The ‘Occupy Wall Street Movement’ started in the United States in 2011. The main issues raised by protesters were socioeconomic inequalities, social injustice, corruption, and the influence of corporate lobbying on Washington politics.
Its key idea was the peaceful occupation of Wall Street. The arbitrary connection with this symbolic location heart of the financial system was easy to understand. The voices of protesters were not scattered, but catalysed and conveyed through a common and catchy slogan that everyone used. They rallied, unified and coordinate their actions around the overarching slogan ‘Whose Street? Our Street. Occupy Wall Street’.
‘Whose Street? Our Street’ remains a very powerful slogan and for this it was re-used in the right-wing rally orgnised in Portland, USA, in August 2018.
The use of the ‘Anonymous Mask’ provided a symbol to show the unity of resistance of anonymous people, and by extension, everyone, or in other words, the mass.
Four specific strengths made the ‘Occupy’ protests particularly successful.
First, the ‘Anonymous Mask’ has a strong protest symbolic power. People worldwide can easily grasp its meaning: by remaining anonymous, faceless protesting people represent anyone, and by extension, everyone, or in other words, the mass. This symbol has a long life span as it is still commonplace at protests, and it is still used as a distinct signature of the protest movement.
Second, the slogan ‘Occupy X’ is a ‘meme’, a neologism coined by Dawkins in 1976. Concisely, it is a summarising unit and vector for cultural ideas that spreads and replicates within a culture. Occupy encapsulates the idea of a protest against Capitalism and its socioeconomic inequalities. By extension, ‘Occupy X’ represents the idea of ‘occupying’ a place ‘X’ to protest against Capitalism (or a specific issue linked to Capitalism). This explains why the protest was originally conceived as the ‘Occupy Wall Street meme’ and the movement itself was labelled the ‘Meme Movement’.
Third, the slogan ‘Occupy X’, is a ‘snowclone’, a neologism coined by G. K. Pullum and G. Whitman in 2004. Concisely, it refers to a type of multi-use, customizable, instantly and easily recognizable twisted variant of a familiar cliché or formulaic expression or catch structure or sound bite that can be used in an entirely open array of different jokey variants. Each clone produces a new parody simultaneously familiar with to its original verbal structure and new in its meaning. Occupy ‘Wall Street’ was cloned into Occupy ‘Boston’, ‘Seattle’, ‘Portland’, ‘Miami’ etc., and across the ocean it was cloned into Occupy ‘Madrid’, ‘Rome’. The snowclone meme ‘Occupy X’ united ubiquitous protesters into a global protest.
Fourth, the ‘Occupy Movement’ was simultaneously a global and a local protest. The customisation of the slogan ‘Occupy X’ with the name of one of the several cities where the public actions were held had a great impact at local level. At the same time, the common use of the slogan ‘Occupy’ in different simultaneous protests, united anonymous activists scattered in different cities into an enormous protesting mass “almost as if the same people [were] fighting these battles, everywhere” (Connor Adams, 2013), and transformed local demonstrations into a cross-state protest.
The protest failed its aim to show the image of a united protesting mass of anonymous people. After the Twin Towers attack on 9/11, by law, no more than two people in a group could cover their faces based on national security concerns. Protesters ended up wearing the mask on their heads rather than on their faces, nullifying the very essence and meaning of the symbol.
The irony behind the use of the Anonymous Mask undermined the power of this anti-Capitalism protest and its message. Occupy Wall Street protesters demanded to stop the influence of Capitalism on politics and democracy and requested to rebalance an economic system favourable just to the 1 % of the world not the remaining 99 %. However, the company Warner Bros holds the copyrights for the reproduction and use of the Anonymous Mask used as a gadget for the 2005 film ‘V for Vendetta’. Hence, protesters demanding to stop the influence of corporates on politics and democracy ended up producing more publicity (and money) for one bastion of that Capitalism they intended to challenge.