In fall 2011, Debby Florence spent hours inside her Missoula art studio glued to a live web broadcast of the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City. She was riveted as people from all over the country descended on Zuccotti Park in the heart of the nation's financial center. Individuals bused, hitchhiked and flew to Manhattan to erect tents and build makeshift generators, a book library and a kitchen. Protestors waved signs reading "Tax Wall Street" and "Capitalism is not a law of nature."
"Day in and day out," Florence says, "I was just utterly captivated."
Florence moved to Missoula from Minneapolis in 1998. She's always felt driven to help create a more egalitarian society. When Occupy emerged in New York, she got swept up in the idea that maybe now Americans were fed up enough to reshape the national economy and prioritize people over the bottom line.
Her optimism piqued when on Oct. 8, 2011, a cross section of Missoula residents—young and old, professional and blue collar, affluent and struggling—met at the park alongside the Clark Fork for the first-ever Occupy Missoula protest. Members of the crowd, estimated at roughly 200, took turns speaking from atop a picnic table renamed a soapbox.
With a bullhorn in hand, they took turns elucidating the many ways that the nation's economic system is broken. In 2008, U.S. banks branded "too big to fail" received federal aid. It seemed wholly unfair to Occupiers that those same banks had little mercy for homeowners. In 2010, foreclosure rates spiked to a record high with more than 1 million properties seized by banks that year.
Occupiers also noted that income inequality was growing at a historic rate. Between 1979 and 2009 the so-called "1 percent" doubled their earnings to bring in 20 percent of the nation's collective income. Between 2009 and 2011, earnings among the top 1 percent increased by another 11 percent.
At the park in Missoula that fall day, Florence felt a sense of empowerment, a feeling that she was among kindred spirits. It was exhilarating. "There was so much romance in the whole thing," she says.
After the soapbox speeches, the group held its first official general assembly meeting and agreed to march to the Missoula County Courthouse lawn. That first night, 22 people slept in the hastily constructed makeshift encampment.
During the weeks to come, the encampment evolved. Occupiers erected a large green Army tent that served as camp headquarters. At first, the mood at the courthouse was festive and the optimism that Florence felt was infectious. Occupy protests raged in Oakland, Boise, Eugene, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Not since the Vietnam War had so many Americans taken to the streets for such a long period of time.
Before long, Occupiers were taking a stand against corporate greed in Iceland, Oslo, Lisbon and Taipei.
Today, however, not quite two years since the first Occupiers pitched a tent on the Missoula County Courthouse lawn, the movement, in the words of some former protesters, has fizzled. "It ended up being a lost opportunity," says Monte Jewell, who was active in the movement during its initial weeks.
While Occupy fades, the problems that sparked it continue to fester. Leading economists say the earnings gap between the rich and poor is nearing levels the nation last saw on the eve of the Great Depression. Despite the country's reputation as one in which anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, economic mobility in the United States has fallen behind that of its peers, meaning those born into the nation's lowest socioeconomic rung are likely to remain there for life.
The nation is in a funk. And though Occupy is quieter on this Independence Day than it once was, its past and present members continue to advocate, agitate and protest to help the 99 percent reclaim its power.
In 2007, Crystal Kingston could only watch as the value of her Dixon property began to drop. She estimates that as the global economy went into a tailspin, her property's value fell by $150,000.
"I don't really know any middle class people who weren't affected by (the recession)," she says. "My parents, my partner's parents, sister's parents everyone that I know lost lots of value or equity or stock."
Four years ago, Kingston and her partner sold off a piece of their property. Money generated from the deal enabled Kingston, who's now 57 and originally from Great Falls, to buy a 7-D Cannon movie camera. She enrolled in classes at the University of Montana and set her sights on a media arts degree. She wanted to make documentary films.
Soon after Kingston enrolled in school, the Occupy movement started. On Oct. 10, 2011, two days after the first general assembly in Missoula, Kingston grabbed her camera and started filming. In the beginning, she hung back, hiding behind her Cannon. As the movement pressed on, she became more actively involved. Kingston says that what she appreciated most about Occupy was its sense of community, a feeling that she wasn't the only one frustrated with the economic system.
