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Episode
194

Occupy Wall Street

Sep 17, 2021
Politics
-
18
minutes
Economics
Revolution
New York
Capitalism
US politics
Politics

On September 17th, 2011, hundreds of people descended on a park in the heart of New York's financial district.

Their aim? To protest against the global financial system and its effects on  99% of the population.

On this 10th anniversary of the protests, we take a look at what happened, what they achieved, and what impact they might have in the future.

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Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Occupy Wall Street.

[00:00:28] This episode will be released on the 17th of September 2021, which is exactly 10 years after the demonstrations started.

[00:00:39] So, on this anniversary we are going to remind ourselves of exactly what happened, who was involved, and what were the protests were really about.

[00:00:48] Then, we’ll take a look at what effect they actually had, from discussing what effect they had at that time through to what effect they have had since then, and what effect, if any, they might have in the future.

[00:01:03] Ok then, let's get started.

[00:01:08] If there is one thing that history teaches us, it’s that when power and money are overly concentrated in the hands of a small minority, it is a fertile breeding ground for revolution.

[00:01:23] And when this situation arises in a democracy, where the implicit social contract one enters into is that everyone should have a fair chance at a good life, well it is a volatile situation.

[00:01:40] 10 years ago, the United States was in such a situation.

[00:01:45] It was just coming out of what has been called the Great Recession, or the Financial Crisis.

[00:01:52] From 2007 to 2009 the US, as we know, had experienced a housing crisis, brought on by corporate greed and irresponsible lending.

[00:02:05] Between 10 and 14 million people lost their homes. 

[00:02:10] Around 9 million people lost their jobs.

[00:02:13] Yet the bankers and corporate executives who were responsible for much of the actions that caused the recession got off “scot-free”. Not only did they not go to prison, but they kept their jobs, kept their large salaries, and nothing really seemed to have changed.

[00:02:32] Barack Obama had been elected president in 2008 on a platform of change, with a message of hope.

[00:02:41] Yet for many, he had not delivered on this.

[00:02:45] US political commentators had increasingly started to raise the issue of the rise of inequality, and the term the 1% had been coined

[00:02:57] This term, of the 1%, referred to the wealth that was held by the richest 1% of people in the country, the tiny minority. 

[00:03:08] It came to prominence in a June 2009 article written by the Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz, where he wrote: 

[00:03:16] “The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent.”

[00:03:41] In short, the richest in society were getting even richer and more powerful, at the expense of the majority.

[00:03:49] And elsewhere in the world there was a sense of revolution in the air.

[00:03:54] The Arab Spring had started in late 2010 and spread across much of the Arab world.

[00:04:02] In early 2011 there was the anti-austerity movement in Spain, also known as “Los indignados”, which no doubt the Spanish listeners will be all too familiar with.

[00:04:13] And even in London, not traditionally a hotbed of revolution, there were riots protesting the lack of economic opportunity and police corruption.

[00:04:24] So, this was the backdrop to what was to come in New York in September of 2011, with what would be called Occupy Wall Street.

[00:04:35] It might have become a movement that was all over the front pages of global newspapers, but it had humble beginnings. 

[00:04:44] Indeed, it all came out of a conversation between two employees at a left-wing Canadian magazine called Adbusters.

[00:04:54] The idea was that they would design a poster, gather enough people together in a public location in New York City, and protest against corporate greed.

[00:05:06] There wasn’t really a specific mission or purpose at the start. There wasn’t a demand, a specific policy, or something that the creators of the movement wanted to happen.

[00:05:18] They were angry, they were disappointed, the system was not working for them, and it wasn’t working for tens, if not hundreds of millions of other Americans.

[00:05:30] The idea was to congregate in one place at a specified time, show the country and the world that this was not ok, and see where things went from there.

[00:05:43] And so, on the 17th of September 2011, exactly 10 years before this episode will be released, around 200 people met in Zuccotti Park, a public square in the heart of New York’s financial district.

[00:05:59] Many turned up with posters with the movement’s slogan, “We are the 99%”, obviously pitting themselves against the minority, the 1%.

[00:06:12] According to reports from people who were there, many didn’t really know what to expect. 

[00:06:18] The movement may have been called “occupy”, but not everyone had the idea that they would actually continue to “occupy” the square for any longer than a few hours. 

[00:06:31] But others had more permanent ideas. 

[00:06:34] Some had brought sleeping bags, blankets, tents, and makeshift shelters, so that they could continue to “occupy” this square just a stone’s throw away from Wall Street..

