 2012: 43; Squirea & Gaydos, 2013: 57). The proposed bill also included major decreases in funding for public services, including public education (Squirea & Gaydos, 2013: 57). And in what Collins (2012) refers to as “a seemingly random set of neoliberal gestures”, the Bill also offered state subsidies for commercial development of protected wetlands, put 37 state-run power plants up for sale on a no-bid basis, and gave state administrators the ability to rewrite Medicaid rules and cut funding without public hearings or legislative input (State of Wisconsin 2011; as discussed by Collins, 2012: 10).

The weekend after the bill was unveiled, public sector employees, including university faculty and graduate teaching assistants, gathered around the State Capitol building and the governor’s mansion (Collins, 2012: 11; Squirea & Gaydos, 2013: 57). The first group to march in protest to the square was the University of Wisconsin Teaching Assistants Association (TAA), followed the next day by over 13,000 Madison teachers joining in an attempt to interrupt hearings taking place by the Joint Finance Committee in regards to the bill (Collins, 2012: 11). By day three, the demonstration had 20,000 protesters, including teachers, nurses, and prison guards (Collins, 2012: 11). After six days of protesting and some negotiation, union leaders representing the protest group agreed to except whatever losses in pay and pension that would result from the passing of the bill, but stood firm on the notion that Walker should eliminate the limitations to collective bargaining rights, which he eventually conceded (Curry, 2011).

Digital media played a pivotal role in supporting and coordinating the work of grassroots activists at the State Capitol in Madison (Squirea & Gaydos, 2013: 57). Within the group of graduate students who participated in the demonstrations, a small subset volunteered for the job of developing and monitoring DefendWisconsin.org and its associated email, Twitter, and Facebook accounts (Squirea & Gaydos, 2013: 58).

New York City – “Bloombergville”

Just a few months before Occupiers would flood Lower Manhattan, the struggle in New York City took the form of a small protest organized by a loose coalition of individuals called New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts (NYABC) (Sledge, 2012). Early in the spring of 2011, labor and community activists in New York who called themselves the “May 12th Coalition,” organized a demonstration on Wall Street that involved conducting training sessions on civil disobedience and disruptive activity, as well as teach-ins on the contributions made by banks and Wall Street to the current economic downturn (Lewis & Luce, 2012: 44). Members of the May 12th Coalition later came together to form the NYABC, and with the aid of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), staged a small occupation at the corner of Broadway and Park, just outside of city hall in New York’s Hall Park, called “Bloombergville” (Writers of the 99%, 2011: 8-9; Lewis & Luce, 2012: 44; Sledge, 2012). The Green Party and the South Bronx Community Congress were also among its endorsers, with food and supplies for protestors being provided by AFSCME DC 37, the city’s largest municipal union (Sledge, 2012).

Protests began on June 16, 2011, the purpose of which was primarily to voice public opposition to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed budget, which, had it been passed, would have laid off 4,000 city school teachers, and closed 20 firehouses (Writers of the 99%, 2011: 8-9; Lewis & Luce, 2012: 44; Sledge, 2012). On the advice of lawyers, protestors were told they could take advantage of a loophole in New York’s municipal law that permitted individuals to sleep on the edges of city sidewalks, which protected them from arrest and prosecution (Sledge, 2012). Bloombergville had tents and sleeping bags, a makeshift library, teach-ins, and an open assembly that took place nightly (Sledge, 2012). After two weeks into the occupation, 13 members of the NYABC were arrested for barricading themselves in the lobby of the City Council to prevent a vote on a compromise budget deal. But June 29th, the modified budget was drafted and passed by city council, effectively ending the Bloombergville protests (Writers of the 99%, 2011: 8-9). The revised budget was meant to spare the majority of teacher jobs and spending cuts, however, 2,600 teachers still lost their jobs and $178 million was cut from education (Lewis & Luce, 2012).


Several similarities exist between the “massive street protests” that erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Wisconsin and “Bloombergville,” in 2011. Understanding these parallels will help us to identify the origin of some of the more defining characteristics of Occupy Wall Street pertaining to its organization and execution. Of all the notable consistencies found among the protests preceding Occupy, one the most glaring (extending to all five), is the notion that the demonstrations were a response to changes in public policy, in keeping with a neoliberal economic strategy, that were widely perceived to favour a small, wealthy elite; an elite who enjoy a mutually-beneficial and profitable relationship with their respective governments. The second parallel is the occupation of public space, a tactic that is portrayed as an effective means of ensuring protestor demands are met in a timely manner. The third parallel is the involvement of youth in the mobilization of support and coordination of protest demonstrations, a feat accomplished with the utilization of social media and networking technologies (identified as the fourth major similarity between protests) that enabled the communication and transmission of information to large numbers of people very quickly.

The neoliberalization of public policy is identified in the source material as having contributed significantly to the public’s zeal to demonstrate in every major instance of public dissent leading up to Occupy. According to the definition provided by Heikki (2009), “neoliberalism” is an economic strategy for resolving problems faced in society by means of facilitating “competitive markets,” and includes theories related to market-libertarian political philosophies, the traditional theory of neoclassical economics, and the New Public Management philosophy of modernising the public sector (433). Government support for the privatization of public services, free trade, open markets and de-regulation, and reductions in government spending, are all hallmarks of neoliberalist policy, intended to expand and enhance the role of the private sector in the economy (Heikki, 2009: 433). The implementation of a “social market economy,” a phrase that is used as a more positive-sounding alternative to the term “competitive markets,” is not intended to be detrimental to individual or collective well-being, as it is assumed that such a system fosters the growth and maintenance of an efficient and fair economic system, one that maximises freedom of choice (433). A neoliberalist strategy is in direct contrast with a Keynesian economic model, which advocates for government intervention and demand-side management of the economy to achieve as close to full employment as possible. In Keynesian thinking, government deficit spending and fiscal stimulus are needed at times of economic duress, because free market conditions do not necessarily lead to optimal market outcomes (Heikki, 2009: 436).

