This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
No headlines announced it. No TV pundits called it. But on the evening of November 8th, Occupy Wall Street, the populist uprising built on economic justice and corruption-free politics that's spread like a lit match hitting a trail of gasoline, notched its first major political victory, and in the unlikeliest of places: Ohio.
You might have missed OWS's win amid the recent wave of Occupy crackdowns. Police raided Occupy Denver, Occupy Salt Lake City, Occupy Oakland, Occupy Portland, and Occupy Seattle in a five-day span. Hundreds were arrested. And then, in the early morning hours on Tuesday, New York City police descended on Occupy Wall Street itself, fists flying and riot shields at the ready, with orders from Mayor Michael Bloomberg to evict the protesters. Later that day, a judge ruled that they couldn't rebuild their young community, dealing a blow to the Occupy protest that inspired them all.
Instead of simply condemning the eviction, many pundits and columnists praised it or highlighted what they considered its bright side. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein wrote that Bloomberg had done Occupy Wall Street a favor. After all, he argued, something dangerous or deadly was bound to happen at OWS sooner or later, especially with winter soon to arrive. Zuccotti Park, Klein added, "was cleared... in a way that will temporarily reinvigorate the protesters and give Occupy Wall Street the best possible chance to become whatever it will become next."
The New York Times' Paul Krugman wrote that OWS "should be grateful" for Bloomberg's eviction decree: "By acting so badly, Bloomberg has made it easy to see who won't be truthful and can't handle open discourse. He's also saved OWS from what was probably its greatest problem, the prospect that it would just fade away as time went on and the days grew colder."
Read between the lines and what Klein, Krugman, and others are really saying is: you had your occupation; now, get real. Start organizing, meaningfully connect your many Occupy protests, build a real movement. As these columnists see it, that movement—whether you call it OccupyUSA, We Are the 99 percent, or the New Progressive Movement—should now turn its attention to policy changes like a millionaire's tax, a financial transaction fee, or a constitutional amendment to nullify the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that loosed a torrent of cash into American elections. It should think about supporting political candidates. It should start making a nuts-and-bolts difference in American politics.
But such assessments miss an important truth: Occupy Wall Street has already won its first victory its own way—in Ohio, when voters repealed Republican governor John Kasich's law to slash bargaining rights for 350,000 public workers and gut what remained of organized labor's political power.
Commandeering the Conversation
Don't believe me? Then think back to this spring and summer, when Occupy Wall Street was just a glimmer in the imagination of a few activists, artists, and students. In Washington, the conversation, such as it was, concerned debt, deficit, and austerity. The discussion wasn't about whether to slash spending, only about how much and how soon. The Washington Post's Greg Sargent called it the "Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop"—and boy was he right.
A National Journal analysis in May found that the number of news articles in major newspapers mentioning "deficit" was climbing, while mentions of "unemployment" had plummeted. In the last week of July, the liberal blog ThinkProgress tallied 7,583 mentions of the word "debt" on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News alone. "Unemployment"? A measly 427.
This all-deficit, all-the-time debate shaped the final debt-ceiling deal, in which House Speaker John Boehner and his "cut-and-grow"-loving GOP allies got just about everything they wanted. So lopsided was the debate in Washington that President Obama himself hailed the deal's bone-deep cuts to health research, public education, environmental protection, childcare, and infrastructure.
These cuts, the president explained, would bring the country to "the lowest level of annual domestic spending since Dwight Eisenhower was president." After studying the deal, Ethan Pollock of the Economic Policy Institute told me, "There's no way to square this plan with the president's 'Winning the Future' agenda. That agenda ends." Yet Obama said this as if it were a good thing.
Six weeks after Obama's speech, protesters heard the call of Adbusters, the Canadian anti-capitalist magazine, and followed the lead of a small crew of activists, writers, and students to "occupy Wall Street." A few hundred of them set up camp in Zuccotti Park, a small patch of concrete next door to Ground Zero. No one knew how long the occupation would last, or what its impact would be.
What a game-changing few months it's been. Occupy Wall Street has inspired 750 events around the world, and hundreds of (semi-)permanent encampments around the United States. In so doing, the protests have wrestled the national discussion on the economy away from austerity and toward gaping income inequality (the 99 percent versus 1 percent theme), outsized executive compensation, and the plain buying and selling of American politicians by lobbyists and campaign donors.
Mentions of the phrase "income inequality" in print publications, web stories, and broadcast transcripts spiked from 91 times a week in early September to nearly 500 in late October, according to the website Politico—an increase of nearly 450 percent. In the second week of October, according to ThinkProgress, the words most uttered on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News were "jobs" (2,738), "Wall Street" (2,387), and "Occupy" (1,278). (References to "debt" tumbled to 398.)
And here's another sign of the way Occupy Wall Street has forced what it considers the most pressing economic issues for the country into the spotlight: conservatives have lately gone on the defensive by attacking the very existence of income inequality, even if to little effect. As AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka put it, "Give credit to the Occupy Wall Street movement (and historic inequality) for redefining the political narrative."