How did Occupy Wall Street suddenly become Occupy Los Angeles? Occupy Cleveland? Occupy Janesville? Occupy Pocatello? How did a sleep-in beneath the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan inspire kayakers clad as Robin Hood to paddle up the Chicago River under a banner reading, Wall St. Takes From the 99%. Gives to the Rich? And how did those giant cutouts of JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon end up dancing with all those San Franciscans chanting, “Make banks pay”? Despite what Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain suggests, it was not some “orchestrated” attempt to deflect blame from the flawed policies of the Obama administration. It was not the media looking for a “left-wing Tea Party.” And it certainly was not a poll-tested, focus-grouped PR campaign that billionaire-funded front groups employ to gin up movements.
Occupy Wall Street started small, took a beating from the cops and struggled for weeks to get the attention of the political class, the media and even its own natural allies. The only thing going for this unlikely intervention has been the pitch-perfect resonance of its founding premises. The American people understood Occupy Wall Street, and began to embrace its promise, long before the mandarins who presume to chart our national discourse noticed that everything was changing. That’s because the generators of this movement—and it is a movement—have gotten three things right from the start:
The target is right. This has been a year of agitation, from Wisconsin to Ohio to Washington. It has seen some of the largest demonstrations in recent American history in defense of labor rights, public education, public services. But all those uprisings attacked symptoms of the disease. Occupy Wall Street named it. By aiming activism not at the government but at the warren of bankers, CEOs and hedge-fund managers to whom the government is beholden, Occupy Wall Street went to the heart of the matter. And that captured the imagination of Americans who knew Michael Moore was right when he finished his 2009 documentary Capitalism: A Love Story with an attempted citizen’s arrest of the bankers who not only avoided accountability after crashing the economy but profited from a taxpayer-funded bailout. Like the populists, the socialists and the best of the progressive reformers of a century ago, Occupy Wall Street has not gotten distracted by electoral politics; it has gone after the manipulator of both major parties—what the radicals of old referred to as “the money power.”
The numbers are right. If Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? taught us anything, it was that the great accomplishment of the money power in contemporary politics has been to divide the overwhelming mass of Americans over social and cultural issues, thus deflecting attention from fundamental economic debates. The brilliance of Occupy Wall Street’s message, “We are the 99 percent,” is that it invites just about everyone who isn’t a billionaire to recognize themselves as members of the class that has suffered what Thomas Jefferson once described as “a long train of abuses and usurpations.” For all the efforts of Wall Street’s media and political defenders to dismiss the persistent protesters as somehow un-American, the vast majority of Americans recognize that kids in sleeping bags did not shutter this country’s factories, mangle our mortgage markets or create a pay-to-play system. The 99 percent did not ask for or approve a system that always has money for wars and bank bailouts but won’t, as former Congressman Alan Grayson notes, help the 24 million Americans who can’t find full-time work, the 50 million Americans who can’t see a doctor when they’re sick, the 47 million Americans who need government aid to feed themselves, the 15 million American families who owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.
The demands are right. The most comic complaint about Occupy Wall Street—not just from critics but even from some elite sympathizers—is that it lacks well-defined demands. In fact, the objection of the occupiers to a system of corporate domination and growing inequality, and their desire to change that system, makes a lot more sense to a lot more Americans than anything being said by politicians. Polling confirms this point: Barack Obama’s approval ratings are dismal, but the approval ratings for the Republicans in Congress are dramatically worse. The American people desperately wanted this movement. That is proven not only by the polls but by the practical embrace of the Occupy Wall Street ethos in more than a thousand communities across the nation. Some are already occupying public spaces, others are marching and rallying. Beyond Wall Street, there will be more specific complaints, more adventurous alliances, more practical politics, but there’s no reason why a diversity of issues and tactics cannot build the movement that was invited when the call to Occupy Wall Street was issued.
The key word is “invited.” The genius of Occupy Wall Street is that it is not a traditional political project. It did not arrive with a set of talking points and an organizing template. Its evolution has already taken it far from where it began, physically or politically. Its alliance with unions and other progressive groups will in all likelihood transform the movement as it spreads across the country, just as the movement has the potential to transform its allies. There will be ongoing occupations, but there’s also the prospect of countrywide—indeed, worldwide—days of action, like the one planned for October 29, in American capital cities and cities around the world, the weekend before the G-20 summit in France. The prospect of massive demonstrations like the 1969 anti–Vietnam War Moratorium, the immigrant rights demonstrations of 2006 and last winter’s mobilizations in and outside the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, has already unsettled mainstream politicians and the pundit class that serves as their stenographers. New York Congressman Peter King told right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham, “It’s really important for us not to be giving any legitimacy to these people in the streets…. I’m old enough to remember what happened in the 1960s, when the left wing takes to the streets and somehow the media glorifies them, and it ends up shaping policy. We can’t allow that to happen.”
But it is happening. That’s exhilarating, and necessary. Our political culture, as dysfunctional as it is disappointing, will change only if those in power feel threatened by movements that are impossible to manage. Already, the reactions to the threat are clarifying. The Republican Party, with rare exceptions, has rallied to defend the banksters, with Representative Paul Ryan fretting about “sowing class envy” and Representative Eric Cantor warning that Americans might become a “mob.”
Democrats have been more nuanced. President Obama says he understands the frustration of the protesters, and since advancing his jobs bill in September, he has moved in a more populist direction. But he still promotes free-trade deals that will exacerbate the unemployment crisis, which fuels so much of the 99 percenters’ frustration. Other Democrats have been more consistent. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus have been predictably warm in their embrace of a populist movement that strengthens their hand in party debates, and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi has risen repeatedly to defend the protesters, declaring, “I support the message to the establishment, whether it’s Wall Street or the political establishment and the rest, that change has to happen. We cannot continue in a way that is not relevant to their lives.”
Pelosi’s stance is commendable, yet it is an inadequate counter to the nearly universal Republican demand for more tax cuts, privatization, raging income inequality and healthcare policies that tell the poor to die quickly. The Democratic Party is anything but united on behalf of a fair economy. In 2008, when everyone was ready to end the Bush era, Obama could cobble together a broad coalition to win the presidency. But that won’t work now that the battle lines are drawn. “This is no time to hang back,” says former Senator Russ Feingold. “One of the biggest problems Democrats have is that they forget the power and the passion that the base of the party has.”
The president can no longer satisfy both the CEOs (some of whom will see him as their best defense against the rabble) and the single moms; if he tries, the single moms will run out of patience. So it is that the Occupy Wall Street movement might well develop into a virtual primary challenge to Obama. Instead of coasting to renomination, the president could find himself confronted by protests from Iowa to New Hampshire to Nevada to California—protests that would require him to move to the left just as a credible primary challenger might have done, protests that could make next year’s Democratic convention in Charlotte more than just a coronation.
Getting Obama to take the side of 99 percent of Americans is smart politics for the Democrats. But that ought not to be the goal of the Occupy Wall Street movement. This fight is too important to be about one politician, one party or one election. “Some people say we are the Tea Party for the Democratic Party,” said Emilio Baez, a 17-year-old high school student who joined the Occupy Chicago protests. “That’s bullshit. We are the working class for a mass movement of democracy.” Baez is right. America needs a new politics, as much of the streets as the polling place, a politics that, like the labor movement of the 1930s, the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, the environmental movement of the early 1970s, forces both parties to transform. Anything less is more of the same—more poverty, more inequality, more economic injustice. And if Occupy Wall Street is anything at all, it is a shout from the 99 percenters: “We have had it!”