Michael Levitin at a post-Occupy event in 2012.
Michael Levitin at a post-Occupy event in 2012.

10 years later, local journalist looks back on Occupy Wall Street’s impact

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It has been a little over a decade since the dissolution of the encampment at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, the flagship of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Which means it’s been 10 years since phrases like “the 1%” entered the American political vernacular and since a new generation of progressive activists was launched. Many of those activists, of course, are Jews.

Michael Levitin
Michael Levitin

But for journalist and activist Michael Levitin, 45, who grew up in Sonoma County and now lives in El Cerrito, Occupy Wall Street was hardly the beginning of his involvement in progressive political movements. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz, he traveled to Bolivia in the midst of the Cochabamba Water War of 1999-2000, a fight over the privatization of the water system in the Bolivian city, now seen as one of the first major conflicts over globalization. While covering it, he became editor of the English-language newspaper in La Paz.

Years later, in 2011, Levitin helmed the Occupied Wall Street Journal, a short-lived print publication distributed around Zuccotti Park during the height of Occupy Wall Street.

In his new book, “Generation Occupy: Reawakening American Democracy,” he looks back on the decade since Occupy Wall Street, combining interviews with its leaders and personal recollections. This interview has been edited for clarity.

J.: Periodically, and especially in this 10th anniversary year, there have been think pieces about “whither Occupy” and that sort of thing. Do you ever get annoyed by the question?

MICHAEL LEVITIN: I don’t get annoyed, no. I’m happy people are intrigued enough to ask it, especially well-informed people who were following it and may have supported it. It’s a legitimate question that we’ve asked ourselves over the last decade. But for most people, it just disappeared. They never really saw more because the media message was all they read — that it just dissolved in an undignified way, good riddance, it’s over. People were mystified by where it went.

The implied question is, when is it going to emerge again? When is there going to be another mass movement like that, something that really changes the conversation? Clearly, problems have only worsened. And clearly, activism among young people is only growing.

In fact, Occupy really did lead to and spark so many things that came after — climate activism, Black Lives Matter. Which means it’s not just a piece of history, it’s a testament to where we are today.

Cover of "Generation Occupy" by Michael LevitinYou were hardly new to covering social movements when Occupy Wall Street began. How did that prepare you for that moment in American politics?

Not new to it, no. I’d been an activist since my teens, when as a high school journalist, I tried to prevent a clearcut of trees near the Russian River. I joined Earth First! as a student at UC Santa Cruz. And then I cut my teeth on the Cochabamba Water War, the most dramatic sort of social movement you could see as a young journalist. I watched real anti-corporate, human-centered politics take place in the streets of Bolivia. It was beyond activist — it was rebellion in the streets. But by the 2000s, pre-Occupy, no one was covering activism and social movements.

What has become of the new generation of activists and leaders who got their start during Occupy?

Well, a lot of the people who are central to the story weren’t on their first movement. They had been in Seattle [for the 1999 World Trade Organization protests]. Some, like Charles Lenchner, came to the movement with experience; he was raised in Israel and joined the Young Communists. He went on to help create People for Bernie, which launched the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. So there were novices, but also some folks who had been part of a social movement.

One person you hear about a lot in the activist community is Max Berger. And then there’s Yotam Marom; he started the Wildfire Project. These two young Jewish guys came to Occupy pretty young and both emerged as real leaders. They were both co-founders of IfNotNow. Berger started Momentum, which led to the Sunrise Movement. Both of them, and others, went on to create movements that were reactions to the structurelessness of Occupy.

Was their Jewishness incidental? Lots of Jews involved in activism like to cite “Jewish values” or “tikkun olam.”

Probably a mix. Some of them might have been raised with a Jewish background and brought some of that to their work. I don’t explicitly draw out the Jewish element in my book. If people want to see names and draw conclusions, they can. But we bring our own ideas about Jewish history to this kind of thing. It’s no secret that Jews are often at the front of social movements.

Rodrigo Dorfman, who made a film about Occupy, often cited his Jewish Trotskyite atheist heritage. That tradition informed some of these people more than “doing God’s work on this Earth” kind of thing. I come from Russian and German Jews who were real liberal figures in the Bay Area in the ’50s and ’60s.

You mention the Bay Area. Is there a local angle to your book?

There are definitely scenes that take place here. It is interspersed with my short personal anecdotal segments, just to give people a flavor of the movement itself. One section is about the big port shutdown in the Bay Area after the movement had pretty much collapsed. It was one of the first indications of, where will the movement go? I came back to California and took part in those blockades. They managed to shut down the whole West Coast shipping industry for a day.

And Santa Rosa had one of the largest Occupys. It punched above its weight in terms of attendance and Occupy actions.

Ten years later, what are the lessons of Occupy?

If the left wants to be known for achieving power and creating real change, it has to learn what Occupy got right: the language, a big “us” versus a narrow “them,” “the 99%,” and regional autonomy, which is also how the Bernie movement worked. But they also have to learn from what it got wrong, such as leaderlessness and muddied demands.

The next movement that really learned from all this was Black Lives Matter and everything that sprang up after George Floyd, where they built a grand multiracial coalition among a generation that had simply had enough of a lot of kinds of mistreatment.

But now the Democrats have elected Biden and a Democratic majority expected some progressive policies. Things were kind of hopeful before the insurrection and after the election. People were expecting free college tuition, expanded healthcare, taxing the rich, the Green New Deal — those ideas that Occupy gave to the mainstream — and that gave me a hopeful sense. But now, a year after I wrote the book, with the virus and the insurrection, it feels a little less hopeful.

What’s one big takeaway you hope people get from “Generation Occupy?”

Hope. I want them to realize that, despite the difficult setbacks and the endless confrontations, that there’s a potential to create movement anywhere at any time. Unpredictable, spontaneous little groups of people can create reverberations through society. I’m writing so Occupy doesn’t become an asterisk in the historical record. People wanted to write it out of history because it only lasted two months. But that wasn’t the whole story.

“Generation Occupy: Reawakening American Democracy” by Michael Levitin (Counterpoint, 368 pages). Available from online retailers.

David A.M. Wilensky
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
J. The Jewish News of Northern California Staff Headshots.
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is director of news product at J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @davidamwilensky