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Changing The Subject: Occupy Wall Street's Achievements and Prospects In Comparative Perspective


Abstract and Figures

Occupy Wall Street burst onto the scene in New York City in September 2011. It was partly inspired by social movements in the Middle East and Southern Europe, and soon after its critique of inequality gained traction with the slogan "We Are The 99%," it helped to stimulate many similar occupations worldwide. In the aftermath of the eviction of the New York City protestors from Zuccotti Park and the similar evictions around the country, the U.S. Occupy Wall Street movement has dissipated. But similar movements have continued to spring up around the globe, and the social processes that led to the emergence of Occupy in the U.S. remain in place. This paper explores the sociological roots of the New York Occupy movement, with particular attention to the changing U.S. labor market. Drawing on the results of a representative survey we conducted of New York City Occupy Wall Street participants in a May 2012 protest march, we analyze the movement's characteristics and discuss its achievements. In addition, we consider various comparisons and contrasts between the New York Occupy movement and other such movements before and since, and on that basis speculate about the prospects for the future of such movements in the USA and elsewhere.
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The State of the Unions 2011 1
b y R u t h M i l k M a n , St e p h a n i e l u c e a n d p e n n y l e w i S
ccupy Wall Street (OWS) suddenly burst
into public view on September 17, 2011
when a group of about 2,000 protestors
assembled in lower Manhattan and
occupied a previously obscure “privately owned
public space” called Zuccotti Park. Although the
occupation initially attracted little attention, reports
on it soon proliferated on the Internet and through
social media, and after a week it made worldwide
headlines. As word spread, similar occupations
popped up across the United States and around
the world. By mid-October demonstrations were
underway or planned for 951 cities in 82 countries
(Tedmanson 2011).
The Occupy phenomenon riveted the media and
the public for the next two months, until November
15, when the New York Police Department (NYPD)
forcibly evicted the inhabitants of Zuccotti Park, one in
a wave of such evictions in cities across the country.
OWS fragmented in the wake of the evictions, but has
since reappeared in new arenas. It is still too early to
assess its long-term impact, but at this writing, more
than a year after the evictions, Occupy’s impact on
political discourse and on participants themselves
remains palpable.
Where did OWS come from? Who were the
protesters? What motivated them to join this new
movement? And why did the occupations gain such
enormous traction with the media and the wider
public? We investigated those questions through
in-depth interviews with 25 core Occupy activists as
well as a representative survey of 729 people who
participated in an OWS-sponsored May 1, 2012 rally
and march. Our research is confined to New York City,
where the movement began and home to its main
target: Wall Street. Although the dynamics of Occupy
in other cities may differ in some respects, we hope
that our analysis will contribute to understanding the
larger Occupy movement in the United States.
One of our key findings is that the Occupy
movement has both a pre-history and an enduring
impact. We are uncertain as to whether it marks the
beginning of a new cycle of protest in the United
States, as some have argued (Piven 2012) but we
disagree with those commentators who characterize
it as an ephemeral “flash” movement (Plotke 2012).
We view the history of OWS as an historical arc, with
the Zuccotti Park occupation at its peak. As we detail
below, it has legible roots in earlier social movements,
and, post-occupation, the issues Occupy focused on
and the distinctive form it assumed continue to affect
the political landscape.
OWS was not a spontaneous movement that
appeared out of nowhere. It was carefully planned
by a group of experienced political activists, newly
inspired by the Arab Spring and the surge of mass
protest around the world in the first half of 2011.
Although the OWS encampment in New York lasted
only about two months, its impact, and that of the
broader Occupy movement, continues to reverberate
in at least three respects. First, although veteran activ-
ists were instrumental in planning the occupations,
they also attracted numerous other participants who
had little or no previous experience with political
protest. Many of these individuals were deeply radical-
ized by their participation in Occupy and will likely
continue on a life path that includes some type of
progressive political activism.
Secondly, as many other commentators have noted,
Occupy transformed U.S. political discourse.
It elevated the issue of growing economic inequality to
the center of public attention, and also highlighted the
creators and beneficiaries of that inequality: “the 1%,”
the wealthy elites whose interests were opposed to
those of the other 99% of the population. To a degree
unprecedented in recent public memory, social class
became a central focus of political debate.
Thirdly, OWS networks survived the evictions and
have resurfaced in a variety of different contexts.
Occupy activists have been visible in recent New York
City labor and community organizing efforts, and
have also been active as “Occupy” in various contexts.
Most notably, Occupy Sandy organized tens of thousands
of relief workers in New York City in the wake of
“Superstorm Sandy,” attracting a new wave of media
attention. As Nathan Schneider (2012c) suggests,
“Occupy After Occupy” has become “a productively
subdivided movement of movements.
In this report we offer a bottom-up account of
the Occupy movement in New York City, drawing on
interviews with activists as well as our survey of OWS
supporters who participated in the May 1, 2012 rally and
march. Many other observers have analyzed the Occupy
movement in books, articles and blogs. We hope to
contribute to this growing literature, offering a window
into the perspectives of core activists as well as a profile
of New Yorkers who continued to actively support OWS
six months after the eviction of Zuccotti Park.
Our interviews took place between February and
July 2012 with a convenience sample of 25 activists in
New York Occupy, many of whom were high-profile
figures in the movement. Interviewees’ roles in OWS
ranged from facilitation, to planning direct actions,
to outreach, and to participation in various OWS
Working Groups. Most devoted themselves full-time
to these activities for at least a few months, although
some were involved in a more limited way. Several
were part of the pre-September 17 Occupy planning
process; others joined the protests later in the fall.
They span a range of OWS Working Groups and
capture the movement’s age, gender and racial/ethnic
diversity as well.1
Interviewees ranged in age from 23 to 69 (in 2012),
but most were in their twenties or thirties. Most
were white, but the group included several people
of color. Ten of the 25 were female. Nearly all were
college educated; about a third also had postgraduate
degrees. The vast majority had significant pre-OWS
activist experience, although for a few Occupy was
their first serious involvement in political protest. They
all offered rich insights into the purpose and meaning
of OWS from an insider’s perspective. (Appendix A
lists the interviewees’ names and basic biographical
We also report here on the findings of the survey
we conducted on May 1, 2012, during a large rally at
Manhattan’s Union Square and the march to Wall
Street that immediately followed. The rally and march,
co-sponsored by labor unions and immigrant rights
Our convenience sample is not fully representative of the active core of Occupy
Wall Street. In particular, it includes relatively few newly politicized activists, and
does not capture the full range of political tendencies in the movement.
The State of the Unions 2011 3
groups along with OWS, attracted thousands of
Occupy supporters and many longtime political activ-
ists.2 This was one of the last major New York City
demonstrations of Occupy supporters, held nearly six
months after the NYPD eviction of Zuccotti Park.3
In fielding the survey, we used a sampling meth-
odology developed and widely deployed in Europe for
the study of large protest demonstrations (Walgrave
2007; Walgrave and Verhulst 2011), which allowed
us to obtain a representative sample of the rally and
march participants. We surveyed a total of 729 people
who took the time to attend the May 1 rally and/
or march, more than half of whom were “actively
involved” in OWS. The results include a demographic
profile of New York City Occupy participants and
supporters, along with data on their political identi-
ties, organizational affiliations and previous activism,
and on the specific concerns that led them to
support OWS.
Although some participants in the march
attended because of their affiliations with unions
and immigrant rights groups, nearly all of survey
respondents (97 percent) responded affirmatively
when asked, “Do you consider yourself a supporter
of the Occupy movement?” This particular march
may have had a higher representation of New York
City’s veteran progressive activists than some of the
mass demonstrations supporting OWS during the
occupation, although we have no systematic data on
which to make such a comparison. In any case, on
May 1, 2012, many core Occupy activists participated
in the rally and march alongside the larger population
of supporters, although others are missing from the
survey because they chose to engage in other protest
activities that day or, in a few cases, had been arrested
2 For details on the May Day planning, see Schneider 2012b.
3 Although no official estimates of the number of participants are available for the
various demonstrations held in support of OWS, unofficial estimates suggest
that the major ones ranged from 10,000 to over 35,000. By all accounts, the
May 1, 2012 march was smaller than the November 17, 2011 demonstration
protesting the eviction of Zuccotti Park, but much larger than the September 17,
2012 demonstration held on the one-year anniversary of the occupation.
by the police shortly before May 1 and thus were
absent. With these caveats in mind, we also report
below on a subgroup of 405 respondents (56 percent
of the total) who were “actively involved” in OWS,
a category based on the number of Occupy-related
activities they reported.4
To our knowledge, no one else has attempted to
field a representative survey of OWS participants and
supporters.5 The media regularly reported on data
collected by professional pollsters about attitudes
toward the Occupy movement among the general
public; our survey is different in that its goal was
to capture active supporters of the movement. Our
effort more closely resembles two large-scale on-line
surveys of OWS participants and supporters, in which
respondents were self-selected. Both those surveys
have much larger numbers of respondents than our
survey, but they do not claim to be representative.6
(See Appendix B for further details on our survey
4 These 405 “actively involved” respondents were those who reported that they
had participated in at least six of the following OWS activities: (a) visiting the
Occupy camp at Zuccotti Park; (b) visiting another Occupy camp; (c) living in
an Occupy camp; (d) attending an OWS General Assembly meeting; (e) moni-
toring Occupy events or meeting online; (f) taking part in an Occupy working
group; (g) marching in earlier Occupy protests; (h) participating in another
Occupy direct action; (i) being arrested for Occupy-related activities; (j) posting
about Occupy on social media; (k) donating money, food, or goods to a camp;
(l) another ac tivity not elsewhere listed.
Two exceptions are polls conducted of protesters in Zucotti Park during October
2011. One was conducted by Fordham University’s Costa Panagolpoulos,
reported in “Occupy Protesters Down on Obama, Survey Finds,” New York
Times October 21, 2011.
protesters-at-occupy-wall-street-disapprove-of-obama-a-survey-finds/ The results
can be found at:
results%20102611.pdf Another poll was described by Douglas Shoen in, “Polling
the Occupy Wall Street Crowd,” Wall Street Journal, October 19, 2011. http://
The sampling method used in both these polls is unclear, and Shoen has been
criticized for misrepresenting his own data. For critiques and access to the data
from Schoen’s survey, see:
of-ows/ and
In addition, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducted
a valuable survey of public attitudes toward Occupy, available at: http://www.
6 See the Occupy Research Network survey at http://www.occupyresearch.
net/2012/09/18/orgs-data-facet-browser/ and the survey by Hector
Based on the interviews and the survey (and in
some cases additional data from other sources), we
came to the following conclusions:
Highly educated young adults were overrepresented
among OWS activists and supporters, a group with
limited ethnic/racial or class diversity.
Many OWS activists and supporters were under-
employed and/or had recently experienced layoffs
or job loss; many were carrying substantial
debt, especially those under 30. The issues our
respondents cited in explaining their support for
Occupy often reflected these personal experiences
of economic hardship.
Most OWS activists and supporters were deeply
skeptical of the mainstream political system as an
effective vehicle for social change. For some, this
skepticism intensified after the election of Barack
Obama in 2008 failed to produce the changes they
had been led to expect.
Despite being disillusioned with mainstream
politics, many OWS activists and supporters
remain politically active and civically engaged.
The occupation of Zuccotti Park had a pre-history,
with strong links to previous U.S. social move-
ments, as well as a post-history, with activities
continuing long after the eviction of the Park.
OWS activists saw themselves as part of a
global movement, linked to the Arab Spring and
movements in Europe like that of the Spanish
indignados, as well as to earlier protest movements
in the United States.
The New York City OWS was consistently non-
violent, although this was the result of pragmatism
rather than principle for many core activists.
OWS was committed to non-hierarchal “hori-
zontalism.” This organizational form, as well as
the structure of the occupation itself, were self-
consciously politically prefigurative.
OWS was able to attract supporters with a wide
variety of specific concerns, many of whom had
not worked together before, This was in large part
because it made no formal “demands,” and united
around the “We Are the 99%” slogan.
Occupy brought inequality into the main-
stream of U.S. political debate, changing the
national conversation.
OWS was organized mainly by politically experi-
enced activists, but it also created new political
subjects: young people with limited or no previous
involvement in protest movements, who were
transformed by their experiences and developed
a commitment to working for social change.
Michael Gould-War tofsky
The State of the Unions 2011 5
variety of activists responded to the July
2011 Adbusters on-line call for a “Tahrir
moment” in downtown Manhattan on
September 17, 2011, the anniversary of the
signing of the U.S. constitution. This dovetailed with
similar plans for protests directed at Wall Street
and in D.C. that were already underway.7 The open
nature of the Adbusters call meant that whatever
happened on September 17th would reflect a degree
of spontaneity, but the action itself was carefully
In late July and August, various forces came
together in a series of meetings to plan the action.
These took the form of General Assemblies (GAs) in
which anyone could participate, which would continue
to meet in the park during the occupation itself. GAs
were the movement’s only official decision-making
body; in addition, working
groups were set up to
focus on specific tasks.
The GA meetings that
took place in the summer
were devoted to discus-
sion of how to go about
taking public space in
lower Manhattan, in close
proximity to Wall Street,
as well as to how best to frame the protest. Meeting
in various downtown locations a sizeable core
gathered weekly to plan the action. Participants at this
stage included both young political activists and older
veterans of the anti-corporate globalization protests
and other late 20th and early 21st century social move-
ments, as well as an assortment of politically-minded
artists, writers, and students.
7 Nathan Schneider reported that a group of activists and organizations,
including Veterans for Peace, had started planning in April 2011 for an
occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C. on October 6, 2011. In
addition, a group af filiated with Anonymous attempted an occupation of
Zucccotti Park on June 14, 2011 (Schneider 2012a).
