Occupy Wall Street is entering its third month and is showing no signs of slowing. But as this unexpected milestone passes, we must reflect on what the movement has actually accomplished.
The Occupy Wall Street movement began in New York’s Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17, in response to a call for political action by the magazine Adbusters. Since then it has spread internationally, with Occupy demonstrations in cities around the world. However, doubts remain regarding Occupy’s goals and how effective it has been in meeting those goals, whatever they may be.
If the goal was to spark a debate about economic inequality, the movements have been resoundingly successful. News media mentions of economic inequality have increased 500 percent since the movement started. The growing wealth gap is at the forefront of our national discourse.
Perhaps more concrete was the retreat by Bank of America from its planned $5 monthly debit fee after Occupy–led protests. This was an important victory, but hardly a crushing blow to megabanks.
These victories are minor compared to what those inside the movement consider their most important achievement. They have managed to reject media pressures to issue specific demands or anoint a leader.
If Occupy’s victories are hard to quantify, its failures have been glaring. Characterizing protesters as hippies without goals or jobs is nothing new from an often hostile media. But recent vandalism and violence by fringe radicals has cast a cloud over the whole movement. The fact that most of the injured have been peaceful protesters hurt during police raids has been largely ignored. Most notorious of these is Iraq veteran Scott Olsen, who was hit by a police projectile during a protest in Oakland and fractured his skull. These incidents have been largely ignored by commentators eager to characterize protesters as thugs and criminals.
But the most damning criticisms of the movement have come from those on the political left who are weary of the movement’s lack of leadership or clear direction. Many marginal supporters of the movement are now reluctant to sympathize with protesters who appear unable to be controlled. If only someone would step up to lead, some think wishfully, they could take control of the movement.
So what would an ideal leader of the movement look like? First, he or she would be an Ivy League-educated community organizer, bridging the gap between liberal intellectualism and activism. They would embody upward mobility, being independently wealthy despite coming from a lower-middle class family.
Of course, this wealth must be acquired through benign means, such as royalties from a bestselling autobiography. To appeal to minorities he or she should have a mixed ethnic background. They must also appeal to immigrants, so at least one of his or her parents should be a first–generation immigrant. They should be old enough to lead, but young enough to still “get it.” And finally they must have some political experience to give them legitimacy, maybe with a couple of years in Congress.
Sound familiar? The established left doesn’t want a leaderless movement pushing for broad economic and political change. It wants Barack Obama 2.0 to rally Democrats and sweep them into electoral victory next year.
Clearly, pinning all hopes on Obama alone didn’t work. The left’s obsession with finding yet another charismatic leader to follow reveals the short-term memory of a goldfish. It ignores the fact that real political power isn’t held by one individual in the White House, but by the 535 members of Congress.
Here we run the danger of entering into the Tea Party-esque “impeach them all” mentality. If Congress is the problem, throw them all out and start once again.
However, focusing on electing friendly Congress members is pointless when they are going to enter a system built to corrupt them. Rather than fantasizing about a Congress comprised of brand new, supportive representatives, Occupy is focusing on making the government we currently have respond to the needs of the people.
So if Occupy doesn’t care about leaders or electoral victories, what exactly do the protesters want? The movement’s unwillingness to issue specific demands seems to suggest they don’t know.
But despite debates about specifics, many of the things protesters want have been clear from the start.
Foremost is economic equality by taxing the rich and closing loopholes in the tax codes allowing multibillion dollar companies such as General Electric to pay nothing in taxes. Second is ending undue corporate influence in politics by eliminating corporate personhood and overhauling the campaign finance system.
What we need is clear. Now it is up to our elected officials to do their jobs and determine what exactly must be done to carry out the will of the people.