Back in July, before most of New York City knew who he was — before the Dante commercial — Bill de Blasio had to get arrested at a protest in order to get noticed. (“Just As He Wanted,” scoffed the New York Times headline.) The civil disobedience solidarity stunt — to save a local hospital and be seen in the process — was not new for De Blasio, who showed up in Zuccotti Park two years ago when Occupy Wall Street first faced eviction at the hands of Mayor Bloomberg. Long before he debuted his “Tale of Two Cities” campaign theme, the public advocate called the Occupy protests a “heartfelt movement that’s speaking to what people are feeling all over this country.”
De Blasio rode a version of that same message to the Democratic nomination, and now, as the mayoral favorite, he has the city’s one percent sweating over his tax plan and the sitting billionaire mayor scaremongering about the crime-ridden seventies. But does De Blasio really speak for the 99 percent? Sure, he speaks for them, say Occupy’s organizers, who are celebrating the dwindled movement’s second anniversary today. But whether or not he will work for them is an open question. They are not optimistic.
“Occupy Wall Street pulled the growing crisis of income inequality out into the light of day, and challenged us all to address it head-on,” De Blasio told Daily Intelligencer in a statement. “There’s no question it has left an indelible mark on the city and the country.” It also left an obvious mark on his campaign strategy.
“I think it opened up the political and social space in a way that helped embolden progressive politicians like De Blasio to push their rhetoric in ways that they might not have been able to,” said top Occupy organizer Michael Premo. “I think it’s very clear that De Blasio, like Obama in his reelection campaign, mightily benefited from the rhetorical landscape that the Occupy apocalypse left us with,” said Nathan Schneider, the author of a new book on the movement, Thank You, Anarchy: Notes From the Occupy Apocalypse. “His gamble on the populist politics of economics and race paid off big time, a populism that without Occupy would have been drowned out in Bloomberg’s dynamo. It was through Occupy, especially, that many young white people in the city first learned about the stop-and-frisk policy, which folks of color already knew about intimately.”
But appropriating Occupy’s rhetoric is a balancing act: While De Blasio promised, if elected, to “work to build spaces where OWS and government officials could communicate and discuss ways to address their demands,” his campaign quickly backtracked after criticism from Bloomberg, insisting he didn’t mean build spaces literally. (“Part of the branding is the result of talented stagecraft from the likes of the progressive PR outfit BerlinRosen and an army of campaign experts,” warned Ari Paul of De Blasio in the progressive Brooklyn Rail. “Plenty of other folks helped write the script.”) De Blasio is not expected to make at an appearance at Zuccotti today.
The overly optimistic may have learned their lesson from President Obama, who turned out not to be the progressive savior some dreamed of. Premo is managing his expectations of a potential Mayor De Blasio. “He’s not quite a Bulworth-type politician, but he’s better than many,” he said. “The rhetoric of campaigning is very different than the reality of governance.”
Occupiers “aren’t taking much time resting on laurels here,” says Schneider. “They tend to see De Blasio, like Obama, as someone who is riding their rhetorical wave without a lot of evidence that he’s going to usher in the radical changes that they’d like to see, or anything close.” For all of De Blasio’s activist cred, Schneider said, “he’s an Establishment candidate, backed by a Democratic Party that has always been safely bought off by the one percent.”
Bill Dobbs, a longtime OWS activist and press liaison, embodies that distrust. Yes, De Blasio “talked some Occupy talk” during the primary, he said. “Is it smoke and mirrors, or will he have guts if elected? Occupy never endorsed candidates or parties — it isn’t just about who gets Gracie Mansion,” he stressed. “Unless we the people stand together we’ll continue to get ripped off by politicians and corporations no matter who is in office.”
“I think it’s too amorphous now,” said De Blasio of Occupy in 2011. “My concern is that it’s not particularly organized, there’s not a particularly clear set of demands, and I hope for the benefit of the public debate that that will happen.” It didn’t, and with the movement’s presence in the city much diminished two years on, its legacy lives on mostly in his own campaign slogans and sound bites. Translating them into real change is the hard part.