The Occupy Movement May Be in Retreat, but Its Ideas Are Advancing
Is Occupy Wall Street petering out? Or, more provocatively, has the protest movement already won a big battle and is now watching that victory unfold?
On a practical level, the Occupy movement would seem to be on the run or even in disarray. On Saturday, participants in the Occupy D.C. encampment were pushed out and the physical presence of the protests has diminished throughout the winter.
But even as they were pushed out of McPherson Park in Washington, the protesters can claim that their message — amplified by abundant media coverage — has tilted the rink. Aided by the target-rich visual environment of encampments, which proved to be irresistible to reporters and photographers, the protest rendered what had been a political argument into a physical declaration. A protest that used social media to agitate and organize soon entered the bloodstream of established media, and its rhetorical tools have now become part of standard political discourse.
Some media outlets found the whole exercise offensive from beginning to end. The Weekly Standard focused on the violence of the protesters, as opposed to the police who forcibly removed them from various encampments. “The truth is that the violence is not an aberration and Occupy Wall Street should not be laughed away,” Matthew Continetti wrote at the end of the November.
But even among outlets more sympathetic to the motives of the protesters there was impatience with the movement’s comically democratic decision-making apparatus and its non-list of demands. As the protest ground on, Hendrik Hertzberg at The New Yorker suggested that the movement needed to quit fooling around with camp-outs and get down to business in more practical ways.
Yes, O.W.S. has “changed the conversation.” But talk, however necessary, is cheap. Ultimately, inevitably, the route to real change has to run through politics — the politics of America’s broken, god-awful, immutably two-party electoral system, the only one we have. The Tea Partiers know that. Do the Occupiers?
Talk may be cheap, but it has proven to be pretty effective. Even as the police — and winter weather — set in and their tents were folded, the protesters maintained that you can’t evict an idea who time has come. Nice rhetoric that, but it turned out to be true. The story, as they say, has come toward Occupy Wall Street: Mitt Romney, the man who appears to be the likely nominee for the Republicans, is a proud 1-percenter and the president is now busy trying to gobble up political real estate among the other 99 percent.
A little bit of thought-exercise here. If there were no Occupy Wall Street, do you think the Democratic incumbent would be channeling his inner Teddy Roosevelt and going after Wall Street? His handlers have steered him away from mentioning the movement by name, but several pages of Occupy’s hymnal are now part of his political oratory. Back in December, the president was already heading down a path that many would argue was first cleared by the Occupy protesters in a speech that was billed as his mission statement for the coming general election, and which contained this passage:
I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, and when everyone plays by the same rules. Those aren’t Democratic or Republican values; 1 percent values or 99 percent values. They’re American values, and we have to reclaim them.
Although he insisted “this isn’t about class warfare,” the allusion to the Occupy protests was hard to miss. By the time the State of the Union address rolled around, many of the actual Occupy camps were in retreat, but their ideas seemed to echo in the president’s annual address to a joint session of Congress.
Let’s never forget: Millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules every day deserve a government and a financial system that do the same. It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom. No bailouts, no handouts, and no cop-outs. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody.
Wall Street, the bête noire of Occupy, ended up in the president’s cross hairs and he called for new enforcement efforts against Wall Street fraud.
“Too often, we’ve seen Wall Street firms violating major antifraud laws because the penalties are too weak and there’s no price for being a repeat offender,” Mr. Obama said. “No more. I’ll be calling for legislation that makes those penalties count so that firms don’t see punishment for breaking the law as just the price of doing business.”
For his part, Mr. Romney has little patience for what he sees as the divisive math of Occupy Wall Street. When he was tagged during a speech as an advocate of the 1 percent, he invited the heckler to switch countries and then promoted the video of him dressing down the protester with these words:
And if you’ve got a better model — if you think China’s better, or Russia’s better, or Cuba’s better, or North Korea’s better — I’m glad to hear all about it. But you know what? America’s right, and you’re wrong.
Mr. Obama may be making an effort to stay away from dividing the electorate by class, but his campaign has done its best to put work boots on the president, if for no other reason than to draw a contrast to the metaphorical wingtips of his businessman opponent. “President Obama – who, like Mitt Romney, earned a degree from Harvard and all the opportunities that affords – began his career helping jobless workers in the shadow of a closed-down steel mill,” a release from his campaign thundered. “Mitt Romney, on the other hand, made millions closing down steel mills.”
On Tuesday of last week, the original Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park was down to a few hardy souls. But those that remained were convinced that the protest continues to resonate far beyond their little camp.
Brendan Burke, a protester, said the president’s State of the Union speech “was all our message. It was great. I mean, he didn’t mention Occupy Wall Street, he doesn’t have to. The conversation in the culture has changed now, over four months, and it’s a blessing.”