[00:06:47] Although it wasn’t their first choice, the organisers had been clever in their choice of what square to “occupy”. 

[00:06:55] The square they had chosen, Zuccotti Park, was a privately owned park, it wasn’t owned by the city government, which meant the police couldn’t come and push them out unless the park’s owner requested it.

[00:07:09] This bought them some time, and meant that international newspapers very quickly started reporting on these protests at the heart of New York’s financial district, protesting at the sickness of the global capitalist system.

[00:07:25] But what were they actually protesting? 

[00:07:28] What were their demands

[00:07:29] What did they want to change?

[00:07:32] Well, this is where it gets interesting, confusing, and one could say this is where things started to go a little wrong.

[00:07:41] They were protesting against….almost everything. 

[00:07:45] The entire system was rotten

[00:07:48] The political system was so closely linked to corporate interests that democracy wasn’t working.

[00:07:55] The rich were getting richer.

[00:07:57] Wages were too low to allow normal people to live a dignified life.

[00:08:02] Healthcare was too expensive.

[00:08:05] Student debt was out of control.

[00:08:07] Global warming was this huge existential threat.

[00:08:11] And the situation was getting worse and worse.

[00:08:15] There was this general agreement that something had to be done, but no agreement about what it was, other than to scrap the entire system and start afresh

[00:08:27] The democratic system was broken. 

[00:08:30] Elected leaders were not acting in the interests of the people who elected them, they were acting in the interests of their corporate donors

[00:08:39] In the famous article in May of 2011, Stiglitz had written that most politicians are already part of the 1% when they enter politics, they then work on behalf of the 1% when they are in office, and when they leave they are given lucrative, well paying jobs by the very corporate donors, the very 1%, they helped while they were in office. 

[00:09:06] But while surveys at the time suggested that there was agreement among most Americans that inequality was getting out of control, and that bankers deserved to be punished for the financial crisis, there was not agreement about the fact that the entire system of Western capitalism and western democracy needed to be completely rethought

[00:09:29] What's more, Occupy Wall Street didn't have any real concrete demands, and it had no real leadership. 

[00:09:38] Its supporters, and its organisers, pointed out that this was the entire point. 

[00:09:43] Representative democracy, where people elect individuals to make decisions on their behalf, wasn't working. 

[00:09:51] So Occupy Wall Street would have a different model of agreement by consensus, the group would decide, instead of a few individuals deciding on behalf of the group, or the movement. 

[00:10:04] And in terms of its lack of concrete demands, it pointed out that it wasn't the place of protestors to figure out what the exact policy should be, but rather to suggest what the overall goal should be. 

[00:10:20] And that goal was a fair society that worked for everyone, not for the 1%. 

[00:10:26] To continue the story of what happened, for just short of two months people camped out in Zuccotti Park, this park near Wall Street.

[00:10:37] On November 15th the police finally came and cleared them away, because the owner of the park had complained that there was a health and fire safety risk to the protestors inside.

[00:10:49] And that was it, or at least that was the end of the first iteration of Occupy Wall Street.

[00:10:56] But during the 59 days that the protestors were in the park, what actually happened? What was actually going on?

[00:11:06] In the park itself, not a huge amount really. There were marches outside the park, such as one over Brooklyn Bridge, and there were occasional confrontations with the police.

[00:11:19] The entire protest was quite poorly organised, which commentators have attributed to the fact that there was no real leadership.

[00:11:29] For example, someone successfully managed to trick the organisers of Occupy Wall Street that the band Radiohead was coming to play in the square, in support of the movement.

[00:11:41] The fact that Radiohead would be interested in doing this wasn’t surprising. 

[00:11:46] Radiohead was in New York at the time, and they have been outspoken about western capitalism. 

[00:11:53] Unfortunately, it turned out to be a hoax, a complete lie.

[00:11:58] Lots of people converged on the square, hoping to see the band play but… they never came.

[00:12:06] For the critics of the movement, they asked how if Occupy Wall Street couldn’t even organise a simple concert, how should people take it seriously when it came to talking about overhauling the entire economic system?

[00:12:21] It was also heavily criticised for not actually being representative at all of the 99%, of the majority of people in America, and not even representative of New York City.

[00:12:34] According to an article in the Huffington Post, two-thirds of those who described themselves as “actively involved” in Occupy Wall Street were white, while 80 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

[00:12:49] Compare this to New York City, only one-third of the residents are white and about 34 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher. 

[00:12:58] Long story short, these protestors were claiming to represent the majority, but they weren’t representative themselves.

