Book Review: Generation Occupy by Michael Levitin

Reawakening American Democracy

An American journalist on his way to finalize his divorce in Germany becomes the unwitting archivist of a movement that gave us new language to describe the socio-economics of our world. Michael Levitin was not a newcomer to protest. Even so, he wasn’t looking for anything other than a flight out of JFK in New York City when he walked into the square of Zuccotti Park in 2011. Consequently, he canceled the flight and became a pioneer of the Occupy Wall Street movement—the birthplace of embedding the terms: the 1 percent, and the 99 percent, into the global vernacular. 

Levitin first captured my attention when I read one of his magazine articles because of the way he uses language to activate shared values. I was impressed by his framing ability and looked forward to more of the same in his book. What I found was a mini-encyclopedia in which Levitin identifies, compares and contrasts the elements of when and why subsequent protests reflected the successes and failures of the mothership that was Occupy Wall Street. Armed with the new communication technology of social media in providing a super-charged platform for crowdsourcing, Levitin methodically makes the case for Occupy Wall Street’s legacy and influence. From Black Lives Matter to Standing Rock, #MeToo, Greta Thunberg, the Women’s March and more, this textbook for future generations will explain how their forebears pressed beyond the obstacles of public will being ignored and earned hard-won changes to the system. 

The purpose of a protest shouldn’t be hard to understand by large swathes of the general public, but this is often the case. Good framing can fill the gap in vital information about why the protest is occurring. It explains the injustice without assuming everyone has the same background information or context. And then it points to how we can connect with each other in solidarity, by using the language of shared values. Generation Occupy is a ready supply of much needed context. 

If you’ve ever wondered what Occupy Wall Street was all about, Levitin’s framing ability is on display in this one sentence: “Occupy Wall Street embodied the shared suffering and universal anger caused by a financial crash whose corporate culprits were never punished.” He broadens the impact in this statement: “A decentralized global economic justice movement unlike any that had come before” in declaring solidarity amongst the 99 percent. Far from applying a rose-colored lens, Levitin doesn’t shy away from assessing the movement’s shortcomings: “…the anarchist elements at Occupy took guidance and direction from no one; at the same time, by rejecting any form of leadership, they obstructed and impeded…the movement’s growth.”

Not only is Levitin a linguistic framer of ideas, but the interviews with Occupy insiders and researchers convey the same instinct. For example, from Abraham Heisler: “What Occupy did was absolutely crucial in American political history and should be understood as a watershed moment because it broke the spell—it broke the seventy-five-year taboo, after the New Deal, when that debate was shut down by the Cold War. Occupy was the first movement to say, ‘…we’re saying this country is destroying itself by dividing between the 1 percent and the 99 percent.’” And this visceral description by Sara Burke about the “shattered and stomped on” social contract due to the 2008 economic crisis that was “never resolved properly, in a socially just way, in any country.”

Levitin issues a call and an admonishment in this quote by Richard Wolff: “…we can finally grow up as a nation to realize that if we don’t criticize our economic system, we allow it to indulge its worst interests.”

Levitin closes the book with his own acknowledgement and aspiration. “That the new generation is acutely aware of the task at hand: to repair the climate, to restore the dignity of work and the promise of opportunity, to create a fair and secure future for all.” And I would add: a fair and secure future deserved by all because that’s the kind of framing that reaches beyond our group identities and into our shared humanity. 

Written by Julie Ethan, conflict consultant and author of “How Can Half the Country Be So Stupid?” 

Posted on: March 9, 2022, by :

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