A right-wing website warned earlier this month, in reference to mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, “Occupy Wall Street may soon occupy New York’s City Hall.” Get out your tents, folks.
Yesterday’s primary election has just about assured that de Blasio will be the next mayor of New York. De Blasio surged ahead to the front of a crowded race in recent weeks by fashioning himself as champion of the downtrodden — to the point of getting himself arrested in protest of a hospital closure. In his youth, he was active in struggles against U.S. military policy in Latin America and nuclear power plants, and more recently, he has made overtures to sympathizers of Occupy Wall Street. In August he told The Wall Street Journal that “As mayor … I would work to build spaces where OWS and government officials could communicate and discuss ways to address their demands.” He has also been highly critical of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s brute-force method of eliminating the occupation at Zuccotti Park, calling it, in an interview with The Nation, “a very troubling precedent.”
Is this election a victory for a movement that, as it approaches its second anniversary on September 17, has lately been low in visibility and short on confidence? When it seemed last night that de Blasio had topped the 40-percent mark that would prevent a run-off election, an OWS Twitter account celebrated.
During the height of the movement in late 2011, de Blasio’s enthusiasm for it was tempered, to say the least. Like other reform-minded public figures eager to absorb Occupy’s revolutionary impulses for their own purposes, he wanted clarity from the popular outcry. He told Capital New York, “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.” This, however, didn’t stop him from allowing himself to be seen giving sympathetic speeches and “mic checks” against the backdrop of occupied Zuccotti Park.
Meanwhile, as Ted Hamm points out at The Brooklyn Rail, de Blasio’s claim to be a “true progressive” is at least partly deceiving. His campaign — along with those of Christine Quinn and Bill Thompson — has for instance taken contributions from John Zuccotti himself, co-chair of Brookfield Office Properties. He has had some other unsettling trysts with city real estate developers as well.
When ridiculed by other politicians for the promise to “build spaces” for protesters, de Blasio’s campaign clarified that this doesn’t refer to actual, physical spaces. Maybe we’re talking about something more along the lines of virtual “spaces” for “public debate” and “dialogue” — most likely, a dutiful website. Or else this could be the subject of a decent meme spree: What should Camp de Blasio look like?
This is an exciting moment in New York City for those interested in unsettling the rule of the 1 percent. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s chosen successor, Christine Quinn, has lost decisively. The City Council managed to override Bloomberg’s veto of measures meant to reign in the discriminatory stop-and-frisk policing policy. A “true progressive” is poised to be the next mayor.
Though yesterday’s election amounted to nothing like the dancing in the street I experienced in Harlem on the night Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, it’s worth keeping that moment in mind now. After that youth-driven campaign, progressive organizing came nearly to a halt in the early months and years of Obama’s presidency as people waited for the “hope” and “change” they’d voted for to be made manifest. When Occupy Wall Street arose in 2011, its culture was saturated with a sense of resentment, of having been failed by the progressive leaders this generation of youth had organized to elect. Those working to transform politics from the ground up in New York City should beware of making the same mistake, of taking a break from movement-building to trust in a man and his mysterious “spaces.”