In a neoliberal economic strategy, “market-libertarianism” translates into reduced (or non-existent) government intervention in the private sector, which can result in the enactment of legislation intended to relinquish governments from the responsibility of delivering essential services to citizens – a responsibility that is ultimately delegated to private businesses and organizations. The transformation of a national economy towards neoliberalism can be viewed as a conflicting and contradictory process, requiring governments to be Keynesian at times, intervening heavily by drafting and enforcing policies in the hopes of creating an economic system where their intervention is no longer necessary. In effect, de-regulating the economy requires a series of regulatory interventions in order for a truly open system to be set in motion. Ironically, it is these regulatory measures that supporters of each protest refuted, on the grounds that policies stood to benefit only a select few, instead of improving the market by making it more equitable.

Typically, government bodies justify their neoliberal legislative changes by arguing that cost-saving measures are needed to reduce budgetary deficits and national debt. The act of protest suggests heavy skepticism among supporters for these justifications. Recent economic and social policies and decisions provide evidence of collusion between government entities and corporate interests that can potentially consolidate wealth and power in the hands of a small group of people. The legislative decisions that are borne out of this relationship, it is argued, serve to transfer wealth away from the greater public, and into the possession of an economic elite. A process, because of its visibility and negative impact on the day-to-day lives of most citizens, provides part of the impetus needed for a critical mass of people to protest publically.

In Tunisia and Egypt, the legislative decisions made by Presidents Ben Ali and Mubarek under the guise of neoliberalist market correction, resulted in skyrocketing unemployment and substantially lower wages. In Tunisia, the policy decisions made in the two decades President Ben Ali assumed control are credited with causing nationwide unemployment to hover between 14-30%. In Egypt, the Economic Restructuring and Adjustment Program initiated by President Mubarek in the 1980s, is credited with causing labour disputes, a consequence of lower wages that resulted from the privatization of certain industries. Presidents Ben Ali and Mubarek were each held personally accountable by their citizenries for the policies enacted during their reign that contributed to the economic downturns in each state, with each protest group demanding their leader’s immediate resignation. In Spain, Wisconsin, and Bloombergville, the government’s decision to implement “structural adjustments,” translated into drastic budget cuts to social services and welfare programs, the stripping of certain union rights away from employees in the public sector, and the bailout of large financial institutions using taxpayer funds. Opposition to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s “Budget Repair Bill,” and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed budget reform, are noted specifically in the source material for “adding fuel to the fire,” prompting concerned citizens and unionized workers affected by the policy changes to create a public spectacle. The underlying implication expressed in the source material is that, in environments with high unemployment, low wages, and powerless unions, it is not surprising to witness growing tension among the general population; a tension that is the by-product of individual hardships stemming from financial deprivation, as well as the idleness and boredom associated with being unemployed. It is this tension that also fuels the desire to publically protest.

Though it may seem obvious to point out, the occupation of public space is another characteristic shared among a majority of the protests that preceded Occupy Wall Street in 2011. It only required six days from the moment protests broke out in Egypt’s Tahrir Square for approximately 250,000 supporters to occupy Cairo’s landmark, setting up a permanent presence until their demand to have President Mubarek removed from office was realized. In Wisconsin, it took only three days before a group of public sector workers and teachers numbering approximately 20,000, occupied the public space facing the State Capitol Building and Governor Walker’s private residence. The occupation of these spaces was only necessarily for six days, as legislators were more than willing to negotiate terms for the proposed budget in order to end the demonstrations. Protests in Spain and Bloombergville are both notable because of the erection of encampments, with sleeping accommodations and utilities made readily available so that protestors could extend their occupations indefinitely. In every instance where the occupation tactic was used, protestors were successful at persuading the government to meet or negotiate terms. The success of Tunisian and Egyptian protest efforts in particular, having forced their respective dictators to step down from power after only weeks of occupation, is a testament to the gravity and scope of changes that are possible when large groups of people convene against a common enemy. Such demonstrable success must have contributed to the decision by organizers to implement such a tactic for Occupy Wall Street, and will be discussed in greater detail in the second half of this sub-study.

The involvement of youth in the organization and execution of protest initiatives is also a recurring feature of the protests that precede Occupy. Their involvement, particularly in the Arab Spring and Indignados protests, is largely a consequence of national unemployment being heavily concentrated in the young-adult age demographics. The Spanish national unemployment rate in the Spring of 2011, for example, was over 20% for the general public, and over 40% for individuals under the age of 24. What is important to note is that the participation of youth also accounts for the utilization of social media and networking technologies for organizing demonstrations and communicating with other activists. Data and analysis offered by the Pew Research firm regarding age demographics and social media use, suggests that the predominant user base for services such as Facebook and Twitter is 18-35.[1] Young Tunisian men, impacted by the suicide of Mohammed Bouazizi, shared videos and images with one another of demonstrations and incidents of copycat martyrdom, using smartphones and social media applications to do so. The actions of 29-year-old Wael Ghonim in Egypt, broadcasting the unjust murder of Khaled Said to a wide audience on Facebook, was instrumental in the mobilization of support for the mass protests that would ensue. In Wisconsin, because proposed policy changes centered around education, students and teachers both became heavily involved in distributing information online, allowing demonstrations to be coordinated in an timely manner.

Throughout the remainder of this thesis, features of the Occupy Wall Street protest that resemble the four parallels will be identified and discussed in greater detail. Evidence of the direct influence these protests had on Occupy Wall Street will be integrated into the discussion of other topics; topics identified in relation to the subject of Space (which comprises the second half of this chapter), to the issues of social structure found in Chapter 4, and the personal biographies of protest supporters discussed in Chapter 5. The purpose of revealing and elaborating upon these influential features is to establish that Occupy Wall Street was not an isolated incident, but instead, one protest along a line of protests; the final domino in a sequence that began to topple in Tunisia in early January, 2011. In keeping with the assertion made by Hardt and Negri (2013), an enhanced understanding of Occupy can only be achieved by analysing it in relation to the other protests that occurred alongside it, revealing an “emerging cycle of struggles” (1), a much broader theme that will be discussed in the final chapter. Considering that at least four major similarities exist between the Occupy Movement and other mass uprisings that preceded it (the parallels I was able to identify), it is more than likely that Occupy was a by-product of a strengthening “zeitgeist of public dissent” that was sweeping the globe that year.

