Diagonally across from the south-east corner of the vast World Trade Center construction site sits a small urban oasis called Zuccotti Park. The park’s 3,000 sq. m squeezed between monuments to self-assured American capitalism—office towers to the north and south and across the street a World Trade Center monolith that will eventually rise 290m high.

For the past three months, however, Zuccotti Park has been a monument to something altogether different. Until the police moved in two weeks ago, the park was home to a motley encampment of nylon tents and unbathed, outlandishly clothed protesters, the vanguard of apopulist movement the likes of which America hasn’t seen in 40 years. Although the protestors are quick to link their movement to the Arab Spring or Anna Hazare movement, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) hardly compares with uprisings that toppled dictators or forced through anti-corruption laws. But if you want to understand the forces shaping the next US election, Zuccotti Park is ground zero.

As near as anyone can tell, OWS originated with a July call from Adbusters, an anti-consumerist Canadian magazine:

“Are you ready for a Tahrir Moment? On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan (New York’s financial district), set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and Occupy Wall Street for a few months."

The magazine provided the call to action and the hashtag, #OccupyWallStreet—and in a Twitter-and-Facebook-connected world, that was all the spark that was needed. The Adbuster message circulated among a loose-knit network of anarchist/anti-globalist/socialist fringe groups, whose members live for anti-capitalist protest. They teamed with a New York group that had briefly occupied another city park in protest against city spending cutbacks. The movement had its missionaries.

On 17 September, those protesters moved into Zuccotti Park. It’s not clear why the police failed to evict them on their first night there; apparently they hesitated to intervene since the park is privately owned (it belongs to the landlord of one of the neighbouring high-rises). Once established in the park, the missionaries had their pulpit.

Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

What, exactly, are the occupiers protesting against? Frankly, it can be hard to tell. The Adbusters website describes OWS as a “leaderless people-powered movement" that “vows to end the monied corruption of our democracy" (occupiers take “leaderless" so literally that Occupy Denver members elected a border collie as their leader). When asked by poll-takers, occupiers volunteer demands ranging from tighter bank regulations and higher taxes on the wealthy to a national healthcare, forgiveness for student loans and an end to capitalism. A fifth said they didn’t know what they wanted.

The emotion that OWS has tapped, however, is clear. Over 2,000 handwritten posts scanned onto a blog called, We Are the 99 Percent, captures a sense of helplessness and injustice among many Americans, fuelled by an unemployment rate that refuses to budge below 9%. Among the posts:

“I have a bachelor’s degree in communication (writes a 26-year-old college graduate) but I have not found a professional job in the four years since I graduated. I owe at least $20,000 in student loans."

“Husband is a master carpenter who has had no work for three years. I need new glasses and my teeth are breaking off. My husband hurts all the time."

“I pay 30% in taxes so that too-big-to-fail banks can be rescued from their own self-inflicted failure, while I… have to choose between paying for health insurance and my mortgage."

Thanks in part to that blog, OWS’ public image finally began to coalesce around a single idea: Far too much of the national income is going to the richest 1% of Americans and too little to the remaining 99%. Indeed this is more than just a slogan: According to a government study published just as the OWS movement was gaining traction, Americans in the top 1% of household incomes saw their incomes grow seven times as fast as the bottom 80% since 1979. Over the same period, the top 1% more than doubled their share of national income to 17%.

In other words, the movement at last had a cause that mainstream Americans could support. President Barack Obama and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke have both expressed sympathy and Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate who has become the Left’s most prominent economist, took the income inequality data even further in a late November column called, “We are the 99.9%."

“We are the 99% is a great slogan. If anything, however, (it) aims too low. A large fraction of the top 1% gains have actually gone to an even smaller group, the top 0.1%—the richest one-thousandth of the population… (according to an earlier study that ended in 2005), between 1979 and 2005 the inflation-adjusted, after-tax income of Americans in the middle of the income distribution rose 21%. The equivalent number for the richest 0.1% rose 400%."

Ironically, just as the occupiers have seized an issue that resonates with mainstream Americans, their appeal is starting to wane. Videos of protesters scuffling with the police sent to evict them have turned opinion against occupiers as much as the police. When asked whether they had a higher opinion of OWS or of the Tea Party, only 37% chose the occupiers compared with 43% for the Tea Party—a reversal in their relative standing just a month ago. “These are tough numbers for Occupy Wall Street," wrote Chris Bowers, an unabashed OWS supporter, on the DailyKos blog.

Even so, the Occupy movement has made its mark. Income inequality, an economic problem that had been quietly festering for decades, is now squarely on the political map. Awareness of the wealthy’s outsized gains has hardened middle-class voters’ attitude against them,which will make Republicans’ fawning policy towards the wealthy even harder to explain in an election campaign.

Will that matter? The last time a scruffy and easily dismissed protest movement began to occupy city parks and college campuses, it changed how Americans thought about the Vietnam War and eventually helped bring US involvement in that conflict to a close. Who knows? In its incoherent way, OWS may have forced Americans to question their faith in free-market economics and, in the end, may have given Obama and the Democrats the resonant campaign issue they desperately need. That’s not a Hazare-like populist earthquake. But it’s a rumble that will still be heard in 2012.

Eric Schurenberg is money editor at large, AARP The Magazine and AARP.org, and former editor of Money.

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