The Occupy Wall Street protests in the US began on September 17, 2011, with the occupation of Zuccotti Park, in the Wall Street financial district of New York City. One week later, police arrested over 700 protesters as they marched across the Brooklyn Bridge. Within days of these attacks, the Occupy movement spread throughout the United States and internationally, with protests and camps being set up in almost every major city.
The Occupy movement attracted sympathy from broad sections of the working class. Under the slogan of “We are the 99 percent,” it tapped into mass opposition to the extraordinary levels of social inequality in America and around the world.
However, the social and political outlook of those at the core of the protests—including anarchist organizations around the Canadian magazine Adbusters, which initiated the call to occupy Wall Street—was fundamentally hostile to the working class. Contained in the “99 percent” slogan itself was an effort to obscure the deep social divide between the working class and the more privileged sections of the upper-middle class, for which these groups spoke. The slogans of “no politics” and “no leadership” were employed to prevent a political struggle against the Democratic Party.
The perspective of the Occupy organizers meshed with the agenda of the trade unions and organizations around the Democratic Party, which moved quickly to ensure that the movement did not develop into a broader struggle against the corporate and political establishment. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a supporter of the Obama administration, declared his backing, and trade unions endorsed Occupy rallies. In “How to fight Wall Street,” the WSWS warned in October:
Many of the groups involved in Wall Street demonstrations have echoed the position of the indignados in Spain and Greece that there should be “no politics” and no leadership. The call for “no politics” amounts to a rejection of a principled and coherent political alternative to bourgeois politics and the capitalist two-party system—that is, to socialist politics. It plays directly into the hands of the Democratic Party, which will move to fill the political vacuum.
Pseudo-left organizations like the International Socialist Organization intervened in the protests to encourage support for the trade unions and push identity politics, aimed at covering up the basic class issues.
Attempts to maintain opposition within the political system were combined with a wave of arrests and police actions. Indeed, the protests were seen as an opportunity for testing out mechanisms of repression. The protests faced a systematic and coordinated police assault, spearheaded by Democratic mayors like Rahm Emanuel in Chicago and Jean Quan in Oakland, California.
In “Occupy Wall Street movement at a crossroads,” the WSWS wrote that the repression “poses all the more directly the fundamental political issues raised by the protest, above all the necessity for a political struggle against the Obama administration, the Democratic Party and the capitalist state. Even as it carries out mass arrests, the Democratic Party and its adjuncts—from the trade unions to a variety of middle-class ‘left’ organizations and academic celebrities—are continuing their attempts to channel opposition behind the Democrats and Obama’s reelection campaign.”
Throughout November, the protest camps were encircled by police, raided or closed down outright, in what the WSWS denounced as “The criminalization of dissent.” The crackdown culminated in the shutdown of the original Occupy Wall Street encampment, at Zuccotti Park in New York City, on the orders of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and with the full backing of the Democratic-controlled City Council and the media.
One of the most brutal incidents, videotaped and widely circulated on the internet, involved police shooting pepper spray directly into the faces of University of California, Davis students while they sat on the pavement in peaceful protest. The International Students for Social Equality (ISSE, now the International Youth and Students for Social Equality), the youth and student movement of the SEP, issued a statement condemning this attack.
Protests continued on the Davis campus, and the students adopted a resolution sponsored by an ISSE supporter calling for a break with the Democratic Party and the building of an independent political movement based on the working class.