Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Occupy from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

A non-violent protest movement that began in 2011, inspired in part by the events of the arab spring and in part by the perception of widespread social and economic injustice resulting from corporate greed. Occupy protestors have set up encampments in various prominent locations around the world, notably New York's Wall Street and the area just outside St Paul's Cathedral in London. The movement aims to influence policy-making on a global scale.


Summary Article: Occupy Movement from Encyclopedia of Social Media and Politics

The Occupy movement is a protest movement focused on social and economic inequalities. Inspired by world events such as the Arab Spring, the Spanish Indignants protests, and the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States, the Occupy movement brought international attention to the economic and power structures that it claims disproportionately benefit a minority of the population, are unstable, and undermine democracy.

The Occupy movement began unceremoniously in mid-July 2011, when the Canadian-based group Adbusters Media Foundation posted a blog post proposing a peaceful occupation of Wall Street to bring attention to growing wealth disparity and the influence of corporations on democracy. The hashtag #OccupyWallStreet was retweeted by a few Twitter users over the next two months, and the idea, while provocative, was slow to gain traction. The movement's message gained substantial momentum on social and microblogging sites on September 16, 2011, the evening before the first organized Occupy Wall Street protest. Within 24 hours, #OccupyWallStreet represented one in every 500 uses of a hashtag on Twitter, a phenomenon credited to hyperlocal tweeters, individuals who cover the happenings of local communities in great detail.

The first visible protest of the Occupy movement was held at New York City's Zuccotti Park, also referred to as Liberty Plaza, on September 17, 2011, coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the reopening of trading on Wall Street following the September 11, 2001, attacks. On the evening of September 17, Adbusters posted “A Modest Call to Action” on the movement's Web site, occupywallst.org, calling on like-minded individuals to engage in a revolution of the mind, as well as the body politic, through protests organized to disrupt the system. The movement quickly grew, spurred on by other organizations such as the Internet hacking group Anonymous, which encouraged its followers to take part in the protests. By October 5, the demonstration in New York City had grown to an estimated 15,000 protesters; by October 9, Occupy protests were occurring in over 95 cities in 82 different countries; and by October 29, there were an estimated 2,300 Occupy protest zones worldwide.

The Occupy movement prompted spinoff movements such as Occupy Homes, aimed at helping homeowners who had lost their homes because of perceived illegal banking practices; Occupy Your Block, linking Occupiers to local community organizations; Occupy Colleges, charged with educating the public about concerns related to mounting student debt; and Bank Transfer Day, which urged Americans to leave corporate banks in favor of community credit unions.

Touting slogans such as “We Are the 99 Percent,” “Main Street, Not Wall Street,” “Foreclose on Banks, Not People,” and “Occupy Everything,” and capitalizing on the extensive reach of social media, the movement quickly gained supporters and spawned movements across the world. To date, the Occupy movement has seen protests on every continent except Antarctica, and is regarded as an important global movement symbolizing the reinvention of politics in the 21st century.

99 Percenters

The most pervasive mantra used by the movement was “We Are the 99 Percent.” This slogan, proposed on a social-networking site, indirectly referenced the concentration of wealth among the top 1 percent of income earners. The movement contended that the bottom 99 percent were charged with paying for the financial mistakes of the top 1 percent, referencing the mortgage and banking crises of the late 2000s, and frequently asserted that billions live in poverty, whereas the rich control a majority of the world's assets. The movement stressed that existing political systems are highly influenced by the 1 percent, and advocated for the creation of alternative political structures focused on direct action and direct democracy.

In the early stages of the movement, it was assumed that the 99 percenters were comprised of mostly students, the unemployed, and Democrats. However, research conducted by a variety of organizations and academic institutions challenged these assumptions. The majority of the protesters were white and male, with an average age of 44.5 years old, most were college educated and employed full time, and were not affiliated with a political party or were independent voters. Over half of the respondents voted for President Obama, with nearly three-quarters unhappy with his performance, and nearly all respondents disapproving of how Congress handled its responsibilities.

