good books on hard times

Good Books on Hard Times: Introductory Reading on Occupy History

This week’s reading list focuses on the history of the Occupy Wall Street Movement.

In general, the clearest, most interesting, in-depth accounts of Occupy Wall Street, with the most insightful discussions about Occupy’s contributions to American politics and the potential of the movement in the future, were written while it was happening by people who were there.  

Occupy histories told from the inside, looking out, are more detailed and vivid than those told from the outside, looking in.

(NOTE: One reason books written during the movement, from within it, ask the best questions and offer the strongest insights about what Occupy might accomplish in the future is that they do not start out assuming that Occupy is over, unlike books written about Occupy after 2011.)

1. This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the Movement of the 99%, Edited by Sarah Van Gelder and the staff of Yes! Magazine, Barret-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2011 (paperback, 84 pages)

This Changes Everything is a solid introductory handbook for readers new to the history of Occupy Wall Street. Published about a month into the occupation of Liberty Square on September 17, 2011, the book contextualizes Occupy in the economic and political crises it sought to address: climate change, housing, student debt, unemployment, inequality, and the control of corporations over the political process, the economy, and the future of the planet.

The book also covers important questions about civil disobedience and activism in 21st Century America, questions that were confronted on a wide scale by Occupy Wall Street for the first time in probably over a decade, such as how best to center the voices of oppressed minority groups in the movement, how the movement is most likely to survive, the meaning of concepts like “diversity of tactics,” and questions of how movement outsiders who are sympathetic to Occupy can support the growth of the Occupy movement or get involved.  

The book contains accounts of particular days of action from beginning to end that were written on the ground in real time by protesters, as well as speeches, interviews, and essays by economists, environmental activists, and journalists who participated in and/or supported Occupy before it started and while it was happening.   

This Changes Everything is a brief history of the beginning of Occupy Wall Street. The questions it raises about what Occupy was accomplishing then and what it might accomplish in the future, for the most part, are as relevant now, almost 10 years after Occupy was crushed by the State, as they were when the book was published in the first weeks of the movement.  

2. Danny Schechter, Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street, Cosimo Books, 2012 (paperback, 139 pages)

The late Danny Schechter is widely recognized as one of the first commentators to predict the financial collapse of 2008 in his 2005 documentary, In Debt We Trust, and participated in activism against political corruption and the financial crisis for years before the marked crashed in 2008 and Occupy Wall Street began in 2011.

Schechter was so far ahead of the curve in speaking out and participating in activism about the issues with which Occupy was concerned, that by the time protesters finally took over Liberty Square and organized in response to the crises, he was disillusioned. “Frankly,” he wrote, “I wasn’t all that confident it could last more than a week, much less two months” (p.18).

Schechter contextualizes Occupy Wall Street in a global framework of the 2008 market crash and the 2011 rise of similar democratic protest movements before Occupy, mainly those in Egypt and Spain, then documents the Occupy movement in real time from beginning to end in Liberty Square, where Schechter participated in the movement and reported on it in his blog almost daily.

Shechter’s was probably the first comprehensive history of Occupy Wall Street, and probably remains the best.

The Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology, The Peoples Library, 2011 (.pdf, 402 pages)

The Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology was written by Occupy supporters and protestors of Occupy from all over the world, compiled and collected by the People’s Library in Liberty Square, rescued by Occupy protester and People’s Librarian Aeliana Boyer from destruction by police during the eviction of the protesters in November 2011, and published on the People’s Library website in .pdf form. In their own words, the anthology reflects the democratic culture of the movement and captures the life, work, and grievances of the people who occupied while they were occupying more thoroughly than any book to date.