Opinion: America Wanted a Job, but Got an Occupation

Sign at Occupy Wall Street Rally.

Occupy Wall Street is growing: in attendees - Friday afternoon, Zuccotti Park appeared a mix of a camp for communal living, an art fair and Lower Manhattan's latest tourist destination; in locations - in Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter screened the Phillies game for the occupiers; and in prominence.

From the left, Paul Krugman has offered his sympathetic support in the pages of the New York Times, Barbara Ehrenreich has led a teach-in and the AFL-CIO has joined the chorus of establishment cheerleaders. From the right, Eric Cantor has inveighed against the "mob" and Mitt Romney has decried class warfare.

With such endorsements and detractors, it's safe to say the "occupy" meme has found its way out of the media blackout and into the media spotlight.

For progressives, this could pose a quandary. The important mantra of "jobs, jobs, jobs" had finally found its way into the drumbeat of Democratic discourse. President Obama - after a summer of promising to propose a plan - has been barnstorming for the American Jobs Act. Labor, after a season on the defensive, was rallying to the cause and the opportunity to push forward. Rebuild the Dream, an umbrella of social and economic justice organizations, was galvanizing members to host events around investing in America.

And then a seemingly haphazard collection of protesters set up shop in one of NYC's few 24-hour parks. Their insistence on democratic consensus-building has frustrated those allies who want a clear platform. Their authentic expression of frustration isn't as narrow as the president's call to "Pass the bill now." Will their anarchic appearance distract from legislative opportunity? Will the radical voices among them scare moderates who may back away from Obama's fundamentally centrist proposals as well? Will "jobs" have to compete with "occupy" for the catch-phrase of the week?

The short answer is not necessarily. There are plenty of ways this could cut against the Democrats - much like the Mets, the Dems seem to find an endless series of bad hops. Progressive leaders could attempt to co-opt the occupation in a way that creates backlash and disarray? The more radical elements of the protest could echo and amplify in ways that cause Dems to stumble away appearing off-balance, naive and unprincipled. The deliberative process of the General Assembly could lose the attention of our fast-moving media.

Or the narrative could emerge that the Left has needed: That our unemployment and economic anxiety is directly tied to the financial mess caused by the recklessness of Wall Street Titans, with the complicity of cozy elected officials, none of whom have ever been held accountable. The president gave Wall Street a "get our of jail free" card - and a ticket into his cabinet. The Democrats ignored rising frustrations and let the Tea Party steal part of the story. When debt and deficit overtook jobs and economic security, the media had a completely different fable to run with.

Occupy Wall Street is bringing this tale back. It's not competing with a narrative about job creation. It is the background for the story of our economy. It points to a problem, and in doing so suggests solutions, to not only create jobs, but also embrace an underlying morality about fairness and accountability, economic justice and security.

A jobs bill is a big and necessary piece of a solution -- but the movement can and should be bigger than one bill…and as regular Americans "Occupy Everywhere" they are shaping a great big narrative.

Walking through Zuccotti Park, you may hear less about "The American Jobs Act" and "infrastructure investment" and more about "banksters" vs "the 99%." But at least you hear people talking about the economy. You hear people trading their stories, communicating about their struggles and expressing their hopes. Our side needs to do more than chase a slogan. We need to share a real story with America.

So let's get everyone a job. But first, maybe, everyone needs an occupation.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."