[00:13:07] This being said, the movement was incredibly effective in terms of furthering the idea of the 1% vs 99%, and of pushing this idea into the public consciousness.

[00:13:20] Barack Obama, who was up for reelection the following year, came out in support of the protestors, with the White House putting out a statement that it too is fighting for the 99%.

[00:13:34] To some, this was surprising.

[00:13:37] The White House was and still is the definition of the establishment, and for it to come out in support of an anti-establishment movement was... unexpected.

[00:13:48] But on the other hand the messaging of 1% vs. 99% makes it very difficult for a politician to reject.

[00:13:58] When put like that, of course anyone, even if they are in the 1% themselves, as of course Barack Obama and his White House staff were, has no option but to pledge support for the majority.

[00:14:12] In terms of other successes, or at least important legacies of Occupy Wall Street, there are several important issues that it raised 10 years ago that have seen important progress in American politics.

[00:14:26] Student debt, an increased minimum wage, environmental concerns, and medical debt, to give a few examples.

[00:14:34] To those of you who pay attention to American politics, you will know that these are all issues that Democratic politicians have campaigned on since.

[00:14:45] Before Occupy Wall Street, of course these issues were still just as important, but Occupy Wall Street did a huge amount to bring them further into the public consciousness.

[00:14:58] Debatably, the fact that they raised awareness of these kinds of issues paved a path for more left-wing politicians, people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

[00:15:10] In the first US presidential election after Barack Obama, would the Democratic party have had a self-professed “socialist” candidate get through to the last round, as Bernie Sanders did in 2016, without Occupy Wall Street?

[00:15:25] Very possibly, but the protests certainly did a lot to raise the profile of several of the issues that Bernie Sanders later campaigned on.

[00:15:36] But, the question still stands, has anything actually changed?

[00:15:41] As we look at the 10 years since the protests, what is actually different, and can we trace any of this back to Occupy Wall Street?

[00:15:52] To the critics of the movement, they will no doubt say that it achieved nothing. 

[00:15:57] That it was poorly organised, only consisted of over-educated white Americans sitting around talking in a park for a couple of months without proposing anything meaningful.

[00:16:09] Even taking a completely objective view, it has certainly not yet achieved the huge, seismic impact it set out to.

[00:16:18] Inequality has continued to rise, there has been very limited progress on things like student debt, global warming, medical debt and the minimum wage.

[00:16:29] But to the people who took part, and there are dozens of interviews and articles over the past 10 years saying a similar thing, it was an incredibly important movement that sowed the seeds for change, change that wasn’t to come immediately and might not even be seen for years to come, but change that is inevitable, and needed now more than ever before.

[00:16:55] Many of the people involved in Occupy Wall Street have gone on to organise grassroots movements, and to support progressive candidates in American politics. 

[00:17:07] They have gone on to be involved with other movements such as Black Lives Matter, and will continue to be involved for years to come.

[00:17:16] For these people, perhaps it is too early, even 10 years on, to accurately assess the impact of Occupy Wall Street.

[00:17:26] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Occupy Wall Street.

[00:17:31] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:17:35] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. For those of you who live in the United States, and especially if you were there in 2011, what was the reaction of your friends and colleagues? 

[00:17:49] Where did Occupy Wall Street go wrong? What could have been different? Or do you think it is too early to tell? 

[00:17:56] I would love to know. For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:18:08] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:18:14] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Occupy Wall Street.

[00:00:28] This episode will be released on the 17th of September 2021, which is exactly 10 years after the demonstrations started.

[00:00:39] So, on this anniversary we are going to remind ourselves of exactly what happened, who was involved, and what were the protests were really about.

[00:00:48] Then, we’ll take a look at what effect they actually had, from discussing what effect they had at that time through to what effect they have had since then, and what effect, if any, they might have in the future.

[00:01:03] Ok then, let's get started.

[00:01:08] If there is one thing that history teaches us, it’s that when power and money are overly concentrated in the hands of a small minority, it is a fertile breeding ground for revolution.

[00:01:23] And when this situation arises in a democracy, where the implicit social contract one enters into is that everyone should have a fair chance at a good life, well it is a volatile situation.

[00:01:40] 10 years ago, the United States was in such a situation.

[00:01:45] It was just coming out of what has been called the Great Recession, or the Financial Crisis.

[00:01:52] From 2007 to 2009 the US, as we know, had experienced a housing crisis, brought on by corporate greed and irresponsible lending.

[00:02:05] Between 10 and 14 million people lost their homes. 

[00:02:10] Around 9 million people lost their jobs.

