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.