Please enable JavaScript in your browser.

No Turning Back: Ten Years After Occupy

In the winter and spring of 2011, waves of unrest coursed through Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Mauritania, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. In the United States, demonstrators took over the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, rallying against the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill which decimated collective bargaining rights in the state. That summer, protests unfolded in Chile, Columbia, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, and Spain. The Spanish uprising, encampments in public squares of activists calling themselves Los Indignados, “the indignants,” became the 15-M movement whose strategies and rhetoric impacted the shape of what was to become Occupy.

As revolution circled the globe, Adbusters, a Canadian anti-consumerist magazine, published a call: “Are you ready for a Tahrir moment? On September 17, flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades, and occupy Wall Street.” A core group of activists in New York City—who were watching, learning, and even participating in these global movements—met and defined themselves as the New York City General Assembly (NYCGA). Together, they began planning. The Tactical Committee, a working group within NYCGA, identified eight sites that fulfilled the needs for a direct action. On Saturday, September 17th, 2011, a crowd of around 1,000 people gathered in lower Manhattan, with maps of possible targets in hand. Finding Chase Plaza already barricaded by the NYPD, the activists moved to “Location Two,” and by 3:00 PM, Occupy Wall Street was hosting its first movement-wide General Assembly in its new home: Zuccotti Park.

After three months of maintaining a twenty-four-hours, seven-days-a-week protest in the park, countless marches, banner drops, and autonomous direct actions, Occupy’s encampment at Zuccotti was violently destroyed by the NYPD. Over the course of the next year, activists made attempts to reclaim other public sites; however, with thousands of brutal arrests, and a coordinated campaign by the intelligence agencies and local police to tear apart the movement, Occupy activists began to burn out. For some time following 2012, there were annual Occupy-led protests on the anniversary of September 17th and on May Day. Occupy activists continued their work on issues of climate justice and calling attention to the intersecting debt and housing and eviction crises. But direct action, under the banner of Occupy, ceased altogether in 2015. While Occupy reshaped our political landscape, reaffirmed the necessity of a class-based analysis as a part of movement work, influenced public policy, and trained many of our current generation of movement workers through organizations like the Wildfire Project, it can also be said that many of the lasting contours of the movement have been appropriated by liberal causes, or—worse—mimicked by the right. Nonetheless, the last ten years of left protest make it hard to dismiss the importance of what transpired in lower Manhattan from 2011-2012.

On the 10th anniversary of the movement, this digital exhibit, No Turning Back: Ten Years After Occupy, brings together materials from across the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives to examine that first, critical year of Occupy Wall Street. We have chosen archival materials that not only capture much of the movement’s tactics, strategies, aesthetics, and language, but also attempt to show how Occupy’s protests became a national phenomenon and were a turning point for left movements globally.

The exhibit is organized around the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, a collectively authored letter to the world, drafted by the Call to Action Working Group and ratified by NYCGA, stating why Occupy protestors were reclaiming public space in the name of the 99%. As a central text of the movement, we wanted the Declaration to lead our exhibit's structure—and, in doing so, to allow Occupy Wall Street to speak to its own history. We also offer thirteen issues, presented here as exhibit themes, around which the protestors coalesced. These themes represent how Occupy shaped itself as an anti-capitalist movement, brought renewed attention to economic inequality and corruption on Wall Street, and created a broad umbrella for a wide range of intersecting social movements. Analysis of the themes also demonstrates the ways in which Occupy Wall Street faced its own internal struggles from debates on tactics to its failure to address issues of race, gender, and accessibility within the movement.

No Turning Back does not seek to be comprehensive in its content or analysis. It does not, for example, address the mass arrest of protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1, 2011, a moment which galvanized Occupy, nor does it speak to Occupy's mutual aid efforts following superstorm Sandy in 2012—arguably one of the movement’s most effective actions. We worked primarily within the Occupy Wall Street Archives Working Group Records. This collection was built by the protesters themselves to document their own movement contemporaneously. In this way, the collection, and therefore this exhibit, is a reflection of what Occupy Wall Street wanted to communicate about itself. To collect everything would have been an impossibility and, therefore, it is an impossibility for this exhibit to tell the whole story of Occupy. There are noticeable gaps in the archival record, and in this exhibit, both of which we acknowledge. We nevertheless aim to show a cross-section of Occupy's making of its own history.

By illuminating all that Occupy fought for, and where it faltered, No Turning Back: Ten Years After Occupy, provides a retrospective for understanding where we are in 2021—politically fractured, burdened by the ravages of capitalism, white nationalist fascism rising, climate change reaching its tipping point, and trying to survive in a pandemic. It also reminds us of the power of community, interdependence, and collective action.

We dedicate this exhibit to the memories of Faith Laugier and David Graeber.

Browse Collection by Object Type