Some of those who engaged in the planning for
September 17 had personally witnessed or participated
in the dramatic public protests in Egypt, Greece
and Spain earlier in 2011; others were not physically
present at those events but had monitored them
closely. The planning group also included many
people who had been active in recent protests inside
the United States, most importantly the Madison,
Wisconsin uprising in defense of collective bargaining
rights, the New York May 2011 protests targeting Wall
Street, and “Bloombergville,” an encampment at New
York City Hall opposing budget cuts and austerity
measures in June 2011—some of which involved
weeks-long occupations.
Occupy Wall Street
was not a spontaneous
eruption but rather an
action carefully planned
by committed activists.
Michael Gould-War tofsky
The Arab Spring in particular was a key inspira-
tion for Occupy. “It made a lot of us feel, ‘Oh, this
is possible! Just seeing those regimes topple by
pretty much nonviolence, seeing that moment when
people weren’t afraid anymore,” Sonny Singh, whose
parents are South Asian immigrants, recalled. And
27-year-old Sandy Nurse told us, “Following Egypt,
Algeria, Tunisia and then seeing how it was spreading
very quickly gave a real feeling that something was
changing.” Similarly, Iranian-American Nastaran
Mohit, 30, recounted, “I was watching what was
happening in Egypt every single day. I was watching
what was happening in Greece, in Spain, where
people were at a tipping point. They just couldn’t
take this anymore…. I just didn’t imagine that it could
happen here.” Others were inspired by events closer
to home. “Madison was really significant for showing
that an uprising could happen on U.S. soil,” North
Dakotan-born Mary Clinton, 25, told us. Thus Occupy
was building self-consciously on the wave of a surge
of worldwide and domestic protest in 2011. “It was
just this sense, like something is in the air,” Nathan
Schneider, 27, recalled. “Even Al Gore was saying,
‘It’s time for an American Spring.’”
Occupy Wall Street, in short, was not a sponta-
neous eruption but rather an action carefully planned
by committed activists for whom the Adbusters call
represented only the latest in a series of efforts to
focus public attention on the injustices associated
with the global economic crisis and the staggering
growth of inequality in the 21st century. What would
set Occupy apart from earlier such efforts was its
spectacular success in attracting media attention and
its ability to gain traction with the broader public, as
we discuss below.
Michael Gould-War tofsky
The State of the Unions 2011 7
uring the fall of 2011, Occupy activists and
supporters participated in a wide range of
activities. There were daily marches from
Zuccotti Park to Wall Street; GA meetings
twice a day in the park; meetings of working groups
organizing outreach, direct action, kitchen, security,
and dozens of others; and the production of all
kinds of media and spectacle. After Zuccotti Park
was cleared, many of these activities continued,
with meetings at 60 Wall Street and other locations
around the city.
Respondents to our May 1 survey were asked
whether or not they had participated in a series of
specific OWS activities over the previous months.
Table 1 summarizes their answers. (The total sums
to over 100 percent because most respondents
participated in multiple activities.) In this report, we
refer to respondents who indicated that they had
participated in at least six activities (from the list in
Table 1 or another specific activity not included in the
list) as “actively involved.” This group makes up more
than half (56 percent) of the 729 survey respondents.
The data reveal a degree of differentiation by age.
Not only were respondents under 30 overrepresented
among the most “actively involved” respondents,
but they were also more likely to have lived in an
Occupy camp, to have posted about OWS on social
media, and to have been arrested for Occupy activity.
Respondents age 30 and older, on the other hand,
were more likely to have visited Zuccotti Park, and
more likely to have donated money, food or goods to
a camp.
We also asked respondents about their main
sources of information about the Occupy movement.
Over a third (35 percent) reported that they relied
primarily on the Internet for this purpose, followed
in importance by getting information through friends
(24 percent). Ranking third was information from
social media like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube
(14 percent). Relatively few respondents depended
Table 1. Respondents’ Participation in Selected Occupy Wall Street Activities, May 2012.
Activity Percent
Visited the Occupy camp at Zuccotti Park 82.2%
Marched in an Occupy protest (prior to May 1, 2012) 82.1%
Posted about Occupy via Facebook, Twitter or other social media 66.3%
Attended a General Assembly meeting 64.4%
Monitored Occupy meetings or events on-line via Livestream or Ustream 60.5%
Donated money, food, or goods to an Occupy camp 58.1%
Participated in some other type of direct action related to Occupy 48.8%
Visited another Occupy camp (other than Zuccotti Park) 44 .9%
Participated in an Occupy working group 33.7%
Lived in an Occupy camp 10.3%
Arrested for Occupy-related activities 8.2%
N=7 29
Note: Total adds to more than 100% because respondents could give more than one answer.
Source: Authors’ survey.
on mainstream media as a source of information: only
11 percent reported that radio or TV was their main
source and even fewer (8 percent) cited newspapers
and magazines. There were no statistically significant
age differences in regard to information sources, but
as one might expect, respondents who were actively
involved in OWS were more likely to rely on social
media (see Castells 2012) and on friends, while those
least active in OWS were more likely to rely on news-
papers and magazines.
The group that planned Occupy included many
experienced activists, as well as some political
neophytes eager to respond to the Adbusters’ call.
This early phase of the movement brought together
distinct networks of activists who had not worked
together in the past, reflecting the centrality of social
media to the process. As Manuel Castells puts it,
Occupy “was born on the Internet, diffused by the
Internet” (2012: 168). Many of those who attended
the GAs that convened in early August to plan the
September 17 occupation recalled that they were
surprised to see very few familiar faces at the meet-
ings. “When I showed up on August 2, I didn’t know
anyone there, and none of my friends came to any
of the subsequent general assemblies,” 25-year old
Matt Presto remembered. Marina Sitrin, 41, who had
worked in the Direct Action Network and many other
NYC groups, told us, “I went with a friend of mine
and I remember saying to him, ‘There’s probably a lot
of people here that I know from ten or fifteen years
ago, and I might not remember some of their names
and I apologize if I can’t introduce you properly.
Then I got to the park, and I didn’t know anyone!”
This sense of surprise at finding so many
new faces continued as the occupation itself got
underway. As Arun Gupta, 46, a journalist and long-
time activist, recalled his experience on September
17. “It felt different. I didn’t see that many people I
knew. That was exciting to me. People came from
across the country and some were unable to say
precisely why they came except they felt drawn there
by a greater force. It was like Close Encounters of the
Third Kind!” And Sonny Singh, 32, told us, “I’ve been
doing activism in New York City for a long time now,
but I hardly recognized anybody there, which was
really interesting to me, and kind of exciting.”
“Occupy was kind of a mess, but it was a very
exciting mess. It was this group of mostly young
people who were full of energy and brilliant and kind
of crazy and willing to put themselves in the way,
independent journalist and activist Nathan Schneider
remarked in an interview. “A lot of them had been
involved in the Bloombergville occupation, so they
had some experience with occupation. But everyone
came with different experience. There were a lot of
artists around who were kind of gonzo and willing to
dream up weird ideas and then pull them off.
Two distinct age groups were visible at the
summer 2011 GAs. The largest group was comprised
of Millennials, the generation that came of age
around the turn of the 21st century. “It was the 26
to 29 or 30 crowd that was the strongest in terms
of presence—people my age, who maybe had grad
school or weren’t finding jobs, and had just blazed
through college and a Master’s program and then
were like, ‘What the hell is this?’” Sandy Nurse
told us. But there was also an older group at these
planning meetings, comprised of seasoned veterans
of earlier social movements, who often acted as
informal mentors. “There were a few older people
and though there weren’t very many of them, they
were listened to, welcomed and respected,” Nathan
Schneider noted.
Across both age groups, nearly all of those
involved in the planning phase of OWS were college-
educated; they were also disproportionately white
and male. The core organizers were “more privileged
and more college-educated, and sometimes beyond
college-educated,” Sonny Singh, who joined OWS
after the occupation began and who helped found
the People of Color Caucus, pointed out. “Some
were fresh out of college, and some, like me, not
The State of the Unions 2011 9
fresh out of college, stale out of college.” The initial
participants were “a predominantly young white male
group,” recalled Lisa Fithian, a 50-year-old veteran
activist who conducted training sessions in the
course of the planning.
As can be seen in Figure 1, our survey data also
show that participants in the May 1 march and rally
were disproportionately highly educated, young and
white, with higher than average household incomes.
Almost a fourth of our respondents (24 percent) were
students, 44 percent of whom were in college and 41
percent in graduate school. Among respondents who
had already completed their education, 76 percent
had a four-year degree, and more than half of them
(39 percent of the total) had post-graduate degrees.
This is a much higher level of education than among
New York City residents generally, only 34 percent of
whom have completed college (among those age 25
or older).8 (For further comparisons of our sample
and New York City residents, see Appendix C.)
Moreover, many respondents had attended or
were currently students at elite colleges and
universities: among those with a four-year degree,
28 percent had attended top-ranked colleges for their
undergraduate degrees; among those currently in
college or graduate school, 19 percent were enrolled
in top-ranked colleges or universities.9
8 All the demographic data for New York City residents cited in this sec tion
are from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 2011 data,
downloaded from
By “top-ranked” we mean the top 50 -ranked national colleges and the top 25
ranked liberal ar ts colleges, according to the ratings by U.S. News and World
Report. See
Michael Gould-War tofsky
As Figure 1 shows, there are other striking differ-
ences between survey respondents and the New York
City population. Young adults were overrepresented
among respondents: 37 percent were under 30
years old, compared to only 28 percent of New York
City residents. The respondents who were “actively
involved” in OWS were disproportionately youthful:
60 percent of those under 30 were actively involved,
compared to 54 percent of those aged 30 and older,
a statistically significant difference.10
People of color were underrepresented:
Non-Hispanic whites made up 62 percent of all
respondents, and 67 percent of those who were
10 All tests of significance in this report, unless otherwise indicated, rely on
Pearson chi-square tests. We repor t data that is significant at p < .10. We did
not run tests of significance when sample sizes were less than 30.
Figure 1: Selected Demographic Characteristics of New York City Residents,
All Respondents, and Actively Involved Respondents, 2011-12.
Source: Authors’ 2012 survey; American Community Sur vey (annual data for 2011).
0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70% 80%
Actively involved respondentsAll respondentsNYC residents
or More
High School, GED
or Some College
Bachelor’s Degree
or Higher
Under 30
30 and Older
People of Color
The State of the Unions 2011 11
“actively involved” in OWS, but only 33 percent of
New York City residents. Immigrants were under-
represented as well: 80 percent of all respondents,
and 84 percent of those “actively involved” were
U.S.-born, compared to only 63 percent of New
York City residents.11 White respondents were also
significantly more likely to be “actively involved” than
people of color (the figures were 60 and 48 percent,
In addition, 55 percent of the survey respondents
were male, whereas a slight majority (52 percent) of
New York City residents are female. Given the high
levels of education and the racial and gender compo-
sition of survey respondents, it is not surprising that
they were also relatively affluent: 36 percent reported
household incomes of $100,000 or more; whereas
11 However, the survey was conducted only in English and Spanish, and 16 people
were approached but not interviewed because they did not speak either of
these languages.
only 24 percent of New York City residents had
household incomes that high in 2011.
As OWS grew, by all accounts it became increas-
ingly diverse, although its diversity never approached
that of the city as a whole. Sandy Nurse recalled
that in the beginning “there were lots of men, and
it was very white, also, but that started to change
very quickly.” Michele Crentsil, a 23-year-old African-
American, remarked, “When people are saying,
‘Occupy Wall Street is a white middle class thing,
I can’t really fight them, because it’s not true, but
then it’s not necessarily false either.
Almost 10 percent of survey respondents were
unemployed by the official definition of that term (not
employed and actively looking for work).12
12 Unemployment among our sample was comparable to of New York City,
where the of ficial unemployment rate in May 2012 was also 9.6 percent. The
comparable figure—excluding retirees and full-time students—for our respon-
dents is 9.7 percent for all respondents and 9.6 percent for those respondents
who were New York City residents. trategy/30292579_1_sign-project-yard-signs-pdf-files
Six percent of all respondents were retired, and
4 percent were full-time students. The rest were
employed, and as Figure 2 shows, a majority (71
percent) had professional occupations of some sort, as
one might expect given their high levels of educational
attainment. Many were educational professionals,
including a sizable group of higher education profes-
sionals (14 percent of all employed respondents), as
Figure 2 shows. As Appendix C shows, respondents
were far more likely than New York City residents to be
employed in education, arts and entertainment, and
other professional occupations; conversely, respon-
dents were far less likely than New York City residents
to be employed in office, sales, and service jobs; or in
management, business and financial occupations.
Despite their relative affluence and their overrepre-
sentation in the professions, many of our respondents
had substantial debt or had experienced recent job
loss, as Table 2 shows. More than half of respondents
under 30 were carrying over $1,000 in student debt,
and over a third of those in this age group had been
laid off or lost a job in the five years prior to the
survey; in both cases the age difference was statisti-
cally significant. Older respondents were significantly
more likely to have credit card debt, while eviction
rates were significantly higher among younger respon-
dents. These experiences gave many respondents a
personal connection to the issues Occupy raised.
In addition, despite the fact that they were over-
represented in professional occupations, among
Figure 2. Occupation of Employed Respondents, 2012.
Other Professional
Office, Sales and Service
Higher Education Professional
K-12 Education
Blue Collar
Professional Staff in NonProfit
or Advocacy Organization
Business and Finance
Source: Authors’ survey.
