It has been a little over a decade since the dissolution of the Zuccotti Park encampment in Lower Manhattan, the flagship of the Occupy Wall Street movement. This means that it has been 10 years since expressions like “the 1%” entered American political language and that a new generation of progressive activists was launched. Many of these activists, of course, are Jews.
But for journalist and activist Michael Levitin, who grew up in Sonoma County and now lives in El Cerrito, Occupying Wall Street was hardly the beginning of his involvement in progressive political movements. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz, he traveled to Bolivia amid the 1999-2000 Cochabamba Water War, a struggle to privatize the city’s water supply system. Bolivia, now considered one of the first major conflicts linked to globalization. While covering it, he became editor-in-chief of the English-language newspaper of La Paz.
Years later, in 2011, Levitin, 45, edited the Occupy Wall Street Journal, a short-lived print publication distributed in 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 memories. This interview has been edited for clarity.
J .: Periodically, and especially in this 10th anniversary year, there have been reflections on “where to occupy” and that sort of thing. Does the question sometimes annoy you?
MICHAEL LEVITIN: I’m not mad, no. Glad people were intrigued enough to ask, especially the knowledgeable people who followed him and maybe supported him. This is a legitimate question that we have asked ourselves over the past 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 outrageous way, good riddance it’s over. People were mystified as to where he went.
The implicit question is: when will it reappear? When is there going to be another mass movement like this, something that really changes the conversation? Obviously, the problems only got worse. And clearly, youth activism is only growing.
In fact, Occupy really drove and sparked so much 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.
You weren’t new to covering social movements when Occupy Wall Street started. How did that prepare you for this moment in American politics?
Not new, no. I had been an activist since I was a teenager, when as a high school reporter I tried to prevent clear cutting 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 type of social movement you can see as a young journalist. I have seen a real anti-business and human-centered policy unfold in the streets of Bolivia. It was beyond the activist – it was rebellion in the streets. But in the 2000s, before Occupy, no one covered activism and social movements.
What happened to the new generation of activists and leaders who started out during Occupy?
Well, a lot of the people at the heart of the story – including the Jews you’ll want to talk about – weren’t on their first try. They had been to Seattle [for the 1999 World Trade Organization protests]. Some, like Charles Lenchner, have really understood this honestly; he was brought up by Israeli Communists. He went on to create People for Bernie, which kicked off Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. So there were novices, but also people who had really seen him.
The person you hear the most about and who was most new to this is Max Berger, and he’s Jewish. I quote it several times in the book, and we have spoken several times. It is typical of this new generation. And then there is Yotam Marom; he started the Wildfire Project. These two young Jews came to Occupy quite young and both became real leaders. They were both co-founders of IfNotNow. Berger started Momentum, which led to the Sunrise movement. Both, and others, went on to create movements that were reactions to Occupy’s lack of structure.
Was their Jewishness fortuitous? Many Jews involved in activism like to quote “Jewish values” or “tikkun olam”.
Probably a mixture. Some of them were brought up in a very Jewish environment and brought some of that to their work. I don’t explicitly draw the Jewish element in my book. If people want to see names and draw conclusions, they can. But we bring our own ideas of Jewish history to this sort of thing. It’s no secret that Jews are often at the forefront of social movements.
Rodrigo Dorfman, who made a film about Occupy, has often cited his atheist Trotskyite Jewish heritage. This tradition has informed some of these people of more than “doing the work of God on this Earth”. I come from Russian and German Jews who were true liberal figures in the Bay Area in the 1950s and 1960s.
You mention the Bay Area. Is there a local angle to your book?
There are definitely scenes going on here. It’s interspersed with my personal short anecdotal segments, just to give people a feel for the movement itself. One section concerns the closure of the large harbor in the Bay Area after the movement all but collapsed. This was one of the first indications of, where will the movement go? I came back to California and participated in these blockades. They managed to shut down the entire west coast shipping industry for a day.
And Santa Rosa had one of the biggest Occupys. It has struck above its weight in terms of attendance and Occupy actions.
Ten years later, what are the lessons of Occupy?
If the left is to be known for reaching power and creating real change, it must learn what Occupy understands: language, a big ‘us’ versus a narrow ‘them’, ‘the 99%’ and the regional autonomy, which is also how the Bernie movement worked. But they also need to learn from what went wrong, like the lack of a leader and confused demands.
The next move that really learned from all of this was Black Lives Matter and everything that came after George Floyd, where they built a grand, multiracial coalition among a generation that was just fed up with a lot of types of abuse.
But now Democrats have elected Biden, and a Democratic majority expected progressive policies. Things were quite optimistic before the insurgency and after the elections. People expected free tuition, expanded health care, taxation of the rich, the Green New Deal – those ideas that Occupy gave to the general public – and it gave me a feeling of ‘hope. But now, a year after writing the book, with the virus and the insurgency, I have a little less hope.
What do you hope people get from Generation Occupy? “
Hope. I want them to realize that, despite difficult setbacks and endless confrontations, there is the potential to create movement anytime, anywhere. Small groups of unpredictable and spontaneous people can create reverberations in society. I am writing so that Occupy does not become an asterisk in the historical record. People wanted to erase it from history because it only lasted two months. But that was not the whole story.