Occupy History

Becoming Political: An Occupy History with Matthew From @StopMotionsolo

(Matthew was 26 before Occupy Wall Street took off in Liberty Square almost 10 years ago. He had some extra time on his hands in those months, he said, and was studying media and photography. He was not particularly political, and has since become more radical. He tells his Occupy History to HTR 10 years later, in early August. He is a photo and video journalist and the creator of Stop Motion Solo.)

What was your life like before Occupy Wall Street?

It was a very uninteresting time. I’ll say that. The last job I had before that was working for the Census. I had a lot of free time on my hands.

My life, honestly, was very apolitical actually.

Honestly, my interest in going to Occupy was solely that I thought it would be funny to see tents on Wall Street. There was nothing else involved for me.

I was just like, “That might be ironic. I wanna see that.”

What were your thoughts on where the country was at that time?

That was when they were talking about doing austerity. This was right after the Republicans did the debt ceiling government shutdown against Obama. It pissed me off. I didn’t really have an outlet to express it, so it was kind of – you know – festering, simmering.

I don’t think I was optimistic or pessimistic about the country at that time. I’ve learned a lot since then.

But, at the time, it was just basic politics. I was kind of just an establishment liberal. I was happy Obama was President, but beyond that, I wasn’t really interested in politics.

Why did you think it would be funny to see tents on Wall Street?

Because: Wall Street’s a place that you think of as where a lot of rich people are. That’s where you make money. Then, all the sudden, there’s people in tents who can’t afford to eat – you know – right outside it. I mean, 10 years later, it’s not that surprising to me at all.

The idea of that wouldn’t be surprising to me at all.

But, back then, I didn’t even know about Bloomberg at all yet. So, my understanding of wealth and inequality in the country 10 years ago was much less informed.

And when did you first hear about Occupy, and how did you first get involved?

I first heard about it on the internet. I think it may have been in Adbusters. I’m not sure. I forget the first time I heard about it, but I remember people online were talking about Wall Street, occupying Wall Street, tents being on Wall Street, and something about the Wall Street bull, basically.

I didn’t go the first day, because I was having a birthday celebration, and my feeling was, “If it’s important, I’ll be there tomorrow,” and it was, so that’s when I went by for the first time.

What was that like?

It was different. As I said, I’d never had a place to vocalize my thoughts politically, so it was an outlet for that, an outlet for me to learn, learned a lotta shit, and that led, for me, to recognizing the theater of Washington, learning about money’s influence on the political system, which I’d never really thought about much.

It was a place to have dialogues with people who are anarchists, socialists, and some people who were like, “We just don’t have any faith in the system at all.” That was quite the culture shock for me.

So, I got into Occupy as a protester. I became a journalist, but I got into it largely as a protestor and it is kind of a crowded happy blur, to be honest with you. I met a lot of people there and established memories with them since Occupy.

I had time on my hands, so I was just going there every single day to take pictures, see what was going on, and listen to people.

I remember the first time I met people in the Media Tent. I was just hanging out there randomly, because it was where the media was, and this woman approached me and was like, “Do you want to help us find emails for other Occupies?”

I was like, “Ok, that’s something to do,” and I ended up becoming a fairly well known live streamer at Occupy. Oddly enough, I never live streamed from inside Liberty Square, but I became an Occupy live streamer, and I remember that woman’s husband, of Global Revolution, being like, “Who is he? Why is he here?”

(laughs)

And now I’m really good friends with them, so it’s just funny, thinking back, that was our first interaction together.

After that, I got really interested in the Media Tent. I tried being in different working groups, like, the Design Group, the Political Action Impact Working Group, Healthcare for The 99% Working Group as well.

What did your day to day work in the park consist of and look like?

I’d get there at about two in the afternoon every day. I’d stay there until about two in the morning. I just hung out there and did media outreach for it on my own.

What was the nature of your media outreach?

Photos, videos, Facebook, stuff like that, talking about politics I’d learned at the protests and in the park.

That was back before Facebook was over censored and you could actually have conversations about certain things, so it was actually useful, back then, to talk about politics on Facebook.

I wasn’t really on Twitter, because I didn’t really know how to use Twitter. I thought it was kind of stupid, actually, because there was such a limit on how many characters you could use and I didn’t know how to think about it concisely, or I didn’t know how to think of everything in terms of a headline. I mostly videoed the marches. I was just around, anywhere they would go, which was everywhere.

What were the marches like for you?

Fun.

(laughs, pause)

Just fun, seeing people walking around, marching, chanting. It was an adrenaline rush. It always is an adrenaline rush.

Occupy Wall Street wasn’t really taking the streets yet in the beginning, and they weren’t really defying the police a whole lot yet, in the protests I was in. It was mostly just, “Stay on the sidewalk,” “Oh, okay, we’ll stay on the sidewalk.”

