Occupy Wall Street's Legacy: Now Up to the Voters

The movement's been quiet since the November evictions, but the 2012 elections will give it a chance to have a lasting impact.


It's been more than a month since the Occupy Wall Street protesters were evicted from their encampments in New York, Oakland, and other key cities. At the time, the evictions were seen a a tactical boon for the movement -- a huge media story and a good way to end the encampments that would otherwise have surely fizzled out with the onset of winter. The argument was that this would be an opportunity for the protesters to launch phase two to their movement. But since then, there has been little activity on the Occupy front, and the protests that have happened have been underwhelming.

An attempt in mid-December to shut down ports in several West Coast cities was largely unsuccessful. Shipping was slowed in a couple of cities, but only temporarily. In Oakland, where protesters had successfully closed the port in a previous demonstration on November 2, the turnout was much smaller. Key support from the unions represented in the ports was lacking, and coverage by the national media was underwhelming.

There have also been efforts to take the fight to Washington, D.C. And while delegations from various Occupy movements around the country have made trips to the capital, there has not been a large rally that would capture the national imagination -- or even national attention. Such an event is now set for the start of the 2012 legislative season, on January 17, but protesters' promises to set up one million tents in Washington, D.C., on that date have created an unrealistic expectation that promises to turn the protest into another disappointment.

In the meantime, Zuccotti Park has become home to meta-events like an episode of Law & Order featuring actors portraying Occupy protesters (the filming was briefly occupied by real protesters) and the "Occupy a Desk" job fair.

So, were the November evictions from Zuccotti and other enclaves the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end for the Occupy movement?

Well, if the movement's deliberate lack of leadership and constantly stated objectives were an attempt to create a groundswell of support by provoking public curiosity, then the recent lack of activity in the news is a definitive setback for the movement. But the loss of momentum is an opportunity to start thinking about the legacy of Occupy. As recently as a couple of weeks ago you could have been forgiven for saying that there would be no legacy -- that bad strategy and the lack of leadership had blocked the movement from making a lasting impact on the national discourse.

Contrast that with the Tea Party. By embracing clearly articulated goals and strong leaders from the beginning, it was able to create visible political change, electing candidates to Congress and skewing the entire Republican Party towards its goals. And its members did all this with the support of an arguably smaller percentage of the voting public, because they arrayed themselves more strategically. But aside from studies showing that stories in the national media about income inequality are way up year over year, Occupy has had no comparable successes so far.

But something interesting happened in December: President Obama gave a speech that was seen as setting the tone and agenda for his coming re-election campaign. In it, he talked repeatedly about income inequality. He mentioned the middle class 21 times. He explicitly cited the 1 percent and the 99 percent. And he did it with a passion that some say represents a shift in priorities.

The language of the speech seems at least in part a reaction to the Occupy movement. But what if it's something more? What if it's truly an indication of a shift in direction? If he's re-elected, the speech might one day be seen as a herald of a new focus on income inequality, just as alleviating the recession and health-care reform were the major goals in his first term.

If the protesters have given the president political capital to shift focus, that will have been a very real victory. And with a president who is ostensibly on its side preparing to seek re-election, the Occupy movement is in a position to leverage its remaining muscle into shifts in policy priorities. For this, it's arguably better for it to be a movement that has moved off the streets: the protesters have already made their highly visible signs of unfocused dissatisfaction, and the voting public has spoken, with large percentages voicing support for the movement. Now, without protesters actively occupying public spaces, President Obama and other politicians can cite support for the movement's objectives without seeming to be swayed by politically problematic ongoing demonstrations.

Image: Andrew Burton / Reuters