I still remember the feeling of empowerment I felt being a part of the Occupy Movement. It felt like it could have been a turning point. It was.
Journalist, Professor, and Author Michael Levitin, who was embedded in the Occupy Movement throughout the country, just released his book “Generation Occupy: Reawakening American Democracy.” This book makes both the genesis of the movement and subsequent repercussion in hindsight most prescient. I interviewed Levitin right after the release of the book. It is a must-read.
Michael Levitin evaluates the Occupy Movement
Michael still has the same passion that he had since Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park in New York City. He tells the story as no one else can. I love his book because he told the real story instead of the false narrative that generally denies the Occupy movement its successes. He did not do that.
I had not seen him since we had lunch at the Democracy Convention in Madison, Wisconsin. I was honored that Michael interviewed me a couple of times over the last couple of years or so. Following are the parts of that interview that made it into the book with a few corroborating videos.
Occupy introduced a new lexicon
For progressive media voices especially, the movement produced a shift in the national narrative that drove to the heart of financial and political power. “Nobody ever talked about the degree of income inequality the way Occupy did. Nobody talked about corporate personhood the way Occupy did,” said Egberto Willies, host of the radio show Politics Done Right. In the aftermath of Citizens United, Americans became acutely aware just how much money corporations and wealthy individuals were pouring into the political system to shape electoral outcomes.
Occupy connected the dots
By connecting the dots and tracing the influence between Wall Street corporations and lawmaking in Washington, “the Occupy movement started talking about money in politics in a way that people could understand,” Willies said, and it moved the mainstream economic debate to a new place.
Occupy gave voice to Progressives
As for the progressive voices in Congress, it’s not as if they didn’t exist prior to Occupy; some people had been saying the right things, the problem was that no one was listening or took them seriously. Radio host Egberto Willies told me, “They had always shut Bernie down. Bernie was a comedy; he was a joke before Occupy. Dennis Kucinich was a joke. Elizabeth Warren would have been a joke. They were right, but they were jokes, because we had the Powell Memo, the CATO Institute, the Heritage Foundation, which had all moved the country to the right. But no longer, because people saw what Occupy was saying made sense. Occupy saved the country, period. Obama was getting rolled. The media was in cahoots with the right wing to give people the impression that Obama was doing full-fledged socialism. Then Occupy defined and showed the problem to the masses: it brought it to the fold, right there up in front of your face. If I look at someone and say, ‘Fuck you!’ you remember that. Occupy gave you that shock value so that you absorbed the reality. It brought an awareness that stuck.”
Occupy was what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez encapsulated
Ocasio-Cortez proudly wore the democratic socialist mantle popularized by Sanders two years earlier, and her win—which The New York Times called “the most significant loss for a Democratic incumbent in more than a decade”—invoked comparisons to the ground-shaking upset that Tea Partier Dave Brat pulled off four years prior when he unseated Republican House majority leader Eric Cantor in Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District. … When radio host Egberto Willies interviewed Ocasio-Cortez shortly after she announced her run for Congress, he recognized instantly that she had a political persona “different from anybody else. I was so impressed with her. I could see she had the it factor.”
For Willies, who had participated in Occupy Houston, Ocasio-Cortez’s ability to go to the heart of issues of economic injustice, in language incisive and inspiring, marked a clear evolution in the years since Occupy Wall Street first confronted corporate power. “AOC isn’t there without Occupy. And now AOC is doing it correctly: all the middle Democrats, they need to fear being primaried because the country has already stated that it is a liberal country economically. Ask them about the policies they want: Medicare for All, pay it forward education, [childcare] aid for parents—they’re all over sixty percent support. They killed the physical Occupy movement, but they didn’t kill what Occupy stood for,” he said. Now Ocasio-Cortez stood in its place.
Occupy gave permission and spine to other movements
Occupy was an incredibly important, lasting power because of what came after. It’s not just Occupy, it’s the whole generation that it kicked off.” Echoing Zeese’s long view of history, the radio host Egberto Willies said he believed it’s still too soon to accurately assess the impacts of the movement—particularly when it comes to the climate crisis.
“The Occupy legacy continues because we’re still building on that legacy. All of the activism that you’re seeing out here now, those tentacles are right there in Occupy,” Willies told me. “Occupy gave permission, it gave a spine, to a lot of other movements to exist. We forgot about civil disobedience but we see that it’s now back in vogue, [because] Occupy reminded us that it’s okay to have civil disobedience—and now it’s actually existential because of climate change. We’re talking about our existence: it’s reached the point where our corporations are killing us, and we’re now going to fight. Occupy said, ‘We can do something about it.’”
Occupy lacked diversity, its appendages started to mitigate that constancy in the progressive movement.
It was evident very early on that this group wasn’t inclined in many cases to see economic justice with a racial analysis.” For Egberto Willies, the lack of diversity at Occupy presented a problem because it contradicted the movement’s core premise that it genuinely represented the 99 percent. As he put it, “I was a Black guy in Occupy, which was mostly white people.” Willies was born in Panama and earned his mechanical engineering degree from the University of Texas at Austin, before starting his own software company. In 2008, inspired by Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, he began writing political blogs that pushed him deeper into activism, and in 2010 [was a founding member of] the Coffee Party—an ironic, progressive response to the Tea Party whose goal, he said, was to “create an environment where people could have civil discussion, Republican, Democrat or otherwise, and sit down for coffee together to discuss real politics without all the animosity.” When the Occupy movement came his way, Willies jumped in, leading marches at Occupy Houston …
… and helping establish Occupy Kingwood in a conservative Houston suburb.
But from the start, the movement’s race problem bothered him. “The country is fortysomething percent non-white, so the way you galvanize the entire country is you center your movement in such a manner that Black folk, Latinos, Asians, all these people actually feel like they’re part of it—and not just there because we want to show we have Black or Latino faces,” he said. “If an Occupy is going to be successful in the future, it needs to have everybody in the movement.”