In New York City, Occupy Wall Street Got the Last Laugh

Back in 2011, the media dismissed Occupy Wall Street as a mere flash in the pan. But in the long run, the movement reshaped the landscape of New York City and State politics.

Then-congressional nominee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stands with Zephyr Teachout after endorsing her for 2018 campaign for New York City public advocate. Teachout’s 2013 campaign for governor channeled themes from Occupy and pushed Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking and raise the minimum wage. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

When Occupy Wall Street emerged a decade ago, pundits derided it as an unfocused, inchoate movement that made too many demands (or not enough demands) and lacked the kind of organization that could feasibly force policy change. No single leader was at the forefront. Soon the police would clear the park, and what would happen then? For certain elites, it was easy to caricature the occupiers as a collective of privileged, overeducated millennials camping out on public property.

It was true that Occupy, in the short term, seemed to peter out. The horizontal organizing structure did it no favors. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire oligarch himself, deployed his hyper-militarized police force to flush out the encampment. In a few months, it all seemed to be over. By 2012, Obama was winning reelection, no one from Goldman Sachs had been sent to prison, and Zuccotti Park was back to being an unoccupied space in the cradle of neoliberalism.

But in New York, Occupy’s legacy would prove to be far greater than what cynical pundits had forecast; it just took longer — almost a decade — to bear fruit. When the occupation of Zuccotti Park began, under the banner of a radical critique of capitalism’s failures, the left flank of the Democratic Party was fairly moribund. Bloomberg was mayor and another corporatist, Andrew Cuomo, was governor. Bloomberg-friendly Democrats controlled the city council and Republicans, funded in part by Bloomberg’s millions, held the majority in the state senate.

What Occupy Wall Street did in New York, however, was lend a new vocabulary to a budding progressive movement and incubate a generation of activists who were far less willing to defer to those in power. The savage income inequality of the Bloomberg years could be decried on its own terms, not as an unfortunate side effect of otherwise bountiful gentrification. The Democratic Party, which had so willingly acquiesced to Bloomberg and his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, would have to be dragged left.

It started with Bill de Blasio. Though the New York mayor is mocked and dismissed by many on the Left today, it should not be forgotten how important the 2013 campaign was at that moment. De Blasio ran explicitly on a message of combating income inequality, borrowing from the language of the Occupy movement, and comfortably won a competitive Democratic primary. After 20 years of Republican mayors and Democrats who happily embraced the city’s neoliberal turn, de Blasio was proof that a center-left, anti-Bloomberg candidate could win a citywide election.

While de Blasio would go on to disappoint, there were more committed leftists ready to wage war on the corporate- and real estate–dominated political establishment. In 2014, a little-known law professor named Zephyr Teachout mounted a long-shot primary against Cuomo, calling for higher taxes on the wealthy, a higher minimum wage, and an end to hydraulic fracturing in New York. Teachout’s campaign drew heavily from the themes of the Occupy movement — assailing corporate power was at the center of what she was trying to do.

Throughout his first term, Cuomo had warred with public sector labor unions, expanded charter schools, blocked pro-tenant bills, and strongly resisted tax hikes and minimum wage increases. Cuomo heavily outspent Teachout and defeated her, but the campaign paid immediate dividends: Cuomo was forced to ban fracking and eventually, in his second term, authorized a minimum wage hike.

Finally, there was the socialist rebirth. Many future Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) leaders and activists participated in Occupy or followed the movement from afar. For younger millennials, it was a foundational moment, the time when many first became politically aware and understood who the enemies of the working class really were.

The 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign was almost single-handedly responsible for reviving DSA across the country and laying the groundwork for the New York City chapter’s emergence as a force in local politics. Without Occupy Wall Street, though, it is hard to imagine the Sanders campaign having the same resonance. Many thousands of people in their twenties were energized by Occupy; it gave them hope that someone, someday, would be willing to confront the outrages of capitalism head-on. Sanders, in short order, became that politician on the presidential stage.

Sanders was defeated, of course, and Donald Trump became president. Trump’s ascent birthed a new era of activism and fueled a widescale awakening among once-complacent liberals in New York City. And DSA, suddenly, was overrun with young people inspired by how close Sanders had come, and the possibilities for democratic socialism. An organization once known for its arcane, internecine feuds among aging baby boomers was now at the vanguard, ready to win elections in New York. Many of these new DSA organizers had entered activism through Occupy.

Red New York

Not since socialists were winning elected office a century ago has New York seen such a wave of victories for unabashedly left-wing candidates. Not all of them called themselves socialists, but many embraced the DSA agenda and willingly challenged Cuomo’s hegemony. DSA, of course, had many victories of their own. In June 2018, a once anonymous DSA member named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez throttled Joe Crowley, the boss of the Queens Democratic machine. In September, Julia Salazar, a stalwart DSA member, easily defeated a conservative Democratic state senator.

In 2019, Democrats finally took control of the state senate. Progressive activists powered successful primary challenges against a breakaway group of conservative Democrats who had, with Cuomo’s blessing, kept Republicans in the majority. Cuomo’s downfall in 2021 was self-inflicted — he was a serial sexual harasser who couldn’t help but abuse his power — but it’s important to remember it was possible, in part, because the assembly and state senate were willing to impeach and convict him in a trial. Without young, savvy leftist lawmakers pushing for change in both chambers, Cuomo might have survived. Many of the lawmakers who helped seal Cuomo’s fate were elected only a few years ago or even, in the case of the newest DSA contingent, last year. In August 2021, Cuomo was no longer governor.

Not all of this, of course, can be attributed to one protest movement a decade ago. The broad revival of the Left in the United States has many antecedents. What Occupy Wall Street did, though, was show what could become possible when thousands of people came together to declare the status quo intolerable. New York politics would never be the same.