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10th Anniversary of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Grand Rapids

September 21, 2021

It has been 10 years already since the radically wonderful action known as Occupy Wall Street took place in New York City. 

There have been numerous left and left-leaning reflection on Occupy Wall Street (OWS), so we thought it would be important to talk with someone from Grand Rapids who went to New York back in 2011, get their thoughts on went it was like, and then provide some history of the Occupy Movement that started in Grand Rapids a few weeks after the New York City encampment.

Occupy Wall Street – New York City

Robby Fischer is local musician and an activist I have known since he was a student at GVSU. I spoke with Robby recently about his decision to go to New York City and be part of the first tens days of Occupy Wall Street (OWS).

Robby said he found out about the OWS from a flyer that a former professor had shared with him. The flyer was an image of the Wall Street bull, with a person standing on top of the bull, with text that said, Occupy Wall Street, September 17th. Bring tent. Robby said that was all he needed to know to get him to travel to New York City and take part in what would become, in many ways, a global movement.

The former GVSU student said he was at OWS for the first 10 days, and even during those 10 days the size of those participating in the action grew significantly. Robby said the gather was a few hundred on the first day, which did involve actually shutting down operations at Wall Street. From the actions grew, since more and more people were showing up to something that wasn’t just performative. 

In some ways Robby said that OWS was concretely practicing a form of pre-figurative politics, where people were trying to practice creating the kind of world they wanted to live in. Besides people camping out, there were regular meals being shared, there were skill sharing session, workshops and actions that directly targeted centers of power in New York City.

After just a few days, the number of cops had increased, and along with that police repression. The repression by the cops only seemed to catalyze the movement, since more and more people were showing up to participate. There was one incident, which was captured on video, where a woman was forced up against a barricade and being pepper-sprayed by a cop.

Robby also talked about the use of consensus and the general assemblies that were taking place as a way to allow everyone to participate in the decision making process. Fischer said it was a bit unwieldy, partly because of the size of the gathering, but also because there were lots of people that this process was unfamiliar.

Fischer also said there were people from all sorts of political orientation, such as Socialists, Anarchists, Communists, people who were part of labor unions, environmental groups, feminist groups and anti-war efforts. Despite some of the ideological differences, Robby didn’t see at who lot of the cancel culture dynamic happening, mostly because despite their differences, people were sitting down and breaking bread together on a daily basis. 

Another reasons that the group was able to maintain a delicate sense of unity, according to Fischer, was the clear message of the 99% vs the 1%. If anything Occupy Wall Street not only had a very clear class delineation, it was clear that the economic system of Capitalism was the enemy.

Occupy Wall Street – Grand Rapids

Robby Fischer did not start Occupy Wall Street in Grand Rapids, but someone created a flyer and call for an initial meeting to take place on Calder Plaza. There were 75 – 100 people initially who showed up, and once people found out the Robby had just come from Occupy Wall Street in NYC, they wanted him to share his experience. 

Occupy Grand Rapids began on October 3rd, 2011 and lasted for less than a year. It was an experiment, like all social movements, but it did has had an impact on movement ecology ever since.

Those involved in that first day in October of 2011, decided to set up camp in Ah Nab Awen Park, partly because of its significance, but also because there was adequate green space for an encampment so close to downtown. 

There were regular marches in the early days, marches that traveled through downtown, always past institutions that they were calling out – banks, government building, the police station and other powerful institutions. 

Teresa Zbiciak has joined Occupy GR from the beginning and written a short reflective piece for the Rapidian on October 8th, which read in part:

Citizens in Grand Rapids have been developing demands specific to our community – though at this time a General Assembly to discuss these topics has not put them to review. Due concern and consideration is being given by the citizens of Grand Rapids to how best to assemble in an inclusive, peaceful way to raise awareness of the magnitude of the disparity of wealth, political injustice through corporate power over the government, and, in general, the message that the disenfranchised 99% will not sit idly by a moment longer.

True to its non-partisan position, Occupy GR had protested at a $500 a plate fundraiser being held by Vice President Joe Biden in a downtown restaurant. The goal was to bring their message of fighting with the 99% against the 1%. 

After the GRPD had threaded to remove the encampment at Ah Nab Awen Park, participants decided that people were not ready for civil disobedience and were able to use space outside of Fountain Street Church to store supplies. The general assemblies were held in several different places, usually in parks in the downtown area, like the part that has the Civil War monument. 

GRIID wrote a piece about Occupy GR at the beginning of the second week, mostly to critique the local news coverage of Occupy GR. GRIID identified 7 reasons why the local media doesn’t understand what the Occupy Movement is all about, nor will they challenge the 1% in this community, since they have no history of doing so. We also posted a short video from one of the early marches that Occupy Grand Rapids had organized. 

The following month there was a coordinated effort by Occupy chapters all over the country to do an action against police repression, since many of the Occupy groups had been brutalized by the police over the first few months of the Occupy Movement. GRIID also posted a short video from that march. 

In November, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was speaking at the Grand Rapids Convention Center. People who had been organizing with Occupy GR, made a puppet of Rice and marched down to the convention center and joined others who were protesting Rice’s visit to Grand Rapids, mostly because of her role in committing war crimes in Iraq. 

In December, Occupy GR had created their own zine, which provided text and images to communicate their ideas and what they had been doing during the first few months. In contrast, local members of the Capitalist Class, led by Tommy Brann, had organized an anti-Occupy event that was essentially a Pro-Capitalism event that last an hour. At the very end, one of the speakers made the statement, “we are here to occupy Grand Rapids for one hour and then get back to work, because that is what we do.”  

Occupy Grand Rapids last for a few more months, but eventually fizzled out as a movement. Part of its demise was due to not having a more stable encampment space, plus the cold weather made it difficult for people to do ongoing actions, a reality for people who live in Michigan.

Another major criticism of Occupy GR was that is was too dominated by white people and too removed from the realities of BIPOC people, especially those facing eviction, food insecurity and joblessness. This criticism of the Occupy Movement was not just in Grand Rapids, it was nationwide.

However, Occupy Grand Rapids had some lasting impacts. First, this was the first time that numerous people had participated in general assemblies and used the consensus process or the purpose of taking stack. These more horizontally democratic processes have continued to be used in lots of different organizing capacities. 

Occupy GR was also important because it challenged people to think about the function of Capitalism and how it benefits so few at the expense of the masses. The Occupy Movement was a direct result of the 2008 Wall Street Bailout, which demonstrated that both political parties had essentially worked to maintain the status quo with their defense of Capitalism. Exposing this was not only a revelation for many, it demonstrated  produced a certain level of class consciousness in people that had largely been absent from recent movements for social change.  

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