Leaderless Movement

The Occupy movement focused on embodying the ideals of participatory democracy and demonstrating an overriding commitment to democratic processes. While critics of the movement focused on the lack of a centralized leadership, protesters instead saw this as echoing the larger ideals of the movement, that no one person's opinion or status was more important than that of another. Occupiers collectively negotiated all decisions via meetings of the General Assembly, a horizontal, leaderless, autonomous, de facto decision-making body. During the General Assembly, people were informed of the findings of multiple working groups, assemblies that performed much of the day-to-day work and organization for the movement, and any protester had the right to speak. A consensus model of direct democracy, which featured the use of hand signals and discussion facilitators to increase participation, allowed every protester to have an equal voice in the decision-making process.

Members of the movement embraced consensus decision-making methods that allowed the General Assembly to stay true to the mission of promoting every member's issues and representing the will of the people. The egalitarian process functioned both procedurally and substantively to provide members a high level of satisfaction regarding decisions. Occupiers believed that people would lead by example, step up when needed, or step back when appropriate, and emphasized that the movement was not leaderless, rather it was leaderful.

The commitment to consensus-based decision making produced some challenges. The ability for anyone to speak out during the General Assembly often resulted in many divergent opinions and agendas voiced, causing the meeting to lose effectiveness. In order to ensure that members of marginalized groups were heard, Occupy Wall Street developed a process called a progressive stack. This system allowed women and minorities to speak with facilitators before members of the dominant group; this was criticized for violating the principle that everyone's voice was equal, and for forcing equality. Concerns also arose that the working groups' focus on separate causes resulted in the dilution of the movement's larger initiatives. As the movement developed, members began to worry that it was becoming fractured, with its center of gravity devolving into smaller groups with different agendas and objectives.

Goals of the Occupy Movement

The Occupy movement was heavily criticized for its lack of a central focus or demand. During the early stages of the movement, a myriad of alleged goals were put forth by demonstrators. The goals included a broad range of issues, including more and better jobs, bank reform, and to initiate global changes against capitalism and austerity measures. Additional concerns that were frequently highlighted included the political influence of corporations, social and economic injustices, rising student and household debt, foreclosures, and limited prospects for graduating college students.

As the movement developed, more specific and loftier demands were put forth. Touting the slogan, “Democracy Not Corporatocracy,” these demands included a mandate that President Obama convene a presidential commission charged with ending the relationship between money and political representatives in Washington, D.C. Other goals included a broad tightening of banking-industry regulations, the banning of high-frequency trading, and the arrest of everyone involved in the financial crash of 2008. There was also a “99 Percent Declaration,” developed by a working group in New York City, which called for the creation and implementation of a system of public financing for political campaigns, a ban on all monetary and gift contributions to politicians, and the repeal of the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court via a constitutional amendment.

In addition to multiple goals and demands, the movement had shifting goals. In October 2011, Adbusters began forwarding the agenda for a “Robin Hood Tax,” or a tax on the financial sectors, and focused much of the movement's attention on a global march in support of the tax. By December, many occupiers had begun to focus their attentions beyond the protest camps, and instead on the projects of the working groups, such as Occupy Homes, and focused more on the need for banking reform, and less on engaging with mainstream politics. What many thought would be heralded as a new political and social dynamic, brought about by a transformation of civic engagement and political participation, got seemingly lost in the plurality of voices of the movement. Critics asserted that the overarching theme and message of the movement was not coherent, and suffered from a lack of unifying purpose and voice. Protesters countered by declaring that the unifying concern, the corrupting effects of money on politics, was evident, and that issuing demands would have served to legitimize the political and power structures the movement sought to challenge.

Commitment to Nonviolence

Essential to the movement were nonviolent occupations of major cities and towns across the world; throughout the demonstrations, nonviolence remained a core strength of the movement. While a majority of the protesters abided by their pledge of nonviolence, there were instances of violent interactions between occupiers and the police broadcast throughout the mainstream media. In September, a video of peaceful female protesters sprayed with pepper spray by a police commander gained significant coverage, and helped to bolster the movement's focus on nonviolence. However, later reports by media outlets regarding the increase of violence among protesters, including allegations of sexual assault and videos depicting physical clashes between demonstrators and police, served to depict the movement in a more aggressive light.

