Once Occupy Wall Street demonstrations started to sweep across America, the mainstream media began to pay attention -- and sounded a chorus of criticism. The movement was disorganized; it had no agenda. It wasn't organized like the Tea Party. Fox News trotted out ace reporter Geraldo Rivera -- really -- to charge that European anarchists, paid illegal aliens, and out and out leftists were behind the innocent kids. Herman Cain led disapproving Republicans, calling the movement "un-American," when he should have been celebrating what it was doing for pizza sales.
Virtually everything said about this movement is wrong. Stand back; take a clear look. Every politician should understand one thing: this is coming at you and you must decide. Whose side are you on?
1. Moral clarity
Occupy Wall Street has no policy agenda, but it has utter moral clarity. The demonstrators have built an island of democracy in the belly of Wall Street. The bankers looking down on them would be on the street had not taxpayers bailed them out. And now they are confronted with students sinking under student debt with no jobs, homeowners who are underwater and can't find mortgage relief, workers desperate for work.
No one is confused about the message. Wall Street got bailed out; Main Street was abandoned. The top 1% rigs the rules and pockets the rewards. And 99% get sent the bill for the party they weren't even invited to.
2. Non violent discipline
That moral clarity was dramatized when the demonstrators stayed disciplined in the face of police provocation, including pepper spray in the face. The movement did not begin to sweep the country until people saw the police protecting Wall Street's banksters by assaulting peaceful protestors. Suddenly this wasn't a disorganized, rag tag gathering. These were citizens under attack for exercising their rights. That struck a powerful moral chord.
3. A Rising Protest
Across the country, people have responded to this clarity. Unemployed kids rallied to their side. White-collar workers stopped by for lunch. Suburbanites came in to share. On Wall Street, Liberty Square became a tourist center.
Unions and national progressive organizations marched in support, without pretending to speak for the demonstrators. For progressives, this surge of protest began building months ago, when thousands of people rallied to take over the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin to protest Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to crush worker rights. It built over the summer as thousands turned up at town meetings and sobered legislators with their demand for jobs, not cuts. The Washington Post suggested that unions and national organizers were resentful of Occupy Wall Street, but in fact most were buoyed by the energy unleashed, the moral challenge posed.
4. Political Steamroller
Pundits dismiss Occupy Wall Street for not having a clear agenda. They are told to turn their protests into political demands. Some offer suggestions of what they should advocate -- "infrastructure investment" says Paul Krugman, a speculation tax on banks, home mortgage relief. The press wonders if Occupy will become the left-wing Tea Party and run candidates in elections, as if left-wing Koch brothers were orchestrating the protests.
But this is silly. Occupy Wall Street is already a political steamroller. Without an agenda, without an electoral operation, without a slate of candidates, if it continues to grow, it will force every national politician to decide whose side he or she is on. Are you with the banks or with the 99%? And prove it. Reporters will insure the question gets posed; voters will be interested in the answer.
This is a question that discomfits the White House, as Vice President Joe Biden admitted, since the administration bailed out the banks without reforming them. It is a question that exposes Republicans -- particularly Tea Party Republicans -- the ersatz populists who brayed against the bank bailout in the election, and then have worked tirelessly to rollback any reforms, gut the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and reopen the financial casino. It is a question, as the demonstrators show, not simply about the banks. The demonstrators demand action on jobs. And they want Wall Street to pay us back -- not cuts in Medicare or student loans or schools.
And these challenges are likely to grow more stark. Mass unemployment is continuing. More and more Americans are losing their homes. More kids are graduating from school into the worst jobs scene in decades. Big banks are in increasing legal and financial peril for their pervasive fraud and abuses in the housing bubble. Independent Attorneys General like New York State's Eric Schneiderman have launched investigations. Investors are collecting on lawsuits.
If this economy continues to stagnate or slow, which seems increasingly likely, banks like Bank of America are going to looking for another bailout. And once more, every national politician, from the president on down, will have to decide whose side they are on.
5. It's Only Just Begun
No one can predict what happens to Occupy Wall Street, but the public protests have just begun. When the Civil Rights Movement took off, it too faced many of the same criticisms. It had too many demands. Its priorities were unclear. Did it want only to overturn legal segregation? Why was King going to Chicago? Why was he talking about poverty, and not just about equal rights? How dare he talk about the war?
But King wasn't the only voice. There were competing and complementary centers of power. There were lawyers and lobbyists. Students in SNCC chafed at King's caution. Black power challenged integration. Riots shook the country.
Movements aren't tidy. They aren't organized. They unleash energy. They inspire ordinary people to leave their daily routines and do extraordinary things. They inspire; they insult; they mortify. They disrupt business as usual. And if they touch a chord, they grow, and they force politicians and citizens to decide.
Historically, when America has reached the levels of extreme inequality and corruption that it now witnesses, popular movements arise to demand change. The populist movements of the late 19th century took on the Robber Barons. Unions, left parties, Huey Long and his "every man a King" movement pushed Roosevelt from the left in the 1930s. And now, even as pundits were wondering where the left was, the eruption is beginning again.
Will this movement be a factor in the 2012 elections? It already is. Will it make clear demands? It already has. Whose side are you on? Wall Street or kids in the street? The top 1% or the 99%? It doesn't get clearer than that.
Follow Robert L. Borosage on Twitter: www.twitter.com/borosage