The State of the Unions 2011 13
respondents who were employed (excluding students
and retirees) almost one in four (24 percent) reported
working less than 35 hours a week. The figure was
even higher for those under 30 years old, 29 percent
of whom indicated that they worked less than 35
hours a week. And among respondents who were
“actively involved,” 33 percent worked less than
35 hours a week. This suggests that precarious
employment was a common experience among our
respondents, giving many of them another personal
connection to the economic crisis that helped spur
the Occupy movement.
Indeed, many OWS activists were prototypes of
what social movements scholars call “biographical
availability” (McAdam 1986), having sufficient
time and energy to become activists because they
were unconstrained by highly demanding family or
work commitments. Alongside the employed OWS
supporters whose hours of work were relatively
limited were many students and retirees. Most
students had jobs as well, but nearly two-thirds of
them (64 percent) worked less than 35 hours a week.
Our respondents’ experience of underemployment
and biographical availability reflects the broader
pattern of underemployment—rather than outright
unemployment—among highly educated Millennials
in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Youth
unemployment was high in September 2011 (14.6
percent among all 20-24 year olds), but it was far
lower among the college- educated. For those with a
bachelor’s degree or more (25 years and older), unem-
ployment was 4.2 percent, and for those with some
college, 8.4 percent (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
2012). But members of the Millennial generation were
highly likely to be underemployed in the fall or 2011,
and like those in our sample, many also were carrying
substantial amounts of student debt.
Judson Memorial Church’s Rev. Michael Ellick, 38,
noted, “You have generations of people graduating
from high school and college who are in debt for
careers that don’t exist anymore, were educated into
a world that doesn’t exist anymore.” His impression
is supported by recent research. A Pew Research
Center survey of 18-34 year olds conducted in late 2011
found that 49 percent of respondents had taken a job
they didn’t want “to pay the bills”; only 30 percent
considered their current job a “career” (Pew Research
Center 2012). Similarly, in a survey of 2006-11 college
graduates, 60 percent of employed respondents
reported that their job did not require a 4-year degree,
40 percent said their job was unrelated to their college
major, and 24 percent were earning “a lot less” than
All Respondents Age under 30 Age 30 or older
Are you carrying:
Student loans over $1,000? 37.3% 53.8%** 28.0%**
Medical debt over $1,000? 12.1% 11.8% 12.0%
Credit card debt over $1,000? 28.9% 19.4%** 34.9%**
In the last 5 years, have you experienced:
Foreclosure on a home? 2.9% 4.9% 1.8%
Evicted from an apartment? 6.8% 9.2%** 5.4%**
Been laid off or lost a job? 29.4% 36.6%** 25.7%**
Table 2. Respondents’ Experience of Debt and Economic Hardship, by Age, 2012.
** P < .05 * P<.10
N=7 19
Source: Authors’ survey.
they had expected (Stone et al. 2012). Two-thirds of
all U.S. students who earned a bachelor’s degree
in 2011 had borrowed money to help pay for their
education, and student loan debt in 2011 averaged
$26,600—compared to $18,650 in 2004 (Project on
Student Debt 2012).
As other commentators have noted, these
economic realities help explain OWS’ appeal to
Millennials. Many participants were “forward-looking
people who have been stopped dead in their tracks…
their one strongest common feature being a remark-
ably high level of education,” anthropologist and
activist David Graeber, who has been widely credited
with helping to invent the slogan “We Are The 99%,
suggested in an early analysis (Graeber 2011). He
added that they were “young people bursting with
energy, with plenty of time on their hands, every
reason to be angry, and access to the entire history of
radical thought.
Many of our interviewees agreed with this
characterization. “The people going out to organize,
at least at the beginning, were people who had
expectations rather than people who’ve already been
harmed…. College students in particular, who went
to college so they could have a better life, and then
finished college with debt and can’t get a job,” Marina
Sitrin noted. “A lot of [OWS] people weren’t working,
or not working full-time,” veteran labor organizer
Stephen Lerner, 54, observed, adding that they were
a group “with all sorts of talents and energies, a set
of skills that allowed them to explode this out. And
there’s the fearlessness of young people.” Suresh
Naidu, a 34-year-old economist and OWS activist
noted, “Because of the privilege of a lot of the people
involved, they can work on this stuff in time that
other working folks don’t have.” Janet Gerson, 64,
observed, “People gave up their whole lives to be part
of Occupy, and I wasn’t one of the people who could
do that.”
Michael Gould-War tofsky
The State of the Unions 2011 15
ne of the most striking aspects of the
interviews we conducted was the vast
political experience of the core activists
themselves. Our survey shows that
this was also true of most participants in the May
1, 2012 rally and march. Only 6 percent of survey
respondents reported that the May 1 demonstration
was the first political protest in which they had
participated. Just under 11 percent of all respondents
(including those 6 percent) indicated that the first
political protest they had been involved in had taken
place within the past year.
Almost half (44 percent) of all survey respondents
stated that they had been involved in some type of
protest activity prior to their 18th birthday; another
38 percent had first done so when they were 18 to 22
years old (most likely as undergraduate students).
Many had been part of numerous previous protest
marches or rallies: 42 percent of respondents
reported that they had participated in 30 or more
such events during their lifetimes. Over a fourth (26
percent) had been arrested for their political activities
at some point in the past.13
Many respondents were also civically engaged to an
unusual degree. Almost half (47 percent) responded
in the affirmative when asked, “Are you active in
any other organization that works on issues that the
Occupy movement has raised?” This was especially
true of those over 30 years old, 52 percent of whom
indicated that they were active in such an organiza-
tion, compared to only 39 percent of the younger
respondents, a statistically significant difference.
Organizational affiliations varied widely, and included
immigrant rights groups, antiwar organizations,
human rights and women’s rights groups, assorted
13 Although we have no firm evidence on this point, by May 1, 2012, it may be that
seasoned ac tivists were more likely than their newly politicized counterparts to
turn out for a march called by OWS.
community organizations, as well as more main-
stream political groups.
Nearly a third (32 percent) of respondents who
were in the labor force were union members,
substantially above the level of union membership
among New York City residents, which was 22 percent
in 2011-12 (Milkman and Braslow 2012). More than
half (53 percent) of all respondents who were union
members indicated that their union had encouraged
them to attend the May 1 rally and march. Like the
other types of civic engagement discussed above,
union membership was more common among
respondents aged 30 or more, whose 44 percent
unionization rate was over three times that of respon-
dents under 30 (13 percent).14
The disproportionate presence of union members
reflects the large number of respondents employed
in the highly-unionized education sector; in New York
City, the unionization rate in education was 54 percent
in 2011-12. Indeed, among respondents who were
union members, almost one-fourth (24 percent) were
members of the Professional Staff Congress/American
Federation of Teachers (AFT), which represents staff
and faculty at the City University of New York. Another
26 percent were members of the United Federation of
Teachers or other education unions. The next largest
group (8 percent) of unionized respondents were
members of the health care workers’ union commonly
known as “1199,” an affiliate of the Service Employees
International Union.
Almost 90 percent of our respondents were born
before 1990 and eligible to vote in the United States.
Within that group, well over half (57 percent) identified
with or leaned toward the Democratic Party, as Table 3
14 The age difference in unionization ref lects the lower unionization rate among
young workers generally (see Milkman and Braslow 2012, figure 5). And unlike
involvement in civil society organizations like those discussed in the previous
paragraph, whether or not someone is a union member is usually determined
by the type of job she or he has, rather than the preference of the individual.
shows.15 There were almost no Republicans among
our respondents, but a large proportion (42 percent)
identified as Independents who leaned neither
Democrat nor Republican, supported third parties
or other political entities, or stated that they did not
identify with any political party. Over one-fourth of
respondents under 30 said they did not identify with
any political party, and another 21 percent either
identified with a third party or stated that they were
Independents with neither Republican nor Democratic
leanings. Although the survey did not inquire directly
about socialist or anarchist leanings, 7 percent of all
respondents volunteered one of those political identi-
ties when asked about their political party affiliation,
and another 4 percent volunteered that they identified
as Greens.
Occupy has often been compared to the Tea Party
in that it is a largely “middle class” and white move-
ment and in that its participants have views outside
the political mainstream (albeit at the other end of
the left-right spectrum). Like Occupy activists, many
grassroots Tea Party leaders have extensive political
15 We only recorded “Disillusioned Democrat” when a respondent volunteered
this information. Since 8.4 percent of respondents did so, however, we later
coded it as separate response, as shown in Table 3.
experience in community organizations. But the Tea
Party is dominated by older whites, including many
retired people (who are thus also “biographically
available,” at the other end of life), and focuses much
of its energy on influencing candidates for elected
office, with enormous funding from right-wing
advocacy groups (Skocpol and Williamson 2012). As
we have seen, Occupy has a much younger profile,
its supporters are more highly educated (although
many Tea Party members did attend college, contrary
to popular belief). Moreover, Occupy has never had a
stable source of funding, and for its activists electoral
politics is anathema.
Indeed, as Table 3 shows, a large proportion of
respondents were deeply skeptical about the main-
stream political parties. However, among respondents
born before 1990 and eligible to vote in the United
States, 90 percent did cast a vote in the 2008 general
election. The vast majority of them (86 percent) voted
for Obama. Only 1 percent voted for McCain, while 11
percent voted for another presidential candidate (the
other 2 percent declined to reveal the candidate for
whom they had voted).
National data show that Obama was extremely
popular among Millennials in 2008, when 66 percent
Table 3. Political Party Orientation of Respondents Eligible to Vote in the United States, by Age, May 2012.
** P < .05 * P<.10
Source: Authors’ survey.
All Respondents Less Active Actively Involved
Democrat 33.8% 26.3%** 33.8%**
Disillusioned Democrat 8.4% 6.3% 8.4%
Independent, Leans Democrat 15.1% 21.4%** 15.1%**
Republican 0.5% 0.8% 0.5%
Independent, Leans Republican 0.3% 0.4% 0.3%
Independent, Does not lean 7.9% 7.9% 7.9%
Third party/Other Affiliation 13.1% 10.9% 13.1%
Do not identify with any party 20.6% 25.5%** 20.6%**
Tot al 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%
The State of the Unions 2011 17
of voters under age 30 cast their ballots for him,
compared to 50 percent of those aged 30 or more.
That age disparity was larger than in any U.S. presiden-
tial election since exit polling began in 1972. Among
our respondents, the percentage of those under 30
who voted for Obama was even higher (89 percent of
those who voted in 2008). Nearly as many (85 percent)
of respondents 30 and older voted for him, however,
and the age difference was not statistically significant.
According to national surveys, many Millennials did
more than vote in 2008: 28 percent of voters under
age 30 in battleground states attended at least one
Obama campaign event, far more than among those
aged 30 and up (Pew Research Center 2010). Among
our respondents, those under 30 years old also had
a high level of participation in the Obama campaign.
In addition, regardless of age, a large proportion of
respondents donated money to or actively worked on
his campaign that year. Forty percent of respondents
contributed actively (in time or money) to a presi-
dential campaign in 2008, and within this group 58
percent worked for or donated money to Obama. As
Table 4 shows, however, respondents under 30 were
less likely to have participated in the 2008 Obama
campaign than their older counterparts.
Disenchantment with Obama was a driver of the
Occupy movement for many of the young people who
participated. “In politics, too, as in education, we are
looking at a generation of young people who played by
the rules, and have seen their efforts prove absolutely
fruitless,” noted David Graeber (2011). He added:
Obama was running, then [2008], as a candidate
of “Change,” using a campaign language that drew
liberally from that of radical social movements…
as a former community organizer, he was one of
the few candidates in recent memory who could
be said to have emerged from a social movement
background rather than from smoke-filled rooms.
This, combined with the fact that Obama was
Black, gave young people a sense that they were
experiencing a genuinely transformative moment…
A Democratic president elected on a platform
of “Change” coming to power at a moment of
economic crisis so profound that radical measures
of some sort were unavoidable, and at a time when
popular rage against the nation’s financial elites
was so intense that most Americans would have
supported almost anything. If it was not possible to
enact any real progressive politics or legislation at
such a moment, clearly it would never be. Yet none
were enacted. Instead, Wall Street gained even
greater control over the political process.
Some of the core activists we interviewed had
actively worked on the Obama campaign and were
deeply disappointed in what followed. “I did election
observation in Philly the day of. Because he [Obama]
said everything right,” Amin Husain, 36, told us.
“And you wanted to believe. I didn’t understand
Age under 30 Age 30 or older
Donating money 45.2** 72.2**
Phone banking 32.3* 39.6*
Knocking on doors 25.8** 42.9**
Working as paid staffer 3.2 4.7
Participating in Camp Obama 4.8 6.6
Table 4. Respondents’ Obama Campaign Activity Participation in 2008, by Age.
** P < .05 * P<.10
Source: Authors’ survey.
when pundits were saying, ‘He’s playing with fire.’ I
do now.” Similarly, Mary Clinton recalled. “I definitely
supported Obama and voted for Obama. I’ve done
the door knocking and house calls and things like
that.” Isham Christie, 26, observed, “The Obama
presidency was disillusioning to a lot of people, and
that’s why Occupy Wall Street spread so much. We’d
tried to get the best liberal we could, and then we got
more of the same shit.
Then it’s either cynicism
or we’re going to try
something completely
different. And people are,
like, ‘Let’s try something
completely different.’”
But many other
interviewees did not fit
this description, having
become disillusioned
with mainstream politics
long before 2008. They
did not share in the high
hopes for the Obama
presidency that were
so widespread among
Millenials generally. This
was not only the case
for the older activists:
Matt Presto, for example,
became disillusioned
with mainstream politics
after the 2000 election—when he was in 8th grade!
