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What Occupy Wall Street Got Wrong

Cecily McMillan was arrested during the protest in Zuccotti Park and spent 58 days in jail. Five years after it began, she considers what Occupy achieved—and why it didn’t go far enough.

Andrew Gombert/EPA/Redux

What did Occupy get right?

What I respect most about Occupy is that they tried. And they suffered the natural first consequence of trying: embarrassment. You are going to embarrass yourself. Because as privileged white people, you don’t know how to help with a problem you cannot possibly conceive of.

What do you mean?

After we got beaten up by police, we went back to that 1960s attitude of “Fuck the police!” But let’s be real: If most of us found our house broken into, we’d call the police. In the end, Occupy was an extension of the very system it claimed to hateit was still ruled by a privileged minority.

Is that where it fell shorta lack of diversity?

They were saying, “We are the 99 percent.” But only the top five percent was represented in Zuccotti Park. I mean, what’s a bigger slap in the face than choosing homelessness, and then inviting people who are right on the brink to join you? They were making performance art of other people’s daily nightmare.

What should Occupy have done differently?

I didn’t want to give up the park. I wanted us to do more: to occupy and shut down more spaces if our demands weren’t met. If we had done that, there would have been more violent police responses, more arrests, and we’d have ourselves a movement.

So there needed to be less activism and more organizing?

I won’t even call myself an “activist” anymore. They’re the least active people I know. They are so busy talking, they can’t even hear the people dying beside them.

I don’t think I met anybody in Rikers who knew what Occupy Wall Street was. I was constantly asked, “What is an activist?” Being an activist is itself a point of privilege. Prisoners are activists in a way we wish we were; they are constantly fighting oppression.

What’s your take on Bernie Sanders? Was his candidacy a result of Occupy?

Bernie was the champion of the five percent. He had our politics. As upper-middle-class, educated white people, we have all the right talking points. But we cannot talk to black and brown people of the underclass suffering from theseexperiences, because we have not gone there. And we have made a choice not to go there.

So what would it take to create a genuine movement for change?

The best thing we can do is not act like we know everything, because we don’t. It doesn’t matter if you don’t shower, or you wear secondhand clothes. You cannot wipe away the stench of white privilege. And why would you want to? We don’t want anyone to be worse off; we want everyone to have more privilege. Know your white privilege and use it. Unless we literally find ways to put ourselves between the barrel of the gun wielded by an officer and a person behind us, and say, “You can shoot this person, but you are going to have to shoot me first,” then nothing is going to change.

What’s the legacy of Occupy?

It drew a line. It was the beginning of a cultural movement, a social revolution. When we look back 20 or 30 years from now, we’ll say that was the beginning.