Then we’d watch other Occupies, like, Occupy Oakland, with a great deal of envy that they just took the streets and no one stopped them.

So, you went because you thought the idea of it would be funny, but what caused you to stay?

Everything I was learning: wealth inequality, better options for healthcare, the amount of money pumped into politics, the mutual aid going on in the park, free food – I’m not gonna lie, I was hungry – and the people I was meeting. I was also learning graphic design skills at Occupy and video skills.  

I had majored in Mass Media Communications in college, but I just wanted to pursue music, so I didn’t really know how to pursue Communications, then Occupy started, and I found an outlet to develop that.

When did the tension start to heat up between protesters and police during marches?

Well, the ones I was at, in the beginning, usually didn’t get too crazy. I’m not saying none did.

But remember: One thing that made Occupy big was the pepper spray incident with Lt. John Pike,[i] and that one was on a university campus, led by a more militant Direct Action Working Group, and they would take the streets more often, and the incident on the Brooklyn Bridge, with Officer Anthony Bologna, “Tony Bologna.”[ii]

That was later on, yeah.

I wasn’t on that protest, because I remember … I wasn’t happy about everything they were chanting and saying at the People’s Mic. I wasn’t as radical at the time as I am now. So, I wasn’t happy about everything they were saying. So, I went home and was like, “Do I want to be a part of this?”

Then I saw what happened on the bridge, and I was like, “What the fuck.”

I remember, also, wondering about that Brooklyn Bridge protest, honestly, how the protesters did not know it was a trap when they walked into it, because it’s kind of a dead end.

But, I had never seen anyone take a bridge yet. I’d never seen a bridge being shut down before or anything like that.

So, they shut it down, but in my head, I was like, “Well, this is fucked up, but did they really not think they were gonna get arrested?” But there were about 700 arrests and they pepper-sprayed that young woman.

Did you continue participating after that?

Oh, yes, I got back into it immediately, wanted to help. I was like, “That was really fucked up,” and I went back, and I thought it was completely unfair, also, and I went back and never left.”

What are some of your fondest memories of Occupy?

(sigh) Jesus …

Hm …  

Oh, Barricade Mountain was a lot of fun. That was New Year’s, technically after the occupation, but the protesters wanted to reoccupy Liberty Square on New Year’s, and – I don’t know the percentages – but most of the cops in New York City are watching Times Square at that time.

There were barricades all around Liberty Square ever since we’d been evicted in November, and Barricade Mountain was basically protesters, in the park, rising up, ripping down the barricades, making a mountain out of them, and standing on them.

It was a lot of fun, but the entire time I’m watching, in my head, I’m like, “Please don’t crash and kill someone,” because the thing was about as tall as I am and I’m, like, five foot nine. It wasn’t a small mountain of barricades. It was huge, and people were on top of it, jumping on it, and I’m like, “Oh my God, please don’t fall. Please don’t fall,” but it was awesome.

How many people would you say were there?

Oh God, a few hundred. I dunno …

I didn’t get my first arrest until a year or so after Occupy. For whatever reason, I was never picked off during Occupy. I guess I was lucky in that regard.

What’s your most difficult memory of Occupy?

Well, I liked the entire thing and I made a lot of good friends, so there wasn’t anything really “difficult,” to be honest. I mean, police brutality, yeah, but my memories of the occupation itself are good.

I guess there was a shift in focus, in what they wanted to protest. Occupy was, at first, predominantly about economic inequality and things related to that. Towards the end, it was hugely about public space.

There isn’t much public space in New York City anymore. It’s mostly privately owned public spaces, so I was disappointed that a lot of the focus turned into making sure we had a place to protest that was public and not private. My thoughts were, “It’s a good point, but I don’t think that’s really going to be an issue that takes off in New York City.” New York City, at that time, was conservative to moderate liberal.

So, I filmed everything but I was a bit disappointed with that direction. That’s all.

Were you there for the eviction itself?

Yeah, I wasn’t in the park. I heard it was happening, and they’d already blocked off the area when I got there, but I was there maybe an hour after they started blocking it off. We marched to Foley Square, talked about what was happening, decided we were still all planning on going to the stock market the next day to try to prevent it from opening.

What was it like for you while the eviction was unfolding?

Very saddening, heartbreaking. Something wonderful happened there, and it was being taken away because of arbitrary reasons. I’m not gonna lie, it was kind of filthy in the park by the end, but the reasons it was evicted were still arbitrary.

Describe the demonstration to prevent the New York Stock Exchange from opening the next day.

There was a gathering in Liberty Square around five a.m. or so. We started there and marched over to the Stock Exchange. The crowd gathered in the streets. They were blocking off pretty much anyone from getting in there. At a certain point, after being warned a few times, the police pushed everyone back.