The Subject of Place: The Occupation of Wall Street in Both Physical and Virtual Reality

In the opinion of Adbusters (2011), the true beauty of using “occupation” as a method of protest and act of defiance is its “pragmatic simplicity”: gathering together in both physical and virtual assemblies in order to hone in on a single unifying demand that “awakens the imagination and, if achieved, would propel us [the 99%] toward the radical democracy of the future.” Lubin (2012: 185) agrees with this statement, maintaining that, in an era where major events are broadcasted live across the world instantly, the Occupy Movement has demonstrated that modern urban protests will increasingly manifest on two different planes of existence, both in physical and virtual spaces. To Lubin (2012: 184), “protests configured for virtual audiences are likely to become mainstays of urban social movements,” stating that the Movement’s presence online is fundamental, if not crucial, to its longevity in the physical world.

The variety of media used to mobilize support for the occupation of Wall Street, and in addition, serve as tools for communication within and between Occupy encampments, can be viewed as the incorporation of “low-tech” forms, such as newsletters, coupled with modern technological developments such as Livestreaming, blogging, tweeting, and various other forms of social media (Costanza-Chock, 2012: 378). This phenomenon, the combined use of traditional and modern communication technologies for the purposes of organizing and mobilizing around a single cause, is referred to by Costanza-Chock (2012: 378) as “transmedia mobilization,” and is a topic worthy of exploration in relation to Occupy Wall Street.

The “occupation” of physical and virtual spaces is an element of the Occupy Wall Street protests that is explored in-depth by several authors. This section of the analysis, that makes up the second half of this sub-study, will explore topics including the participation of Adbusters Magazine in promotion of a “US Day of Rage,” which became the basis for the mobilization of support for Occupy Wall Street; the encampment created by Occupy supporters in Zuccotti Park; the utilization of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr for the purposes of distributing Occupy information and garnering support; as well as the publication of the Occupied Wall Street Journal for the same purposes. The incorporation of traditional and social media platforms for the mobilization of support and the organization of demonstrations is a feature unique to “modern” movements, particularly those that took place throughout 2011. The availability of computer and mobile technologies with image capture and internet capabilities to a youthful market, undoubtedly contributed to this trend, and phenomenon explored earlier in this analysis. Themes that emerge from this section will also be comparatively analyzed in the Discussion found in Chapter 6.

Zuccotti Park

Until late September, 2011, the vast majority of Americans knew nothing about Zuccotti Park, a privately-owned public plaza tucked between the Federal Reserve Bank and the World Trade Center site (Andersen, 2011; Orden, 2011). Formerly Liberty Park, the site was renamed in 2006 after John E. Zuccotti, chairman of Brookfield Office Properties Limited, the park’s owner (Grossman, 2011). The park does not adjoin the 54-story office tower, 1 Liberty Plaza, but rather, is bounded on all four sides by streets: Broadway, Trinity Place, Cedar and Liberty Streets (Foderaro, 2011). According to Foderaro (2011), the attractiveness of the location was based primarily on two factors: first, that the park was situated in the heart of the financial district, and second, that it is was one of the largest private parks in the city, featuring all of the physical characteristics and amenities some would deem necessary for a long-term occupation, such as low stone benches, large beds of ornamental grasses and a dense canopy of trees

The number of participants Adbusters hoped would come out on September 17th in support of the “US Day of Rage” and participate in the occupation of Wall Street by setting up tents, kitchens, and peaceful barricades, was 20,000 (Adbusters, 2011a; Andersen, 2011; Farrell, 2011). But as Schneider (2011) points out, at that moment in time, trying to estimate the number of participants who would make it that first day was anybody’s guess. The demonstrations planned for the 17th were supposed to unfold in a relatively straightforward manner, with protestors kicking off festivities by spending part of the morning and early afternoon marching through the Financial District (Gillham, Edwards & Noakes, 2013: 84). Initially, a “General Assembly” (or GA, a topic that will be discussed in greater detail in the Chapter 4) had been planned for Chase Manhattan Plaza following a scheduled march through Wall Street, however, the meeting was prevented by police enforced barricades surrounding the plaza and entrance, having been tipped off in advance about possible plans to set up camp in Zuccotti Park (Kleinfield & Buckley, 2011; Gillham, Edwards & Noakes, 2013: 84). In addition, barriers were also erected around the Charging Bull statue that protestors had planned to make a rallying point, and by early that afternoon, two dozen uniformed police officers surrounded the statue (Moynihan, 2011; Pepitone, 2011). The topic of police intervention and tactics used by NYPD officers to deter specific demonstrations, is another topic that will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 4.

At approximately 3:00pm that day, resorting to a backup plan, activists selected Zuccotti Park for the location of their General Assemblies, largely because of the convenience of its proximity to Wall Street, particularly the New York Stock Exchange, becoming their home and self-created “free-speech zone” until their eventual eviction by police in mid-November (Kleinfield & Buckley, 2011; Moynihan, 2011; Brucato, 2012: 78; Gillham, Edwards & Noakes, 2013: 84; Rehmann, 2013: 3). The final decision to set up an encampment in Zuccotti Park was made during a GA meeting that evening, and as a result, estimates ranging between 200 to 700 activists camped in the park that first night (Gillham, Edwards & Noakes, 2013: 86). The idea, according to some organizers, was to camp out for weeks or even months (Moynihan, 2011), to replicate the kind, if not the scale, of protests that erupted earlier in the year in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and major cities in Spain (Kimmelman, 2011; Moynihan, 2011; Rushkoff, 2011). It is clear, however, after the analysis provided in the first half of this sub-study, that the use of occupation as a tactic was influenced by not only what transpired in Tahrir Square, but also in Spain, Wisconsin and during Bloombergville in New York City.

According to Weidner (2011) of The Wall Street Journal, for the weeks that followed that initial day of protest, you could expect to see anywhere from a few hundred, up to a thousand people demonstrating in the park, with approximately 100 to 300 people making the park their permanent residence. There is a noticeable lack of hard figures in the source material pertaining to protest participation, with the best estimates coming from the few news reporters that visited the park personally, as opposed to just commenting on it from afar as so many others did. Andrew Grossman (2011), also of The Wall Street Journal, reported on a unique aspect of the Zuccotti Park occupation that sheds some light on what attendance might have been. Apparently, after approximately five weeks of protest, it became evident to organizers that the demand for space in the small one-acre plaza significantly outweighed supply. He points out that the occupation itself had quickly evolved, having started out as people in sleeping bags sleeping in open air, to the erection of a “tent city” as the temperature gradually dropped with the approaching winter. Early on, protesters founded a committee called “Town Planning” to help manage space in Zuccotti Park, which they accomplished by obtaining official plans for the park and mocking up a crude zoning map. In order to allow for a higher density of occupants within the limited space provided, the proposed solution, which Grossman (2011) jokingly quips is “classically Manhattan,” was to “build upward.” Spending money collected through donations and various charitable sources, the Town Planning Committee purchased a dozen large military-style tents, and were even considering the temporary installation of bunk beds (Grossman, 2011). If space in Zuccotti Park had become that scarce, it is safe to assume that Weidner’s (2011) attendance estimate of a few hundred to one thousand protestors in a given day, is as close to accurate as can be found in the source material.