[00:02:13] Yet the bankers and corporate executives who were responsible for much of the actions that caused the recession got off “scot-free”. Not only did they not go to prison, but they kept their jobs, kept their large salaries, and nothing really seemed to have changed.

[00:02:32] Barack Obama had been elected president in 2008 on a platform of change, with a message of hope.

[00:02:41] Yet for many, he had not delivered on this.

[00:02:45] US political commentators had increasingly started to raise the issue of the rise of inequality, and the term the 1% had been coined

[00:02:57] This term, of the 1%, referred to the wealth that was held by the richest 1% of people in the country, the tiny minority. 

[00:03:08] It came to prominence in a June 2009 article written by the Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz, where he wrote: 

[00:03:16] “The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent.”

[00:03:41] In short, the richest in society were getting even richer and more powerful, at the expense of the majority.

[00:03:49] And elsewhere in the world there was a sense of revolution in the air.

[00:03:54] The Arab Spring had started in late 2010 and spread across much of the Arab world.

[00:04:02] In early 2011 there was the anti-austerity movement in Spain, also known as “Los indignados”, which no doubt the Spanish listeners will be all too familiar with.

[00:04:13] And even in London, not traditionally a hotbed of revolution, there were riots protesting the lack of economic opportunity and police corruption.

[00:04:24] So, this was the backdrop to what was to come in New York in September of 2011, with what would be called Occupy Wall Street.

[00:04:35] It might have become a movement that was all over the front pages of global newspapers, but it had humble beginnings. 

[00:04:44] Indeed, it all came out of a conversation between two employees at a left-wing Canadian magazine called Adbusters.

[00:04:54] The idea was that they would design a poster, gather enough people together in a public location in New York City, and protest against corporate greed.

[00:05:06] There wasn’t really a specific mission or purpose at the start. There wasn’t a demand, a specific policy, or something that the creators of the movement wanted to happen.

[00:05:18] They were angry, they were disappointed, the system was not working for them, and it wasn’t working for tens, if not hundreds of millions of other Americans.

[00:05:30] The idea was to congregate in one place at a specified time, show the country and the world that this was not ok, and see where things went from there.

[00:05:43] And so, on the 17th of September 2011, exactly 10 years before this episode will be released, around 200 people met in Zuccotti Park, a public square in the heart of New York’s financial district.

[00:05:59] Many turned up with posters with the movement’s slogan, “We are the 99%”, obviously pitting themselves against the minority, the 1%.

[00:06:12] According to reports from people who were there, many didn’t really know what to expect. 

[00:06:18] The movement may have been called “occupy”, but not everyone had the idea that they would actually continue to “occupy” the square for any longer than a few hours. 

[00:06:31] But others had more permanent ideas. 

[00:06:34] Some had brought sleeping bags, blankets, tents, and makeshift shelters, so that they could continue to “occupy” this square just a stone’s throw away from Wall Street..

[00:06:47] Although it wasn’t their first choice, the organisers had been clever in their choice of what square to “occupy”. 

[00:06:55] The square they had chosen, Zuccotti Park, was a privately owned park, it wasn’t owned by the city government, which meant the police couldn’t come and push them out unless the park’s owner requested it.

[00:07:09] This bought them some time, and meant that international newspapers very quickly started reporting on these protests at the heart of New York’s financial district, protesting at the sickness of the global capitalist system.

[00:07:25] But what were they actually protesting? 

[00:07:28] What were their demands

[00:07:29] What did they want to change?

[00:07:32] Well, this is where it gets interesting, confusing, and one could say this is where things started to go a little wrong.

[00:07:41] They were protesting against….almost everything. 

[00:07:45] The entire system was rotten

[00:07:48] The political system was so closely linked to corporate interests that democracy wasn’t working.

[00:07:55] The rich were getting richer.

[00:07:57] Wages were too low to allow normal people to live a dignified life.

[00:08:02] Healthcare was too expensive.

[00:08:05] Student debt was out of control.

[00:08:07] Global warming was this huge existential threat.

[00:08:11] And the situation was getting worse and worse.

[00:08:15] There was this general agreement that something had to be done, but no agreement about what it was, other than to scrap the entire system and start afresh

[00:08:27] The democratic system was broken. 

[00:08:30] Elected leaders were not acting in the interests of the people who elected them, they were acting in the interests of their corporate donors

[00:08:39] In the famous article in May of 2011, Stiglitz had written that most politicians are already part of the 1% when they enter politics, they then work on behalf of the 1% when they are in office, and when they leave they are given lucrative, well paying jobs by the very corporate donors, the very 1%, they helped while they were in office. 