"I think, like me, a lot of people were sitting at home going, 'Oh, what the fuck can we do about this?'" Kingston recalls. "I think it really gave people a feeling that they weren't alone."
During her Occupy experience, Kingston produced a short documentary titled Reading the Signs. The film reflects both the anger and the hope of Occupy. "Something's got to give," says one Missoula protester in the documentary, wondering how the next generation will fare in light of the ongoing economic struggles.
Kingston flew to New York to film the Zuccotti Park Occupy encampment. She shot the drum circles and filmed the police, who on camera look relaxed and friendly. As the fall turned to winter, however, and temperatures plummeted, campers in New York and Missoula were forced to secure heaters and reinforce their tents.
By November 2011, the Occupy movement in Missoula and across the country began to flail. Communities expressed annoyance with the permanent encampments. Tensions increased with law enforcement. That friction was perhaps best illustrated by the incident at the University of California at Davis, in which a police officer in full riot gear pepper-sprayed a line of seated protestors. A video of the incident went viral. Occupiers and their allies decried the officer's actions on social media. The scene was transformed into a meme featuring the officer Photoshopped into various settings, pepper spraying the presidents atop Mount Rushmore and a bison at Yellowstone Park.
The pepper spray episode illustrated the mounting challenges that the remaining occupiers faced as 2011 came to a close. At the end of October, an 11-year-old boy was taken to the hospital after he was found intoxicated and unconscious at the Occupy Missoula encampment. A week later, a 27-year-old man who was staying at the camp pleaded not guilty to endangering the welfare of a child. That incident increased a wariness that was growing among locals who wondered about the value of leaving the tents and generators in place.
Kingston says she remained one of the few protestors committed to continuing the occupation. For her, the issue was about principle.
"It had to be about civil disobedience, you know?" she says. "You reach a point where you have to draw a line, you can't just keep caving."
But once Occupy Missoula finally packed up January 17, 2012, Kingston turned her attention back to school. She aims to graduate from UM this winter and hopes to continue telling the stories of disenfranchised people, like she did with Reading the Signs.
"I thought that maybe I could do something to help create change with film," she says. "You can't just fight your way into a good world."
Monte Jewell grew up in California's San Joaquin Valley, a long, flat, dry landscape dotted with orange groves, grapevines and hay fields. The economic disparity between the immigrants who worked in the groves and those who managed the agricultural operations was vast, and Jewell felt politically out of place in the conservative central valley.
Jewell earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from California State University at Bakersfield with a critical theory minor before moving to Missoula in 1994. Once in Montana, he attended the University of Montana School of Law and went on to build a private practice law firm in Missoula. Like the other Occupiers, Jewell, now 46, is an idealist.
"For me Occupy was about doing justice or increasing justice," he says.
At the top of Jewell's to-do list while part of the Occupy movement was attacking "corporate personhood," or constitutional protections granted to companies that give them power to monopolize political dialogue.
He also hoped to clarify Occupy's agenda. As part of that effort, he borrowed language from Occupy Wall Street and crafted a declaration spelling out Occupy Missoula's goals for the economy. Striving to gain consensus, he says he rewrote the declaration about eight times.
Jewell tried to be patient, but he says that Occupy's consensus-based decision-making model, one that requires everyone agree on every issue, proved untenable. The process frustrated Jewell, who had hoped to take advantage of the momentum created by Occupy.
"It seemed self-indulgent to me to hang up on a discussion about whether the people who were speaking felt affirmed or validated by the procedure," he says.
Jewell advocated a more standard parliamentary procedure composed of deciding issues based on a majority or supermajority vote, but he never persuaded the others. "It ended up being a lost opportunity to address those economic issues," Jewell says.
Disillusioned, Jewell stepped back from Occupy Missoula. He felt restless after leaving and says he lost sleep wondering if he could have done more. Aiming to find another outlet for his views and a way to continue working to create significant change, Jewell secured a job at a resource center for survivors of sexual assault and family violence in California. He moved back home.
Today, Jewel says he's not so disillusioned that he's done with social and political activism. He remains eager to engage in meaningful conversation and actions capable of building a better world. When that opportunity again presents itself, he says, "I'm on board."