Ownership of Zuccotti Park by Brookfield Properties Limited, as well as their involvement and intervention in the Occupy protests, is a topic mentioned on several occasions throughout the news sources in particular. Media pundits seemed fascinated by the park’s “origin story,” which I suppose can be considered interesting if you believe municipal zoning variances to be the slightest bit intriguing. A privately-owned public space (a designation some consider oxymoronic; see Kimmelman, 2011; Chiaramonte 2011; Foderaro, 2011), the park was created as part of zoning concessions to developers working on the construction of 1 Liberty Plaza and the municipality of New York. The deal, which included an additional 300,000 square feet of rentable space to be added to the tower, required Brookfield to also build the park (Chiaramonte 2011). A large concession, however, was made by Brookfield as part of the negotiations, with the same zoning variance requiring the park, unlike a typical public, city-owned park, remain open 24 hours a day. (Foderaro, 2011; Kimmelman, 2011; Moreno-Caballud & Sitrin, 2011). Foderaro (2011) and Lubin (2012: 189), both suggest that protestors benefited heavily from the municipal zoning variance, particularly the 24-hour condition. Certain restrictions applied to city parks, such as curfews spanning anywhere from 9pm to 1am depending on the area of the city, to prohibitions on the erection of tents and other structures, both of which would have occupation in city-owned parks unquestionably illegal.

Brookfield Properties have not publicly objected to the protests taking place on their property, but in public statements released by the company, they haven’t exactly condoned them either. As reported on by Buckley (2011) and Chiaramonte (2011). Melissa Coley, a spokeswoman for Brookfield Office Properties, released a statement recognizing people’s right to peacefully assemble, but reaffirmed the company’s obligation to ensure that the park remain safe, clean and accessible to everyone, remarking that the company was working with the city to “restore the park to its intended purpose.”  The statement goes on to cite Brookfield’s inability to uphold the park’s sanitation requirements (Buckley, 2011; Chiaramonte, 2011). The statement reads, “Because many of the protestors refuse to cooperate by adhering to the [park] rules, the park has not been cleaned since Friday, September 16th, and as a result, sanitary conditions have reached unacceptable levels” (Brookfield Properties, as reported on Buckley, 2011 & Chiaramonte, 2011)

The agreed upon opinion of several authors is that the act of occupying public/private space, or the “re-appropriation of the commons” as Rehmann (2013: 3) called it, actually possesses deep symbolic meaning, particularly in regards to the act of occupying physical space, as well as the selection of Wall Street as a hub for demonstrations. Two theories are presented in the source material as what this meaning might be. First, the occupation of Zuccotti Park can be understood as an attempt by protestors to create an “equitable space,” an area that facilitates group decision-making and accountability (Sifry, 2011). The occupation of public space and the adoption of consensus-driven protocol are meant to demonstrate the organization and functionality of an ideal democracy, one that supports all members of society equally, providing everyone with an equal voice (Hardt & Negri, 2011: 2; Syrek, 2012: 73). A more detailed discussion of this topic is presented in Chapter 4 to coincide with a much broader discussion on “Horizontalism” and participatory democracy. However, it is important to note at this juncture that a substantial amount of attention is paid in the source material to features of the Zuccotti Park encampment that render it a “sustainable protest village” (Rushkoff, 2011). In keeping with the concept of building an “ideal” society, many authors makes a reference to how the Zuccotti Park encampment evolved into a self-sufficient, self-sustaining entity, capable of delivering its own services and providing its own amenities to residents, without the need for a centralized, hierarchical system of governance.

Kimmelman of The New York Times (2011) refers to this evolved encampment as a “miniature polis, a little city in the making.” Weidner (2011) called it a “new Manhattan neighbourhood,” while Brucato (2012: 77) used the term “microcommunity.” As permanent resident numbers grew, several community-like structures and services were inevitably created. Such amenities included a Food Station located at the park’s center, where various donated meals from both private citizens and nearby fast food establishments are disbursed to the crowd, a Media Station, where gasoline generators powered computers were used to both report on the event live via social media, as well as to communicate with other encampments mobilizing across the U.S. (for more on this, see Marzec, 2011; Costanza-Chock, 2012: 278; Gaby & Caren, 2012: 369), an Information Booth, a Recycling Centre, stations for first aid, phone charging and poster-making, and a “People’s Library” in order to facilitate the collection of donated books and other reading materials (Kadet, 2011; Kleinfield & Buckley, 2011; Weidner, 2011).

Second, several authors claim the decision to occupy New York’s Financial District was made because it is widely recognized as a symbol of relentless materialism (Wagner-Pacifici, 2012: 191-192; Lubin, 2012: 184-185). It is the recognition on the part of protestors and those who support them, that Wall Street is a locatable source of gross inequity and the machinery controlling the concentration of wealth in the United States (Wagner-Pacifici, 2012: 191-192; Lubin, 2012: 184). The camp created at Zuccotti Park reasserts the spatial dimensions of exclusion and inequality, according to Pickerill and Krinsky (2012:  280-281), by “forcing society to recognize that capitalist accumulation happens in certain places,” or the “geography of capitalism,” and that these places can be named and located. The selection of the Financial District in Lower Manhattan as the location for protests, sit-ins, marches and overnight occupation, must be viewed as a metaphor for grievances related to broader economic forces (Porter, 2011). Kohn (2011b) and Censky (2011) make a notable distinction, insisting that protesters aren’t opposed to free market capitalism, but rather, want to see eliminated the “crony capitalist system” that has replaced it. The term “crony capitalism” appears in several texts, a phrase that suggests that the capitalist economic system has been tainted in some way, abused and corrupted in a criminal manner. Tabb (2012: 272) says it best, that in calling attention to the crimes of Wall Street financiers, Occupy challenged the “bipartisan protection of the criminal workings of the financial system as it exists.” Along the same lines, Kristoff (2011b) suggests that Occupy challenged progressive political discourse by exposing the “violent antagonisms intrinsic to capitalism.”

