At an event this weekend marking the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, I was reminded why the success of these protests was so improbable in the first place. It wasn’t just that we’d tried this sort of thing before and it had never worked. It wasn’t the predominance of anarchists, whom we were all accustomed to dismissing as the irrelevant fringe at progressive protests. It was also the smell. New York City smells bad enough on its own. But put populists in a public encampment for a few days, and it stinks. After months, it’s repulsive.
I was an early skeptic of Occupy Wall Street. “I want to know what democracy looks like, not what it smells like,” I wrote at the time. This was a roundabout way of criticizing the movement for its lack of polish, its incoherent leadership structure, its fuzzy demands—all that chaos that was swarming around Zuccotti Park. On its face, Occupy was a Type-A organizer’s worst nightmare.
Yet, despite the odds that stood against it, Occupy Wall Street did not repel America but attracted it, crystallizing and dramatizing the inequality that has become the central political struggle of our time. In the wake of an economic collapse that devastated every community in America and with a progressive movement that had been unable to respond to small crises—let alone major ones—with any unity of purpose or voice, Occupy stepped into the void. With threadbare blankets, it somehow wove together the disparate agendas of the left. Like the countless tent poles at protests across the country, Occupy gave the too-often cowering American left a spine.
But what, a year later, can we say the movement accomplished? Reflecting on Occupy’s anniversary, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera quoted a Prospect story that asked, “Can Occupy Wall Street Become the Liberal Tea Party?” Nocera wrote, “A year later, we know the answer: It can’t, and it isn’t. For all intents and purposes, the Occupy movement is dead, even as the Tea Party lives on.”
But perhaps this is the wrong measure of success.
The tactics and grassroots energy that Occupy harnessed were nothing new to the left. Certainly, its scale was unlike anything seen in decades, but progressive organizations—from Code Pink to MoveOn to the Rainforest Action Network—had long engaged in direct action and employed community-organizing-style tactics to build consensus. No, Occupy’s contribution was to give progressives a simple, effective way to talk about economic justice. That “We are the 99 percent” became such a powerful refrain was almost as refreshing as the fact that often-insular progressive organizations quickly took it up. The idea of the 99 percent didn’t take hold just because Occupy was chanting it but because the narrative was repeated in e-mail after e-mail, speech after speech, report after report across the institutional left. Then, it crossed into the mainstream. “Just pay attention to political coverage,” says J. Matthew Smucker, who was involved at Zuccotti Park early on. “The number of times the 1 percent or the 99 percent are mentioned? It’s still not enough, but the conversation has definitely changed.” Occupy didn’t change the agenda for progressives; it changed how that agenda was articulated and for once got the rest of the country to talk about it.
But it wasn’t just the rhetoric that changed. “Occupy empowered the floundering progressive movement,” says Jodie Evans, co-founder of the activist group Code Pink. “Pieces of the Occupy movement live on inside an enormous number of organizations who will carry that spark forward.” Some of that work will continue to include protest tactics, like those of Code Pink (which occupied spaces long before Occupy even existed). While Occupy has favored protests over political engagement, the progressive movement that was inspired and invigorated by Occupy includes many organizations focused on electoral strategies, concrete policy advocacy, and much more. In other words, Occupy is not the equivalent of the Tea Party; the progressive movement is. And Occupy made that movement more populist and powerful.
I was wrong about Occupy Wall Street. In pulling us professional progressives away from our business meetings and relentless focus on incrementalism, it reminded us all that dramatic, awe-inspiring change is possible. A year later, while the crowd celebrating the Occupy anniversary is still pretty stinky, the possibility for achieving big and bold change now fills the air all around us. And that has never smelled sweeter.