Pepper Spray, Arrests and 'Mic Checks': '99 Percent' Retells the Story of the Occupy Movement
A new film airing tonight on Pivot attempts to make sense of the peaceful uprising that gripped the world two years ago.
Whatever your feelings about Occupy Wall Street -- the fiery social movement that sprang up two years ago today in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park -- there was no denying the pull of its slogan, "We are the 99%," a rallying cry that laid out in terms a third-grader could understand the vast gulf of income inequality that served as the protests' key rage-inducer.
In time for its second birthday, a new documentary film airing tonight on Pivot tells the remarkable story of the Occupy phenomenon while crystallizing its central tenets. Led by filmmakers Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites (whose last feature-length documentary examined the Norwegian black metal music scene), 99% - The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film honors the spirit of the movement by tackling the project as a communal endeavor: Four directors and six co-directors are credited on the film -- a recipe for DGA heartburn if there ever was one -- all of whom patiently pieced together hundreds of hours of footage captured at events in over 20 cities, interspersed with eyewitness commentary.
The highs are captured (the elation of Zuccotti campers upon learning the movement had spread to cities like Boston, Columbus, Ohio, and Lexington, Ky.) as are the lows (Sgt. Anthony Bologna's infamous pepper-spraying incident). The dizzying events of those months are further placed into sociopolitical context by noted journalists and authors including Naomi Wolf, Matt Taibbi and Micah White.
For Brooklynites Ewell and Aites, remaining outsiders was crucial to effectively telling the Occupy story, even if it irked their subjects. "We were not part of the movement. I have never taken part in any mic checks," Ewell says, referring to the call-and-repeat system used at public meetings. "Sometimes we got feedback from Occupiers who were displeased. I think that's a little bit sad -- more than anyone, they should recognize the role that media plays in a functioning democracy."
Occupy was a movement that took everyone by surprise -- first the public and the media, who laughed it off until they could ignore it no longer, and then the protesters themselves, who both marveled at its proliferation and grew horrified at the police brutality that met them at every turn.
"I was surprised, dismayed and a little bit frightened by the police response and the ferocity of the reaction," recalls Aites of the riot gear, pepper spray, tear gas canisters and mass arrests that protesters faced nationwide. (The infamous Brooklyn Bridge march on Oct. 1, 2011, which resulted in 700 Occupiers being taken into police custody, was a turning point for the movement and provides a key dramatic moment in the film.)
What will in all likelihood become a key syllabus addition to poli-sci classes for years to come, 99% ends by wondering what comes next for a movement that once raged like a bonfire but which has since died down to a flicker. "Occupy Wall Street had a lot of emotional force behind it," Aites says. "If people still want to be a part of it, they're going to have to channel that into more focused organizing. And that's not a very popular sentiment among Occupiers."
99% - The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film airs at 8 p.m. ET on Pivot and is playing on the big screen at L.A.'s Arclight Hollywood and New York City's Village East Cinema.