This group, however, did witness the excitement and
subsequent disappointment in Obama among their
peers, and viewed the growth of Occupy in that light.
Phil Arnone, 25, told us:
People were coming together because they wanted
to see something change in this country, and they
wanted to see it move in the same direction….
And then when Obama actually won, I remember
there was a huge celebration in the streets, on
Broad Street in Philadelphia. Everyone was out
together! The police cleared it out pretty quickly,
but it felt for one moment like we had all come
together because we wanted to see something
really positive happen in the country. And then
of course, we got the disappointments we got. A
lot of people are starting to realize that getting
Obama elected and all the effort that went into
it, it didn’t produce. It’s compelling people to say,
“We tried that, we’re not going to waste any of our
energy or any of our hope again.”
And Michele Crentsil recalled:
I’m Black, both my parents are Black, and I grew
up in Kentucky, in the South. So did it mean a lot?
Yeah! I have a nephew who will be 10 and a niece
who will be 6 and I remember saying to them, “We
have our first Black president!” I never thought it
would happen. My grandmother just passed away
last year, she was 101, born in 1909 in Kentucky, so
watching her watch that happen meant a lot. Did I
think that he was going to come in and save Black
America? No. But I thought it was completely
amazing that he managed to actually win the
election. I honestly didn’t think he was going to
win up until the time he did win…. His being in
office actually opened up a space for Occupy Wall
Street, because of the disillusionment. People
were like, ‘Oh, we’re going to have change!’ And it
didn’t happen. So it actually created that space for
something like Occupy to exist.
Yotam Marom, a 26-year-old activist whose parents
were born in Israel, did not work for Obama himself,
but agreed that the 2008 election helped fuel the
Occupy movement. “People voted for him because
they thought he was what he said he was, which was
change. People cried when he got elected. People
thought it was a revolutionary moment. Because
they earnestly wanted what he presented himself
as—which actually is very similar to what we [OWS]
actually are.”
Disenchantment with
Obama was a driver
of the Occupy
movement for many
of the young people
who participated...
but many other
interviewees did not
fit this description,
having become
disillusioned with
mainstream politics
long before 2008.
The State of the Unions 2011 19
Respondents’ views of the 2012 presidential elec-
tion campaign, as reported in our May 1, 2012 survey,
suggest far less enthusiasm for Obama than in 2008.
As Figure 3 shows, fewer respondents planned to vote
or participate actively in a presidential campaign in
2012 than had done so four years earlier. To be sure,
nearly as many respondents seemed likely to vote in
the 2012 election as the 90 percent who had voted in
2008: only 12 percent of those eligible indicated that
they had decided not to vote in 2012, while another
10 percent were undecided. In regard to campaign
activity, similarly, the sum total of those who planned
to be active in a 2012 presidential campaign and those
who were undecided was about the same as the
percentage who had been active in 2008.
Figure 4 shows the dropoff between 2008 and 2012
in voting for Obama by age group. If we presume that
many who were undecided on May 1 ultimately did
vote for Obama, the dropoff in voting was relatively
modest for both age groups. However, there was a
substantial dropoff in campaign activity, especially
among those under 30 years old.
http://o Lynch
30+ Under 30
in 2012
Plans to
vote for
in 2012
Voted for
in 2008
85% 25%
63% 63%
about activity
in 2012
Planned to
be active
in 2012
on a
in 2008
about voting
in 2012
to vote
in 2012
in 2008
90% 10%
40% 14%
Figure 4. Respondents’ Support for Obama, By Age, 2008 and 2012.
Figure 3. Respondents’ Voting and Electoral Campaign Activity, 2008 and 2012.
Note: The figures shown for “plans to vote for Obama in 2012” include those who indicated they would “probably” vote (along with those
who said “yes”).
Source: Authors’ survey.
Note: The figures shown for “planned to vote in 2012” include those who indicated they would “probably” vote (along with those who said “yes”).
Source: Authors’ survey.
The State of the Unions 2011 21
ost of the core activists we interviewed
confessed that they had been skeptical
when they first heard about the idea
of a Wall Street occupation, and that
they were surprised that Occupy attracted so much
support from the wider public. Even those who
were directly involved in planning the September 17
launch shared the view of Matt Presto, who recalled,
“We were all expecting an occupation that would last
maybe two days, and then the police would break it
up. So we were not prepared for what was to come.
We certainly didn’t expect it to expand to other loca-
tions, either.
Isham Christie, similarly, recalled his initial skepti-
cism. “It’s a militarized zone down there. We’re not
going to get mass numbers. And someone’s like,
‘I’m here because this is going to be the start of the
next major social movement in the United States,’
and I was thinking, ‘That person’s crazy, that doesn’t
happen. Delusional.’” Yotam Marom agreed, “I didn’t
see any particular reason that this call would have
any mass appeal that the other things we had done
didn’t have.”
Presto, Christie and Marom are all in their twenties.
The older activists we interviewed were even more
doubtful about the occupation plan. “I was one that
was very cynical about it. I did not believe that issuing
the call would lead to a crowd,” 54-year-old Stephen
Lerner recalled. Similarly, David Graeber, 51, told us
in an interview, “I thought the most likely scenario is
that we’d all get beat up and put in jail. The thing that
shocked us was how it just took off everywhere. We
didn’t expect that.”
Similarly, Rev. Michael Ellick recalled: “I thought,
this isn’t going to work, and I told my friends so.
I was wrong!” Community organizer Jonathan
Smucker, 34, also began with a jaundiced view: “I was
very skeptical of it; I think a lot of organizers were.
Adbusters magazine was putting out a call to action
for a Tahrir Square moment in the United States in
New York’s financial district. That seemed far-fetched
to me.” Smucker added that having a lot of political
experience was not especially helpful in this situation:
Occupy was a moment that needed somebody
to not know what wouldn’t work. Like me, I
didn’t think it would work, so I didn’t do it at
the beginning. You needed people who didn’t
know better. That’s the brilliant thing about social
movements and why they tend to be led by
young people. They haven’t learned all the things
that won’t work, and they get an audacious idea
and move forward with it. That’s a beautiful and
humbling thing!
Isham Christie also emphasized the audacity of
Occupy as a key element in its unexpected success.
“There are some things where you know exactly how
they’re going to turn out, but this thing had a life of
its own,” he told us. “That audacity of trying to go for
what’s necessary and making it happen, rather than
just working within what’s possible now. That ability
to recognize the world-
historic changing times
that we’re in, which
makes us dream a little
bit bigger than we would
The fact that the NYPD
did not attempt to evict
the protesters immediately
was another vital precon-
dition for the occupation’s
success. “The police
surrounded the park the
first night and threatened to evict everyone by force.
They could have smashed it, but didn’t.” Arun Gupta
pointed out. Nathan Schneider witnessed the NYPD
Most of the core
activists we interviewed
confessed that they had
been skeptical when
they first heard about
the idea of a Wall Street
decision not to do so firsthand. “At around 10:30 or
11 that first night, the police were ready to move in on
the park. And then a big black Suburban arrived, and I
saw a little bald man poke his head out of the window,
take a look, and give the order to draw back. They
could have moved in, but they decided not to.” A few
days later, the police approach abruptly changed. But
their confrontational tactics soon backfired: the whole
world was watching the pepper-spraying of nonviolent
Occupy participants on September 24, and the arrests
of 700 peaceful demonstrators on the Brooklyn Bridge
on October 1, 2011.
These incidents drew enormous media attention
to the Occupy protests, amplifying their appeal, and
helped inspire other occupations around the country.16
Indeed, another ingredient in Occupy’s success was
the relative ease with which it could be imitated. “If
you were in Boise, Idaho, and you saw what we were
doing at Zuccotti, you’d know exactly what to do where
16 For maps of all the Occupy camps around the U.S. see Castells 2012: 164-65.
you were at,” Isham Christie pointed out. “So it had
this short circuit that a lot of political work doesn’t
have. That tactical replicability really added to its ability
to spread all over.”
OWS famously refused to define its “demands,
a stance that was widely criticized in some circles.
But many of our interviewees passionately defended
that aspect of OWS and indeed, argued that it was
a key ingredient in the movement’s appeal. “It was a
wise decision for us to not really address this ques-
tion about what our demand is. People can make of
it what they want,” Matt Presto commented. Arun
Gupta agreed: “The chains of equivalence: anyone
could come into the movement and see their griev-
ance as equivalent to everyone else. If it’s like, I don’t
have a job, I have student debt, I have huge medical
bills, I’m thrown out of my house, the hydrofracking
that’s going on, the BP oil spill, it doesn’t matter.
Everyone felt it’s Wall Street, it’s the 1% that’s to
blame. Because they have all the economic power,
they all have all the political power.17
Similarly, Jonathan Smucker pointed out that OWS
was a “floating signifier that everybody saw different
things in…” And Rev. Michael Ellick asserted that
the absence of formal demands was a brilliant—and
deliberate—strategic move: “There were very smart,
strategic reasons why there were no asks. Not
everyone knew that, but the strategists were thinking
this way,” he told us. “It allowed there not to be one
issue. As soon as there’s one issue, then I alienate
the two of you who don’t have my issue. But with this
hashtag, t-shirt, icon style of organizing, everyone
showed up. And we could project onto Occupy what-
ever our issues were.”
The survey data suggest that a broad array of
specific concerns motivated OWS participants’
support for the movement. Table 5 summarizes the
issues they cited when asked (in an open-ended
question) to identify “the main issues that lead you
This is an allusion to Laclau and Mouffe 2001, who introduced the idea of
“chains of equivalence.”
Photo credit
Michael Gould-War tofsky
The State of the Unions 2011 23
to support Occupy.” The issue most often mentioned
was Occupy’s trademark, namely inequality and
“the 1%,” which nearly half of our respondents cited
as a motivating concern. Ranked next were “money in
politics” and “corporate greed,” followed by student
debt and access to education. Taken together, these
issues suggest the salience of Occupy’s class analysis
for the movement’s participants and supporters.
As Table 5 also shows, “actively involved” respon-
dents were especially concerned about “money in
politics,” issues involving capitalism as a system, and
“new social movement” issues such as war, the envi-
ronment, and women’s rights.18 On the other hand,
those less active in OWS were significantly more
concerned about labor issues and unemployment,
18 The term “new social movements” is used in the sociological literature to
denote a variety of movements that were prominent in the 1960s and 1970s in
many countries in the global North, in contrast to labor unions and progres-
sive political par ties (the “old social movements”).
as well as immigrant rights. This may reflect the
fact that labor unions and immigrant rights groups
co-sponsored the May 1 march and rally.19
There were some age differences: respondents
under age 30, as one would expect, were significantly
more concerned about student debt and access to
education than older respondents. Those aged 30
and older, on the other hand, were significantly more
concerned about inequality and corporate greed.
But what is perhaps most striking in Table 5 is the
wide range of concerns that converged within Occupy.
In the inclusive framework of the “99%”, and in the
absence of a formal list of OWS demands, as Sandy
Nurse observed, it was easy for people to participate:
“College students, people who were a little bit older,
19 Respondents who were union members were significantly underrepresented
in the “actively involved” group of respondents: only 49 percent of them were
“actively involved,” compared to 59 percent of respondents who were not
union members.
Issue All Respondents Less Active Actively Involved
Inequality/the 1% 47.5% 50.0% 45.4%
Money in politics/Frustration with D.C. 25.5% 20.7%* * 29.4%**
Corporate Greed 18.5% 18.2% 18.8%
Student Debt/Access to education 17.4% 15.4% 19.0%
Unions/labor rights issues 13.0% 15.7%* 10.9%*
Health Care 12.4% 12.4% 12. 4%
Jobs, unemployment 11.9% 14.5%* 9.9%*
Antiwar, environment, women’s rights issues 11.4% 9.0%* 13.3%*
Solidarity with Occupy-like movements 11.0% 9.9% 11.9%
Immigrant Rights 10.4% 14.8%** 6.9%**
Capitalism as a system 9.2% 4 .3%* * 13.1%**
Civil liberties issues 8.2% 6.8% 9.4%
Racism/race related issues 7.1% 7.4% 5.4%
Housing/Foreclosures 6.5% 7.7% 5.4%
Table 5. Issues That Led Respondents to Support OWS, by Extent of Involvement, 2012.
** P < .05 * P<.10
N=7 27
Note: Total adds to more than 100% because respondents could give more than one answer. “Less Active” respondents participated in fewer than 6 of the
activities shown in Table 1; “Actively Involved” respondents participated in 6 or more ac tivities.
Source: Authors’ survey.
who’d lost homes, who really didn’t know why they
were upset. They didn’t know all the stats, they didn’t
know all the details, but they just knew that it wasn’t
working, and they felt like
they found something
with people who were
also pissed, and they
didn’t know why, but they
just wanted to be there
on the street, being a
visual dissenting voice.”
Michael Ellick made
a similar observation:
“Occupy’s approach was
not to organize by policy
but to organize by spectacle, and by archetype, and
by emotion and idea, and to find a different way of
speaking to people. It hit a nerve.” Amin Husain took
this reasoning further, asserting, “This movement
is post- identity. It opens space for a co-existence of
various critiques, whether it is the military-industrial
complex, or the Man, or the system or patriarchy, or
racism, or all of the above. It isn’t about having good
ideas, it’s about freeing up people’s imaginations. A
beautiful thing about Occupy is that it said, ‘We’re not
going to deal with “isms.” We don’t know what those
mean. We’re interested in how we live and how we
relate to one another.’” The notion that OWS would
not deal with “isms” was not without controversy, as
many participants felt that OWS had to address issues
of race, gender, and other systems of oppression,
both in society and within the movement itself, a
topic to which we will return.
