Occupy Wall Street: unexpected effects

Just over a year ago, I covered the Occupy movement.  At the time, my assessment was that the movement was garnering a lot of attention initially, but didn’t seem to have very coherent goals.  I was a bit skeptical, but interested to see what happened next.

Initially, there were camps, protests, port shutdowns, and confrontations between the protesters and city officials & police.  But eventually, most of the Occupiers stopped inhabiting physical spaces like Zuccotti Park (in many cases because they were forced out).  However, the community built by OWS has remained strong, and has focused on many other ventures.  For instance, many Occupiers have shown solidarity with various unions during strikes, which is the kind of action I was imagining would happen, based on the movement’s roots.

Less expectedly, the experiences people gained during OWS have also turned out to be useful for disaster relief.  While the Red Cross drew anger for what many perceived as a slow response to Hurricane Sandy, and FEMA closed some facilities “due to weather”, Occupy Sandy swooped in and organized in a grassroots fashion.  Occupiers were good at quickly determining what was most needed in the worst-hit neighborhoods, and good at finding methods to obtain the items (like their Amazon “wedding registry“, where anyone can buy items for the cause).  They also turned out to have other skills that carried over from OWS — like preparing meals for thousands of people — as well as equipment such as bicycle-powered generators which had been deployed initially in the Occupy camps.  Occupy Sandy is now working with the Red Cross and FEMA to continue rebuilding communities hit by the storm.

Closer to the original idea of Occupy, parts of the community are continuing to work on issues related to income inequality and debt.  A project called Occupy Our Homes helps people whose houses are being foreclosed on renegotiate  their loan with their bank and Fannie Mae.  People are encouraged to stay in their homes — and community members are encouraged to help by taking actions such as physically occupying the home, protesting at banks, and/or call the lending institutions until a renegotiation occurs.  From what I can tell, relatively few loans have been renegotiated so far, and this offshoot appears to have lost some steam since the end of last year.  But they have had a number of successes, and at least for a while, the media was paying attention.

A new, intriguing venture is Rolling Jubilee:

Rolling Jubilee is a Strike Debt project that buys debt for pennies on the dollar, but instead of collecting it, abolishes it. Together we can liberate debtors at random through a campaign of mutual support, good will, and collective refusal.

So far, Rolling Jubilee has raised over $400,000 to forgive over $8 million in individual debt.  They send the people whose debt they forgive information on how to fight debt in the future.

I’m intrigued, delighted, and skeptical about this project all at once.  I’m delighted by people’s ingenuity in finding new ways to try to support one another — even complete strangers — and attack what may seem like insurmountable institutional problems like medical and student debt.  And, as Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones points out,

Spending $500 to cancel $14,000 in debt is an amazing bang for the buck—or, seen differently, an amazing illustration of how the financial system that we all bailed out now enslaves many of us.

However, as Doug Henwood cautions, this may be over-focusing on a symptom of larger problems, rather than trying to directly address the causes.  And if the movement grows, it won’t scale well — the price of debt will increase if people keep buying it. That risk seems very small, though — this is far more likely to be an awareness-raising campaign than something that manages to forgive any substantial portion of the debt at hand.  And, while Matt Yglesias (who also likes many things about the movement) asks why giving to indebted poor is better/more effective than giving to poor families in general, certainly forgiving debt is more likely to raise awareness of debt as an issue.

As with OWS a year ago, I wonder why the Rolling Jubilee folks — and the Occupy Our Homes folks — will do with the awareness they raise, and with any community they build around the movement.  However, having seen Occupy Sandy as one effective offshoot of OWS, and seeing the continued generation of interesting ideas like OOH and RJ, I am less skeptical than I was a year ago.

My current assessment: I think that donating money to these causes is a much higher risk proposition than donating to an established cause that has been endorsed by GiveWell or a similar charity evaluator.  However, to my knowledge, there aren’t established organizations trying to meet the same goals.  Additionally, the more people participate in these disruptive efforts, the more effective they will be, and the more likely they are to continue to spawn other innovative ways of addressing tough problems. And building caring communities who are well-equipped to help in disasters is an awfully good side effect.


  1. Maggie Said,

    November 27, 2012 @ 8:16 pm

    Great round-up/assessment. I linked you on my current blog –Maggie

  2. lauren Said,

    November 30, 2012 @ 10:37 pm

    Thanks, Maggie!