Adbusters & Anonymous – Mobilization of Support

The overwhelming consensus in the source material is that Adbusters Media Foundation, the Vancouver-based publisher of the critically acclaimed bi-monthly magazine Adbusters, was largely responsible for acting as a catalyst for “Occupy” affiliated protests and demonstrations across North America (Blow, 2011; Kleinfield & Buckley, 2011; Pepitone, 2011; Costanza-Chock, 2012: 376; Gaby & Caren, 2012: 368; Hatem, 2012: 413; Kern & Nann, 2013: 199; Pepitone, 2012; Rehmann, 2013: 3).  Egan and Nichols (2011) of Fox News refer to the Adbusters Foundation as an “anti-capitalist group” that employed an “inventive” marketing campaign aimed at reproducing an Arab Spring-type uprising on Wall Street. They offer a belittling, sarcastic tone in regards to Adbusters, referring to it as “zany,” suggesting that its attempts at being a resource for “activists fighting to change the way information flows and meaning is produced in our society” can be reduced to a form of pandering to the masses. Adbusters refers to itself as “a global network of culture jammers” (also see Blow, 2011), an important hub for “high production value ad-hacking,” what Costanza-Chock (2012: 376) call “brand contamination.”

In 1989, Kalle Lasn helped found the anti-consumerist magazine (Haiven, 2007: 85; Yardley, 2011). Lasn, who would later appoint himself as chief editor, using the publication primarily to attack corporate America, creating “subvertising” campaigns like “Joe Chemo,” which openly mocked the Joe Camel cigarette ads of the 1990s (Yardley, 2011). Long before Occupy Wall Street was even a thought, Adbusters had many smaller campaigns, most notably “Buy Nothing Day,” which has since been adopted by occupiers and advocates of the movement alike (Yardley, 2011). Adbusters’ iconic ‘‘brand’’ of cultural resistance, “culture jamming,” is defined as the remixing of advertisements in an attempt to unmask (rather than ornament) corporate evils (Haiven, 2007: 85). Lasn even wrote a book on the topic entitled, Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge — and Why We Must (Haiven, 2007: 85; Yardley, 2011).

The seeds of Occupy Wall Street were planted by Adbusters months before protests would break out in mid-September. On February 2, Adbusters published a blog on their website authored by Konos Matsu entitled, A Million Man March on Wall Street: How to Spark a people’s revolt in the West, the first of a series of posts inspired by the spectacle of Tahrir Square (Farrell, 2011; Matsu, 2011). This incitement to action was connected to the successes of Egypt, implying that what happened in Cairo was an excellent example from which to model Western resistance practices (Kerton, 2012: 303). The article states, “Tahrir succeeded in large part because the people of Egypt made a straightforward ultimatum—that Mubarak must go—over and over again until they won. Following this model, what is our equally uncomplicated one demand?” (Adbusters, 2011a). For Adbusters, the success of Tahrir Square centered directly on the ability of protestors to repeat their single, unifying demand of removing Hosni Mubarek from political office.

Lasn, among the list of his numerous accomplishments, is also credited for giving the Occupy Wall Street Movement brand name recognition (Yardley, 2011). On July 13, in an attempt to initiate a new internet “meme” (a term coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins for a kind of transcendent cultural message), Lasn and his colleagues created a hashtag (#) on Twitter: #OCCUPYWALLSTREET (Yardley, 2011). July 13th stands out as a significant date in the text, recognized widely in the source material as the formal initiation of the Occupy Movement (Andersen, 2011; Davenport, 2011: 88-89; Kleinfield & Buckley, 2011; Schneider, 2011; Gaby & Caren, 2012: 368; Kern & Nann, 2013: 199). Lasn and other editors of the magazine published a mass email that afternoon, forwarding it to all 90,000 members on their distribution list. In an interview conducted by Pepitone (2011) on the day protests broke out, Lasn told CNNMoney that the editors at the magazine were upset that leaders in the financial sector “had not been brought to justice,” questioning why a similar backlash to the one that erupted in Egypt had not also occurred in the U.S.  He called the compulsion on the part of the staff to organize a day of protest an attempt at doing “something radical” in order to “shake things up” (Pepitone, 2011 & 2012). The email included a full-page photo-illustration of a barefoot ballerina posed atop Wall Street’s iconic “Charging Bull” statue (see Appendix 2.2 for image), insurgents in a tear-gas fog in the background, along with four lines of copy (Andersen, 2011; Farrell, 2011; Schneider, 2011; Gaby & Caren, 2012: 368; Kerton, 2012: 306):

“What is our one demand?


September 17th.

Bring tent.”

A similar, but slightly more detailed Call-to-Action was released simultaneously on the magazine’s website:

“#OCCUPY WALL STREET. Are you ready for a Tahrir moment? On Sept 17, flood into lower Manhatten, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy wall street.”  (Adbusters, 2011)

The blog entry that followed urged readers to join the zeitgeist and fashion themselves into a movement that was, “a fusion of Tahrir with the acampadas of Spain” (Farrell, 2011). Farrell (2011) envisions a crowd of 20,000 descending on Wall Street “for a few months”, in order to “incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices”. Ironically, the movement would soon be criticized heavily for lacking a clear demand, despite the fact that Adbusters had overtly suggested the occupation should revolve around a single demand (an idea first introduced by Matsu, 2011), that “Barack Obama ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over representatives in Washington”, a reformist proposition that shares relatively little relation to the overturning of an entire political regime, as suggested by the Egyptian revolution (Writers of the 99%, 2011: 10; Kerton, 2012: 305). A more in-depth discussion of protestor demands is offered in Chapter 4.