[00:09:06] But while surveys at the time suggested that there was agreement among most Americans that inequality was getting out of control, and that bankers deserved to be punished for the financial crisis, there was not agreement about the fact that the entire system of Western capitalism and western democracy needed to be completely rethought

[00:09:29] What's more, Occupy Wall Street didn't have any real concrete demands, and it had no real leadership. 

[00:09:38] Its supporters, and its organisers, pointed out that this was the entire point. 

[00:09:43] Representative democracy, where people elect individuals to make decisions on their behalf, wasn't working. 

[00:09:51] So Occupy Wall Street would have a different model of agreement by consensus, the group would decide, instead of a few individuals deciding on behalf of the group, or the movement. 

[00:10:04] And in terms of its lack of concrete demands, it pointed out that it wasn't the place of protestors to figure out what the exact policy should be, but rather to suggest what the overall goal should be. 

[00:10:20] And that goal was a fair society that worked for everyone, not for the 1%. 

[00:10:26] To continue the story of what happened, for just short of two months people camped out in Zuccotti Park, this park near Wall Street.

[00:10:37] On November 15th the police finally came and cleared them away, because the owner of the park had complained that there was a health and fire safety risk to the protestors inside.

[00:10:49] And that was it, or at least that was the end of the first iteration of Occupy Wall Street.

[00:10:56] But during the 59 days that the protestors were in the park, what actually happened? What was actually going on?

[00:11:06] In the park itself, not a huge amount really. There were marches outside the park, such as one over Brooklyn Bridge, and there were occasional confrontations with the police.

[00:11:19] The entire protest was quite poorly organised, which commentators have attributed to the fact that there was no real leadership.

[00:11:29] For example, someone successfully managed to trick the organisers of Occupy Wall Street that the band Radiohead was coming to play in the square, in support of the movement.

[00:11:41] The fact that Radiohead would be interested in doing this wasn’t surprising. 

[00:11:46] Radiohead was in New York at the time, and they have been outspoken about western capitalism. 

[00:11:53] Unfortunately, it turned out to be a hoax, a complete lie.

[00:11:58] Lots of people converged on the square, hoping to see the band play but… they never came.

[00:12:06] For the critics of the movement, they asked how if Occupy Wall Street couldn’t even organise a simple concert, how should people take it seriously when it came to talking about overhauling the entire economic system?

[00:12:21] It was also heavily criticised for not actually being representative at all of the 99%, of the majority of people in America, and not even representative of New York City.

[00:12:34] According to an article in the Huffington Post, two-thirds of those who described themselves as “actively involved” in Occupy Wall Street were white, while 80 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

[00:12:49] Compare this to New York City, only one-third of the residents are white and about 34 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher. 

[00:12:58] Long story short, these protestors were claiming to represent the majority, but they weren’t representative themselves.

[00:13:07] This being said, the movement was incredibly effective in terms of furthering the idea of the 1% vs 99%, and of pushing this idea into the public consciousness.

[00:13:20] Barack Obama, who was up for reelection the following year, came out in support of the protestors, with the White House putting out a statement that it too is fighting for the 99%.

[00:13:34] To some, this was surprising.

[00:13:37] The White House was and still is the definition of the establishment, and for it to come out in support of an anti-establishment movement was... unexpected.

[00:13:48] But on the other hand the messaging of 1% vs. 99% makes it very difficult for a politician to reject.

[00:13:58] When put like that, of course anyone, even if they are in the 1% themselves, as of course Barack Obama and his White House staff were, has no option but to pledge support for the majority.

[00:14:12] In terms of other successes, or at least important legacies of Occupy Wall Street, there are several important issues that it raised 10 years ago that have seen important progress in American politics.

[00:14:26] Student debt, an increased minimum wage, environmental concerns, and medical debt, to give a few examples.

[00:14:34] To those of you who pay attention to American politics, you will know that these are all issues that Democratic politicians have campaigned on since.

[00:14:45] Before Occupy Wall Street, of course these issues were still just as important, but Occupy Wall Street did a huge amount to bring them further into the public consciousness.

[00:14:58] Debatably, the fact that they raised awareness of these kinds of issues paved a path for more left-wing politicians, people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

[00:15:10] In the first US presidential election after Barack Obama, would the Democratic party have had a self-professed “socialist” candidate get through to the last round, as Bernie Sanders did in 2016, without Occupy Wall Street?

[00:15:25] Very possibly, but the protests certainly did a lot to raise the profile of several of the issues that Bernie Sanders later campaigned on.

