Hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protesters took to the streets in Lower Manhattan on Monday to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the populist social movement that changed the country’s political discourse but has struggled for relevance in recent months.
A New York police spokesman said 181 protesters were arrested as they marched and chanted throughout the city’s financial district and tried — and failed — to form a human blockade around the New York Stock Exchange. Most were charged with disorderly conduct.
Legba Carrefour, a D.C. activist in New York for the event, called the morning activity “underwhelming” but said that the protest caught fire in the afternoon, with as many as four mini-marches through the streets.
A party-like feel ruled the day, dubbed “S17 Resistance,” as several hundred descended upon the concrete canyons of the financial epicenter where they had created such a firestorm last year by setting up camp in New York’s Zuccotti Park and demanding a reckoning for Wall Street’s role in the country’s financial crisis. The camp was cleared a month later but not before the movement had spread to dozens of cities across the country, including the District.
“We want to let Wall Street know we very much have not left the scene,” said Ed Needham, a member of Occupy Wall Street’s media relations and communications team. “People are hurting just as much now as they were this time last year.”
The high-profile anniversary capped a year in which Occupy has sputtered and lost steam. With public opinion eroded, camps shuttered and other recent protest marches anemic, the die-hard activists who remain have struggled to map out a future.
Occupy supporters say they were successful in bringing the issue of rising economic inequality into the mainstream, with the catchy terms “the 99 percent” and “the 1 percent’’ — a reference to the top percentage of households earning a disproportionate share of all income — now part of the national discourse.
Smaller “affinity” groups have quietly continued to work with far less media attention, such as one taking on bank regulation and Occupy Our Homes, which has successfully staged foreclosure and eviction defenses in such places as Chicago, Minneapolis and the District.
But even though the gap between the rich and poor in this country continues to widen and the middle class has shrunk to an all-time low, according to a U.S. Census report released last week, Occupy Wall Street has lost many of the populist supporters who lent the movement a sense of urgency last fall.
In a July poll by Ipsos/Reuters, nearly 45 percent of respondents said they did not identify with the Occupy movement “at all,” while only 9 percent said that they “strongly” identified with the ideals. Previous polls from other organizations had shown far more support.
Last fall, a few weeks after the Occupy Wall Street protesters set up camp, an Ohio special education teacher named Christopher Bueker hopped in a car with three friends and drove nine hours to Washington to “participate in something bigger.”
Bueker, now 26, pitched his tent on a grassy span of Freedom Plaza for the District’s first big Occupy rally. It was a heady moment. Americans who had suffered through three years of economic hard times appeared to have found their voice. Around Bueker, protesters in sight of the Capitol dome waved signs denouncing corporate greed and chanting the rallying cry “We are the 99 percent!”
Bueker stayed for three days, in thrall to what was going on. Then he returned home to join a nascent Occupy Cincinnati group in Piatt Park, one of hundreds of encampments in cities around the world springing up in solidarity with New York. But after a few days of passing out literature, he grew disillusioned.
He had a full-time job that demanded his attention and no time for round-the-clock agitating. Furthermore, he found the group to be cliquish and downright negative. A few weeks later, he dropped out.
“There’s a lot of anger and resentment with the Occupy movement,” Bueker said. “The movement wasn’t inclusive. It was more like a social gathering. The results were not exactly what I was looking for.”
Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University professor and author of the book “Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street,” said that Monday’s protest would be a reunion of sorts but that that the movement had to undergo some fundamental change if it expected to regain popular support.
To do that, Gitlin says, Occupy’s supporters would have to create projects that bring in newcomers and produce concrete results — which can’t be done by consensus. Right now, everyone must be heard before votes are taken, so some meetings can stretch for hours. Some meetings have been marked by fisticuffs and bitter infighting.
“There will be a sense of rekindling the old flame, but whether that has legs I don’t know. I would guess not much,” Gitlin said. “There will be occasional ritual re-gatherings . . . but they won’t change the game.”
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.