How Occupy Atlanta changed city politics 10 years later
By John Ruch
Oct. 6 marks the 10th anniversary of tent-dwellers staking out turf in Woodruff Park as the Occupy protest movement came to Atlanta.
Derided by conservatives and many progressives alike, and forcibly evicted less than three weeks later by cops with helicopters and horses, Occupy Atlanta has evaporated as a brand name like the flash in the pan critics said it was. But its electrifying radical politics have kept on crackling down power lines plugged into the present, from local Black Lives Matter activism to the new wave of populist advocates whose work questions the elite-centric “Atlanta Way.” Today, a housing rights nonprofit that spun out of Occupy Atlanta has become a significant organizing force, and voters might elect a former Occupier to the City Council this fall.
Vincent Fort, then a Democratic state senator, joined the Occupy Atlanta camp — and was among the 50-odd Occupiers dragged off in cuffs to make the park once again safe for office lunch breaks. He says the protest put a welcome spotlight on many social justice issues that activists had toiled over for years and unified the local Left.
“There was an energy,” Fort said. “There was a community created of people who thought … that the objective was changing the world, changing the country, and changing Atlanta. I loved it.”
Occupy Atlanta had lasting impact on local politics, Fort says, and played its part in the broader Occupy movement’s force in putting economic inequality on the national agenda, right up to President Biden’s “human infrastructure” legislation.
“The Bernie Sanders movement in 2016 would not have happened if not for Occupy,” said Fort. “Occupy changed the language. It changed the ideas that were possible. For example, the most obvious is the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. That is part of our lexicon.”
The origins of Occupying
Occupy was one of several populist movements — from the Tea Party to Anonymous to Ron Paul libertarians — that rose to prominence around 2009-2011 as the establishment did everything it could to earn public distrust. Reckless banks, speculators and lenders selling time bombs of debt as the American Dream joined to wreck the global economy. A metastasizing War on Terror consumed ever more lives, tax dollars and civil liberties. Many liberals who enthusiastically elected the first Black president were disillusioned as Obama bailed out banks and other corporate villains of the day.
Fort recalls the bitterness of leftists who were awaiting the “peace dividend” of lower military spending promised by conservative leaders of the U.S. and the U.K. after the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years before Occupy. “Little did we know how the 1 percent works…,” he said. “We got austerity from Bill Clinton and the War on Terror from George W. Bush. So we didn’t get a peace dividend. We got the shaft.”
Inspired by social-media-fueled anti-government protests in the Middle East and Spain, Occupy was the leftist version of the popular backlash in the U.S. It began around 2009 as a college student movement focused on direct action; “Occupy” referred to taking over public and private spaces without permission. The movement crystallized with the September 2011 creation of Occupy Wall Street in New York City, where a huge encampment of activists built a DIY community of everything from libraries to soup kitchens, even as the leaderless group’s decision-making sometimes descended into pure-democracy chaos.
Occupy Atlanta’s local flavor
Local versions multiplied in scores of cities around the country. Atlanta’s was based at Woodruff Park, renamed “Troy Davis Park” by Occupiers for a man recently executed by the state of Georgia amid international questioning of his guilt. But its activity reached well beyond the makeshift camp. Kitchens serving food for unsheltered people operated in Adair Park warehouses that are now the hip MET Atlanta business complex. A spinoff group called Occupy Our Homes Atlanta directly intervened in foreclosure displacements of families. And its activism continued months after the camp clearance. From Fort’s perspective, it was both a revival of long-dormant radical activism and a laser-focusing of existing but disparate efforts on issues like housing rights.
Boston journalist Chris Faraone covered the Occupy movement by barnstorming several camps across the country, from Miami to Seattle (though not Atlanta), as reported in his book “99 Nights with the 99 Percent.” (Full disclosure: Faraone and I have worked for each other from time to time in this crazy biz and I co-edited another of his books.) He recalled the localism present in each of the camps.
“For me, traveling from state to state and camp to camp, one of the most fascinating things was just how different the messaging was in various parts of the country,” Faraone said in an email, from an emphasis on immigration in Florida to water privatization worries out West.
In Atlanta, the local flavor seems to have been the city’s status as a virtual editorial cartoon of Occupy concerns. The leaders of the cradle of the Civil Rights movement and epicenter of corporate HQs had somehow let the city fall into one of the nation’s deepest wealth and income inequality gaps, with terrible social mobility and a burgeoning population of homeless people. “A place like Atlanta, which makes a big deal out of being the home of Dr. King and [was] so important to the Civil Rights movement — some of us said this is just blatant hypocrisy,” Fort recalls.
The Occupiers intended to make a hands-on dent in such problems with direct assistance to homeless and evicted people. Many of the activists were in some form of crisis themselves and a major thrust of Occupy was letting them voice their own experiences rather than being statistics in a government report.