[00:15:36] But, the question still stands, has anything actually changed?

[00:15:41] As we look at the 10 years since the protests, what is actually different, and can we trace any of this back to Occupy Wall Street?

[00:15:52] To the critics of the movement, they will no doubt say that it achieved nothing. 

[00:15:57] That it was poorly organised, only consisted of over-educated white Americans sitting around talking in a park for a couple of months without proposing anything meaningful.

[00:16:09] Even taking a completely objective view, it has certainly not yet achieved the huge, seismic impact it set out to.

[00:16:18] Inequality has continued to rise, there has been very limited progress on things like student debt, global warming, medical debt and the minimum wage.

[00:16:29] But to the people who took part, and there are dozens of interviews and articles over the past 10 years saying a similar thing, it was an incredibly important movement that sowed the seeds for change, change that wasn’t to come immediately and might not even be seen for years to come, but change that is inevitable, and needed now more than ever before.

[00:16:55] Many of the people involved in Occupy Wall Street have gone on to organise grassroots movements, and to support progressive candidates in American politics. 

[00:17:07] They have gone on to be involved with other movements such as Black Lives Matter, and will continue to be involved for years to come.

[00:17:16] For these people, perhaps it is too early, even 10 years on, to accurately assess the impact of Occupy Wall Street.

[00:17:26] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Occupy Wall Street.

[00:17:31] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:17:35] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. For those of you who live in the United States, and especially if you were there in 2011, what was the reaction of your friends and colleagues? 

[00:17:49] Where did Occupy Wall Street go wrong? What could have been different? Or do you think it is too early to tell? 

[00:17:56] I would love to know. For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:18:08] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:18:14] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Occupy Wall Street.

[00:00:28] This episode will be released on the 17th of September 2021, which is exactly 10 years after the demonstrations started.

[00:00:39] So, on this anniversary we are going to remind ourselves of exactly what happened, who was involved, and what were the protests were really about.

[00:00:48] Then, we’ll take a look at what effect they actually had, from discussing what effect they had at that time through to what effect they have had since then, and what effect, if any, they might have in the future.

[00:01:03] Ok then, let's get started.

[00:01:08] If there is one thing that history teaches us, it’s that when power and money are overly concentrated in the hands of a small minority, it is a fertile breeding ground for revolution.

[00:01:23] And when this situation arises in a democracy, where the implicit social contract one enters into is that everyone should have a fair chance at a good life, well it is a volatile situation.

[00:01:40] 10 years ago, the United States was in such a situation.

[00:01:45] It was just coming out of what has been called the Great Recession, or the Financial Crisis.

[00:01:52] From 2007 to 2009 the US, as we know, had experienced a housing crisis, brought on by corporate greed and irresponsible lending.

[00:02:05] Between 10 and 14 million people lost their homes. 

[00:02:10] Around 9 million people lost their jobs.

[00:02:13] Yet the bankers and corporate executives who were responsible for much of the actions that caused the recession got off “scot-free”. Not only did they not go to prison, but they kept their jobs, kept their large salaries, and nothing really seemed to have changed.

[00:02:32] Barack Obama had been elected president in 2008 on a platform of change, with a message of hope.

[00:02:41] Yet for many, he had not delivered on this.

[00:02:45] US political commentators had increasingly started to raise the issue of the rise of inequality, and the term the 1% had been coined

[00:02:57] This term, of the 1%, referred to the wealth that was held by the richest 1% of people in the country, the tiny minority. 

[00:03:08] It came to prominence in a June 2009 article written by the Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz, where he wrote: 

[00:03:16] “The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent.”

[00:03:41] In short, the richest in society were getting even richer and more powerful, at the expense of the majority.

[00:03:49] And elsewhere in the world there was a sense of revolution in the air.

[00:03:54] The Arab Spring had started in late 2010 and spread across much of the Arab world.

[00:04:02] In early 2011 there was the anti-austerity movement in Spain, also known as “Los indignados”, which no doubt the Spanish listeners will be all too familiar with.

[00:04:13] And even in London, not traditionally a hotbed of revolution, there were riots protesting the lack of economic opportunity and police corruption.

[00:04:24] So, this was the backdrop to what was to come in New York in September of 2011, with what would be called Occupy Wall Street.

[00:04:35] It might have become a movement that was all over the front pages of global newspapers, but it had humble beginnings. 

[00:04:44] Indeed, it all came out of a conversation between two employees at a left-wing Canadian magazine called Adbusters.

[00:04:54] The idea was that they would design a poster, gather enough people together in a public location in New York City, and protest against corporate greed.

