Occupy Revisited

by Hillary Stinson Beach

I usually don’t talk about politics in our kitchen. But today is the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, and it seems like somehow everyone in Berkeley has missed the status update. I lower the volume of the Destiny’s Child song I’m dancing to so I can make an announcement about it. I’m momentarily taken aback when my housemate asks.
“So whatever happened with that?”

In a few seconds, I’ll give her Andrew Sorkin‘s answer in a nutshell. That really, nothing happened. Save a minor shift in public discourse. By public I mean with prime time talking heads and radio hosts, because the journalists I follow and the academics I learn from have been talking about a national assault on the middle class since the Reagan era. I was worried that for this reason she would find my answer trite. She probably did.

But first I am of shell-shocked by her question. Because one year ago Occupy was a larger than life force. It was the first time I had seen people in my generation really care about something. More than in the Save-Darfur-with-the-Click-of-a-Facebook-button kind of way.

Sure, a few years earlier Obama had charmed young voters with his fresh face and inspiring speeches. But some of us who changed our profile photos couldn’t find time to make it to the voting booth (if only we could do it online!).

Occupy was different. I saw my peers spend nights sitting on cold pavement, face police armed with prying batons and tear gas canisters, miss their midterms to engage in some All-American civil disobedience. No one agreed on everything, but their strength was in the agreement that something was definitely wrong with 20% tuition increases and hundreds of thousands of dollars in defaulted student loans.

That Fall activism spread through my house like a windstorm. I lost my roommate to the tents of the Sproul Plaza, only running into her momentarily as she would come back wheezing (The Occupy Cold everyone quickly caught) to grab some basic supplies. I watched with a sickened sense of irony as police arrested students peacefully protesting on the Mario Savio “Free Speech” Steps. We all laughed about this the next week with that defensive sense of helpless sarcasm so representative of our generation as Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart cracked jokes on national television.

I was sucked into the excitement of taking photos and tweeting and updating and found myself compelled at times to put down my camera and notepad and just take in the scene. The collaborative nature of the event was unparalleled. I caught my poetry professor, who I used to think of as a little pretentious, breaking the ranks of academia by linking arms with his pupils in a chain of solidarity. People’s Park residents sharing ideas on community activism with students instead of begging them for change. Frat brothers cheering on the people they would otherwise taunt as tree-huggers because Occupy was the cool thing to do (Yes, it was a fad for some).

At the time I felt a layer removed, safely disconnected from having any strong feelings about the movement because of some sense of self-imposed journalistic detachment. It was only until later that I realized how truly emotionally invested I was. By the end of the season one of my closest friends in the house had been arrested and left school. Another good friend and fellow photojournalist took the infamous UC Davis pepper spray photo. It became one of the most iconic pictures of the movement.

So it’s no surprise that when asked, “What happened?” this morning, when tangible results were implicitly demanded in my social encounters and explicitly demanded by social commenters, I felt defensive. Occupy was an exercise in democracy that has done something much more powerful than give political pundits the “99%” soundbyte. It taught my generation how to engage in prolonged democratic dialogue unseen in such magnitude since the Vietnam War. That even though the excitement has fizzled, the awareness of the capability to create the fizz is something infinitely more important.

Hillary Stinson Beach is a twenty-something who likes to ask people nosy questions under the guise of being a “journalist”. She used to be a breakfast-skipper but has drastically changed her morning routine following this magazine’s release.