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The Atlantic - September 14, 2021

A decade before United Nations climate scientists issued a “code red for humanity,” the 20-year-old college junior Evan Weber joined several thousand protesters descending on Wall Street to declare a code red for democracy. At the height of the Great Recession, Weber and his generation saw the climate crisis staring them in the face, along with exploding wealth and income inequality, student debt, and housing and health-care costs. On September 17, 2011, they rebelled. Pointing a finger at banks, corporations, and the wealthiest 1 percent, whom they blamed for corrupting our democracy by buying elections to control the legislative process, the protesters camping in Zuccotti Park issued a clarion call for justice: “We are the 99 percent.” That fall, hundreds of thousands of people joined Occupy Wall Street and its partner occupations in more than 600 U.S. towns and cities. Overnight, the movement created a new narrative around economic inequality—and seized the public’s attention. Polls showed that a wide majority of Americans supported Occupy.

Then, almost as quickly as it had arrived, the movement appeared to vanish, leaving behind little except for the language of the 99 and the 1 percent. In the decade since, the wealth gap has only widened. The rules haven’t changed; our system remains rigged to benefit those at the top. And yet, on the tenth anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, it’s clear that the movement has had lasting, visible impacts on our political and cultural landscape—igniting an era of resistance that has redefined economic rights, progressive politics, and activism for a generation.

Reinventing Activism

At its core, Occupy made protesting cool again—it brought the action back into activism—as it emboldened a generation to take to the streets and demand systemic reforms: racial justice, women’s equality, gun safety, the defense of democracy. As the Occupy veteran Nicole Carty told me, “We can’t unlearn the 99 percent. Now what you have is a whole generation that is growing up in movement times, which explains all the escalation you’re seeing and the work that’s happening among very young people who were still kids during Occupy.” 

... More deeply, the movement on Wall Street injected activists with a new sense of courage: Confronting power and issuing demands through civil disobedience is now an ingrained part of our political culture. In the years since, a cascade of social movements influenced by Occupy have altered the national conversation, including Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the Women’s March, Indivisible, and March for Our Lives. On a fundamental level, “we changed the way that people hear and see and understand and process a narrative of resistance,” the former Occupy activist Dana Balicki said. ...
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