What a difference a few short weeks can make. The early word on Occupy Wall Street was that it was a motley collection of flakes and fools. “Purpose in 140 or less,” tweeted CNN financial correspondent Alison Kosik, “bang on the bongos, smoke weed!” (She’s since deleted that tweet.) New York Times financial writer Andrew Ross Sorkin, author of Too Big to Fail, asked on CNBC’s Squawk Box, “Do we think that the whole Wall Street protest is overdone, real, not real? Were there really a lot of people down there? Were there a lot? I could never tell.” In a Times human interest column the archetypal OWS protester was “a half-naked woman who called herself Zuni Tikka.” Arch condescension was definitely the dominant tone of mainstream coverage, and maybe a bit of it was even deserved: if you’re going to protest the policies of the Federal Reserve, you should probably know what it is, and speaking just for myself, the sooner the Zuccotti Park encampment loses the drum circle, the better. Men thumping away for hours on end, girls in tank tops vaguely dancing about—it’s just not the look you want for a movement that claims to be about getting rid of hierarchy.
In any case, Zuni Tikka is definitely having a good laugh now. Eight hundred New York City arrests later, Occupy Wall Street has gone national, from LA to Phoenix to New Haven, and global too, with demonstrations and encampments in Europe, Latin America and even Australia. In London protesters camped out at St. Paul’s Cathedral. In Hong Kong dozens slept overnight in a foyer beneath the headquarters of HSBC. In Rome some 200,000 people marched, and a few smashed windows and set cars on fire. This caused Prime Minister Berlusconi to take time out from having sex with teenage prostitutes to fulminate against the violence as “a worrying signal for civil coexistence.” Hmmm, maybe he should have thought about civil coexistence before he got legislators to pass a law immunizing himself from prosecution for misdeeds in office. Because that’s the point, isn’t it? All those pundits and politicians going on about how bankers are just people, and traders have feelings too, and why don’t the 99 percent appreciate what the 1 percent has done for them, are just not looking at the world we live in now. Anyone who isn’t entirely insulated from such mundane realities as unemployment and underemployment, foreclosure, student debt and the serious increase in poverty knows what OWS is talking about: rising inequality, the impunity of the people who caused the crisis and the failure of politicians in both parties to grapple with a situation both parties helped create. OWS doesn’t need a list of demands to paint that picture. As (of all places!) the Times editorial page put it on October 8, “protest is the message.”
The more people join the movement, the clearer the message becomes. Former Times executive editor Bill Keller still doesn’t get it—“Bored by the soggy sleep-ins and warmed-over anarchism of Occupy Wall Street?” is how he began his October 16 column. (But then it took him till this summer to acknowledge that he’d been wrong to support the Iraq War, so maybe eight years from now he’ll apologize for snarking at OWS too.) But OWS is getting the good word from some surprising people: in the Huffington Post, PIMCO chief Mohamed El-Erian compared it to Tahrir Square. Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit called it “completely understandable.” Hedge-fund manager Jim Chanos said, “People are angry; they feel the game is rigged.” And bond fund biggie Bill Gross tweeted “Class warfare by the 99%? Of course, they’re fighting back after 30 years of being shot at.” The New Yorker’s John Cassidy reports that Thatcher biographer Charles Moore is thinking “the left might actually be right,” Fed chair Ben Bernanke “can’t blame” the protesters and recovering shock therapist Jeffrey Sachs is on board.
Perhaps the most significant mainstream supporters, though, are the only two most Americans have heard of. “Despite the Times’s finger-wagging that the movement is often muddled and misinformed, none of that is the point. The point is justice,” writes self-help guru Deepak Chopra, who visited Zuccotti Park and led meditations to help protesters turn “anger into awareness.” Suze Orman, who has made millions telling feckless consumers how to pay down debt and live on a budget, sounds like she’s channeling Naomi Klein: “To deride the movement because it has yet to formulate a well-delineated platform says plenty more about the critics than the protestors,” she wrote in the Huffington Post. “Revolutions tend to be messy, especially in the early going. The unholy alliance of much of Congress, K Street and Wall Street that has set the agenda from day one of the financial crisis is simply trying to protect its turf by casting aspersions on the ad hoc nature of the movement to date. I suppose I shouldn’t expect anything less. After all, there’s no way they could stage a substantive rebuttal based on facts.”
Wow. Maybe OWS will vanish with the lovely fall weather, or drift off into the anarchist subculture, or break down in fights and factions. But already it has accomplished more than anything put forward by organized progressives since Obama took office: the October 2010 jobs march on Washington, which the media simply ignored; Van Jones’s Rebuild the Dream; or even the inspiring Wisconsin protests, to say nothing of the Coffee Party (what was that all about, anyway?). As with SlutWalk, another viral grassroots protest movement led by the young, the ambiguities and indeterminacies and openness to interpretation of OWS have allowed people to join it on their own terms and make it theirs. No wonder polls show a majority of Americans support it. It’s a party you don’t need a party card to join.