According to Dylan Byers of Politico, who has run the numbers on Nexis, the phrase “income inequality” has appeared in news organizations 500% more often since the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement. That, more than anything, is a victory for the protesters. OWS has been, from the beginning, a kind of cultural cohesion around a collection of ideas that the mainstream media has traditionally ignored, or even disparaged. Before OWS, the phrase “income inequality” would routinely be dismissed as an artifact of “class warfare.” Now, it’s on the tips of everyone’s tongues.
Early complaints about the movement’s lack of specific demands is also falling away as an increasingly focused platform centering on economic justice comes into focus. Poll the former residents of Zuccotti Park or any of the other occupation sites and you’ll hear a variety of ideas, but the most common seem to be the following:
– Regulate banks in a way that disincentivizes the reckless gambling that puts all of us at risk.
– Tax investment returns at the same rate as income.
– Reform campaign finance laws so that we’re no longer being governed by Goldman Sachs.
Of course, there are other ideas, like making banks finance their own future bailouts through a financial transaction tax, but I think it’s fairly easy to see the big idea at the heart of the movement: American capitalism and democracy are broken. The big difference between Occupy Wall Street and The Tea Party is that the latter sees the government as the big evil, whereas the former fingers a reckless and under-regulated banking industry that has captured our government and bent it to its will.
So here’s the question: do we still need a physical occupation? I think not. In the beginning, the physical presence of so many people submitting to harsh living conditions out of an idealistic commitment to a fairer, more just world was inspirational, so inspirational that it created imitators across the country and beyond. But the message is out now. And Zuccotti Park had begun attracting people who were not helping the cause–the homeless, the inarticulate, the multiply-buttoned radicals. It’s important to prevent these physical sites from becoming convenient flashpoints for ideological opponents eager to paint the movement itself as a kind of lifestyle choice for weirdoes. The best thing OWS can do now is to avoid making that easier for them. Absent the physical presence, the ideas themselves can disperse and thrive without the distractions of bad press.
As many of the occupiers have said, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” The occupation was the rallying cry. It worked. And the commitment of those early occupiers should not be underestimated. But now it’s time to get to work on actually creating that fairer and more just world.