Several of our interviewees argued that the absence
of specific “demands” from the movement’s agenda
invited a more broad, systemic critique. As Stephen
Lerner commented:
They dealt with the biggest demand, that the
whole thing’s broken. That’s what was powerful.
There was total clarity on who the bad guys were.
The fact that it was Occupy Wall Street, in Wall
Street, versus Occupy the Post Office or Occupy
the Senate, was critical. That’s what made it
different. They captured what everybody knows on
some kind of subconscious level about who’s really
running the country and who’s in charge. What
excited them was that somebody was standing up
and being furious, and that was the kind of thing
you heard people say, “Finally somebody saying
we’re going to take a stand!”
Other interviewees agreed that making Wall Street
the symbolic target of the movement was another
important element in its success in gaining traction
with the public. “It had a wide, national appeal,”
40-year-old union organizer Rob Murray observed.
“It’s a national target, it’s Wall Street! That affects
the entire country and the entire world.” Jonathan
Smucker agreed: “People are mad at the banks and
Wall Street, so the initial Occupiers named the right
target, a symbol that people resonated with. I think
a lot of people, despite negative stereotypes about
protest and protestors, were glad somebody was
standing up to Wall Street and the banks.” Phil Arnone
added, “People appreciated the gutsiness of going out
and stating that the emperor has no clothes. People
really appreciated finally having something expressing
the heartfelt discontent they had for the way things
were. We’d been picking the lesser of two evils for
so long, it’s almost like we forgot what it was like to
actually have a choice!”
Still another feature of Occupy that helped it attract
widespread support was the tactic of occupation itself,
and the fact that it maintained a continual presence in
Zuccotti Park, in close proximity to Wall Street. “That
it wasn’t a one-day thing was hugely important,”
Stephen Lerner pointed out. “And having the central
place that everybody could come to.” Phil Arnone
elaborated on this point: “It was really nice to have
the 24-hour living spectacle, so no matter what time
of day it was, what the weather was like, whatever, you
can just go, and the movement is there, and you’re
plugged into it. With any other kind of demonstration,
Interviewees argued
that the absence of
specific “demands”
from the movement’s
agenda was crucial to
its broad appeal.
The State of the Unions 2011 25
if it’s for an hour, a day, whatever, by the time you’ve
heard about it your chance to go down and check it
out is gone. But this was living and continuous. It
was intoxicating, and I think people could just feel the
difference. It just felt like different air!”
Other interviewees also commented on the
importance of the physical space in Occupy’s success.
“What was unique was the specific tactic, having
outside space did something,” Michael Ellick said.
“It hacked the media system.” And Sonny Singh
remarked, “It was like a magnet. People just came
there without even knowing what they were going
to do there. They just wanted to be there, and hang
out and have conversations with people. It was such
a beautiful thing. And all these people dedicating so
much of their work to the logistics and to making
it all work was also really powerful.” Isham Christie
agreed: “We had libidinal connections to that space,
people felt identified with that space, because we
transformed it. There were all these organizers who
were just there all the time. You could go there and
find people and figure out what’s going on and get
plugged in.” Janet Gerson also commented on the
emotional aspect of the space. “The sun was shining,
the leaves were glowing with yellow, the helicopters
were above, the police cameras were there, and the
television broadcasting to the world was there. Oh,
collective power!”
Nathan Schneider remembered “the excitement of
being wrapped up in this community and constantly
seeing other people and networking and having
conversations, making connections, developing
projects on the fly. You’d go there and get sucked
in, and couldn’t leave for hours, and all you had
done was have conversations. That is such powerful
fodder for organizing.” Shen Tong, a Chinese-born
activist agreed: “There’s a lot of energy, which is very
important for the movement, or people won’t throw
their body into it or leave their young family and work
16 hours in addition to their job. The easy access to
the park, the magic in the air that you step into, a
near-religious experience, that the moment you decide
you’re part of this, you are.
Arun Gupta expressed the same sentiment even
more lyrically:
To decide to do an occupation immediately means
that you need to recreate the means of daily
reproduction. You need food, shelter, bedding,
healthcare. Then other aspects of society arise as
well. You have education, the library, psychological
counseling, arts and culture. It then becomes
theater. All protest is theater, the left had just
Seann Patrick Cram
http://www.classwarf talism/
gotten used to bad theater. And the Occupations
were wonderful theater. It felt like an actual organic
entity. You’d see all these people milling about,
all these exchanges. People getting a hot meal,
blankets and a tent, books, singing and drumming
together, people picking each other up…. And none
of it is mediated by money. It’s a non-commodified
space in the heart of global capital, in the ventricle!
It’s like you’re inhaling this clean mountain air
because people could relate to each other in public
space but outside the market. That’s why people
were so drawn and so attracted to it. We don’t
need the corporations. We don’t need the political
class. We don’t need the expertocracy. We don’t
need the pundits. We don’t need the police state.
It was a rejection of all that. It had that immersive
character to it, that you were creating something
beautiful and almost magical. How do you capture
lightning in a bottle? For the first time in decades
the Left was reaching people through the gut!
First-time activists did not have to come to the
movement having read hundreds of books on
social cultural theory, attended weeks of grueling
anti-oppression workshops, and learning to pepper
their comments with academic jargon. It’s also
rejection of liberals and unions, consultants, focus
groups, polling. It’s not the same old tired rallies,
preprinted protest signs, and canned chants. It
was unpredictable and that’s what made it so
powerful. The ways it’s unpredictable will make
your eyes light up and make you cringe at the
same time. Or you’ll feel chills!
The State of the Unions 2011 27
ot only did many OWS activists reject main-
stream U.S. political parties as hopelessly
corrupted by corporate power, but they also
spurned traditional left-wing organizations
as overly hierarchical. More influenced by anarchism
and autonomism than socialism or left libertarianism,
their political worldviews combined elements of all
these traditions, united by a tactical commitment to
direct action. OWS’ tactical repertoire centered on
nonviolent civil disobedience, and the occupation
itself embodied the prefigurative prescription, “Be the
change you wish to see in the world” often attributed
to Mahatma Gandhi.20 That precept not only informed
the way in which daily life was organized in Zuccotti
Park, but also Occupy’s practice of consensus-based
decision-making processes and “deliberative democ-
racy” (Polletta 2004, Klein 2011).
The movement was about “not asking for permis-
sion,” Mary Clinton explained, adding: “The whole
point of having a protest is to slow things down and
disrupt so that you can get your message across.
So sticking to civil disobedience has been a real
strength.” This was the logic underlying OWS’ direct
action approach. As Matt Presto elaborated, “I
consider occupation a form of direct action, and
I consider direct action to be far more effective than
traditional marches in the streets,” he told us. “I
consider direct action to be any kind of action that
does not recognize the legitimacy of existing political
structures, simply taking matters into our own hands.
Instead of, for example, applying for a permit to
convene in a space, we just take it.
Around the country, some Occupy activists revisited
the debate about “diversity of tactics” common
in left-anarchist circles (most recently in the anti-
corporate globalization movement) The debate
revolved around what tactics are strategic for the
20 Although this statement is widely associated with Gandhi, there is no
documentation that he ever wrote or uttered these words. See Morton 2011.
movement, centered on (often contested) defini-
tions of “violence” and “nonviolence.” (Starr 2006,
Schneider 2011, Hedges 2012, Graeber 2012). Some
argued that property destruction was nonviolent and
should not be excluded from the movement’s tactical
repertoire, a view that many Occupy activists accepted.
However, such discussion remained abstract in the
New York context, because in practice New York City’s
Occupy movement consistently avoided both property
destruction and any forms of violent resistance.
“Early on, we decided that it was in our best interest
strategically to take this very strict position in terms of
Gandhian nonviolence,” Marisa Holmes recalled. “It
was a strategic decision.” David Graeber echoed the
same point: “We decided early on that we were going
to have to be completely nonviolent,” he told us.
“New York is the most policed public space on earth,
especially Wall Street. I suppose certain points on the
West Bank might be more so. And Zuccotti Park was
just two blocks away from ground zero. I think we all
took it pretty much for granted we’d have no choice
but to take a Gandhian approach.
Lisa Fithian, who had extensive previous experience
with direct action tactics, and who trained many OWS
activists in nonviolent civil disobedience, told us, “New
York has been working with a nonviolent framework.
There’s people that don’t want that but understand
at one level that it’s important. So there’s been some
good discipline there.” Stephen Lerner commented,
“The nonviolence is really important. Obviously there
would not have been sympathy for the folks who got
pepper sprayed and kettled, if right before they had
thrown Molotov cocktails at people. I generally am a
supporter of nonviolence, tactically, philosophically and
practically; I disagree with those who simultaneously
argue and believe that we have the most powerful
oppressive state in the history of humankind and that
an effective way to challenge this oppressive state is to
throw rocks at well-armed police.
Many shared Matt Presto’s view that the debate
around violence was “a distraction” from a more
broad and open-ended conversation about movement
action. He told us, “I don’t think smashing windows is
particularly effective. I don’t think that letter-writing is
effective either, but I don’t condemn those who write
letters. As I once said in a meeting on this, it seems
we’re only assessing efficacy when it comes to prop-
erty destruction, but we should be discussing efficacy
across the board for all types of tactics.
Along with its dedication to nonviolent civil
disobedience, the other key aspect of Occupy was its
prefigurative politics, which shaped both the ways
in which decisions were made and the organization
of daily life in Zuccotti Park.21 From the outset
OWS adopted a decision-making process based on
consensus and a self-consciously non-hierarchical
structure. These were carried over from earlier
waves of activism, particularly the anti-corporate
globalization protests in 1999-2001, and predecessor
organizations like the revival of Students for a
Democratic Society in the early 2000s. Many OWS
activists also drew inspiration from recent Latin
American social movements, from the Zapatistas to
the factory occupations in Argentina and Venezuela
(Sitrin 2012).
Occupy GAs featured what Jonathan Smucker
called the “brilliant collective ritual” of the “people’s
mic,” in which the group amplified a speaker by
repeating his or her words. In larger groups, such
amplification would pass through two, three, four or
more circles of people radiating out from the original
speaker. Outside the GAs—in the park, in rallies, and
on marches, anyone could call out “mic check” and
create a vehicle for sharing information.22 This was
deeply empowering, as Smucker observed, “It makes
21 The term “prefigurative” refers to political practices that directly embody the
type of social relations of the type that a social movement aspires to bring into
22 The tactic has been used in previous protest movements, including the
anti-corporate globalization protests around the turn of this century and the
anti-nuclear movement.
people feel heard, like they’re part of a movement. It’s
really expressive.”23
GAs used a form of modified consensus to make
decisions, a process designed to facilitate discussion
with the goal of reaching agreement among as many
participants as practical. Experienced facilitators,
or new activists trained by the Facilitation Working
Group, kept “stack” during the discussions, with a
first-come first-served list of everyone who wanted
to speak. The aim was to air all sides of a question,
allowing the discussion to continue as long as
needed to arrived at consensus. Participants used
hand signals to communicate across the large crowd,
silently registering approval (upward “twinkling”)
or disapproval (downward “twinkling”) of whatever
was being said. Participants in GAs could “block”
proposals they objected to, which gave veto power to
anyone who was strongly moved enough to stop an
emerging consensus; although blocks could be over-
ridden by a 90 percent vote.
One example of blocking, and the consensus that
was eventually achieved in its aftermath, illustrates
how OWS facilitated democratic participation and
collective empowerment. In the occupation’s second
week, a small group presented to the GA a draft
“Declaration of the Occupation of New York City,”
a statement intended to reflect, in its words, “what
brought us together.” A group of South Asian activists
who had just concluded a meeting a few blocks away
objected to language in the draft Declaration that
conjured a post-racial, post-gender, post-class united
“human race.” These activists, most of whom had not
been to Zuccotti before that evening, raised objections
and eventually blocked that language. As Sonny Singh
recalled, they “were met with some hostility from
the proposer, who was a white guy. The facilitator
seemed a little impatient with us as well, explaining
that a block has to be an ethical or safety concern: we
argued that yes, oppression and 500 years of racism
23 “Mic checks” were also used as a form of direct action by activists trying to
interrupt or stop speeches or events seen as in opposition to Occupy.
The State of the Unions 2011 29
is an ethical concern, and erasing that in one swoop
is a concern.
What happened over the next couple of hours
became an iconic example of the OWS democratic
process, referred to in many later accounts of the
Occupation (e.g. Maharawal 2011). The discussion
“turned into, very quickly, a racism 101 training,” Singh
explained, and the GA eventually came to consensus
on a modified version of the text. “We didn’t get
any great anti-oppression language in there, but we
got the bullshit out. And we got it to a place that
everybody could live with it…. So we walked away
that night feeling that there’s a lot of really naïve stuff
happening here, but this process allows for us to stick
our noses in it and shift it in a positive direction. I left
feeling very empowered and inspired. It wouldn’t have
happened, that document would have been released
with that naïve language, if we didn’t show up at
general assembly that night. So after that, it felt like a
responsibility to keep coming.
This example illustrates how, in contrast to the
“vertical” structures of both mainstream political
parties and traditional Left organizations, OWS
embraced “horizontalism.” Matt Presto declared,
“Horizontalism is what I see as the one non-nego-
tiable element of Occupy Wall Street. Many people are
not used to decision-making that is so direct. It takes
a lot of time, and it is not necessarily accessible to
everyone, but part of the beauty of consensus is that
it’s actually a very natural form of decision-making.
