A bittersweet reunion for the Occupy movement

On the second anniversary of the occupation of New York's Zuccotti Park, activists say the movement has matured

A protester stands in Zuccotti Park on the morning of Sept. 17, 2013.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Two years ago Tuesday, about 1,000 people stormed Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan. The activists renamed it Liberty Square and said they wouldn't leave until economic inequality and corporate greed in the United States were ended.

Tuesday, protesters squeezed past dozens of police, metal barricades and private security guards to gather in the middle of the concrete park. They eventually formed a crowd of about 100, and began to rally in celebration of the two-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.

For a movement with such loud beginnings, Tuesday was a quiet return.

That's partially because New York City police refused to let anyone carrying drums into the park, but also because the movement has dispersed and diversified.

Occupy Wall Street started as a response to the growing wealth of Wall Street bankers after the financial crisis and quickly became a catch-all movement for those who saw American society as unequal and unjust. The protests in 2011 ignited a national dialogue about income inequality, and were even acknowledged by President Barack Obama, but the movement was criticized from both sides of the political spectrum for being seemingly leaderless and without goals.

Those still involved in the loose-knit network of activists developed in 2011 are motivated by many of the same things as they were two years ago, but their tactics have changed.

Gone are the large marches and headline-making arrests. In their place are new niche working groups for a variety of causes that hold strategy sessions in living rooms and cafes.

"We've settled down and relaxed," said Jean Pierre La Bexten, a 21-year-old from Florida who traveled to New York to participate in Tuesday's actions. "We were more of a ruckus back then. … Now, we know what we have to do. Everything is focused."

The Occupy movement has yet to match the size of those original protests, but dozens of different groups protesting for unique goals informally banded together to organize the Sept. 17, or #S17 protests this year.

In Zuccotti Park, some passed out fliers cheering for New York's liberal Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, while others rallied for increased wages for employees at fast food restaurants. One woman was there to give a speech about the importance of understanding economic theory, and another with the goal of signing up people for a feminist nonprofit mailing list.

To some on the other side of the police barricades, the diversity looked more like disorder. Wall Street workers in suits and sunglasses snapped photos with their cell phones.

"I'm sending pictures to my buddy who thinks this is all a load of bull," one lawyer who didn't want to be named said as he passed Liberty Street.

Zach Panifil, a 23-year-old consultant in the real estate industry, came to check out the protests on his lunch break with three friends.

"They're angry and they're ignorant," he said. "It's a lot of disparate energy pointed in the wrong directions."

Panifil said he appreciated some of the protesters' passion, especially the ones calling for the end of U.S. involvement in foreign wars, but said they'd get nothing accomplished with their "muddled message."

But for many of the protesters, the muddled message of Occupy Wall Street is exactly what drew them to the movement (though they'd probably not call the message 'muddled' as much as 'multifarious').

Ending stop-and-frisk, taxing top earners and reforming education may in some ways be separate causes, but, protesters say, they've all coalesced into a national dialogue thanks to Occupy.

Some pointed to the current popularity of Bill de Blasio as an example of the public's increased awareness of issues of inequality and social justice.

And others said, despite what on the surface might seem like unrelated messages, the purpose of Occupy Wall Street is still the same as it was in 2011.

"Even though there's lots of different ways that this movement manifests, we've said from the beginning that our grievances are tied (together),” said Linnea Paton, a 25-year-old engineering student at the City University of New York. "The root is still economic justice, and the villain in this story is still Wall Street." 

Still, while passion and dedication were in no short supply in Zuccotti on Tuesday, some couldn't contain their bittersweet feelings about the anniversary. 

"When there was an encampment in Zuccotti Park, it was a beautiful thing," said Nicholas Mirzoeff, a professor at New York University who has remained involved in Occupy-connected activism for the last two years. "When we had one little place, so many lives were changed just by being able to go down there and talk. … I think about that a lot."

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