On Oct. 8, 2011, former Clark Fork River Market manager Mary Ellen Carter was working when she spotted Occupy's first general assembly in the adjacent park. "'Wow, this is really interesting,'" Carter recalls thinking to herself. "I listened in for a while."
Carter is 48 and married to Monte Jewell. Like her husband, she has a fascination with social movements and a desire to better society for all. She attended Occupy Missoula meetings with her husband and helped to supply the Occupy camp, working to ensure that those staying on the courthouse lawn had everything they needed. "(Monte and I) felt that people spending the night there should get support from those who weren't," Carter says.
Carter took a particular interest with the Occupy movement because of her experience living inside an intentional community in California. She saw similarities in how the groups hoped to create change, as well as similar challenges with organization, communication and consensus.
When just out of high school, Carter went to live in the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Community in Los Angeles. Day, who was born in 1897 and felt an early calling to help disadvantaged people, founded communities like the one in Los Angeles with her partner, Peter Maurin. The community members operated "hospitality houses" for the homeless, along with legal and health clinics for low-income people. Day believed that through hard work, social change is possible. By 1936, there were 33 Catholic Worker houses across the country. Today there are 225.
The community that Carter lived in ran a children's playground for neighborhood kids and a soup kitchen. As a pacifist group, it also protested U.S. military interventions. "The work itself was very interesting to me," Carter says. "And I liked the idea of living simply."
Carter recalls, however, that there were problems in the Day community, such as maintaining trust among a group of people who held divergent occupations and belief systems, including atheists, a rabbi, attorneys and young people like her, just out of high school. "Within two years there was just a huge upheaval," she says. "The consensus model was part of the problem in some ways there."
Carter left after living there for two years.
The same thing ended up happening at Occupy Missoula. Carter says she tried to share her experience from the Day community with Occupiers as the group descended into infighting, but few wanted to listen.
Despite the issues that ended up tearing apart both groups, Carter remains optimistic that society will march forward to grow more egalitarian. She sees Occupy as a training ground for the next generation of activists and organizers.
Last year, Carter moved with Jewell back to central California. She's employed as a special educational teacher for a charter school that serves students in Fresno and Visalia.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Jay Bostrom was in the process of launching a new European vacation business in which he had invested a significant amount of money. Just as Bostrom prepped for the venture's inaugural voyage, terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon.
Canceled reservations and uninsured plane tickets doomed the business. Bostrom says that the ensuing financial problems exacerbated tensions in his marriage. He and his wife divorced.
Aiming to better understand the cause of his troubles and the nationwide crisis that followed 9/11, Bostrom set to work reading about history, social theory and philosophy. Not satisfied with explanations for the attacks that simply held, as former President George W. Bush said, "They hate our freedoms," Bostrom digested books by political theorists including Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. He came to see capitalism as the root of many societal ailments.
"9/11 is about capitalism," he says.
In an effort to grow markets and profits, the United States has repeatedly intervened in the operations of foreign governments. Such meddling makes people in those countries angry, Bostrom says.
After 9/11, Bostrom came to believe that capitalism is an inherently unhealthy force, one that breeds anger across the world. "I wasn't a person who any longer could utter the words, 'Oh, we just need to recover the middle class," he says. "If we recover the middle class, then it assumes and presupposes an upper class and a lower class ... And if you're okay with that, then I guess just admit you're for class. You're for dividing society."
Bostrom's evolving belief system was reinforced during a 2008 trip to Chiapas, Mexico, where he first encountered the Zapatistas. The community of roughly 140,000 Mexicans of Mayan descent have blended Marxist and indigenous ideology to create an autonomous government—and a whole economic system—that operates from the bottom up.
In 2009, Bostrom returned to Chiapas and lived there briefly, studying the Mayan language and soaking in the idea of Zapatismo itself. By the time Occupy emerged in 2011, Bostrom was ready. He hoped that it was just the vehicle he was looking for to bring Zapatismo, a classless system, to America.
"We have to change our economic system," Bostrom says. "To what? How are we going to do that? That was what I thought Occupy was supposed to solve."
But, like others, Bostrom quickly grew disenchanted. The problem for him was that the Occupiers could not agree on any shared ideology to guide the movement.
"I kept saying, 'So, what do you all want to do?'" he recalls. "'Do you want to march on a bank? Okay, what's that going to do?'"
