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Occupy Wall Street: One year later

A year ago today, a group of young protesters set up camp at a private park in Lower Manhattan, giving birth to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Things grew quickly -- in fact, much faster than any of them were prepared for.

Within weeks, hundreds were living -- around the clock -- at Zuccotti Park, where residents had established a library, a cafeteria, and even a medical center. Donations poured in, and satellite camps started springing up all over the country; soon every major city had an encampment. The movement swelled, drawing thousands to a mega-rally in Times Square that captured worldwide headlines and made “We are the 99%” a rallying cry all over the world.

But by the time winter rolled around, virtually all of the Occupy camps had been cleared by police, and the group largely disappeared from public view.

When I mentioned to a friend that the one-year anniversary was approaching, he replied: “Are they still around?” The answer is yes -- the movement is still very much around. They are in some ways very similar to what we saw last year, and in other ways very different.

Reach: It’s always been difficult to measure the extent of Occupy Wall Street, as the organization consists of a network of independent groups with no central organizing force. Anyone can set up an Occupy camp or consider himself or herself affiliated with the movement. (One woman famously posted a photo of herself on Facebook staging a singular occupation of Alaska’s frontier, with the sign “Occupy the Tundra.”) Today, it’s no easier to quantify. Interoccupy, which focuses on communication between the different Occupy groups, estimates that there are between 400 to 500 active communities, with an average of 10 to 40 people per group.

Goals and leadership: The main criticism of Occupy was always that it had no leaders and no goals. If you went to Zuccotti Park last fall and asked ten people why they were there, you’d get ten different responses. It’s a criticism that continues today, with Jay-Z recently saying of Occupy Wall Street, “I don’t know what the fight is about. What do we want, do you know?”

Today, Occupy has stopped short of identifying specific goals, but it has established a number of different issues on which to focus -- including debt, money in politics, home foreclosures and racial profiling. They are still leaderless (though they prefer the term leaderfull), and continue to reject the idea of a hierarchical organizational structure. Instead, they have a horizontal operation, with volunteers focusing on the areas they’re interested in, like finance, or public relations. Some say their lack of traditional leadership has been a problem. “You have got this magnificent moment of courage, magnificent moment of truth telling about wealth inequality and corporate greed, magnificent coming together, but without a leadership it’s hard to sustain it,” says Princeton University professor Cornel West, a longtime Occupy supporter.

Strategy: Though Occupy initially gained the nation’s attention by physically occupying public space, protesters all but abandoned that strategy, focusing instead on direct actions tied to their issues of interest -- like staging protests at home foreclosures. “The energy for the campaigns is really high,” says Nina Mehta, an active participant who spends about 20 hours a week on Occupy activities. “You have people who are working tirelessly to mobilize. It’s maybe not as visible but it’s definitely there.”

Money: When Occupy took off, donations of all kinds (sleeping bags, pizza deliveries, cash) poured into Zuccotti Park. Since Occupy began last year, they say they’ve raised approximately $800,000. In the winter, they moved from an undesignated donation structure to action-specific fundraising, which is how they continue to operate today.

Accomplishments: Occupy’s most significant -- and obvious -- accomplishment is its contribution to the national conversation by shifting the dialogue to one of wealth inequality and so-called corporate greed. They continue to make smaller strides, like delaying home foreclosures, or holding local rallies against police racial profiling. Some, like supporter Russell Simmons, say over the past year it’s the public’s interest that has waned, not Occupy’s accomplishments. “The strategies are showing up,” he says. “There has to be an interest on the part of the media when they show up.”

What’s next? It’s anybody’s guess how Occupy will move forward in the future. Will they ever regain the national attention and mainstream support they initially enjoyed? Will they continue on as they have been, with more under-the-radar activities and mobilization efforts? Will they slowly wither away until they’re nothing more than a moment in American history and a sign of these times?

Right now, they still have an awful lot going for them, including a strong, nationally recognized brand, and an extremely dedicated group of core supporters. And they may influence the future in more subtle ways. “There are now thousands of people that hadn’t engaged before in any kind of political activity who now have that experience. And who knows what they’ll do with that going forward,” says Columbia University Professor Dorian Warren. “Thousands of people have been politicized by Occupy.”

Mara Schiavocampo has covered the Occupy Wall Street protests for NBC News.