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How the Democratic Party Learned to Wage Class Warfare

Occupy Wall Street was widely ridiculed by liberals. Now, rage against the one percent is a major theme of the 2020 primary.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Welcome to the Decade From Hell, our look back at an arbitrary 10-year period that began with a great outpouring of hope and ended in a cavalcade of despair.

It may have begun with Lehman Brothers, the investment bank that failed weeks ahead of the presidential election in 2008. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (formerly of Goldman Sachs) and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke (future hedge-fund adviser) then called Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, according to Rolling Stone, saying “We need $700 billion, and we need it in three days.”

The bank bailout of 2008 was sold as relief for both banks and homeowners, whose mortgages, without their knowledge, propped up an opaque network of bets on their ability to repay them. Many assumed that regulation would follow, to prevent such a crisis in the future. Upon his inauguration, however, President Barack Obama appointed the reliably bank-friendly Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary. Geithner had helped choose which banks would be propped up with public money, including Citi, which was bailed out three times. In the end, financial institutions like Citi, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs walked away with, by some accounts, trillions. Two years later, foreclosures hit a record high. The bailout program’s inspector general, Neil Barofsky, resigned in March 2011, declaring the program had left homeowners “in a far worse place than they would have been had this program not existed.”

Six months later, Occupy Wall Street was born—first as a demonstration in a publicly owned private park in lower Manhattan, then inspiring scores of other protests and encampments, spreading nationwide. At an event promoting a jobs bill, Obama was interrupted by Occupiers: “Mr. President. Over 4,000 peaceful protestors. Have been arrested. While Banksters continue—” The crowd shouted them down, but the rest, according to a slip of paper found and photographed, was: “… to destroy the economy with impunity. Your silence. Sends a message. That police brutality. Is acceptable. Banks got bailed out. We got sold out.”

The police brutality they referred to erupted a few days prior, when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg unleashed what he called his “army” of cops to remove the few hundred people who still remained in Zuccotti Park. The move only added insult to injury, as Bloomberg’s girlfriend sat on the board of the real estate development company that owned the park. “I can tell you that pillow talk in our house is not about Occupy Wall Street or Brookfield Properties,” the mayor claimed in defense. But his loyalties were apparent, for example when Occupy protested outside the home of the head of JP Morgan: “To go and picket him, I don’t know what that achieves,” Bloomberg said. “Jamie Dimon is an honorable person, working very hard, paying his taxes.” It was the Occupy protesters, he said, who were “trying to destroy the jobs of working people in this city”—not those who bet their futures away.

The police crackdowns on occupations in New York and across the United States helped push the movement off the front pages. But activists would take what they learned at Occupy into fights over housing, debt resistance, and labor struggles. Occupy, as journalist Sarah Jaffe wrote in Necessary Trouble, her chronicle of this decade’s social movements and uprisings, gave “outrage a location,” using the occupation to prove police were on the side of bankers—of financial institutions who themselves broke the law.

None of the big financial institutions Geithner bailed out faced any criminal consequences. They easily brushed off what fines were levied. Still, even after the park occupations had ended, working groups like Occupy the SEC kept at it, taking the change-it-yourself ethic of Occupy into places where activists are rare. A former Wall Street tech VP, Alexis Goldstein, helped form Occupy the SEC. “Before I occupied Wall Street,” she wrote, “Wall Street occupied me.” In 2012, the group submitted a 325-page letter to the SEC regarding the Volcker rule, meant to rein in federally backed banking institutions. It was outside the parks that Occupy activists would wield the most influence, giving language to otherwise arcane dealings: The Trouble Is the Banks, Occupy Foreclosure.

They would also give a new wave of legislators an opening. The mounting demands to hold financial institutions accountable helped propel Elizabeth Warren from the more remote, academic corners of policymaking into the national spotlight. “Who are we trying to protect here?” Warren had asked in a 2009 interview with Chris Hayes for The Nation. “Is it a banking system that is in service to American families and the economy, or is it the American families and the economy in service to a banking system?” At the time, she headed a congressional panel overseeing the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Her idea for a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was realized when she was still a Harvard law professor, and Obama made her a special adviser to help form the bureau. But ultimately, she was blocked from running the agency precisely because she had already been so critical of the bailout and its architects, such as Geithner. In 2012, she ran and won a Senate seat, where she would continue to confront the heads of America’s biggest banks.