Informally we do it all the time. But people see voting
as the only legitimate form of decision-making, and
it’s hard to undo that conditioning. This horizontal
structure is really exciting for people who have never
experienced it before. “
“I love that nobody can really take the lead and
run things,” said Sandy Nurse, among the many
OWS participants for whom this was a novel
experience. “I love the process of having points of
conversation and not going here and there, and
being very focused,” she added. “I love the way that
people don’t talk over each other, that we use these
other forms of gesture-based communication to talk
with each other.
Others also commented on the empowering aspect
of direct democracy. Marina Sitrin, who has written
Michael Gould-War tofsky
extensively on horizontalism in Argentina, pointed to
the importance of “the commitment to listening to one
another and really hearing each other; the acceptance
of the other, seeing yourself in the other, and feeling
heard.” Similarly, Nathan Schneider highlighted “the
learning that was happening: the sense of having an
experience unlike everything that they’d ever felt. You’d
just hear this all the time. I’d see people over the course
of a week flip 180 degrees politically, and personally. In
terms of how they interacted with others, they’d go from
being disrupters to participants, learning the value of
process, learning how to speak, how to be heard in this
context, and having their political horizons expanded.
You’d come in with some sense of what was wrong,
and then you’d kind of gradually realize how completely
broken things are through these conversations.” The
GAs, “mic-checks,” and even the decision to eschew
official demands allowed for wide-ranging, boundaryless
explorations of politics.
Occupy activists understood the consensus-based
decision making processes and horizontalism as
prefigurative. The same was true of the way in which
the occupation of the park itself was structured. The
park was organized around the principle of mutual
aid, encouraging everyone involved to help support
the daily life of the community. Basic needs like food,
shelter, medical care, collective sanitation and security
were all part of the movement, along with as educa-
tion and culture. Occupy established working groups
to manage each of these tasks, directly replicating the
organizational structure of the indigados’ encamp-
ments in Spain, and drawing inspiration from the
organization in Tahrir Square and the occupation of
the State Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin.
For many OWS participants, this was something
new. Sonny Singh recalled, “In most of the other
organizing I had done, I hadn’t seen people coming
together to create some sort of mini-society that really
reflected our values, rather than just showing up to
the meeting or the demo and then going back home.
That’s what made me really excited from the outset.
Michelle Crentsil, too, was deeply impressed by this
prefigurative aspect of Occupy. “Going to the park
and seeing people who don’t know each other sit next
to each other, eat food together, free, get medical
attention together, free, sleep next to each other,
and nobody’s worried! A community was created,
and it was just completely open. That was scary and
threatening to the powers that be, something that
doesn’t really exist anywhere else.” She suggested that
this was also part of the motivation for the eventual
eviction of the park by the police. “You don’t destroy
something that isn’t a threat.” The core of this threat,
she suggested, came from the ways in which the mini-
society created through the encampment provided the
opportunity for its creators to reflect on the nature of
the lives they lead and the world they lived in. “You
can have your immediate needs met, like food, shelter,
even health care, so then you can actually sit about
some major issues, which I don’t think happens. So
many people don’t have those needs met, so they
can’t actually have a conversation about why they’re
in the position they’re in.” Marina Sitrin similarly
underscored what she saw as an inherent radicalism
to the experience created by the prefigurative practices
of OWS: “If you really get into the conversation, it’s
that you can’t have a democracy with this kind of
economic system. That’s what it’s really about when
people say, ‘I don’t feel heard, my voice has never
been heard before, no one consults me in any deci-
sions that are made.’ It’s a very radical politics coming
out of that.
The State of the Unions 2011 31
series of organizational challenges emerged
during the two months that the Zuccotti
encampment remained intact. As word
spread about the availability of free food
and shelter, New York’s homeless population began
to join the occupation. OWS welcomed them as
part of “the 99%,” but their growing numbers
presented daunting challenges, not only in regard
to providing food and medical care to everyone who
needed it but also in regard to the dynamics of the
GA meetings. While many homeless people became
active and constructive participants in the GA and
working groups, others who suffered from mental
illness or other challenges proved more difficult to
Adding to the complexity, the police also began
to infiltrate the movement, following a longstanding
pattern of government response to protest move-
ments (Boghosian 2004). It was often difficult to
distinguish between police informers and others who
created problems in the meetings. “You can never
tell who’s there intentionally to disrupt and who just
actually can’t help it and maybe needs some more
specialized care,” Sandy Nurse explained. “There are
people who do things in a very subtle way, they create
a negative energy that sucks the energy out of things,
and it takes a lot of time to deal with them rather than
focusing on the issues at hand. And there’s definitely
been infiltration.
Apart from infiltration and disruption, the GAs
faced problems of sheer numbers. As the movement
swelled to the point that hundreds and sometimes
thousands of people turned up for the daily meetings,
the consensus-based process became increasingly
unwieldy. “The General Assembly was great in the
beginning because the sense that everyone should
speak their piece, participate equally, meant that it was
wide open for people to get involved,” Jackie DiSalvo,
69 years, a longtime labor activist, commented. “We
were very democratic, ultrademocratic, with the hori-
zontalism. The working groups got set up very early,
and that was probably the healthiest thing in Occupy,
because people really wanted to accomplish things
and work together very well. But they were separate
from the General Assembly, which was becoming
Over time, indeed, the GA process deteriorated.
Jonathan Smucker commented, “The problem is
when you try to make 400 people mic-checking in
a park into a functional decision-making structure,
which it’s just not meant to be. It never did that
well. So there’s a kind of hyper-democracy, which
theatrically expresses some of the values of what this
movement is about, but it’s not always the
most functional thing.”
A related concern
was the “tyranny of
structurelessness,” in
Jo Freeman (1972)’s
famous formulation. As
Sonny Singh put it, “Even
though people say it’s
a leaderless movement,
you know that there’s
power somewhere… and
people whose voices are
more important than
others’.” Several of our interviewees argued that in
practice, horizontalism often marginalized people of
color, women, and sexual minorities. Yotam Marom
declared, “Decentralized movements are the easiest
for people who are most conditioned to lead to
take leadership… kind of charming, mainly white,
mainly male.” And Michelle Crentsil recalled, “There
were a lot of racist things happening, classist things
and sexist things happening, homophobic things,
movements are the
easiest for people who
are most conditioned to
lead to take leadership…
kind of charming, mainly
white, mainly male.
Michael Gould-War tofsky
transphobic things. All those things were happening,
and people were freaking out because they were like,
‘I’m at Zuccotti, this is isn’t supposed to happen
here!’ I saw that also play out in what people were
saying is direct democracy or horizontalism. No! You
still had leaders, and it was the same people who end
up rising in the systems that we’re trying to address.
We ended up recreating a lot of racist, sexist, classist
structures. The people who you would see on TV or
as the quote-unquote leaders who are either facili-
tating the GA or being front and center in any other
way shape or form were often white, male and highly
Occupy activists struggled to find solutions to
these problems without abandoning their commit-
ment to direct democracy. Isham Christie maintained
that OWS “is not leaderless, it’s leader-ful, with
distributed leadership. Not vertical, not horizontal, we
want diagonal!” At the same time, he recognized the
complexities involved. “Popular assemblies speak to
the given institutions of the society not working, and
so people have to just do it themselves, but there are
lots of background factors. Is it rooted in a commu-
nity? Does the community trust one another? Do they
know one another? Is there solidarity tied to being in
a specific oppressive situation, or is it just a random
group of people? That’s what New York is already,
the most random group, so throwing them all into a
General Assembly to make decisions for the move-
ment, that’s pretty tough.” Stephen Lerner posed the
issue succinctly as “the question of where vertical and
horizontal meet.”
With such problems in mind, Shen Tong, whose
OWS activity focused on organizational issues,
declared, “We have to come to terms with gravity,
which is hard for a movement that aspired so high
and somehow by magic succeeded. It’s very hard to
recognize there is actually gravity. But if you’re serious
The State of the Unions 2011 33
Michael Gould-War tofsky
about flying, you’d better recognize it and work with it.
We live on Earth! If we want to change this society, we
have to develop organizational power.” Suresh Naidu
agreed. “If Occupy turns into something that actually
has legs, it’s going to have to get a structure,” he
declared. This was immediately important given the
huge volume of donations OWS received within the
first month; requiring decisions about how to spend
and allocate the funds. As Naidu put it, “We were like
a developing country with a resource curse!”24
The primary structure OWS developed to address
the organizational challenge was the proliferation
of working groups that developed to focus on
particular issues. At the peak, there were over 100
working groups , some of which regularly drew
several hundred people to their meetings. The groups
varied in form and function, with some using more
24 In contrast, Occupy Sandy was widely lauded for the tight organization it
brought to distributing contributions and volunteers for storm relief.
traditional “majority rules” processes while others
were committed to consensus-based decision making.
Even before the eviction, many groups met outside of
Zuccotti Park, where they felt they could have more
effective, focused meetings.
In October, the Structure Working Group put
forward a proposal to create a democratic Spokes
Council with representation from all active working
groups and caucuses. Intended to create more
transparency and accountability, as well as a more
consistent decision-making process, the Spokes
Council would have no authority or decision-making
power but would create a structured space for
debate and discussion to inform the GA. The idea
was controversial among some activists who feared
it would add a layer of hierarchy, but in the end the
proposal passed. Each working group and caucus was
allowed to appoint one person as a “spoke” to sit in
a circle with other spokes at each Council meeting,
and to maximize participatory democracy, the “spoke”
for each group would rotate. The first Spokes Council
meeting took place on November 7.
The concerns about structure were quickly eclipsed,
however, by the NYPD’s forcible eviction of OWS from
Zuccotti Park on November 15. The loss of the park
was “heartbreaking,” Cathy O’Neil recalled. But like
most of our interviewees, she voiced mixed feelings
about the eviction. “Losing Zuccotti Park was good
and bad. It was good because there really was stuff
that was uncool happening there, and it wasn’t going
away. And it was bad because there was no longer a
way for an average person to join Occupy.”
Marisa Holmes, who had facilitated dozens and
dozens of hours of GAs and other meetings by
mid-November, also mulled the contradictions of the
eviction: “What did it mean to lose the park? It meant
losing this symbolic center of a global movement, and
for people who were actually there, it was painful. Any
diaspora is painful, and they lost their homes. But
it was also this sense of relief and starting over and
renewal. And that was really needed at that moment.
We were having a lot of internal issues with the park
at that point. So I was relieved, personally.”
Shen Tong agreed that the park had given OWS the
tactical advantage of “physical proximity. Accessibility.
You have to be accessible to people if you want to be
a mass movement.” On the other hand, he added,
“I don’t think you can rely on the space, because
it can always be taken away.” Tong also suggested
that the eviction presented an unique opportunity
to address key organizational challenges that the
movement faced.
Sandy Nurse highlighted a more problematic
consequence of the eviction: “Without the space,
class comes back into the organizing. When we had
the space, people who had never been to anything
were like, ‘I’m in Sanitation now and I’m cleaning up
the park,’ or ‘I’m in Kitchen’ or ‘I’m at the info Desk
and I’m valued.’ People who had never interacted with
each other were interacting, to get stuff done. Without
the space, those people don’t have that stability and
don’t have that privilege. You start to operate in these
small, private spaces again, and there’s exclusion that
happens. Class comes right back in your face and it
becomes comfortable again.
Once the physical occupation ended, as Arun
Gupta commented, the movement began “falling into
a particular type of theater: protestors and police,
cameras and conflict. That’s a deadly trap. If it seems
to be all about these images of police violence, people
think, ‘I’m not going anywhere near that.’ More impor-
tant, the movement was not about fighting cops, it
was and is about ending the rule of capital over our
lives, and it did so in a joyous, festive manner. It
was infused with righteous anger, but if it becomes
nothing but anger, aggression, ‘Fuck The Police’
marches—as in did in many cities post-occupation—
most people will be scared away.”
The State of the Unions 2011 35
fter the eviction of the park, the movement
rapidly fell off the public’s radar screen.
As Matt Presto remarked, “the media
has largely ignored us since the eviction
because we don’t have that spectacle of the space.
It’s not as glamorous.” Many OWS working groups
continued to meet regularly, and the movement’s
new home at 60 Wall Street—just a few blocks from
Zuccotti—was often filled with activity during the
weeks and months that followed. But their character
changed as many former participants returned home
and resumed their old routines. “A lot of people
have dropped out because they’re trying to find
housing,” Michele Crentsil told us. “I know some
people who came to New York just for the occupa-
tion have gone back to wherever they were from to
go and find work.
Nevertheless, OWS continued to spawn new initia-
tives in a variety of venues around the city, including
on-going educational seminars held in Union Square,
Bryant Part, Washington Square and elsewhere under
the “Occupy University” Working Group. In addition,
neighborhood GAs began to take shape in the outer
boroughs—according to Marisa Holmes, thirteen GAs
were meeting around the city in the spring of 2012. In
Brooklyn, for example, Occupy Sunset Park provided
support for a rent strike waged by a group of predomi-
nantly immigrant tenants against a corrupt landlord.
Another ongoing effort was OWS support for
unionization drives among bakery workers, organized
by the Laundry Workers Center (LWC) with support
from the Immigrant Worker Justice Working Group.
And a group of labor and worker center activists
created a “99 Pickets” project with the goal of
getting Occupy activists to support a series of worker
organizing campaigns around the city. As Nastaran
Mohit, who was active in the Immigrant Worker
Justice Working Group, explained, “One of the most
important thing about OWS is the fact that it brings
different communities and coalitions together. ROC
[the Restaurant Opportunities Center] can organize
on its own just so much,
and LWC can organize on
its own just so much. But
OWS has provided this
umbrella to bring so many
different groups and so
many different individuals
OWS activists also
launched several worker-
such as OccuCopy, a
printing and design shop,
and networks of local
farmers in Occupy Farms.