The infamous group of “hacktivists” or “internet collective” known as Anonymous are credited in the source material with having amplified the initial call-to-action to a much broader, wider audience (Farrell, 2011; Costanza-Chock, 2012: 376; Gaby & Caren, 2012: 368; Pepitone, 2012; Turnham & Lyon, 2012). Anonymous’ endorsement of the Movement came in the form of tireless promotion through social media, as well as a series of Internet campaigns, known as “ops,” targeting influential bankers and politicians, in August and September of 2011 (Turnham & Lyon, 2012). Most importantly was the circulation of internet videos (Costanza-Chock, 2012: 376), prominently featuring the tagline “Expect Us,” which Turnham and Lyon (2012) believe, comes across as both a promise and a threat. They contend that the aura of intimidation apparent in the videos was intended to “serve as a warning to riot cops facing difficult decisions in the heat of often chaotic protests,” a not-so-subtle jab at police officers who use excessive force in protest situations. Turnham and Lyon (2012) dedicate an entire article to Anonymous’ involvement, but work diligently to attempt to convince the reader that Anonymous, and anyone who associates with them, are dangerous criminals, using the terms “threat,” “intimidation” and “savage” in reference to their actions.

The group’s intervention in the spreading of the word and the mobilization of supporters referenced in the source material as both a blessing and a curse to the Movement’s goals and purpose (Schneider, 2011). Schneider (2011) points out that association with a group that is both under heavy scrutiny by segments of the public, and highly sought after by the FBI, may not accomplish much in terms of boosting the protestors’ credibility. Schenider (2011) also notes the possibility of an intensified police presence and increased arrests at the site of protests, of particular vulnerability are participants who choose to wear a “Guy Fawkes” mask, an iconic symbol adopted by supporters of the group (see also Gainer, 2011). Alternatively, In Lasn’s interview with Pepitone (2012) of CNN, he jokingly remarks that Anonymous’ involvement and participation in disseminating the message of Occupy gave the movement “more street cred.”

Social Media & Blogging Platforms

How did this happen? How, in a mere month, did a marginalized menagerie of political protesters manage to shake the banking and political foundations of the United States and transform the political debate of the nation? A simple answer is ‘‘social media,’’ but such simplicity needs nuance. (DeLuca, Lawson & Sun, 2012: 485)

Based on the analysis of Occupy Wall Street conducted by DeLuca, Lawson and Sun (2012: 483), on “old media” platforms such as newspapers, radio and television, the protests were “stillborn, first neglected, and then frivolously framed.” On social media, however, they contend that the circumstances are markedly different, with OWS emerging as “vibrant” and heavily discussed, both celebrated and attacked. The importance of social media tools for the mobilization of protest support, as well as the broadcast and spread of protest messages and information, is an unavoidable truth in the source material (Pepitone, 2011; Bennett, 2012; Costanza-Chock, 2012; DeLuca, Lawson & Sun, 2012; Gaby & Caren, 2012: 369). The utilization of social media tools, as discussed earlier in the chapter, is another parallel Occupy Wall Street shares with protests that preceded it that year. Of particular importance is the deployment of exceedingly popular online platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, with some recognition going to live broadcasting platforms such as LiveStream. On YouTube, an estimated 10,000 videos tagged “Occupy Wall Street” were uploaded within the first month of protests alone, the most popular of which was video captured on a smartphone that shows female protestors getting pepper-sprayed by NYPD officers, according to YouTube spokesman Matt McLernon (Preston, 2011). Estimates of the number of Facebook pages and Twitter accounts created for purposes of disseminating Movement updates and literature, as well as the recruitment of volunteers and the engagement of supporters in discussion and debate, range anywhere from 200 (Preston, 2011), all the way up to 1500 (Gaby & Caren, 2012: 367).

In an examination of how protest participants and supporters interact on Occupy-related Facebook pages, Gaby and Caren (2012: 368) isolate the top 100 posts in terms of drawing in new “fans” or followers (a metric that can be measured using Facebook’s internal “Insights” dashboard). They found that the most popular posts for fan acquisition involved the recruitment of people and resources to local occupations, information sharing and storytelling and inter-group exchanges. They also note the popularity of posts that highlight “surprising alliances,” including quotes from members of the elite 1% that were interpreted as support for the Movement (Polletta, 2006; as cited in Gaby & Caren, 2012: 368).

Analysis of the results of a survey distributed to protest participants in the Costanza-Chock (2012) study, reveal some statistical insight into the usage behavior on the popular digital media platforms. Not surprisingly, Facebook ranked as the most popular social network as a whole for posting and receiving information and updates, with a 64% usage rate among respondents, with just under a quarter of respondents using Twitter (23%) or blogs (24%) for the same posting purposes (Costanza-Chock, 2012: 379). In terms of media used for receiving Occupy information throughout the day, 29% of respondents said they viewed videos on YouTube, 5% higher than those who said they used newspapers, 10% higher than livestreaming websites, and 12% higher than those who used television and radio for the same information consumption purposes (Costanza-Chock, 2012: 379). Facebook also ranked as the most popular medium for sharing information with others (74%), narrowly winning over face-to-face communication (Facebook really beat out face-to-face interaction?) that came in a close second at 73%. Information shared via Facebook or word-of-mouth was considered more “casual” by the author, with a smaller sub-group of protest supporters engaging in more “intense” forms of media production. Blog posts were written and published online by 18% of respondents, with under 10% making a video, a far more labour and time intensive endeavor (Costanza-Chock, 2012: 380).

Returning to the study conducted by DeLuca, Lawson and Sun (2012), despite the fact only a handful of articles were published in major U.S. newspapers covering Occupy activities during the first month of the protest, the same could not be said for independently written blogs, with a search using the Google Search Engine for blogs mentioning ‘‘Occupy Wall Street’’ yielding over 10 million results in the same timeframe (492). The qualitative analysis of internet blogs conducted by the trio to identify instances of framing on the internet, includes an interesting dimension that adds a considerable amount of depth to the results. In selecting the U.S. political blogs for analysis, each source was categorized as either having a liberal (left-leaning) or conservative (right-leaning) orientation, later using this distinction as a basis for comparison (DeLuca, Lawson & Sun, 2012: 492). The analysis begins by presenting consistent themes found within each category, followed by a comparative analysis to identify the major differences between the two categories.