I remember having a conversation at one point with a police officer there – I also wasn’t as radicalized about police back then – and his basic answer was, “Well, I don’t really agree with your protest, but you got a right to do it. Whatever,” and I walked around and filmed other groups who were blocking off streetways and sidewalks to the Stock Exchange.

I remember seeing a few stockbrokers trying to get through, and protesters being like, “Nope, sorry, Wall Street’s closed today. You’re not gettin in.”

I was only there for a short time in the morning, and I remember going home and hearing on the news that former Philadelphia Police Chief Ray Lewis was arrested. That was like, “What the fuck. They just arrested a cop? What happened?”[iii]

He was a retired Philadelphia cop who actually would come speak out against police a lot. After he retired, he was living in upstate New York. He heard about the protests and went down after watching the movie Inside Job, and was there primarily to talk about what had happened in the financial crisis.

Where did the movement go after the eviction from the park?

Some good places, some kind of tired places. I’ll start off with the tired places:

The obsession with the park remained for a few months. While I remember good times in the park, after maybe three months, my opinion became, “Why do they keep trying to reoccupy this thing? There are other parks, and better parks, like Washington Square Park,” and they just kept trying to occupy Liberty Square. That was one of the bad directions.

But, good directions:

A lot of environmental action came out of it. I’ll say 350.org, shutting down the Keystone XL Pipelines, that never would’ve gotten traction without Occupy. I was involved in the $15 an hour minimum wage movement after Occupy, mostly videoing it as a journalist. A lot of people from Occupy joined a lot of other activist groups and community groups trying to organize for better wages, which started off with fast food workers at McDonald’s, fast food workers in general, trying to unionize, and that was a very good development.

There was Idle No More, an aboriginal Canadian environmental group, which I joined.[iv] A lot of environmental action came out of Occupy.

I got hooked up with people at Occupy who went to go protest NATO in Chicago.[v] That was a fucking ball, minus the police brutality, obviously. That was a protest against the Military-Industrial-Complex in May 2012, a huge march, which ended with Iraq War Veterans throwing their medals away, and there were protests all around Chicago, against various different issues, like, drone strikes, corruption, Ram Immanuel, and other things. I came back to Chicago later for another protest against housing discrimination.

I should’ve mentioned Occupy Sandy. I went down to Staten Island to film some of the damage from the hurricane and I helped a little with mutual aid. I wasn’t as involved in Occupy Sandy as a lot of other people. Occupy did really good shit with Occupy Sandy, probably better than the city did, better than FEMA, from what I remember. It was the one time Bloomberg was forced to suck in his gut and say Occupy was doing a good job with something.[vi]

Occupy also had a significant impact on my life. My life completely changed as a result of it.

For example, I met one of my best friends now, a physician studying infectious diseases, met him through Occupy.

In the past few years, I’ve been trying to shift over to tech and computer development. It’s very difficult to make a living doing what I was doing, because of how journalism has changed, because of places like Fox and NBC asking to use your footage for free.

I don’t want to mention him, because I don’t want to give him credit, but I know at least one person from Occupy who went alt-right after Occupy.

I think I know who you’re talkin about …

Yeah, I don’t want mention his name. So, if you’re doing a grift like him, that’s one way you can make a lotta money as a vlogger, but otherwise, ya gotta pay bills. So, the person who is teaching me tech now, I met through Occupy.

I also ended up going to Mexico for four months to learn to speak Spanish because of Occupy, because of someone I met there. After seeing protests against the World Cup, I also went to Brazil, to protests there, learned some Portuguese there as well. Because of those trips, I became heavily interested in Latin American politics.

I’ve filmed a lot of Black Lives Matter Protests since Occupy.

The first time I was ever at a protest that took the Westside Drive on FDR Highway was a Black Lives Matter protest against the murder of Mike Brown.[vii]

I should mention, regarding your earlier question, other impacts of Occupy: Bernie Sanders, AOC.

Also, because I have a friend who is a physician, who I met through Occupy, he was the first person in my life to notice that I have anxiety, and I never knew I had it before. I’d just learned to live with it, and starting four years ago, I started to address my mental health, and it’s come a long way since then. So – I have to say – in some ways, that also wouldn’t have happened without Occupy.

Where has the country gone in the 10 years since Occupy, when it comes to the problems with which Occupy was concerned?

It’s made people more aware of them. It’s gotten independent organizations to start working to address the problems.

Politically, I’d say it’s still horrible, by which I mean Washington politicians still suck and don’t care, and of course we had four years of Trump. Inequality has gotten worse. The grassroots organization has gotten better. I’ll say that.

I would say one big problem in the United States: In general, there is a practically religious adherence to a certain notion of nonviolence. I have nothing against nonviolent protest. In some cases, I don’t have anything against a march that has a permit, either, because kids can have their first political experiences at permitted marches. I don’t like them. I prefer non-permitted, always, but if you had a kid and you wanted to expose them to something political, you don’t want them getting into danger, but I think, if there were more creative direct actions, if we protested – I’ll be honest – like the French sometimes have, there might be more progress.

