The tidal wave didn’t come from nowhere—the Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in Zuccotti Park, didn't just disappear, it splintered and regrouped around a variety of focused causes happening today.
On her first campaign stop in Iowa in April, Hillary Clinton struck a decisively populist tone, declaring that “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top.” Later, she sharpened her rhetoric on income inequality by comparing the salaries of America’s richest hedge fund managers with kindergarten teachers.
Clinton isn’t alone. Democratic presidential challenger Bernie Sanders has spent the spring railing against the excesses of Wall Street greed while calling for a financial transactions tax and a breakup of the big banks. Even leading Republican contenders have jumped on the inequality bandwagon: Jeb Bush, through his Right to Rise PAC, asserted that “the income gap is real,” while Ted Cruz admitted that “the top 1 percent earn a higher share of our income nationally than any year since 1928,” and Marco Rubio proposed reversing inequality by turning the earned-income tax credit into a subsidy for low-wage earners.
Nearly four years after the precipitous rise of Occupy Wall Street, the movement so many thought had disappeared has instead splintered and regrown into a variety of focused causes. Income inequality is the crisis du jour—a problem that all 2016 presidential candidates must grapple with because they can no longer afford not to. And, in fact, it’s just one of a long list of legislative and political successes for which the Occupy movement can take credit.
Until recently, Occupy’s chief accomplishment was changing the national conversation by giving Americans a new language—the 99 percent and the 1 percent—to frame the dual crises of income inequality and the corrupting influence of money in politics. What began in September 2011 as a small group of protesters camping out in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park ignited a national and global movement calling out the ruling class of elites by connecting the dots between corporate and political power. Despite the public’s overwhelming support for its message—that the economic system is rigged for the very few while the majority continue to fall further behind—many faulted Occupy for its failure to produce concrete results.
Yet with the 2016 elections looming and a spirit of economic populism spreading throughout the nation, that view of Occupy’s impact is changing. Inequality and the wealth gap are now core tenets of the Democratic platform, providing a frame for other measurable gains spurred by Occupy. The camps may be gone and Occupy may no longer be visible on the streets, but the gulf between the haves and the have-nots is still there, and growing. What appeared to be a passing phenomenon of protest now looks like the future of U.S. political debate, heralded by tangible policy wins and the new era of activist movements Occupy inaugurated.
One of Occupy’s largely unrecognized victories is the momentum it built for a higher minimum wage. The Occupy protests motivated fast-food workers in New York City to walk off the job in November 2012, sparking a national worker-led movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. In 2014, numerous cities and states including four Republican-dominated ones—Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska, and South Dakota—voted for higher pay; 2016 will see more showdowns in New York City and Washington, D.C., and in states like Florida, Maine, and Oregon. From Seattle to Los Angeles to Chicago, some of the country’s largest cities are setting a new economic bar to help low-income workers.
The tidal wave didn’t come from nowhere. The grassroots movement composed of fast-food workers and Walmart employees, convenience-store clerks, and adjunct teachers seized on the energy of Occupy to spark a rebirth of the U.S. labor movement. This renaissance was most recently visible on April 15, when tens of thousands of workers marched in hundreds of cities to demand better pay and conditions. McDonald’s and Walmart have responded with incremental wage hikes, and Senate Democrats this spring called for raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour. As Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, a socialist who rose to prominence with the Occupy movement, put it, “$15 in Seattle is just a beginning. We have an entire world to win.”
Occupy also reshaped the U.S.-environmental movement, which had its rebirth in fall 2011 when 1,200 people were arrested in Washington, D.C., protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. As people gravitated to Occupy encampments, teach-ins, and demonstrations across the country, that energy easily transferred into the fight against climate change. This was especially true on college campuses, where a student-led divestment movement has rid more than $50 billion in fossil-fuel assets from universities and institutional investment funds worldwide.
Occupy prompted a grassroots anti-fracking movement that pushed cities, counties and states to enact bans on the controversial drilling process—from Athens, Ohio, to Mendocino County, California, and in states like New York and Maryland. Last fall, those movements coalesced into the world’s largest climate march when 400,000 protesters descended on New York City to demand robust cuts in emissions and investments in renewable energy. President Obama has responded to the growing pressure by mandating new carbon cuts for power plants, signing a first-ever emissions-slashing deal with China, and vetoing a Republican measure to push through Keystone (although his decision in May granting permission for Shell to drill in the Arctic struck many as a disturbing reversal of his climate promises).
When it comes to money in politics, Occupy also drew mainstream attention to the corrosive influence of wealth on the political process. That helped spur a nationwide movement as 16 state legislatures and more than 600 U.S. towns and cities have passed resolutions to overturn Citizens Unitedand draft a constitutional amendment declaring that corporations are not people and money is not speech. In April, the “We the People Amendment” to outlaw corporate personhood was introduced in the House by a Democratic coalition led by Representatives Rick Nolan (Minnesota), Jared Huffman (California), Keith Ellison (Minnesota), Matt Cartwright (Pennsylvania), and Raul Grijalva (Arizona). The message has resonated on both sides of the aisle, as presidential candidates from Clinton to Republican Senator Lindsey Graham call for a new era of campaign-finance reform to remove big money from electoral politics.
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