The most consistent theme identified in the analysis of conservative blogs is the discrediting of Occupy protestors. Some of the more popular themes identified include challenges to the protesters’ authenticity by discrediting claims that OWS represents a diverse grassroots movement, the delegitimization of protesters by linking them to dangerous political groups or ideologies, the framing of protestors as on-productive, degenerate members of society, or as an “undifferentiated mob” who are uninformed and are incapable of thinking for themselves (DeLuca, Lawson & Sun, 2012: 493-494). Most common, however, was the portrayal of protesters as freeloaders; irresponsible individuals who are a drain on society, with several right-leaning bloggers fixating on the presence of unemployed and homeless individuals among the protesters (DeLuca, Lawson & Sun, 2012: 494). With the protesters framed as dirty, degenerate, and dangerous, it is not surprising that right-leaning blogs were generally unsympathetic to protesters’ concerns, as well as either dismissive or fearful of their goals (DeLuca, Lawson & Sun, 2012: 495). Right-leaning bloggers also consistently challenged the legitimacy of Occupy protests by framing it as a “violent riot” that is carrying out ‘‘general mayhem, destroying private property and battling the police in the streets’’ (Martin, 2011; as cited in DeLuca, Lawson & Sun, 2012: 496).

It is the interpretation of the authenticity and legitimacy of the protests that is the main point of differentiation between right and left-leaning political blogs (DeLuca, Lawson & Sun, 2012: 496-497). Left-leaning blogs, in complete contrast to blogs on the right side of the spectrum, maintain that the movement was in fact grassroots, with pundits on the left applauding labor union involvement and support in OWS. Left-leaning bloggers were also not shy about highlighting support from liberal political leaders like President and former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, as well as a number of celebrity endorsements (DeLuca, Lawson & Sun, 2012: 497). Instead of trying to portray protestors in a negative light, liberal oriented blogs focused instead on the comprehensive list of grievances identified as being important motivators of OWS activities. The list included bank bailouts, corporate greed, a sense that the American dream is no longer attainable, the ongoing economic crisis, the repeal of the Glass-Stegall Act, rising income inequality, increased homelessness, lost homes and jobs, a lack of effective financial regulations, the influence of corporate money in the political system, and several others (DeLuca, Lawson & Sun, 2012: 497-498). In order to combat the “violent mob” portrayal of protest supporters, left-leaning blogs emphasized that the success of OWS at being nonviolent and law abiding compared to its international counterparts (DeLuca, Lawson & Sun, 2012: 498)

The importance of the blogging website Tumblr cannot be understated in the source material, receiving specific attention from several authors for its role in adding to the legitimation of the protest group, helping it to establish a cohesive group identity (Dewan, 2011; Luhby, 2011; Preston, 2011; Sutter, 2011; Winter, 2011). Tumblr – a website that gives anyone the ability to create a free blog website, lying somewhere between Twitter and WordPress on the social media spectrum in terms of blogging functionality – has become a forum for debate among supporters and critics alike. Each blog account appears as a thread or stream, with users having the ability to post to public threads, such as the thread that helped propel Occupy into mainstream dialogue, “We Are the 99 Percent.” In this particular thread, thousands of individuals shared personal testimonials divulging reasons (linked to personal experiences) that justify their support of the Occupy Movement (Preston, 2011; Sutter, 2011; Winter, 2011). Each post features a photo of its author holding up a paper sign that tells a bit of the person’s story and says “We Are the 99 Percent,” a reference to the elite’s command over the nation’s wealth (Sutter, 2011). These first-person stories of hardship, primarily include themes related to unemployment, accumulated student debt, unaffordable health insurance, home foreclosures, environmental pollution, wealth inequality, Wall Street and government corruption, and several others (Dewan, 2011; Preston, 2011; Sutter, 2011). According to Dewan (2011), and consistent with the opinion of a vast majority of sources, the primary grievance of the 99 Percenters who posted on Tumblr is the fact that 1% of Americans control about a third of the country’s wealth.

As attention for that Tumblr thread grew, a competing blog with a more conservative ideology also began to garner mainstream attention, titled “We are the 53%.” Created by Erick Erickson, an editor at the conservative site RedState.com and occasional commentator for CNN, contributors to this blog argue that they represent the 53% of Americans who must pay federal income tax, as opposed to those who make under $30,000, entitling them to pay no substantial federal tax on earnings (Dewan, 2011; Luhby, 2011; Sutter, 2011;). One of the fundamental flaws of the thread is the assumption that Occupy Wall Street protestors and sympathizers on the “We Are the 99 Percent,” site do not pay taxes. This claim originates from an estimate from the 2009 U.S. Tax Policy Center report that claims roughly 47% of Americans do not pay federal income tax (Luhby, 2011; Sutter, 2011). The primary grievance of the 53 Percenters is the fact that they are shouldering a heavier tax burden, which ultimately goes to fund the government assistance programs the 47% benefit from (Luhby, 2011). The content of these two Tumblr feeds serve as the primary source material for analysis in Chapter 5, where the personal biographies of those who supported and participated in the protest serves as the primary focus.

Social media fosters an ethic of both individual and collective participation during politically-charged events (Bennett, 2012; Costanza-Chock, 2012: 378; DeLuca, Lawson & Sun, 2012: 483). Bennett (2012), in an article entitled The Personalization of Politics, proposes a framework for understanding “large-scale individualized collective action” orchestrated using digital media (20), essentially explaining the reason behind both the use and popularity of social media throughout Occupy Wall Street. Bennett’s (2012) argument begins with the premise that the rise of “personalized forms of political participation” is the defining characteristic of modern political culture, blaming this rise on social fragmentation and the overall decline in society of group loyalties. The interesting feature of the modern participation landscape is that widespread social fragmentation has caused individualization to become the norm, a “modal social condition in postindustrial democracies,” particularly among younger segments of the population (Bennett, 2012: 22). Bennett (2012) states, “While individuals may be at the center of their own universes, those universes can be very large thanks to the social networking potential of ubiquitous communication technologies” (22), maintaining that new forms of social media and networking have not eliminated political participation and expression, but instead, allow for a different form of participation, one that doesn’t require central leadership or affiliation with any “official” organizations. This new form of participation is channeled through dense social networks over which people can share personal stories and concerns, enabling individuals to become important catalysts of collective action processes as stories begin to generate interest and support online (Bennett, 2012: 22). Social networking sites offer a tremendous benefit to protest organizers, creating a short cut that allows movement sympathizers to be involved without requiring the development of a new and separate communication infrastructure, or a sympathizer’s physical presence at the site of protest (Gaby & Caren, 2012: 372).

