The Beginning Is Near! proclaimed one early sign at New York City’s Liberty Plaza, which since September 17 has been held by a coalition of activists under the Occupy Wall Street banner. In the early days of the action, many on the professional left doubted that Occupy Wall Street would be the beginning of anything. “Another day, another demo…” some shrugged, weary from years of protests that never seem to stop another war, another robbery of the poor by the rich. In Washington, for two frustrating years, the debate has been focused on how much austerity to have—the slash-and-burn policies of the Republican Party or the austerity-lite measures of President Obama. More stimulus, we were told, was a nonstarter. Hope seemed a distant, perhaps false, memory.
But thankfully, the young protesters at the heart of Occupy Wall Street are not so cynical. The kids are alright! They may have lost faith in the key institutions of America—the elected officials, the media, the banks—that ought to be steering the country out of economic crisis, but they have not lost faith in the people. Yes, they’re angry, but they are also searching and optimistic and, above all, they have taken matters into their own hands.
The beginning really is near. The occupation of Wall Street has grown from hundreds to thousands, and more than 115 parallel occupations have cropped up in cities around the world, from Occupy Boston to Occupy Los Angeles to Occupy Finland. Crucially, labor and civil society groups like the SEIU, the Teamsters, the Transit Workers, New York Communities for Change and others have come on board, not to take over the occupation from the amateurs but to join them, won over by their DIY spirit.
But what does Occupy Wall Street want? Whether with condescension or curiosity, that is the question being posed to the young people whose brilliant act of symbolic politics has landed them in the spotlight. Wisely, they are taking their time answering it. So far they have put out only one statement, which isn’t a list of demands so much as an indictment of the corporate state: “We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.”
The fact is, we on the left don’t have a scarcity of policy ideas. We’ve staged big rallies with detailed demands. We’ve called for a financial transactions tax and abolishing the carried-interest tax loophole, which benefits Wall Streeters. But we have lacked the power to put our ideas into practice.
Some are suggesting that, like the Tea Party, the grassroots “Occupy” movement should yoke itself to an electoral agenda and push it from below. But the analogy is flawed: Occupy Wall Street isn’t like the Tea Party. For one thing, it’s a lot younger, both demographically and historically: it has not been gestating since the Goldwater era, honing its talking points in local school boards and churches. For another, it’s independent: it lacks the explicit links to a partisan Beltway infrastructure that comes with sponsorship by right-wing billionaires. But most important, whereas the Tea Party feigns indignation at Washington while finding itself well served by its corruption, this movement is a genuine protest against politics as usual.
Certainly, there is room for other approaches. And perhaps the outrage embodied by Occupy Wall Street will find an outlet at the ballot box or in legislation one day. For now, though, its energy is where we need it— in the streets.