Occupy Wall Street's two-month anniversary this week marks a turning point for the protest movement. Protesters in Manhattan's financial district and in cities across the country have succeeded in putting economic inequality front and center on the nations's radar. Now the occupy movement needs to regroup and refocus to achieve something more than public sympathy. Americans have heard the protesters, and millions can relate. The question now is whether the movement can convert these grievances into a concrete agenda for political change.
There is no denying that occupy has touched a nerve and offered a compelling message. Calling out the continuing abuses of the big banks and corporations resonates at a time when many Americans have lost their jobs, homes and savings. In rallying the "99 percent" of Americans who are not super-rich or in control of Wall Street or Washington, the protest has extended its life by broadening its appeal. Support cuts across age, race and class because the protesters are not demanding an end to the system so much as a chance for more people to enjoy the fruits of it.
That simple call for economic opportunity and the largely peaceful way that protesters have conducted themselves explains why most mayors up to now have been reluctant to crack down on the demonstrations. But in recent weeks, police in Denver, Oakland and other cities moved in to arrest protesters and take down the encampments in public parks. In New York on Thursday, hundreds rallied in lower Manhattan only two days after police launched an overnight raid that swept away the movement's original tent city in Zuccotti Park. Authorities are clearly losing patience with what they see as both a security and an image problem. And protesters are struggling to decide which way the movement should go.
Occupy faces a choice. It can continue to push the boundaries of civil disobedience in the hopes of scoring political points against the establishment and the police. Or it can channel that energy in a more fruitful way and build upon the political momentum that the demonstrations already started. As the tea party, another populist movement, recognized, the best way to shape the nation's course is by electing candidates and participating in the electoral process. Occupy has a powerful message and the organizational abilities to greatly influence the political debate in the run-up to the 2012 elections.
There is no need to worry that losing this presence on the street will cause the nation to lose interest. Indeed, the very opposite might be true; a poll released Wednesday by Public Policy Polling shows that support for occupy has slipped in the past month. Its leaders should take this as a warning to change course. Occupy also needs order and discipline. Its decentralized decisionmaking was appealing early on, and it brought more diverse voices under the tent. But political movements need a clear message and recognized leaders. Occupy has an opportunity to change the nation's direction in the coming year. But to continue to be effective it needs to move its fight from the bullhorn to the ballot box.