Costanza-Chock (2012) investigates the relationship between social media and social movements, examining media practices used during Occupy protests as a case study. The concept of “social movement media cultures” is developed throughout the analysis, and is defined as “the set of tools, skills, social practices and norms that movement participants deploy to create, circulate, curate and amplify movement media across all available platforms” (Costanza-Chock, 2012: 375). All social movement media cultures can be placed along an axis with vertical (top-down) message control on one extreme, and participatory (horizontal) media making on the other – the extreme the Occupy Movement is on. Practices that promote horizontal communication were evident throughout the protests including live public addresses during General Assemblies, live streaming of General Assemblies over the internet, and the practice of printing out important materials for distribution (Costanza-Chock, 2012: 382). Gitlin’s (2011) article in The New York Times presents a similar argument, discussing how the use of social media and other internet resources helps to facilitate “horizontalism.” A thorough discussion of horizontal power and the General Assembly practice will be discussed in Chapter 4.

The Occupied Wall Street Journal

Three journalists in the media deemed it newsworthy to report on the publication of a newspaper circulated internally within the Zuccotti Park encampment entitled The Occupied Wall Street Journal (Carr, 2011; Mirkinson, 2011; Moynihan, 2011). What makes the newsletter so fascinating to the authors is the irony in the fact that such an old method of communication would be adopted, and eagerly received, for a protest that had, up until that point, relied heavily on new and social media. Carr (2011) finds this fact reassuring – that newspapers as a medium still have some traction – suggesting that its popularity among protestors makes logical sense as it conveys a sense of place, of “actually being there” that digital media simply cannot reproduce: “When is the last time somebody handed you a Website?” Carr (2012) asks. The notion of possessing something material and tangible that embodies the spirit and purpose of Occupy, is echoed by the newspaper’s creator and lead editor, Arun Gupta (Carr, 2011; Moynihan, 2011)

The origins of the newspapers are equally fascinating. H. Gupta, 46, and his partner Jed Brandt, 38, worked together for a small publication called the  Indypendent, a left-leaning paper that publishes 16 issues a year and that Mr. Gupta co-founded in 2000 (Moynihan, 2011). Financing for the publication having been achieved through the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.com, having set out to raise $12,000, instead raising more than $75,000 (Carr, 2011; Moynihan, 2011). The initial printing of the document was supposed to be 50,000 copies, but was quickly raised to 70,000 copies once demand for it was established (Carr, 2011; Mirkinson, 2011; Moynihan, 2011). Some of the stories include one Gupta himself entitled The Revolution Begins at Home, an essay written by former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges, urging people to participate in the protests, as well as the “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” (see Appendix 2.1), a document approved at a meeting of protesters on September 29, and will be discussed in greater detail in the following chapter (Moynihan, 2011).


The analysis of source material presented in the second half of this sub-study, an examination into the “spatial” features of Occupy Wall Street, exposes two important commonalities that exist between Occupy and other protests that took place in 2011. Having a visible presence both on popular internet websites, social media networks, and heavily traversed public streets and squares, offers insight into a two-pronged “occupation” strategy, with manifestations of Occupy activism and support found in both physical and virtual reality. The convergence of large numbers of people in show of support for the 99%, took place both in Zuccotti Park, as well as internet forums like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

The long-term occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York’s Wall Street Financial District – a park accessible to all members of the public, 24 hours a day, despite being privately owned by Brookfield Properties – was a tactic employed by Occupy organizers and supporters for three proposed reasons. First, the success of previous occupations in the Arab Spring, Spain and U.S. likely factored into the decision to use a similar tactic for Occupy Wall Street. Second, the act of “re-appropriating the commons” was performed to create an “equitable space,” one that embodies the principles of consensus-based decision making and responsibility, as a way of demonstrating what “ideal” democracy might resemble. Discussion of this topic was limited in this particular sub-study, having been moved to the next chapter in order to coincide with a broader discussion on “Horizontalism” and participatory democracy. Along the same lines, however, the evolution of makeshift protest encampments into self-sustaining “microcommunities” that operate without a hierarchical government structure, can also be representative of an “ideal” form of society that protestors seek to replicate. Finally, the selection of Wall Street in particular as the location for protest demonstrations and occupation, is attributed in the source material to the collectively held symbolic meaning attached to the location. Occupy Wall Street is widely recognized as a hub of relentless materialism and extreme greed, known for being the primary location of the machinery used to power the economy, and fuel the gross social inequalities that are perpetuated by its very operation.

Evidence of the combination of traditional and online forms of media for communication and solicitation purposes, a phenomenon referred to as “transmedia mobilization” (Costanza-Chock, 2012: 378), is examined in the second half of this sub-study. Supporters of Occupy Wall Street employed as many tools as possible in order to mobilize support, garner further media attention, and transmit information between individuals and protest sites. In the early stages of Occupy, social media and internet blogs were used to amplify messages of intent and purpose. Adbusters magazine is credited in the source material as being the primary catalyst for Occupy demonstrations, having published and dispersed three Calls-to-Action, two on the magazine’s website, and one as an email forwarded to thousands of recipients. The internet hacktivist group Anonymous, having adopted the principles of Occupy Wall Street as offered by Adbusters, took it upon themselves to campaign on the Movement’s behalf, circulating messages and videos in high-traffic internet forums in order to help spread the word. The creation of the Occupied Wall Street Journal, a newsletter handed out to protestors directly in Zuccotti Park by independent publishers aligned with the Occupy initiative, provided another platform for circulating information offered on “official” protest websites like ocupywallst.org. The choice of “newspaper” as a medium for distributing Occupy doctrine is a point of interest raised in the source material, with concerns regarding the newsletter’s popularity among the predominantly young and tech-savvy protestor demographic.

Occupy Wall Street, as well as the protests that preceded it, demonstrate the power of social media and the internet to transform virtual audiences into physical ones. The sheer quantity and variety of locations online where information on Occupy Wall Street could be found, undoubtedly added to the momentum the Movement experienced in its early stages. The events that unfolded in New York’s Financial District provide an example how a grassroots activism campaign, whose origins can be found on the internet, does not fall on deaf ears, and that commitment to a cause online can translate into individual and collective action.

[1] Read the report published by the Pew Research Internet Project on June 16, 2011, entitled “Part 2: Who is Using Social Networking Sites?

Jason Quintal | December 17, 2015

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