[00:05:06] There wasn’t really a specific mission or purpose at the start. There wasn’t a demand, a specific policy, or something that the creators of the movement wanted to happen.

[00:05:18] They were angry, they were disappointed, the system was not working for them, and it wasn’t working for tens, if not hundreds of millions of other Americans.

[00:05:30] The idea was to congregate in one place at a specified time, show the country and the world that this was not ok, and see where things went from there.

[00:05:43] And so, on the 17th of September 2011, exactly 10 years before this episode will be released, around 200 people met in Zuccotti Park, a public square in the heart of New York’s financial district.

[00:05:59] Many turned up with posters with the movement’s slogan, “We are the 99%”, obviously pitting themselves against the minority, the 1%.

[00:06:12] According to reports from people who were there, many didn’t really know what to expect. 

[00:06:18] The movement may have been called “occupy”, but not everyone had the idea that they would actually continue to “occupy” the square for any longer than a few hours. 

[00:06:31] But others had more permanent ideas. 

[00:06:34] Some had brought sleeping bags, blankets, tents, and makeshift shelters, so that they could continue to “occupy” this square just a stone’s throw away from Wall Street..

[00:06:47] Although it wasn’t their first choice, the organisers had been clever in their choice of what square to “occupy”. 

[00:06:55] The square they had chosen, Zuccotti Park, was a privately owned park, it wasn’t owned by the city government, which meant the police couldn’t come and push them out unless the park’s owner requested it.

[00:07:09] This bought them some time, and meant that international newspapers very quickly started reporting on these protests at the heart of New York’s financial district, protesting at the sickness of the global capitalist system.

[00:07:25] But what were they actually protesting? 

[00:07:28] What were their demands

[00:07:29] What did they want to change?

[00:07:32] Well, this is where it gets interesting, confusing, and one could say this is where things started to go a little wrong.

[00:07:41] They were protesting against….almost everything. 

[00:07:45] The entire system was rotten

[00:07:48] The political system was so closely linked to corporate interests that democracy wasn’t working.

[00:07:55] The rich were getting richer.

[00:07:57] Wages were too low to allow normal people to live a dignified life.

[00:08:02] Healthcare was too expensive.

[00:08:05] Student debt was out of control.

[00:08:07] Global warming was this huge existential threat.

[00:08:11] And the situation was getting worse and worse.

[00:08:15] There was this general agreement that something had to be done, but no agreement about what it was, other than to scrap the entire system and start afresh

[00:08:27] The democratic system was broken. 

[00:08:30] Elected leaders were not acting in the interests of the people who elected them, they were acting in the interests of their corporate donors

[00:08:39] In the famous article in May of 2011, Stiglitz had written that most politicians are already part of the 1% when they enter politics, they then work on behalf of the 1% when they are in office, and when they leave they are given lucrative, well paying jobs by the very corporate donors, the very 1%, they helped while they were in office. 

[00:09:06] But while surveys at the time suggested that there was agreement among most Americans that inequality was getting out of control, and that bankers deserved to be punished for the financial crisis, there was not agreement about the fact that the entire system of Western capitalism and western democracy needed to be completely rethought

[00:09:29] What's more, Occupy Wall Street didn't have any real concrete demands, and it had no real leadership. 

[00:09:38] Its supporters, and its organisers, pointed out that this was the entire point. 

[00:09:43] Representative democracy, where people elect individuals to make decisions on their behalf, wasn't working. 

[00:09:51] So Occupy Wall Street would have a different model of agreement by consensus, the group would decide, instead of a few individuals deciding on behalf of the group, or the movement. 

[00:10:04] And in terms of its lack of concrete demands, it pointed out that it wasn't the place of protestors to figure out what the exact policy should be, but rather to suggest what the overall goal should be. 

[00:10:20] And that goal was a fair society that worked for everyone, not for the 1%. 

[00:10:26] To continue the story of what happened, for just short of two months people camped out in Zuccotti Park, this park near Wall Street.

[00:10:37] On November 15th the police finally came and cleared them away, because the owner of the park had complained that there was a health and fire safety risk to the protestors inside.

[00:10:49] And that was it, or at least that was the end of the first iteration of Occupy Wall Street.

[00:10:56] But during the 59 days that the protestors were in the park, what actually happened? What was actually going on?

[00:11:06] In the park itself, not a huge amount really. There were marches outside the park, such as one over Brooklyn Bridge, and there were occasional confrontations with the police.

[00:11:19] The entire protest was quite poorly organised, which commentators have attributed to the fact that there was no real leadership.

