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.