It was one year ago today that the pioneers of Occupy Wall Street first unrolled their sleeping bags in Zuccotti Park. Though the movement is long gone from the headlines, it can be credited for calling BS on our money-driven political system and launching a national conversation about class and economic inequality—one that still looms large in the presidential campaign.
I showed up at the Zuccotti Park encampment in its second week for what I thought would be just a day, but I ended up reporting on the movement from New York City all through the fall and beyond. What most fascinated me were the occupiers themselves, people alternately principled and unrealistic, brave and foolhardy, idealistic and naive. Occupy Wall Street may or may not have changed the world, but it certainly changed those who took part in it. For the anniversary, I decided to track down five of the folks I met in Zuccotti—from a key movement organizer to a heroin addict—to see where they're at now. These are their stories. (Also read "365 Days of Occupy Wall Street—an Anniversary Timeline.")
The True Believer: Amin Husain
After growing up poor in the Palestinian territories, Husain graduated from Columbia's law school and landed a high-paying job at a Manhattan corporate law firm before quitting a few years ago. "I felt like I was making too much money," he told me once. "And I didn't feel happy."
Last August, he was among a handful of activists who assembled around the raging bull statue for the first General Assembly meeting to plan Occupy Wall Street. He quickly became a leading figure in the movement, infecting others with his swagger and enthusiasm. "What people don't understand on the outside is that this is a popular uprising in the making," he told me at the time. "There is absolutely no question about it."
"I am not going to vote for someone because I don't have an alternative. I am going to create that alternative."
Following last November's eviction of OWS from Zuccotti Park, Husain championed the idea of occupying some other location, ultimately settling on a vacant lot in SoHo owned by Trinity Church. On December 17, the three-month anniversary of the movement, his faction broke into the lot. The police quickly ousted them.
Some Occupy activists felt that the movement should stop trying to occupy land and start occupying the Democratic Party. Not Husain. "We come together outside of the process," he told Bill Moyers in January, noting that he'd campaigned for Obama in 2008 but no longer supported him. "I am not going to vote for someone because I don't have an alternative. I am going to create that alternative."
After several more aborted occupation attempts—including an effort to sleep on the sidewalk outside theAmin Husain Bill Moyers New York Stock Exchange (for which he and others were arrested and will face trial in November)—Husain finally gave up on the encampment idea and began looking for a new way to organize the movement. This spring he read back through the 99 Percent Tumblr blog, an early forum for Occupy supporters, and realized that most of the people who posted there "were either debtors or people affected by debt." Which is how he got the idea to start what he calls a "debt resistance" movement.
Husain, who once earned $70,000 bonuses at his law firm, is now in debt himself. At a protest on Sunday he burned a collection form for $6,000 in taxes, incurred when he tapped his 401(k) to help support his dying father. In November, he and other activists are planning a "people's bailout" in which they'll raise money to buy up consumer debt for cents on the dollar and abolish it. "We have to learn how to redefine winning," he says, "and we have to learn that while we struggle, change is also happening within us. These structures of oppression, these government institutions and instruments, are a product of us. We consent to them, and we can withdraw our consent from them. But we need to be patient, and we need to work hard, and we need to be sustainable. And we need to learn."
The Back-to-the-Lander: Daniel Zetah
Daniel Zetah Josh HarkinsonDaniel Zetah is the son of a Minnesota cattle rancher who has long believed that industrial agriculture—and modern society in general—is destined to collapse. Three months after the fall of the World Trade Center, he moved from Minnesota to Tasmania—as far away as he could get from the United States—where spent a decade in a small town working as a jack of all trades. But last year he returned to the States "to give this country one last crack at working its shit out," as he put it to me last fall. He felt that Occupy was "our last chance to voluntarily change."
Zetah wore a bushy red beard and, on most days, a T-shirt with a crowing rooster on it that said, "Wake Up!" By early November he was spending all of his time trying to prevent the junkies, rapists, and thieves who'd moved into Zuccotti Park from derailing the occupation. At his suggestion, the park's de facto leaders launched a Napoleonic effort to move everyone into large military tents that could house groups sufficiently large to police and protect each other. They didn't get very far, however, before the NYPD evicted everyone.
"It was like a Lord of the Flies situation. And that scared the shit out of me. And in fact, it still does."
A few days later, Zetah was already feeling disillusioned about Occupy. "It was like a Lord of the Flies situation," he said. "And that scared the shit out of me. And in fact, it still does."
Watching Zetah navigate New York City over the next few weeks brought to mind Henry David Thoreau in the Mall of America. Every transaction disturbed him. "If you are a New Yorker and you are reliant on supermarkets to get your food, when the shelves go bare, are you going to be able to learn how to do stuff for yourself fast enough?" he wondered. "Or if you are in a big city, do you even have the capacity to get the things that you need to survive?"
Zetah soon left New York City for a small town near San Francisco, where he worked on setting up an alternative currency system. In the early spring, he returned to his family farm and planted 22 acres of organic barley. He's working with a group called the Land Stewardship Project to encourage young people to take up sustainable agriculture.
"For me Occupy basically killed off any kind of hope that America would just voluntarily change paths or that the system could be modified to work anymore," Daniel told me over the phone last week. "I think the system is so broken that it has to fail completely and something else has to grow in its place. What I want to focus my energy on post-Occupy is actually creating that alternative model."
The Idealist Turned Pragmatist: Emery Abdul-Latif
On the morning of November 13 in Zuccotti Park, a monkish looking guy wearing a Beatles coat sat cross-legged in front of a shrine and blewThe wedding of Emery and Mischa Josh Harkinson through a conch shell. This was meant to signal that occupiers Emery Abdul-Latif and Mischa la Balon were about to get married. A few muttering, half-naked campers thrashed out of their tents. "There's going to be a wedding here?" said a weathered fellow who sat down next to me. "I'll believe it when I see it!"
Sure enough, an imam soon arrived and began administering vows to Abdul-Latif and his fiancée, who was wearing a lace wedding dress. Meanwhile, a cop kept yelling about how the crowded sidewalk next to us was "a designated walkway." Someone yelled back: "This is a designated area of love."
"There are so many ways to contribute to this country's problems as a lawyer, but I would like to not be that kind of lawyer."
"There are just a million little things that add up and you are like, 'What a perfect person,'" Abdul-Latif said of his new bride. The recent college grads had met while Abdul-Latif was working in Occupy Wall Street's kitchen, which he'd been doing on most days since he'd taken a bus from his parents' house near Philadelphia to check out the encampment on day four. "So the fact that this thing brought us together, we are kind of trying to give back a little bit—to give some good PR here," he went on. Somewhere in the background, a man yelled and banged on a plastic bucket. "They could use it."
Two days later, following the encampment's eviction, the happy couple crashed at Mischa's mom's house while Emery looked for work. Eventually, he landed a substitute teaching job at a school district in the Philadelphia suburbs, but Mischa did not follow him there. By spring, they were divorced. "I suspect it was probably my leaving New York," he said, but he also added that Mischa, a Caucasian Islamophile, "thought I was more Arab than American—but that's not the case." (I could not reach Mischa for comment).
A few days ago Abdul-Latif began law school at Temple University. "There are so many ways to contribute to this country's problems as a lawyer, but I would like to not be that kind of lawyer," he said. Though he'd been attracted to Occupy out of solidarity with the Arab Spring, he credits the movement for redirecting his attention to education and poverty at home. "I'm just thinking about what we can do on the level of individuals for right now," he told me when we spoke last week, "because I don't see the US government going anywhere."