Occupy and Social Media

The Occupy movement mobilized thousands of people around the world, exclusively through the Internet. The decentralized and ostensibly leaderless nature of the movement made the use of Internet technologies ideal because its growth spread virally, from person to person, and not from a central authority. Occupy Wall Street (OWS) successfully and effectively utilized social media to translate online support into offline presence and activism. Social media platforms were instrumental in recruiting and linking supporters, acquiring necessary resources for local occupations, distributing information, creating and managing local encampments, and organizing protests and marches, storytelling, and across-group exchanges.

While multiple social networking platforms were used across OWS, the most prominent was Facebook. Over 450,000 Facebook users joined the more than 400 Occupy-related Facebook pages; these pages included Wall Street Occupation pages, national pages (efforts to symbolically occupy national institutions), state or regional pages, and local pages. On these pages, more than 170,000 people posted or commented more than one million times (a number that does not include people who only “liked” or “shared” a post). Users tended to first be active on local pages, and then matriculate to national pages; 40 of the 50 Occupy pages with the largest number of active users were local pages. The concentration of Facebook activism was most notable in college towns and state capitals, with online participation lowest in the south.

Twitter was also instrumental in broadcasting on-the-ground details of OWS events. Twitter traffic was heavily driven by significant events, such as when over 700 individuals were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, and on October 15, when hundreds of protests were held around the world. Usage of #OWS and #Occupywallstreet, the two most common hashtags associated with the movement, spiked during events during which there were police–protester interactions. Because Twitter's interface is specifically suited to highlight current events, it was a valuable platform through which dramatic, compelling, and newsworthy video footage could be instantaneously tweeted to the world.

Videos and images captured and shared through social media were important to the movement because they were frequently picked up by the mainstream media. The OWS movement is an interesting example of the evolving relationship between social and mainstream media. Although the OWS movement was successful in its goals via social media, it still needed the mainstream media's circulation of vivid pictures and videos to increase the knowledge and legitimacy of the movement. While a movement may be powerful in a social media environment, it still often needs the power of the mainstream media to help gain validity.

Political and Social Impact

Critics of the Occupy movement contend that it had little collective political or social consequence. Yet, supporters believe that the movement made a global impact through altering the terms of the political debate and substantially boosting media coverage of the crises facing citizens worldwide. The movement was mentioned often at the 2011 G20 summit, and in policy responses related to the financial crisis of the late 2000s. It was also paramount in shifting mainstream media coverage in the United States from narratives about the federal debt and deficit to issues of unemployment and unequal income distribution. The movement also brought national attention to the current U.S. tax system, which a 2011 Congressional Budget Office report noted was partially responsible for income inequality. In November 2011, U.S. Congressman Ted Deutch introduced the OCCUPIED (Outlawing Corporate Cash Undermining the Public Interest in our Elections and Democracy) constitutional amendment, aimed at overturning the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which in part would ban corporate money from the electoral process, a primary concern of the Occupy movement.

Organizers on September 25, 2011, during the ninth day of Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan. Over 450,000 Facebook users joined Occupy-related Facebook pages, on which over 170,000 people posted or commented.

References to income inequality became more prevalent in worldwide political discourse, with former Vice President Al Gore calling on activists to “Occupy Democracy,” noting that the political system no longer served the best interest of the electorate. President Obama spoke in support of the movement, acknowledging that the occupations were a sign of the collective frustrations of the American public. It was also widely suggested that the movement influenced President Obama's 2012 State of the Union address, and created an opportunity for Obama to speak about the wealthy paying a greater share of the national tax burden. Although Obama stopped referencing the movement by name, income inequality remained a central theme during his 2012 re-election campaign.