Occupy Homes has been
organizing against foreclosures throughout 2012.
Occupy the SEC and Alternative Banking Working
Groups also continue to meet, regularly publishing
public commentaries on financial reform proposals.
The “Strike Debt” Working Group is engaged in
organizing around student debt. A new group spun
off to address debt more broadly, and in November
2012 it launched the “Rolling Jubilee” which collects
donations and then uses them to buy up outstanding
debt from lenders and collection agencies, and then
forgive the debt. By mid-November, the group had
raised about $350,000, enough to purchase about
$7 million in debt.25
OWS activists re-emerged strongly in the public
square when they formed “Occupy Sandy,” a self-
organized effort to assist the victims of Superstorm
Sandy in New York and New Jersey. Within a day
after the storm hit, Occupy activists were collecting
See the Rolling Jubilee website at
After the eviction of
the park, the movement
rapidly fell off the
public’s radar screen…
nevertheless, OWS
continued to spawn
new initiatives in a
variety of venues
around the city.
donations and sending volunteers to check on
neighborhoods and residents. Within a few weeks,
the group announced that they had coordinated over
50,000 volunteers, and collected almost $600,000 in
A network called InterOccupy now maintains
lines of communication and coordination among
26 See h ttp://
Occupy groups around the country and the world.
Commenting on efforts like these, Marisa Holmes
articulated a vision of Occupy’s potential future:
“Going forward we need to build a self-managed alter-
native infrastructure, a dual power situation. That’s
my ultimate goal. But that’s a lifetime of work. We’re
seeing the beginnings of that now, and hopefully it
will come to fruition.
Jenna Pop e
The State of the Unions 2011 37
WS can take at least partial credit for
a variety of political concessions that
took place in late 2011 and early 2012,
such as the extension of the New York
“millionaires’ tax,” the reversal of Bank of America’s
plan to impose new fees on its customers, and
the successful blockage of the Stop Online Piracy
Act. Locally, it also played a role in stopping
several housing foreclosures, helping to create a
climate for successful contract bargaining for the
city’s giant building services local, SEIU 32B-J, and
providing vital support to labor disputes like the
one at Sotheby’s. More recently, strikes at Wal-Mart
and among warehouse and fast food workers have
benefitted from relationships built through the
Occupy movement.
Equally important, OWS changed the national
political conversation. As Cathy O’Neil observed,
“Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, I read
them every day and the amount of questioning of fair-
ness, equitability, that kind of thing has skyrocketed.
It’s no longer sufficient just to look at it from the
perspective of the owner of the stocks, you actually
have to say, how is this affecting people? Is this
reasonable?“ So that’s what Occupy has done tremen-
dously well, and just bringing it up as a question, and
it’s not going away.”
Indeed, as Figure 6 shows, news media attention to
inequality increased dramatically during the Zuccotti
Park occupation. Mentions of the term “inequality” in
the news fell substantially after the eviction, but have
remained higher than in the pre-OWS period.
Many of the activists we interviewed marveled at
the extent to which inequality became increasingly
central in national political discourse thanks to
Occupy. As Jonathan Smucker put it, “Its success to
me is in changing the national narrative, naming the
huge elephant in the room: economic inequality and
Michael Gould-War tofsky
a political system that’s rigged to serve the few at the
cost of the many. In a very short time this became the
new common sense. The character of news stories
and the national conversation just changed. It’s not
that the conservative narrative went away, but it lost
a lot of credibility and stopped being the driving
force.” Lisa Fithian, similarly, observed, “It changed
the national narrative, from their frame of poverty
and welfare to our frame of debt, the fact that a small
group of people at the top—the 1%—of the capitalist
pyramid are stealing and squandering our nation’s
Economist Suresh Naidu commented, “In the U.S.,
none of that language for the 99 percent existed, so
this was great, as far as it captured the pubic eye.
Now in every conversation I have with my colleagues,
I can talk about stuff that I could never put on the
table before. And I see economics papers now that
start off in their introduction: ‘Clearly since Occupy
Wall Street economic inequality is a concern.’” The
conversation appeared to shift not only among elites
but also among ordinary people. “I’ve been on the
train, and I hear somebody talking about the 99%
who I’ve never seen before and I don’t know,” Michele
Crentsil told us. “Anyone and everyone is talking
about it.”
Although media attention did subside after the
eviction (see Figure 6 and Knefel 2012), the broader
political discourse continues to be peppered with
ongoing references to “the 1% ” and to other issues
Occupy had raised. The 2012 presidential election
campaign frequently referenced these issues as well.
Another, perhaps more enduring way in which the
impact of OWS continues to be felt is through the
transformation of individual participants who had not
previously been politically active. “How fast people
Figure 6. News Mentions of “Income Inequality,” January 2011–November 2012.
Source: LexisNexis Academic Database, All News (English).
Dec 11
Nov 11
Oc t 11
Sep 11
Aug 11
Jul 11
Jun 11
May 11
Apr 11
Mar 11
Feb 11
Jan 11
Nov 12
Oct 12
Sep 12
Aug 12
Jul 12
Jun 12
May 12
Apr 12
Mar 12
Feb 12
Jan 12
The State of the Unions 2011 39
are learning and how many smart people you have
in this movement, it’s mind blowing,” Amin Husain
exclaimed. “There’s a synergy, a coming together,
people reaching the same conclusion, although they
hadn’t been in conversation with one another. And
they’ve said that we’re the generation that stands for
nothing, the apathetic generation!”
“There were all these newly politicized people
who were involved. It was crazy how many people I
talked to who said, ‘Yeah, this is the first thing I’ve
ever been to,” Isham Christie recalled. “There were
surprising amounts of people for whom this was their
first political act ever
and that was really
powerful, it broke
through a lot of the
cynicism and apathy
and transformed
so many different
people.” Jonathan
Smucker echoed this
point: “There are all
sorts of new folks
stepping in, working
together, and learning
a lot. The potential is
exciting if folks can
learn the right lessons and decide to stick with it.”
Lisa Fithian declared, “People woke up. There was
an enormous waking up.” Marisa Holmes echoed
this point: “Occupy has awakened this popular
consciousness that the existing political and economic
institutions are illegitimate, that they don’t actually
represent or reflect people, that another kind of
democracy is needed and possible. People have felt
really empowered by that.
Others highlighted the radicalization of the
newcomers. Suresh Naidu observed, “These were new
activists. Clearly this is their first political experience.
They would have never considered getting arrested
like six weeks ago, for anything. I think they’ll take the
idea that you can do that, that political tactics can
involve breaking the law, they’ll take that into whatever
else they do.” And Matt Presto reported, “There were
a lot of people who were attracted to the movement
in the first few weeks who didn’t necessarily have
any kind of articulated political philosophy but were
frustrated with the way things currently are and were
looking for new ideas, and it created this space for
people to become radicalized. I know quite a few
people who were not involved in activism at all before
Occupy Wall Street and came in and now identify as
anarchists, and didn’t really identify as anything before
and perhaps were just completely apathetic.” And
labor organizer Rob Murray observed, “A lot of groups
got some new recruits out of Occupy.”
Lisa Fithian saw Occupy as part of a “cultural
transformation” of lasting significance. “Occupy is
and continues to be a space where people can reclaim
their humanity. That’s more important than we realize,
because we have been raised in this culture of inhu-
manity, death and destruction, which is why we have
all these problems. Building a set of relationships and
practices and structures that actually support people
can transform them for the rest of their lives. It’s not
about just coming to one protest, we are walking the
long road of social and cultural change.
Not only individuals were transformed; new
networks were forged as well. “Even if we lost the
encampments, the networks and the relationships
that are built in the encampment are going to stay,”
Isham Christie declared. Nathan Schneider agreed,
stating, “The connections of the next generation of
activists were being formed here. There were so many
talented people all in one place, with connections
all over the country, meeting each other.” Similarly,
Suresh Naidu commented on “social networks of
people that wouldn’t have otherwise recognized each
other and known that they were on the same side, and
those networks then go off and do all sorts of things.
Some of these folks will go into the labor movement,
some of them will go into prison stuff, but because
The connections of the
next generation of activists
were being formed here.
There were so many
talented people all in one
place, with connections all
over the country, meeting
each other.
they were all doing this they’ll recognize each other
later.” These networks did not only extend within
the Occupy community, but further to the broader
community as well. “People out there are really ripe.
The American people are absolutely ripe for our
message, and I’ll tell you, the welcome we’ve gotten
from unions and from workers convinced me,” Labor
Outreach organizer Jackie DiSalvo argued. Affirming
others who are seeking greater organizational coher-
ence in Occupy’s next iterations, she told us, “There
are many good people, lots of good issues: I would
like to see some kind of a structure that enabled us
to build a multi-issue movement against the one
percent, around the many ways in which the one
percent oppress people.
Others commented on how much they valued
the personal relationships they had built with other
OWS participants. “This is a movement where I have
good good friends, who I didn’t know anything about
a year ago,” Michael Ellick told us. “We lived in an
environment where nothing else mattered.” Cathy
O’Neil declared, “I’m picturing myself in 25 years
meeting with these guys, I love them! They’re like my
family. There’s that kind of connection that really is
wonderful. ”
Whether Occupy continues to have a presence “as
Occupy” or not, the networks that were formed by
its efforts will remain. “That community has held,”
Michael Ellick told us. “There is a cultural phenom-
enon called Occupy that’s going to keep existing.
Chemical bonds grow when I experience moments of
joy with you.
Annette Bernhardt
The State of the Unions 2011 41
ur study of Occupy Wall Street provides a
snapshot of the movement at one time and
place, and documents in more detail the
insights and visions of some of its most
active participants. It is too soon for anyone to know
whether the movement they helped create will endure.
But if it does, it will face several challenges.
One involves the viability of a political frame
focused on class inequality without sufficient atten-
tion to how other social divisions complicate its vision
of the “99%.” Several of our interviewees suggested
that the movement needs to do a better job of
embracing analyses and practices that explicitly link
class to race, gender, sexuality, immigrant status and
other elements of social experience. This could help
to diversify the movement’s base, and also facilitate
building broad coalitions for social change.
Occupy activists also are grappling with the
problem of organizational next steps for the move-
ment. They are not united in their vision. Some
embrace OWS’s horizontalism, viewing such struc-
tures and practices as necessary forms of prefigurative
politics, even if it will take time for them to win wide
acceptance. Others aim to combine horizontalist
principles and practices like participatory democracy
with “leaderful” structures that involve more vertical
processes of decision-making. Still others focused
not on the structure of Occupy itself, but rather on
the organizational lessons that Occupy offers the
pre-existing political groups that they came from or in
which they are currently active.
A related set of challenges for the broader Occupy
movement is where they will work. This has a literal
component: given the government’s coordinated
camp closures and ongoing vigilance, the public space
seized by the movement is unlikely to be reclaimed.
But the “where” is broader too. What political arenas
and issues are best suited to pursuing OWS’ goals?
Many activists we spoke with, and a majority of our
survey respondents, were members of community
organizations, unions, and social justice organizations
whose work “reflects the issues raised by OWS.” Will
these groups work together differently as a result of
the new networks forged during OWS?
Like their counterparts in Spain, Egypt and
Wisconsin, OWS activists also are grappling with the
question of whether, and if so how, to link their move-
ments to electoral politics and efforts to win policy
changes through traditional political means. In Spain,
the indignados rejected any affiliation with political
parties outright, reflecting their sense of betrayal by
the ruling Socialist Party. In Egypt and Wisconsin,
direct action protests were ultimately channeled into
the electoral arena, but with disappointing results.
In the case of OWS, we expect that the movement’s
skepticism about electoral work will persist. As recent
efforts like Occupy Sandy, Strike Debt and the Rolling
Jubilee suggest, activists are more likely to focus
their efforts on direct action and mutual aid than on
legislative or electoral campaigns.
Many of our interviewees expressed confidence
that OWS represented the beginning of a new wave of
social movement activity. “Those civil rights guys, they
started in 1955. And then the Freedom Rides took off,
and it was like an earthquake, and it just kept going,
Suresh Naidu stated. “It takes ten years; a social
movement’s lifespan cannot be measured in months.
Those civil rights people at the beginning, they looked
like they were losing. And they kept trying and they got
demoralized and some people dropped out and new
people came in and then it got even bigger. Occupy is
like that first bump. And everybody thinks that Occupy
was the earthquake and I’m like ‘No, let’s be real.’ So
that’s why I’m optimistic about it still.
Jonathan Smucker offered a similar perspective:
“I take the long view. I hope that in twenty years we’ll
look back on Occupy Wall Street as an important
turning moment. My assessment is that social move-
ments and civic participation generally have been
in decline for four or five decades. OWS may be a
symbol of that turning around, a symbol of America
rediscovering collective action. After a period of low
social movement activity for 40 years, we’re lacking
a lot of infrastructure, capacity, leadership, and skills.
It’s going to take waves to build that up. There are a
lot of people that are learning valuable skills and are
becoming really good leaders and organizers.
Whatever form or forms the movement might
assume in the future, we are inclined to agree with
Mary Clinton’s assertion that it will have a lasting
impact: “Now the genie’s out of the bottle. There’s
this energy. I don’t know if they’ll be able to put it
back in!” she remarked, adding: “Whether it’s under
the Occupy brand or not, people are still going to be
organizing. Nobody’s going away. There’s a lot of work
to be done, and we’re going to continue tackling it,
now that we’re all connected.”