For example, last year, during the Black Lives Matter protests over the killing of George Floyd, the protests were more militant than I’d ever seen, lasted six months, and Chauvin was sentenced to prison.[viii] I’m not saying it’s a direct result or not, but Chauvin was sentenced to prison, and it’s extremely rare for that to ever happen with a cop. There was video footage when Eric Garner was killed, and Pantaleo never served a day in prison.[ix]

I think awareness is growing, and that’s good, but I think there could be more creative direct action protests.

(pause)

I know certain organizers who are very creative in the way they disrupt things, and they still keep it legal.

One I know does Occupy in museums, protesting and bringing awareness to the philanthropic influence in them, which is often linked to human rights abuses. People on the boards of these museums are often linked to companies that commit human rights abuses.[x]

In New York and at least in some progressive states, there have been, not nearly enough, but some efforts to deal with climate change. New York has set a goal, which is better than before, to go carbon neutral, not nearly soon enough, but it’s something.[xi] I credit the pressure on Biden from the Bernie movement for the fact that they’re at least trying to get green infrastructure in the Infrastructure Bill, though you have to get it through Republicans in the Senate, who refuse to acknowledge that climate change is real, unless the filibuster is removed.

What, if anything, is the significance of Occupy’s 10th anniversary for you?

It’s a nice thing to reflect on. I’ll say that. I doubt there will be a giant celebration of the 10th anniversary in the park. I can’t imagine that happening. A lot of the people at Occupy came from out of town. They were curious. Now, things are … (trails off)

I mean, the 10th anniversary will be fun. I’ll see old friends and we’ll probably do some marching.

Well, what would the ideal 10th anniversary look like for you?

It’d be fun to shut down a bridge or two. It’d be awesome if we could shut down Wall Street, but there’s not gonna be nearly enough people for that.

Never know.

Maybe, but I doubt it.

Why not try again?

It would need to be different.

If they’re gonna occupy, they should do it in a better location, like Washington Square Park, where there’s a lot of college kids around, who are more open to hearing about issues like student debt. And Occupy would need to plan things a little better, which I think it would, if it happened today.

I mean, there have been other Occupies since Occupy happened. Recently, City Hall was Occupied to get Bill Bretton out of the NYPD Commissioner job. He left. I don’t know if it was because of the protests, but he left eventually.[xii]

So, there have been other Occupies, but I was never as involved in those as I was in Occupy Wall Street.

I think there’s an argument for taking the marches one day at a time instead of trying to plan something overnight, endlessly, because then the demonstration has an endpoint and people can show up to the march, make connections, and come back and do it the next day.

What are your biggest concerns about the future?

Climate change and micro-plastics in the long term, Covid in the short term.

What’s your biggest concern about the future of climate change?

Well, where I’m gonna live in 30 years, as someone who is gonna live in New York. If the ice caps melt, the city’s gonna be inundated.

I’m not sure how much more descriptive I could be.

Rich homes in the Hamptons will be flooded …


[i] Democracy Now!, “Report Condemns Pepper-Spraying at UCDavis,” 4/12/2012

[ii] Karen McVeigh, “Occupy Wall Street: ‘Pepper-Spray Officer Named in Bush Protest Incident,’” The Guardian, 9/26/2011

[iii] Vivian Giang, “Retired Police Captain Ray Lewis Has Been Released From NYPD Custody and Will Rejoin the Protestors,” Business Insider, 11/19/2011

[iv] See: Tabitha Marshall, “Idle No More,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 4/12/2013

[v] Kyle Peterson and Ann Saphir, “Thousands Protest in Chicago as NATO Summit Opens,” Reuters, 5/20/2012

[vi] Ben Yakas, “Video: Bloomberg Praises Occupy Sandy, ‘You Guys Are Great,” The Gothamist, 12/1/2012

[vii] Gothamist Staff, “125 Photos From Last Night’s Massive Traffic-Blocking Ferguson Protest in NYC,” The Gothamist, 11/16/2014

[viii] Ray Sanchez and Eric Levenson, “Derek Chauvin Sentenced to 22.5 Years in Death of George Floyd,” CNN, 6/25/2021

[ix] Katie Benner, “Eric Garner’s Death Will Not Lead to Federal Charges for N.Y.P.D Officer,” The New York Times, 7/16/2019

[x] Rhonda Lieberman, “Painting Over the Dirty Truth,” The New Republic, 9/23/2019

[xi] David Roberts, “New York Just Passed the Most Ambitious Climate Target in the Country,” Vox, 2/22/2019

[xii] Ray Sanchez and Shimon Prokupecz, “NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton is Resigning,” CNN, 8/2/2016