A Year On, What Did 'Occupy' Accomplish?

The Occupy Wall Street movement marks its first anniversary this week. Its supporters argue that it elevated the issue of economic inequality, but others say it made more noise than change. Host Michel Martin discusses the movement with author Debra Dickerson, who is still participating in protests and writes about them for Slate.com.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we have what we think is a very moving story for you. It's about a political leader who made the difficult decision to take his family's private struggle with mental illness public. That's our Behind Closed Doors conversation that's coming up in a few minutes.

But now we're marking the first anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. This time last year, large numbers of people began camping out in a park in Manhattan's financial district. At its height the movement spread to cities across the country, and today there are marches and rallies planned to mark the milestone.

But even as the movement was spreading, there were, and remain, critics, and even some Occupy supporters who are asking what the movement accomplished and where it goes from here. So we thought this was a good day to reach out to Debra Dickerson. That's a name many people might remember because of her sharp social commentary, which has appeared in books and magazines and blogs over the years.

And she participated in Occupy protests. She's also writing about the movement for Slate and we caught up with her earlier by phone from New York's lower Manhattan, where she's participating in protests today. Debra, thanks so much for joining us.

DEBRA DICKERSON: Oh, thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Can you just tell us what's going on right now?

DICKERSON: Yes. And audience, please bear with me. It's pretty chaotic and very loud and we're kind of in the heart of the financial district. Right in front of me, to give you the bottom line first, a group of occupiers in wheelchairs are getting arrested. I guess that's why they have so many different vehicles - because this one has a chairlift. They're not being violent, though, but there are police everywhere and a big crowd, lots of media.

MARTIN: Now, Debra, I'm going to ask you to remind people of why you got involved. You are a retired Air Force officer. You are a Harvard-trained lawyer as well as a published author. And a lot of people might think, you know, why are you involved? So why did you get involved?

Again, you can hear that Debra's in the middle of the protests right now, so please bear with us.

DICKERSON: Yes. I have to be the world's most unlikeliest rebel. I am 53 years old and five years ago I would have been writing an op-ed for the Times that said I fail to see how sleeping in tents is going to help, but in the last five or so years I've had everything taken away from me - and I don't even think it was personal, you know - by the one percent.

And it didn't matter that I dragged myself - my parents were Jim Crow sharecroppers. No education. I dragged myself with distinction and honors all the way - Bachelors, Masters, Harvard Law, enlisted to officer, you know, golden girl. And now I am living in a homeless shelter. And but for the movement I would have been on the streets.

I've basically been bodysurfing the movement and we take care of each other. I haven't had any money for the last year. So that's why I'm an Occupier. I came to understand that I meant nothing. There was nothing I could do that would prevent them from kicking me to the curb pretty much for no reason at all.

MARTIN: Well, I think part of your story is if this could happen to you, it can happen to anybody and that there's something fundamentally broken about the economy and the way the economy and the country is working right now. Would that a fair statement of your thoughts?

DICKERSON: I would pinpoint your analysis a little more and say that the reason the economy is fundamentally flawed is the influence of corporate money. You can't be viable in the system without all that corporate money, and that is why the number one goal of Occupy, which we all agree on, is money out of politics and overturning Citizens United, preferably with a constitutional amendment. That's where we start it.

MARTIN: Let me just remind people, if you're just tuning in, I'm speaking with author Debra Dickerson. She's participated in the Occupy Wall Street movement and we've caught up with her on the anniversary of the movement. And if you hear a lot of activity around her, that's because she's really - she's in the center of the protest and the commemoration activities right now as we are speaking with her.

Well, you know, to that point, though, I think people get what it is you're talking about conceptually, but the question remains, you know, what's the plan? What do you think you are accomplishing both personally and as a movement?

DICKERSON: I'll start with personally. I think that I'm the sort of person that people listen to when they would not listen to the, you know, the white guy with the entitlement dreads playing hacky sack in the middle of the street. So - and I'm in touch with major media figures and I can talk to them, and let me say to a person they hate the movement.

All my liberal journalist friends hate the movement, but I keep talking to them. I keep tweeting. I send them links. I let them know I was going to be reporting from here, and I don't expect to change them overnight. I can talk to the mainstream and I can talk to the corporations because of my education level. So that's what I bring to it.

And also, I have thrown my body into the movement. I lived in the camps. I sleep on floors. I came across the country in an Occupy caravan. It took me 20 days. Personally, I'm up to my eyebrows. And then sort of as a group we have captured the world's imagination. And this is a worldwide movement. We were late to the party. We didn't start this.

And it's very much modeled on protests around the rest of the world, including Tahrir Square. So we're - the main thing we're bringing, I hope, is the audacity with which we question everything and the way we are becoming just a central station for all sorts of really good information on exactly what's happening. So I've been radicalized and informed and we're trying to do that for everybody else. I think we've all been asleep and we need to wake up. They're taking things from us little by little.

MARTIN: You've answered part of this already, Debra, but I'm just going to ask again, just sort of tie a bow on it. You mentioned earlier that - you said that you think of all your - all, I think, is the word you used - your liberal journalist friends hate the movement, but you know, the conservatives say the opposite.

They think that kind of the media was - kind of gave Occupy more credit than it deserved because they were looking for an antidote to the Tea Party movement or just sort of create, you know, a false parallel. So that's been their critique all along. And since I say, you're both trained as a journalist and in you're in the center of it, how do you respond to that?

DICKERSON: Well, there's so much hubris in that. They clearly have not been following the media coverage of this movement, which is almost non-existent. I think if they looked at what - and actually pay attention and look what makes it into the mainstream media, it's one of the things that has boggled my mind from the beginning.

I can't believe all my New Yorker writer friends and, you know, Slate and Salon - well, Salon has been all over it - I don't understand why they run to get embedded with the troops but didn't en masse embed with us. It's a huge story. We were the Person of the Year. So they're wrong. So their analysis falls flat for the simple reason that the mainstream media barely pays us attention when amazing things are happening.

MARTIN: Attorney, author and blogger Debra Dickerson is writing about Occupy Wall Street for Slate. She's also participating in the movement. And she joined us from New York's Zuccotti Park. Debra Dickerson, thanks so much for joining us.

DICKERSON: Thank you so much.

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