[00:11:29] For example, someone successfully managed to trick the organisers of Occupy Wall Street that the band Radiohead was coming to play in the square, in support of the movement.

[00:11:41] The fact that Radiohead would be interested in doing this wasn’t surprising. 

[00:11:46] Radiohead was in New York at the time, and they have been outspoken about western capitalism. 

[00:11:53] Unfortunately, it turned out to be a hoax, a complete lie.

[00:11:58] Lots of people converged on the square, hoping to see the band play but… they never came.

[00:12:06] For the critics of the movement, they asked how if Occupy Wall Street couldn’t even organise a simple concert, how should people take it seriously when it came to talking about overhauling the entire economic system?

[00:12:21] It was also heavily criticised for not actually being representative at all of the 99%, of the majority of people in America, and not even representative of New York City.

[00:12:34] According to an article in the Huffington Post, two-thirds of those who described themselves as “actively involved” in Occupy Wall Street were white, while 80 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

[00:12:49] Compare this to New York City, only one-third of the residents are white and about 34 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher. 

[00:12:58] Long story short, these protestors were claiming to represent the majority, but they weren’t representative themselves.

[00:13:07] This being said, the movement was incredibly effective in terms of furthering the idea of the 1% vs 99%, and of pushing this idea into the public consciousness.

[00:13:20] Barack Obama, who was up for reelection the following year, came out in support of the protestors, with the White House putting out a statement that it too is fighting for the 99%.

[00:13:34] To some, this was surprising.

[00:13:37] The White House was and still is the definition of the establishment, and for it to come out in support of an anti-establishment movement was... unexpected.

[00:13:48] But on the other hand the messaging of 1% vs. 99% makes it very difficult for a politician to reject.

[00:13:58] When put like that, of course anyone, even if they are in the 1% themselves, as of course Barack Obama and his White House staff were, has no option but to pledge support for the majority.

[00:14:12] In terms of other successes, or at least important legacies of Occupy Wall Street, there are several important issues that it raised 10 years ago that have seen important progress in American politics.

[00:14:26] Student debt, an increased minimum wage, environmental concerns, and medical debt, to give a few examples.

[00:14:34] To those of you who pay attention to American politics, you will know that these are all issues that Democratic politicians have campaigned on since.

[00:14:45] Before Occupy Wall Street, of course these issues were still just as important, but Occupy Wall Street did a huge amount to bring them further into the public consciousness.

[00:14:58] Debatably, the fact that they raised awareness of these kinds of issues paved a path for more left-wing politicians, people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

[00:15:10] In the first US presidential election after Barack Obama, would the Democratic party have had a self-professed “socialist” candidate get through to the last round, as Bernie Sanders did in 2016, without Occupy Wall Street?

[00:15:25] Very possibly, but the protests certainly did a lot to raise the profile of several of the issues that Bernie Sanders later campaigned on.

[00:15:36] But, the question still stands, has anything actually changed?

[00:15:41] As we look at the 10 years since the protests, what is actually different, and can we trace any of this back to Occupy Wall Street?

[00:15:52] To the critics of the movement, they will no doubt say that it achieved nothing. 

[00:15:57] That it was poorly organised, only consisted of over-educated white Americans sitting around talking in a park for a couple of months without proposing anything meaningful.

[00:16:09] Even taking a completely objective view, it has certainly not yet achieved the huge, seismic impact it set out to.

[00:16:18] Inequality has continued to rise, there has been very limited progress on things like student debt, global warming, medical debt and the minimum wage.

[00:16:29] But to the people who took part, and there are dozens of interviews and articles over the past 10 years saying a similar thing, it was an incredibly important movement that sowed the seeds for change, change that wasn’t to come immediately and might not even be seen for years to come, but change that is inevitable, and needed now more than ever before.

[00:16:55] Many of the people involved in Occupy Wall Street have gone on to organise grassroots movements, and to support progressive candidates in American politics. 

[00:17:07] They have gone on to be involved with other movements such as Black Lives Matter, and will continue to be involved for years to come.

[00:17:16] For these people, perhaps it is too early, even 10 years on, to accurately assess the impact of Occupy Wall Street.

[00:17:26] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Occupy Wall Street.

[00:17:31] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:17:35] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. For those of you who live in the United States, and especially if you were there in 2011, what was the reaction of your friends and colleagues? 

[00:17:49] Where did Occupy Wall Street go wrong? What could have been different? Or do you think it is too early to tell? 

[00:17:56] I would love to know. For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:18:08] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:18:14] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]