They seemed at first like a bunch of naïve college kids, but the movement now known as Occupy Wall Street quickly evolved into something that moved the national political conversation decidedly to the left. To the frustration of many media outlets, the occupiers refused to state a list of demands and insisted they had no leadership. That second claim seemed dubious. Clearly there were leaders, whether or not they chose to identify themselves as such. They started in New York, though just as the New York movement drew inspiration from the Arab spring and protests in Madrid and elsewhere, it quickly spurred imitators in other U.S. cities and around the globe. Public spaces, most notably Zuccotti Park near Wall Street, became places to air free-wheeling discussions and demonstrate and attract attention to all kinds of issues, from fracking to taxes to the origin and purpose of the monetary system.
The movement got some help from the police and city governments, whose less-than-sensitive, occasionally brutal handling of the protests attracted widespread sympathy and attention, not to mention donations and a broader following. Soon, politicians were regularly referring to Occupy Wall Street. President Obama said the movement reflected "broad-based frustration about how our financial system works." House Majority Leader Eric Cantor denounced the protesters as a mob but then backed away from the statement. While the protesters never stated an agenda, it hardly seemed like a stretch to give them some credit for small shifts in attitude by businesses and politicians, such as the decision by Bank of America ( BAC) to forget about a planned $5 monthly fee for debit card use just a month after announcing the strategy, following the lead of JPMorgan Chase ( JPM), SunTrust ( STI) and other companies that were considering similar fees before changing their plans. Still, as the protests continued, they attracted people more interested in a free meal, a fistfight or a night in a stranger's sleeping bag than in making a political statement. Many mayors and neighborhood businesses and communities -- even sympathetic ones -- grew weary of the drums, the hooliganism, the campers and the piles of stuff lying around occupied public spaces. In New York, police came in the middle of the night, shutting out the media and clearing out the protesters. Many observers on all sides thought it was a good thing. Even supporters of the principles suggested by the Occupy movement -- narrowing the income gap and reducing the influence of money in politics, among other goals -- said it was time for the movement to harness its message in more meaningful, lasting ways. -- Dan Freed