Michael Gould-War tofsky
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Name Occupation Areas of work within OWS Race/
Ethnicity Gender Age Education level
Phil Arnone Student Camp, Labor, Immigrant Worker
Justice White Male 25 In Grad school
Isham Christie Union staff Outreach; Social Media;
Meta-working group organizer
American Male 26 In MA program
Mary Clinton Labor organizer Outreach; Labor Outreach; Social
media White Female 25 BA
Michelle Crenstil Labor organizer Labor; POC; Outreach;
Communications Black Female 23 BA
Jackie DiSalvo Retired professor Labor Outreach White Female 69 PhD
Mike Ellick Reverend Faith White Male 38 Seminary
Lisa Fithian Trainer; consultant Direct action White Female 50 BA
Janet Gerson
Education Director,
International Institute
on Peace Education;
retired choreographer
Women Occupying Wall Street;
Feminist GA White Female 64 PhD Candidate
David Graeber Professor Planning White Male 51 PhD
Arun Gupta Journalist Occupy Wall St Journal South Asian Male 47
Dropped out of BA/
MA program; has
culinary school degree
Marisa Holmes Filmmaker Facilitation/Structure White Female 25 Art school
Amin Husain Artist
Facilitation, Direct Action, Tidal
(the Occupy journal), Plus
Male 36
Stephen Lerner Labor Strategist,
Training, strategy for May 12;
Beyond May 12 coalition White Male 54 High school
Yotam Marom Teacher Oct. 15 action; Direct action;
Citywide assembly White Male 25 BA
Nastaran Mohit Organizer Immigrant Workers White Female 30 MA
Rob Murray Organizer Labor Outreach; planning actions White Male 40 BA
Suresh Naidu Professor Finance; Education South Asian Male 34 PhD
Sandy Nurse Consultant; researcher Direct action Bi-racial Female 27 MA
Cathy O’Neil Mathematician;
Blogger Alternative banking
Matt Presto Teacher Facilitation; Tactical; Safer Spaces White Male 25 MA
Nathan Schneider Journalist PR working group White Male 27 MA
Sonny Singh Musician, teacher POC South Asian Male 32 MA
Marina Sitrin Professor Facilitation; Legal White Female 41 JD; PhD
Jonathan Matthew
Organizer; Trainer;
Writer; Founder and
Director of Beyond
the Choir
Press Relations, Movement
building, Occupy Homes White Male 34 BA
Shen Tong
Founder and
president of a
technology company
Organization Working Group;
Messaging cluster Asian Male 40s Postgraduate degree
The State of the Unions 2011 45
1. In-Depth Interviews
Our goal in selecting the 25 respondents with
whom we conducted in-depth interviews was to
include core Occupy Wall Street activists from a
variety of working groups, and to capture a demo-
graphically diverse group in regard to gender, age,
and race/ethnicity. We were particularly interested in
interviewing people who had been involved in OWS
prior to September 17, 2011, although some of our
respondents became involved later. We attempted
to capture a range of perspectives and experiences,
including some individuals who were active in OWS
yet critical of the movement.
We began by creating a list of key activists based
on information gleaned from articles about OWS
in newspapers, magazines and on-line; the list
of working groups on the New York City General
Assembly website (; as well
as our participant observation in Occupy activities
and visits to Zuccotti Park. We also used “snowball
sampling,” asking respondents at the end of each
interview to suggest names of other activists for us
to interview. Most of the people we contacted for
interviews agreed to participate; however, there were
six individuals who either did not respond to our
communications, or scheduled interviews that were
later cancelled.
Interviews ranged between 45 minutes and 2 hours.
All of them were audio-recorded and transcribed,
and the excerpts included in this report were sent to
interviewees for review.
2. Survey Methodology
Drawing on work by Walgrave (2007) and Walgrave
and Verhulst (2011), we designed a methodology to
conduct a random sample survey of OWS protest
participants in the May 1, 2012 rally and march in
New York City. We recruited 47 interviewers, mostly
graduate students (and the three of us also conducted
some survey interviews ourselves). All of them were
required to attend two three-hour training sessions
where they became familiar with this methodology
and conducted role-playing and practice interviews.
The interviewers were carefully instructed on how to
maximize objectivity in regard to both respondent
selection and to the way they presented the questions
to respondents.
We had designed our survey instrument earlier in
the spring and pre-tested it at a smaller OWS rally. We
made further refinements to the instrument after the
training sessions, based on the practice interviews.
We divided the rally and march space into
geographical segments and instructed interviewers
to interview every tenth person in their assigned
segment. In this manner our team of 50 interviewers
completed 729 valid interviews.
Occupy/May Day activities were scheduled to
take place throughout the day, but we focused our
efforts on the large rally and march planned to start
at 4 pm in Union Square. We approached this in two
parts. First, we divided the Union Square area into six
sections, based on our knowledge of where the rally
stage was located, and where interest groups and
organizations were scheduled to coalesce. We created
six teams of surveyors, and assigned each to an area.
The team of surveyors was instructed to divide up
inside their area, to walk in a prescribed direction,
and to count off to the tenth person. The tenth
person was asked to participate in the survey. From
there, they were instructed to continue following the
prescribed pattern, approaching each tenth person,
and conducting the survey.
The teams were instructed to move in varied,
specific directions, so that they would then be in
place to begin marching with the crowd, with teams
dispersed from the front to the back of the march.
The teams were then asked to follow another pattern
of walking, still approaching each tenth person. The
teams marched with the march for the duration of the
march to Wall Street. Surveyors completed their work
at approximately 8 pm.
Surveyors were given strict instructions to walk
in their prescribed direction and approach the tenth
person every time, with the goal of minimizing the
impact of interviewer bias, a common problem with
this methodology (Walgrave and Verhulst 2011).
We collected 729 surveys. Spanish speaking
surveyors completed 5 surveys in Spanish. In addition,
211 people who were approached by interviewers
refused to participate. Another 16 were approached
but not surveyed because they did not speak English,
and 9 were not interviewed because they were under
age 12, or were not at Union Square as participants
but as vendors or tourists. Those who refused to
participate were slightly more female, younger, and
white than those who did participate, but none of
these differences was statistically significant. However,
the refusal rate during the rally was 29 percent,
compared to 18 percent during the march, which
is a statistically significant difference. The overall
refusal rate of 22 percent is also somewhat higher
than the average reported for this kind of face-to-face
protest survey, as reported by other researchers.
Walgrave (2007) states that cooperation rates “always
surpassed 80 percent.” Walgrave and Verhulst (2011)
note that the highest acceptance rates were in surveys
where interviewers were allowed to choose their
own respondents, but our refusal rate was higher
than they report for surveys in which (as in our case)
interviewers were required to follow a strict procedure
for selecting respondents.
The State of the Unions 2011 47
New York City
OWS Respondents
Residing in NYC
(n = 527)
All Respondents
(n = 727)
Actively Involved”
(n = 324)
Male 47.6 51.4 55.3 54.8
Female 52.4 47.1 42.3 41.7
Under 30 years 28.0 35.2 37.1 39.7
30 years or more 72.0 64.6 62.9 60.3
Hispanic/Latino (of any race) 28.8 10.6 10.1 9.2
Non-Hispanic White 33.1 62.1 62.2 66.6
All Whites 46.0 63.2 63.5 67.8
Non-Hispanic African
American 22.8 8.0 8.7 5.5
All African Americans 26.4 9.0 9.6 6.5
Non-Hispanic Asians 12.7 4.6 5.4 4.2
All Asians 13.8 4.6 5.4 4.2
U.S.- born 62.8 80.6 80.3 84.4
Foreign born 37.2 19.4 19.7 15.6
HS degree or GED (25+) 24.9 7.4 7.9 6.4
Some college (25+) 20.6 7.7 8.9 8.9
College degree (25+) 20.1 38.7 38.5 39.0
Graduate degree (25+) 14.0 40.3 40.7 40.8
Currently enrolled in college or
graduate school 8.2 20.4 20.8 21.7
Employed (>
_ 16 years ; with jobs
as a percent of labor force) 90.4 90.4 90.3 92.0
Unemployed (>
_ 16 years;
jobless and looking for work) 9.6 9.6 9.7 8.0
< $25,000 29.2 7.9 8.2 8.4
$25,000 to $49,999 21.3 19.3 19.6 20.1
$50,000 to $74,999 15.7 23.7 22.1 24.0
$75,000 to $99,999 10.5 13.6 14.5 10.1
$100,000 to $199,999 16.9 29.0 28.7 27.9
$200,000 or more 6.6 6.6 6.9 9.5
UNION DENSITYdUnion members 22.3 32.1 32.4 28.8
Blue collar 16.4 6.9 7.5 4.7
Office, sales and service 43.8 16.9 16.3 15.7
Education 6.6 20.2 20.7 23.9
Management, business and
financial 12.4 4.2 4.1 4.1
Arts and entertainment 3.4 12.6 12.0 12.3
Other professional 17.5 34.4 33.9 33.6
a Data in this column are from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey, with the exception of the section on labor force status.
b Our survey respondents were 15 years or older; thus for purposes of comparison, the data shown for New York City include only those age 15 or older.
c Labor force data for New York City are from the New York State Department of Labor, Occupational Wages.
d The union density data for New York City shown are from Milkman and Braslow’s (2012) analysis of U.S. Current Population Survey data, which is based on the average of the
twelve months of 2011 and the first six months of 2012.
We are deeply grateful to the Russell Sage foundation, and especially to its President, Eric Wanner, for
providing the funding that made this project possible, and on extremely short notice. Special thanks also to
Karthrick Ramakrishnan, who helped to germinate the idea of undertaking this project and provided extensive
input in the design of our survey.
Dan Clawson, Peter Evans, Nancy Foner, Allen Hunter, Leslie McCall, Fran Piven and Veronica Terriquez also
offered extremely helpful advice in the early stages of the research design. We are especially grateful to Amber
Cooper, who spent many hours educating us on the intricacies of the survey methodology; she had managed
an earlier survey of a large 2006 immigrant rights march in Chicago which led to a conference presentation
(and later, a book chapter) by Nilda Flores-Gonzalez and Amalia Palleres. That presentation was what first
made us aware of Walgrave and Verhulst’s methodology and it was what inspired the idea of applying it to
Occupy Wall Street.
Many other individuals contributed to this highly labor-intensive project. Shoshana Seid-Green transcribed
all our in-depth interviews, and Lynne Turner helped us with data entry and cleaning. Stacey Luce patiently
and expertly did the layout and graphic design work on both our survey instrument and this report. Thanks
to Annette Bernhardt, Seann Patrick Cram, Michael Gould-Wartofsky, Scott Lynch and Jenna Pope for
their photographs.
On May 1, 2012 itself, we relied heavily on the talents and energies of our survey team leaders: Karen Judd,
Karen Master, Agnes Szanyi, Jolie Terrazas, Lynne Turner and Pamela Whitefield, all of whom cheerfully and
competently helped us manage the survey fielding itself. All six of them conducted interviews even as they
supervised their teams. In addition, we are grateful to all the others who conducted interviews during the May
1 survey: Sarah Angello, Phil Bastian, Zack Busse, Emily Campbell, Rodolfo Hernandez Corchado, Thomas
Corcoran, Pauline Datulayta, Carmela Dormani, Caryn Epstein, Caroline Erb, Yenny Fernandez, Lisa Filipek,
Anna Fitzgerald, Jackie Fortin, Erica Friedman, Caitlin Griffin, Jason Harle, Maria Keil, John Kelly, Jim Kim,
Elizabeth Koechlin, Abigail Kolker, Amalia Leguizamon, Lindy Leong, Julie Mellin, Sarah Mobarak, Nick Moore,
Rafael Munoz, Vanessa Paul, Koraljka Petrovic, Dulcinea Pitagora, Sara Prosdocimo, Carolina Munoz Proto,
Philip Quintero, Jonathan Rodkin, Wilson Sherwin, Samantha Silverberg, Alexandra Sullivan, Sarah Tosh and
Yasemin Yilmaz. During the interviewer trainings we conducted, this group also provided helpful feedback on
the survey instrument.
We are grateful to Dan Clawson, Peter Evans, Allen Hunter, E. Tammy Kim, Suresh Naidu, Frances Fox Piven,
Rachel Sherman and Judy Smith for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this report. Finally, we thank the
Occupy Wall Street activists and participants who took the time to share their reflections with us.
About the Authors
Penny Lewis holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the CUNY Graduate Center. She is an Assistant Professor of Labor
Studies at the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies. Her first book, Hardhats,
Hippies and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory will be published later this year by
Cornell University Press.
Stephanie Luce holds an M.A. in Industrial Relations and a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin,
Madison. She is an Associate Professor and Acting Academic Director of Labor Studies at the Joseph S. Murphy
Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies. She is the author of Fighting for a Living Wage and co-author
of two other books on low-wage work. Her current research focuses on globalization and labor standards,
labor-community coalitions, and regional labor markets.
Ruth Milkman holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. She is a Professor of
Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and Professor and Academic Director of Labor Studies at the Joseph S.
Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies. Her most recent solely authored book is L.A. Story:
Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement. She is also co-author (with Eileen Appelbaum)
of the forthcoming book Unfinished Business, a study of paid family leave in California, which will be published in
the fall of 2013 by Cornell University Press.
© 2013
About the Murphy Institute
The Joseph S. Murphy Institute for
Worker Education and Labor Studies was
established over twenty years ago with
the support of the late CUNY Chancellor
Joseph S. Murphy. The Institute, part of
CUNY’s School of Professional Studies,
conducts strategic research, organizes
public forums and conferences, and
publishes the journal New Labor Forum.
The Institute’s worker education program
offers a wide variety of undergraduate
and graduate courses and degree
programs designed to meet the academic
and career advancement needs of
working adults and union members in
the New York City area.
Full-text available
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