Voicing of personal experiences
Liliana Bakhtiari was one of those activists. Then a Georgia State student with experience in organizing on such issues as tuition hikes and affordable housing, she is now a candidate for the District 5 Atlanta City Council seat, which she came within around 250 votes of taking from incumbent Natalyn Archibong in 2017. (Other candidates for the seat this time include Samuel Bacote, Mandy Mahoney, Katie Kissel and Doug Williams.)
“I got involved in Occupy in one of the hardest times of my life,” says Bakhtiari, who had been “disowned” by her family after coming out as queer and spent months living on friends’ couches. As she joined the camp and plunged into its activism, she heard of the challenges of many other fellow Atlantans. She still vividly recalls some, like the homeless veteran, a senior with mental health problems, who had gotten used to being mugged for his medications, saying his robbers “need money as much as I do.”
“The park became a central area where people who felt totally alone in the struggles … could come forward and suddenly have their issues humanized,” she said. “… One of the most powerful things we did [is] we started giving a platform to hear the stories of people that hadn’t had anyone to speak to in so long.”
Bakhtiari — who ended up among those arrested in the camp-closing crackdown — contrasts Occupy Atlanta’s DIY social services with the attitude of City leadership overseen by then mayor, now mayoral candidate, Kasim Reed. She said the City was “spending a lot of money on trying to remove the camping and place us under arrest for violating park ordinances for addressing the issue — rather than trying to talk about it, rather than trying to have town halls, rather than trying to have programs to give people access to socioeconomic mobility or wealth-building.”
Criticisms and controversy
Like other Occupy protests, the Atlanta version was bashed as a pack of lazy bums and lectured to for lacking a list of demands or general professional-activist respectability.
“Yeah, we didn’t know what we were doing. We just knew we had to do something,” said Bakhtiari. “We were trying to build the plane as we flew it. And there’s no shame in that. No one should be reprimanded for trying to make a difference and not knowing how to do it.”
Fort says some of the leaderless, petition-free elements were tactical in a way that, in another aspect of local flavor, challenged Atlanta’s basic politics. “It was kind of a frontal challenge to the Atlanta Way of doing things,” he said, referring to a desegregation-area leadership structure where white business elites and Black community leaders compromise on incremental change and political calm. Among other aspects, one common practice is that improvements trickle down from corporate leaders rather than coming fast from the grassroots.
Like Black Lives Matter after it, Occupy Atlanta was the opposite of that concept, and drew a mixture of sympathy and friction from the city’s Civil Rights veterans. That cut both ways; the Occupiers famously voted not to allow the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Civil Rights legend, to make an unscheduled speaking appearance at the camp essentially on the grounds that star power didn’t count in an equality movement.
One thing critics were right about is that Occupy didn’t stick around under that brand name. In a final insult, the old Occupy Atlanta website got jacked by a marketing firm shilling gift wines and Parisian Montessori schools (though some vets continue to run its Facebook page). And the brand may just be tainted by perceptions of ineffective indulgence that I heard when I bounced Occupy’s 10th off some friends and barflies. Bakhtiari’s campaign bio mentions some of her Occupy-era organization, but not the term Occupy, which she said she didn’t realize until I mentioned it.
“I didn’t carry forth the Occupy label, probably because a lot of the stereotypes and misconceptions that were carried with it. I don’t think I did that consciously,” she said.
The Occupy legacy
In politics, perception may be reality. But Faraone, the camp-covering journalist, says Occupy’s momentum continues.
“I know that the big criticism of Occupy was that it was too broad and amorphous, but that’s the only way that it could have been what it was, which was a movement far too big to ever put a number on. Because it was about all of those issues, its inspiration lives on across issues and sectors,” he said. “People may not speak about it out loud as much as some people, myself included, think they ought to, but the spirit of Occupy Wall Street lives on in every walk of life and at virtually every intersection of the universe that recognizes oppression and, God forbid, wants to do something about it.”
Locally, Occupy Atlanta laid groundwork — including some of the same activists — as the hot-on-its-heels BLM and living-wage movements that got City policy attention. Occupy Our Homes Atlanta incorporated as a nonprofit and is now the Housing Justice League, which remains active in anti-gentrification policy proposals and hands-on help for tenants and homeowners. Other ex-Occupiers may not have gone as far into the system as putting their name on the ballot, but some went on to work in various social justice organizations and movements.
Bakhtiari said she knew a lot of fellow students who were headed into law or the corporate world until Occupy Atlanta “just completely shifted their focus and area of study into social work and criminal justice reform. That movement changed so many of our lives for the better.”
Atlanta’s new generation of nonprofit and social-entrepreneur leaders are often focused on civic engagement, empowerment for underrepresented communities, and local-level decision-making. The “Atlanta Way” just got called out as in need of reform or replacement by five mayoral candidates in an Oct. 4 forum. In retrospect, Occupy Atlanta was a shot across the bow that such movements were coming and a training ground for some of those who would carry it out.
“It wasn’t a movement led by preachers. It wasn’t a movement led by middle-class leaders,” Fort says of perhaps the most lasting feature of Occupy Atlanta. “It was a movement led by young people with a working-class orientation.”