Occupy had made forceful use of social media video to document its actions and draw the attention of traditional media. In her own fashion, Warren clearly benefited from the popularity of using social media for social change, just as she was benefiting from activists who had helped popularize financial regulatory wonkery. Warren provided the press with a regular source of viral YouTube clips interrogating Wall Street. “I’m really concerned,” she said in one of her first hearings, “that too big to fail has become too big for trial.”

Occupy activists, meanwhile, kept the heat on bank heads they had called out at their height, like Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf. Protesters continued to disrupt his public appearances through 2012 and 2013. Stumpf told in 2015 that he now took a car to work, after Occupy made his co-workers concerned for his safety. When Stumpf appeared before Congress in 2016, Warren told him that he should resign and be criminally investigated for profiting from deceiving Wells Fargo’s customers. Two weeks later, he was out. “A bank CEO should not be able to oversee a massive fraud & simply walk away to enjoy his millions in retirement,” Warren tweeted in response. The next year, 2017, Occupy activists in San Marino, California, targeted the home of Stumpf’s successor, Tim Sloan. Sloan stepped down this past March. His local paper painted Sloan as a victim, a “beloved citizen” targeted by “Occupy protesters” and Congress—still, in 2019.

Members of the new class of Democrats in Congress have made particularly effective use of populist, anti–Wall Street politics. Some routinely demand big bank heads answer for themselves and for the two-tiered justice system that enables them. “I represent kids that go to jail for jumping a turnstile because they can’t afford a Metrocard,” New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez informed JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, perhaps the top Occupy enemy, up there with Bloomberg and the NYPD, earlier this year. “Do you think that more folks should have gone to jail for their role in a financial crisis that led to 7.8 million foreclosures in the 10 years between 2007 and 2016?” When Dimon criticized Warren, saying she “vilifies successful people,” Ocasio-Cortez remarked, “Y’all, the billionaires are asking for a safe space—you know, in addition to the entire U.S. economy and political lobbying industry.”

As the Democratic primary for the 2020 election wears on, it’s clear that the class-war politics some thought would vanish with the Occupy encampments has, instead, become commonplace. Public debate over now–presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth tax has been spun as an attack on billionaires themselves. Bloomberg, the ninth-richest person in America, is running for president, but in a climate in which wealth is increasingly a liability rather than an advantage. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, after Warren said he should open his fundraisers to the press, released a list of his top bundlers—supporters who have raised $25,000 or more for his campaign—but omitted more than 20 people from the worlds of Hollywood and finance. He is thought to have the third most billionaire donors of any candidate still in the race and is now protested at those fundraisers with chants of “#WallStreetPete!”

Then there’s the senator from Vermont who championed Occupy from the start. “They are focusing attention on the most powerful entity in our country, which is Wall Street, which is also the most secretive, and also the most dangerous,” Bernie Sanders said in a video at Occupy’s height. “The protesters are now forcing a debate and a discussion in this country on the huge issue of income and wealth inequality… the floor of the senate is 100 feet away from us, and I got to tell you, there are very few people who talk about that issue.” He closed with something that has become one of his campaign signatures: “We have to ask whether it is morally and economically important that 400 people own more wealth than the bottom half of America, 150 million people”—an enormous divide that has deepened.

A decade on, Occupy has helped mainstream that which they were ridiculed for at the outset: illustrating, in the streets and elsewhere, how economic inequality is poisonous to democracy. Critically, Occupy named the people who currently benefit from this destructive order. They also took steps to hold them to account and bring others into the fight. Despite having little appetite for electoral politics, they gained some congressional allies, including those whose runs for the White House may have been unimaginable without them. In that regard, Occupy has already set the terms for the decade to come: demanding not just accountability from the financial industry but also that, in the face of political corruption and financial villainy, the people divorce their worth from the rule of billionaires.