North Texas Daily

Looking back on Denton’s 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests

Looking back on Denton’s 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests

Looking back on Denton’s 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests
September 16
09:00 2021

Ten years ago, a political fire swept the nation when the Occupy Wall Street movement was born in New York City. 

Intense emotions in response to the wars in the Middle East, the 2008 financial crisis and America’s affinity for corporate capitalism were cited by many Occupy participants as motives for their involvement. Starting Sept. 17, 2011, people took to the streets to voice their discontent with economic disparities in the U.S. 

After the initial protests unfolded, university students and Denton citizens alike joined the nationwide movement and started organizing locally.

“The rhetoric of Occupy, the 99 percent, resonated with everyone,” said Cindy Spoon, an international studies alumna and student organizer at the time. “We weren’t fighting Wall Street in Denton. It was about fracking, homelessness, things like that. It was a localizing of a national moment, or movement.” 

Michael Leza, an emergency administration and disaster planning alumnus, had tried his hand at organizing demonstrations before Occupy Wall Street.

“At that point, I had kind of burned out on trying to lead anything, because nobody wanted to listen to me,” Leza said. “But then I saw Occupy happening, where people were actually doing something. I wanted to get involved.” 

Spoon recalls how the Occupy movement found its way to Denton.

“At the time, we were all traveling to Dallas every day to participate in their general assemblies, or participate in their protests, because we thought Denton was too small,” Spoon said. “When we started seeing enough Denton people showing up in Dallas, because they wanted to be involved in Occupy, we knew that we should create our own space.” 

October 2011 saw the creation of Occupy Denton. From mid-October to early December of that same year, campsites were established on campus grounds. People marched, camped overnight, held discussions on issues, invited professors to come talk and participated in activities such as workshops, group readings and yoga. 

Fewer people showed up to the Occupy campsite as temperatures took a dive.

“It was a cold winter — it was getting too cold out there,” Leza said. “It was too cold to start a fire or anything like that.”

Occupy Denton experienced loss when Occupy member Darwin Cox was found dead in one of the tents on Dec. 3. Denton county medical examiners ruled his death as an accident resulting from “mixed alcohol and morphine (heroin) intoxication.” According to Occupy members at the time, the campsite had a no-drug, no-alcohol policy.

A vigil was held on Dec. 6 and some heartfelt discussions took place between all of the occupiers. 

“[Cox] was one of the sweetest dudes I ever met,” Leza said. “If you were in camp and you needed help with anything, he would get up and help you. Addiction is sometimes a fatal disease.”

Spoon said Cox’s death sheds a light on Denton’s homelessness problem. Denton City Council member Deb Armintor shares a similar sentiment.

“It was really heartbreaking to read about his struggle with addiction,” said Armintor, a resident of Denton since 2002. “We’ve got a lot of addiction and alcoholism here in Denton, and we don’t have enough publicly supported treatment for it.” 

After the camp’s dissolution, many activists and students involved in Occupy Denton remained active in fighting for environmental and progressive causes. Many turned to the anti-fracking movement, which was becoming a fiercely debated issue in Denton. 

“There is a direct thread between the organizing and activism that was happening at Occupy to what eventually became the movement in Denton to ban fracking,” Spoon said.

Denton activists’ efforts resulted in the formation of the group Frack Free Denton, which successfully secured the first approved fracking ban vote in the state of Texas in 2014. 

While the ban was later countered by Gov. Greg Abbott’s House Bill 40, the movement did encourage more people to get involved in the fight nonetheless.

“I’ve always been a political person,” Armintor said. “But it wasn’t until the fracking ban was preempted by the Texas State Legislature with House Bill 40 that I went from the sidelines in politics into a really active role. Stopping fracking in Denton was one of the demands of Occupy Denton. They really brought these issues front and center in Denton, and [the issues] have remained front and center.” 

Featured Image: (Left) Denton citizens participate in a campout outside of the Physics Building as part of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests.
Photo courtesy Michael Leza

(Right) A student sits outside of the Physics Building on Sept. 13, 2021. Photo by John Anderson

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Max Lockhart

Max Lockhart

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