When Bostrom withdrew from Occupy, he redoubled his commitment to an intentional community that he had formed years earlier with a core group of friends. Part study group and part agnostic church, the group of between 12 and 20 people meets weekly to share a meal, check in and teach each other about culture and politics.
Three months ago, Bostrom and his intentional community joined another social movement. The International Organization for a Participatory Society, composed of radical political heavyweights including Michael Albert, Chomsky and David Graeber, the professor credited with creating Occupy's 99 percent theme, launched last year. Bostrom and his friends saw I Ops, as it's known, as an ideal fit.
Bostrom, who teaches high school Spanish, especially appreciates that I Ops has a mission statement, a set of guiding principles and a cohesive ideology, something Bostrom says Occupy lacked.
I Ops aims to replace capitalism with what the group refers to as "participatory socialism." Similar to the Zapatista way of doing business, it's composed of a classless economy and a self-managing polity. To date, the group has 3,200 members across the world. The local chapter meets at 7 p.m. on the last Wednesday of the month at the Missoula Public Library.
On a rainy day the week before the Fourth of July, a gaggle of stragglers lies on large bags underneath the Caras Park pavilion as Out to Lunch vendors begin to pack up their tables into trucks and vans. Rick Gold peers out over the park, scanning it for familiar faces. Finally he spots one.
"Laura!" Gold yells, hustling over to meet Laura Jensen, who, like Gold, is one of the original Occupy Missoula members and among the few who remain regularly active in the movement today.
Jenkins has responded to Gold's call on social media to help make signs in advance of the group's second annual Fourth of July picnic, which kicks off at 11 a.m. at the north end of Higgins Avenue. Six people indicated they would meet with Gold in advance to help prepare for the event. But 20 minutes after the designated meeting time, Gold and Jensen are the only ones to show up.
Gold shrugs it off, attributing the lackluster response to the rain. He sounds optimistic when saying that 300 people have responded to the "Occupy Peoples' Energy Independence Day Parade/Picnic" Facebook invitation. About 50 came to the inaugural event last year.
Gold is a lifelong activist and, as such, accustomed to political and social movements that ebb and flow. He has long dark hair with gray streaks, a thick mustache, and he wears a frayed green suede hat adorned with crow and pigeon feathers. He smokes hand-rolled American Spirit cigarettes. Many locals know him as the man who, along with his partner, Nan Cohen, sells incense downtown near the intersection of Higgins and Broadway.
Gold seems a patient man. He says he's protested against nuclear energy and the United States' military engagements, as well as to raise awareness about income inequality. He remains hopeful that one day he'll poke at the right domino and a whole stack of injustices will come tumbling down.
His patience is most apparent when he responds to criticisms of Occupy's consensus model. "I think that we have to learn how to listen to one another better and honor one another better for all of the work that we're doing," he says. "If you do something to modify consensus, you're always leaving somebody out ... Connecting with other people who have other emotions and other ideas ... that's something we have to learn how to do—together."
Despite Occupy's lack of visibility these days, Gold says that it's still alive. He says members volunteer to feed the hungry through Missoula's Food Not Bombs chapter and an Occupy Missoula working group continues to meet to assist homeowners subjected to foreclosure.
Gold also continues to engage with Occupy movements across the northwest. He recently returned from Occupy Eugene, which is still active by protesting against genetically modified foods and federal intrusions into privacy, and also maintains a free medical clinic.
Gold acknowledges that Occupy Missoula's ranks have waned, but he says its spirit remains alive under different names and affiliations.
"People are still out there who care and are doing the work," he says.
Debby Florence, for instance, left Occupy about a month after the first general assembly meeting. She became overwhelmed when debates among the Occupiers took a negative turn, and she felt ill-equipped to handle the friction.
The situation proved formative. In an effort to learn skills that would help her better deal with such challenges in the future, Florence returned to school last year to earn a master's degree in social work.
"I feel really thankful that I had that experience," she says of Occupy Missoula. "I've gotten a lot out of the mistakes that I made and the mistakes that were happening around me. I continue to look to that as a really good example of earnest, dedicated, really well-meaning people coming together and having things go wrong."
Occupy may not have changed the country, but it still made a difference.