Ten years ago, on Sept. 17, 2011, people began gathering at New York City’s Zuccotti Park, answering a call by the Canadian anti-consumerism group Adbusters to occupy public spaces and protest economic injustices, other inequities in the world, and the continuing challenges to true democracy.
Soon the park was filled with the colorful tents of Occupiers and their passionate calls for justice by those calling themselves “The 99 Percent,” in contrast to the roughly 1 percent of our nation who control most of the wealth, where two — yes, two — Americans in 2021 now have more money than 40% of their fellow citizens.
The movement touched a nerve with the millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet; pay crushing medical and student loan debts; and frustrated by politicians from both major parties who give lip service to the travails of “average Americans” as they cut corrupt trade deals and carried water for their actual benefactors and backers: the “banksters” on Wall Street and other protectors of the status quo.
Over the next few weeks, Occupy spread like wildfire throughout the United States and then the world, eventually arriving in Redlands in October, when I attended one of the first organizational meetings at a wine bistro on downtown State Street with about 10 others.
Shortly thereafter the talk literally turned to walk as some 150 demonstrators assembled at Ed Hales Park, our own local Zuccotti, for a march up Redlands Boulevard, then, tellingly, passed the Bank of America, Redlands’ own “Tower of Power” — our skyline’s sore thumb, the Citibank building, and then back to Ed Hales.
From there weekly assemblies of Occupy Redlands began at Ed Hales and used various techniques to give a voice to the voiceless, with wide-ranging round robin discussions over many topics, from home foreclosures and police abuses to global warming and the effectiveness of civil disobedience.
One of the first of several spirited discussions was over the use of the word “revolution” in our local literature. After much back-and-forth, it was finally decided by consensus that the word carried too much baggage and the connotation of violence, so it was dropped.
Also nixed were the tents. Although nearby Riverside did have them along with some tables for free donated community food called “The People’s Kitchen,” Occupy Redlands decided to concentrate on education and a series of seminars in the style of the Vietnam War-era teach-ins and we managed to line up some impressive speakers, including an economics professor from University of Redlands.
Also memorable was Occupy Redlands’ 12-week run on a local radio station. I co-hosted several of the broadcasts and, again, education was emphasized with topics that included healthier agriculture and food to voter empowerment, while emphasizing this main message: we’re all in this together.
Occupy had many aspirations, but because we live in a representative system, it doesn’t matter how many teach-ins and marches you have, they won’t move the needle until we are represented by those who are from and work for the 99% and stop voting for those who aren’t and don’t.
Put simply: Occupy advocated an economic system that works, and by working we meant a system where everyone in history’s wealthiest country ever — yes, everyone — who works makes enough to put a roof over their heads; healthy food on their tables; and clothes on their backs.
Ironically, the thousands of homeless tents today, which have now replaced the tents of Occupy in many major cities, is a sad testimony to the continuing truth of Occupy’s message and the need for it now more than ever.
Phill Courtney was a high school English teacher and twice a candidate for Congress with the Green Party. His email is: firstname.lastname@example.org