Ten years from now, what will the Occupy demonstrations look like in our collective rearview mirror? Is this a flash in the pan, fated to fizzle in the face of diffusion and growing animosity from authorities? Or will the movement have a lasting impact, changing the way the country—and the world—does business?
We don’t need to wait 10 years to find out. Occupy is already a success.
Conservatives, and much of the mainstream media, have from the beginning sought to marginalize the protests, most commonly with variations of “they’re not specific enough about their demands.” (That one is often repeated by would-be allies as well.) More recently, right-wing figures have sought to paint the Occupiers with the “class warfare” brush.
The next few months are likely to be a defining period for the public demonstrations. Local officials—mostly under the claim that the First Amendment is trumped by sanitation issues or, ironically, “reclaiming public space for all”—have increasingly sought to eliminate the tent cities by force, hoping that with less of a physical presence the movement will fade into insignificance.
But spring is on the way, and warmer weather promises to bring with it a resurgence of these 21st century Hoovervilles. Remember Hoovervilles? Some of the Depres-sion-era settlements of mostly homeless people lasted 10 years—and helped push the political leaders of the 1930s to enact the whole range of New Deal programs for the poor and dispossessed. In fact, they helped change the whole social contract.
And that’s where Occupy has already succeeded, its legacy already established: It has changed the conversation.
It’s easy to forget that as recently as last summer “wealth inequality” was hardly a footnote in public discourse. Few were talking about the “99 percent,” or even fairness, as programs intended to combat poverty and help the vulnerable were shoved toward the chopping block of deficit reduction.
It was a “let them eat cake” moment. Wall Street, with much taxpayer help and little oversight, seemed to have weathered the Great Recession quite well, thank you, with record bonuses and obscene profits. Main Street, on the other hand, wasn’t doing so well, and as the rich got richer, the poor and the middle class kept slipping. Amazingly, despite the fact that the top 1 percent was prospering as the rest of us saw stagnated incomes, such inequality was largely ignored.
Until Occupy came along.
Now observers across the political spectrum have to at least acknowledge the huge wealth gap. For conservative pundits this is usually followed by a “but” as they seek to undermine the significance of the issue. In January, for example, Charles Krauthammer wrote that “economic inequality is an important issue, but the idea that it is the cause of America’s current economic troubles is absurd.”
However, people seem to be paying more attention to Occupy’s main message than to the disclaimers. A Pew study in January found that two-thirds of the public believes there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor—an increase of 19 percent since 2009. And this isn’t about “envy” or “class warfare,” as some would have us believe: Americans, on the whole, still aspire to move up, even though these days fewer believe they’ll get there. Rather, this is about a sense of fairness, of giving people a “fair shake.”
OCCUPY ISN’T A religious movement, although a strong sense of spirituality undergirds many of the participants. But the work it’s doing—shining a spotlight on basic issues of justice and holding up the “least of these”—echoes the gospel’s message of good news to the poor and setting the oppressed free.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s last effort, the Poor People’s Campaign, had similar goals. As King put it 44 years ago this spring, “We are planning to dramatize the issue to the point that poor people in this nation will have to be seen and will not be invisible.”
King knew that scaling the mountain of economic inequality would bring “difficult days ahead.” He warned that working for economic justice would be a huge challenge, even compared to the battle against segregation, and would require a true “revolution of values” that would “look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”
Finally, for King and for us today, changing attitudes—while an important first step—is just the beginning. Change doesn’t happen because we wish it to be so—it comes when the will is converted to willful action. As King put it, in what could be seen as his word of encouragement and exhortation to the Occupiers and to us all, “Human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.”
Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners magazine.