On Friday, members of the loose coalition of progressive activists known as Occupy Wall Street met inside the sprawling atrium of Deutsche Bank’s New York headquarters to plan for a day of street protest on Wednesday, May 1. A year earlier, a similar planning session held at the same space saw hundreds of attendees pack the black-and-white marble floors of the massive arcade, creating a lively mood with impromptu speeches, drum circles and a potluck table providing free food to activists.
This year, only 11 activists showed up. One of them brought her own dinner.
“People have not consolidated into the same thing as last year,” Jackie DiSalvo, one of the activists who was present at this year’s meeting, told The Huffington Post. “We’re not as able to mobilize large groups to take action.”
For two months during the fall of 2011, Occupy Wall Street activists took over parks, sidewalks and streets in New York City, agitating for a plethora of progressive causes, but specifically honing in on the growing income inequality in the United States as a major source of social ills. After the police evicted them from their makeshift camp inside a plaza in New York City’s financial district, activists continued to meet and organize for future actions. Among the highlights was a May Day rally that organizers claim drew over 20,000 people to Union Square in Manhattan.
Yet as those carrying the banner of the movement make plans for this year’s May 1 activities, activists told HuffPost that Occupy finds itself splintered. Those activists say the movement, while still very much alive, is hobbled by a sharp decrease in the number of participants and a declining appetite for street protest among those still left. What happened?
“Since last year, we haven’t had a general assembly. That hasn’t gone on for many months,” DiSalvo said. “There were a lot of problems, and it wasn’t functioning very well. Actually, the general assembly itself was part of the problem because the consensus rules made it very hard to make decisions.
“It didn’t matter when we were in the plaza and people were willing to communicate really quickly,” DiSalvo said. “But the attitude has changed. It’s more important now for people to do what they want to do.”
DiSalvo and other activists said that instead of a mass movement centered around rallies and street action, Occupy has become a loose collection of so-called working groups of independent activists who focus on specific issues. An “alternative banking” working group meets weekly to discuss ideas on how to bypass the traditional financial system. Occupy the SEC, a different group, meets less regularly to discuss the actions of financial regulators, sometimes issuing comment letters on how the government should implement the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. Occupy Healthcare studies the possibility of a national single-payer insurance system. Occupy Sandy, which sprung up in the days after that storm clobbered the northeastern United States, started as a way for progressive activists to help organize relief efforts in some of New York’s poorest neighborhoods. That group has become a de facto social aid and advocacy agency in some of those neighborhoods.
“People plug in when they need to and when they want to,” said Daphne Carr, an activist with the Occupy Musicians project who has participated in a handful of activities over the last year. Carr said her group strives “to create a democratic open space for creative participation in political speech and action on the streets.”
“A lot of people don’t want to go to a rally and listen to other people babble for five hours,” she said. “A lot of people are shy about political participation but can be engaged through music.”
Carr said the Occupy movement has not diminished in numbers, even if that may not be obvious to dispassionate onlookers.
“We are definitely there, but we don’t show up as a progressive mass,” Carr said. “I think that says more about the police state we live in and the inability to have direct democracy. The numbers are there, but they cannot congregate due to the brutal and illegal police action.”
Cathy O’Neil organizes Occupy’s alternative banking working group, hosting discussions on finance every Sunday inside the campus of Columbia University, where she formerly worked as a mathematics professor. Unlike Carr, she conceded that Occupy has lost members over the past year.
“Occupy has definitely lost momentum, definitely,” O’Neil said, “but that’s not something I’m going to apologize for. It’s not something I’m ashamed of.”
“We know that what we’re fighting for is right and expect it to be a slog,” O’Neil said.
Kalle Lasn knows about that slog. As the co-founder of the Adbusters Media foundation, Lasn is in many ways a godfather to Occupy. His group came up with Occupy’s name and designed the original promotional material for the September 17, 2011, protest that kicked off the rest of the movement.
“When your heart stops and you go to the hospital, they give you a shock of electricity -- and that’s what the movement needs,” Lasn said. "Even though the movement has fizzled out, that feeling in the guts of people that the future doesn’t compute is very much alive."
This year, Lasn said he wants activists to focus their energies on harassing Goldman Sachs employees across the firm's 73 global offices, with loose plans to "have some fun while shutting down each of these locations" on May 1.
"The point is to make it hard for their employees to work there and for their clients to do business with them," Lasn said. "If people want to attend and create a carnival mood, that’s fine, but if people want to more viscerally demonstrate their anger, that's fine too."
Still, Lasn admits that the response to this year's call to action hasn't been as strong as in 2011.
“It’s a chancy business. It depends on the mood of the people. It depends on factors you cannot control.”
O’Neil, the alternative banking group coordinator, agreed that a grassroots movement cannot be willed to happen, but said she thinks the people still working under the Occupy banner are taking part in something very important: setting up the infrastructure for what she sees as the movement’s inevitable reprise.
“Nothing has changed,” O’Neil said. “We know that the system is going to fail. We’re not rooting for it to occur, but it’s going to happen. And we want to be there when it happens with developed solutions.”
In the meantime, O’Neil said, a healthy dose of optimism helps. “You have to enjoy the victories and ignore the defeats.”