While the tangible political impact of the Occupy movement may not be considered significant, the widespread social implications appear more impactful. The movement generated national conversation regarding the economic problems faced by a vast number of Americans, including unemployment, heavy student loan and personal debt burdens, and social issues such as homelessness and health care deficiencies. References to income inequality, which were not commonplace prior to the movement, proliferated in mainstream print and broadcast media, the terms “1 percenters” and “the 99 percent” became prevalent throughout popular culture, and the word “Occupy” became the most common word on the Internet and in print in the 12-month period following the outset of the movement.

Support for the movement was voiced from around the world, by prominent figures such as Jesse Jackson, who reminded demonstrators that Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., were also “occupiers,” and wealthy supporters joining the movement with slogans such as “We Stand with the 99 percent” and “I am the 1 percent—I stand with the 99 percent.” A January 2012 global survey of 23 countries, published by a global market research firm, indicated that around 40 percent of worldwide respondents were familiar with the Occupy movement, and over twice as many reported a favorable opinion of the movement than a negative one. The movement also resulted in the forming of the Coalition for the First Amendment, organized by journalists in New York City in response to perceived constitutional violations on the part of the police during the NYPD's eviction of Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park.

The movement also generated a palpable negative social response, with politicians and pundits often characterizing protesters as a growing mob seeking government handouts, and one-time presidential candidate Herman Cain even calling the occupiers “anti-American.” Advocates of the movement attribute a portion of the negative social perception to the mainstream media's coverage, which was scant and largely dismissive. The movement received very little media attention between the start of the protests and September 24, 2011, when the first organized march into uptown New York City resulted in the closure of several busy streets and the arrest of 80 demonstrators. Mainstream media consistently characterized the Occupiers as a marginalized group, specifically highlighting violent interactions between protesters and police, although these exchanges were not common, and focused on the financial impact of the movement upon cities.

Future of the Occupy Movement

There is uncertainty about what the future of the Occupy movement holds, or whether it was ever even a movement to begin with. Various organizing factions are coordinating different agendas, and many demonstrators are looking beyond the Occupy label that some feel has boxed in the movement. The emerging ad hoc leaders are considering plans to help propel the movement beyond its initial excitement, and potentially build an infrastructure that will sustain the movement beyond the occupations. The movement continues to evolve and diversify its messages to reach different audiences that it believes are a critical part of the 99 percent.

Whether or not the movement will adopt any concrete agendas is uncertain because the organic and extemporaneous nature of the movement lacked a hierarchy of leaders that may have been necessary to develop and sustain the movement. The Occupy movement provided an opportunity for hundreds of thousands of people worldwide to engage in participatory democracy. Although the impact on political policy has thus far been minimal, the future of the Occupy movement is yet to be defined, and has the potential to grow into a galvanizing political force.

See Also: Activists and Activism, Digital; Arab Spring; Campaigns, Grassroots; International Unrest and Revolution; Twitter

Further Readings
  • Editors of Time magazine. What Is Occupy? Inside the Global Movement. Time New York, 2011.
  • Gelder, Sarah. This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99 Percent Movement. Berrett-Koehler Publishers San Francisco, 2011.
  • Wolffe, Richard; David Barsamian. Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism. City Lights Books San Francisco, 2012.
  • Writers for the 99 Percent, et al. Occupy Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action That Changed America. Haymarket Books Chicago, 2012.
  • LaChrystal Ricke
    Sam Houston State University
    Copyright © 2014 CQ Press

    Related Credo Articles

    Full text Article Occupy Movement
    Encyclopedia of Politics of the American West

    The Occupy Movement is a global social and economic movement opposed to inequality. Its goal is to make global power relations and economic structur

    Full text Article Occupy Movement
    Encyclopedia of Social Deviance

    What became globally known as “Occupy” or “the Occupy Movement,” and more popularly in the United States as “Occupy Wall Street,” emerged as an inte

    Full text Article AIMS OF THE “OCCUPY” MOVEMENT
    The 2012 Annual Register: World Events 2011

    Statement from the website of the Occupy Wall Street protest seeking to explain the rise of the “Occupy” movement and to describe its aims. ...

    See more from Credo