The best publicity the Occupy Wall Street movement got in New York last week came on a bus from Long Island, courtesy of the conservative Koch Brothers.
The Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity had billed its small Times Square rally as a protest against the “Occupy Wall Street mob,” though in truth that was just marketing: None of the speakers at the half-hour rally focused on last year’s leftist movement, sticking instead to conservative arguments about President Obama’s record on the economy familiar from the presidential campaign trail. The addresses by local conservatives attracted about thirty people to the half-hour sidewalk rally, along with a half-dozen genuine Occupiers, two in suits. One held a sign reading: “Thank You Koch Brothers.”
The sign was apt. Occupy Wall Street has largely faded as a movement, but it retains notoriety, relevance, and an occasional illusion of momentum courtesy of conservatives in whose imagination it continues to loom large as the perfect foil.
Occupy has come to represent something useful to the mobilized new right: It’s what they imagine all liberals really believe, an unapologetic assault on the rich and on American capitalism, represented in caricature by drummers and anarchists. This fixation motivates the online conservative grassroots, and spills over into mainstream politics: Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown’s campaign recently sent a birthday cake to Elizabeth Warren on Occupy’s anniversary, calling her the “matriarch of mayhem,” and Brown himself called her the “founder of the radical Occupy protest movement” in Thursday night’s debate. The conservative Washington, D.C. website the Daily Caller has continue to pay attention to the protests long after most outlets have scaled back, and publishes multiple stories per week on the subject even now in September 2012.
After the rally, Steve Lonegan, the New Jersey state director for AFP and a former two-time candidate for the Republican nomination for governor of New Jersey, conceded that Occupy is “obviously not” as strong as it used to be.
“We used Occupy Wall Street to get our message out,” he said. “It’s a counterpoint. Why not take advantage of any opportunity?”
Lonegan’s answer may have been revealing, but the other attendees at the protest weren’t so cynical about Occupy’s power.
“I think it’s pretty scary, some of the anti-American things they say,” said Irene VanHattam, a retired teacher from Wanaque, New Jersey. “Wall Street has so many regulations — they’re not as free to do things as the occupiers think. The real money is in Washington.”
Joseph Connor of New Jersey, who recently wrote a novel with a forward by conservative punidt Dick Morris, said that ‘it seemed like it wasn’t as much about Occupy Wall Street.”
“They’ve lost a lot of their strength, thank God,” Connor said. But he thought there was something wrong with the two men in suits.
“There’s something up with those two,” he said. “I think they’re being disingenuous.”
(The pair introduced themselves as John Wilker and Robert Stetson, said they worked on Wall Street but wouldn’t say where, and were almost certainly protesters — or at least playing a practical joke.)
The smattering of occupiers who came to protest met with suspicion and even anger — one man yelled to one of them that his sign was deceptive and should be taken down, though he would never meddle with his First Amendment rights, he said.
The attitude spoke to the pervasive sense in the Tea Party/grassroots conservative rank-and-file that Occupy is a threat to the American way, no matter its strength or visibility.
It’s an attitude shaped less by fact than by a media narrative that plays up Occupy, as seen in the Caller and in “Occupy Unmasked,” a documentary produced by Citizens United this year. “Occupy Unmasked” is the brainchild of the late Andrew Breitbart, directed by his friend and business partner Steven Bannon.
“On September 19 he calls me and says we’ve got to do a movie,” Bannon told BuzzFeed in a phone interview. “I said Andrew, can you give this up? It’s just a bunch of college kids waiting for Radiohead.”
“It was really the Brooklyn Bridge thing when I thought, wow, that is well organized,” Bannon said, referring to the September 2011 protest in which 700 people were arrested while blocking traffic on their way from Manhattan to Brooklyn.
Bannon dismissed the notion that Occupy has lost steam.
“Anyone who writes that the Occupy movement is dead because it didn’t burn down Charlotte or Tampa totally misses the point,” he said. “I think this is a very large movement and a very well-organized movement.”
“If Obama wins the popular vote and Romney wins the electoral vote, the Occupy movement will be out in large numbers on November 7,” he said. “What you’re seeing today is the remnants of phase one. With Anonymous it can be pulled together very quickly.”
Occupy Unmasked does a convincing job of presenting Occupy that way. The film is narrated by Breitbart and Lee Stranahan, and focuses on the way Occupy was presented in the media, its associations with organized labor and the professional left, and the crime and general disarray that became pervasive in Zuccotti Park. Scenes of mayhem and masked protesters are set to ominous music, in one scene, a union member looks to have been assigned to follow Breitbart at Occupy Los Angeles.
It ends on a powerful note: the moment at the Conservative Political Action Conference this year, shortly before Breitbart’s death, when he stood outside and screamed at the occupiers protesting the event. “Stop raping people!” Breitbart yelled. “Behave yourselves!”
But the movie makes Occupy seem much more organized than it was. The basic structure of the movement, based as it was on late 20th-century anarchist theories of horizontal power-sharing, was inherently disorganized and distrustful of any form of leadership. By the second month of the protest, organizers had been forced to institute an entirely different second structure for meetings, since nothing was getting done in the General Assemblies. Unions have lost interest in recent months and stopped sending the ground troops that used to fill out otherwise-thin Occupy marches; and as for crime, the park attracted drug addicts and criminals who did deplorable things — there was more than one reported sexual assault — but the end of the park ended that too.
The evictions from the nation’s parks ended pretty much everything that was truly attention-grabbing about Occupy. Their comeback efforts have fallen flat time and again, most recently at their one-year anniversary on September 17, which drew a scant crowd of protestors and was more of a local nuisance than a revolution.
Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks, said he understood why conservatives still talked about occupiers, though he doesn’t pay them much mind.
“They do represent everything we stand against, so I can understand why people are still battling them,” he said.
But “Occupy is not a real movement at all,” he said. “It kind of fizzled out a while back.”