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.”
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 the 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 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.
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 blew 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 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.”
The Troubled Soul: Elizabeth B.
“They were hitting people with their batons, and that’s when we got up and walked out,” Elizabeth B. told me. It was late in the night of the eviction, and I’d just been dragged off by a cop as riot police moved in to cuff the park’s final holdouts after dousing them with what looked like tear gas. “I really hate New York,” said Elizabeth, who’d been camping with her husband, Matt, in a tent in one of the park’s flower beds for three weeks. “It’s becoming a cop state.”
Matt was a union construction worker, Elizabeth a hospital maid. Neither had worked in years. They’d met in New York in 2010, married that September, and soon after lost their apartment and moved into a homeless shelter. “It was scary; they’re not safe places,” Elizabeth said. They told me a city program that might have placed them in an apartment was eliminated by budget cuts. They’d joined Occupy Wall Street, Elizabeth said, “because where the heck are we supposed to go?”
As we slurped down coffee at a nearby bodega, Matt admitted that he’d lost his job mainly because he’d been on heroin. Both were on medically prescribed methadone—as were many people in Zuccotti Park, they said—and felt that living in the park had helped them stay clean. “It has made it easier because there are a lot of drugs in homeless shelters,” Elizabeth told me. “And they are very depressing, so the first thing that you turn to is drugs.” Of Zuccotti Park, she added, “I was just saying how happy I was there.” Of course, she also might have been happy, I later learned, because she’d taken ecstasy earlier that night.
I never got a phone number for the couple (they didn’t have one), and an email that I sent to Elizabeth last week bounced back. I did, however, find her public Facebook page, where in January she announced that while she was still clean, “Everything is not great right now but will get better with time.” In late April she reported that she was “doing something I shouldn’t,” and in early August she was living with her brother-in-law and his girlfriend—”a BIG UGLY WHORE WHO CUT ME WITH A BUTCHER’S KNIFE.” Her most recent Facebook dispatch, in late August, simply reads, “Life Sucks.”
“Hang in there,” a Facebook friend counseled. “Remember to turn to God, he will get you through.”
The Long-Distance Runner: Bobby Cooper
The indomitable founder of Zuccotti Park’s sanitation crew, Cooper was perhaps more responsible than anyone for extending the length of the occupation; his efforts to clean the park undermined claims that occupiers were trashing it, forcing the authorities to call off their first eviction attempt.
By the middle of last November, though, Cooper knew the end was near. “The park has descended into chaos,” he told me after a tense meeting in the atrium of the nearby Deutsche Bank building, where organizers held their meetings. “If we don’t address this, the movement is just gonna fall apart.”
In December, a few weeks after the eviction, Cooper joined an effort to funnel Occupy’s energy into New York City’s burgeoning squatters movement. He and many former members of his sanitation crew began working day and night to gut and renovate an abandoned house on 702 Vermont Street in Brooklyn, where they planned to install a homeless family. Yet the owner of the home—”a shady character,” by Cooper’s estimation—emerged to reclaim it. “It ended up being a big mess,” Cooper says.
Ultimately, the homeless family moved out and, with support from OWS, the landlord won a break on his mortgage from Bank of America.
This spring, Cooper returned to his family home in Brookfield, New Hampshire, which had fallen into disrepair since his father killed himself there last year.* “It was hard, and the place was disgusting,” he says, but it helped him put his father’s death behind him and gave him plenty of time to think about Occupy.
“I have been involved with activism for over a decade, and I learned by listening to Pete Seeger that you have to have patience,” Cooper says now. “I saw activists at Occupy Wall Street—and I still see them—hurt themselves through having expectations that don’t get met. I feel like that’s just the nature of the game. You can’t expect things to go the way you want them to, and you’ve got to just keep doing stuff. You can’t burn yourself out. If you are pushing for a progressive movement in this country, you are going to be doing this for the rest of your life.”
“We had to move on,” he adds. “You can’t just keep doing the same action. When people talked about occupying this spring, I was not very excited, honestly. I wanted to see something new and different. And when I see some of my favorite occupiers getting involved in the immigrants’ rights campaign, I am excited about that. The good, real activists, they haven’t gone anywhere. And the people doing the hard work, they were doing it before Occupy. They just weren’t famous.”
Cooper still travels back and forth between New York, where he bartends and assists on advertising photo shoots for companies such as Victoria’s Secret. (“It’s fun. We make weird, surreal worlds, and a tiny blur of it gets in the photo in the background behind the ladies.”) He describes his girlfriend, Beanna Limbitz, whom he met on his second day at Zuccotti Park, as “my best friend and the awesomest person I’ve ever been in a relationship with.”
These days Cooper is attracted to campaigns against modern slavery, environmental causes—and even the presidential election. Though he’s glad Occupy avoided electoral politics, he thinks campaigning is a good use of activists’ energies right now. “I’m not a fan of Obama, but you can get a lot more done with the Democrats in power,” he says. “There is a lot of hope in the swing states for the culture to change, and I would like to be a part of that.”
*Cooper is trying to turn restore the property, Coleraine Farm, into a working farm and educational center, and has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the effort.