On Oct. 3, two weeks after the first Occupy Wall Street squatter settled on a marble bench in Zuccotti Park, most of the nation's liberal kingpins gathered 200 miles away in Washington to voice their solidarity. "Let the word go forth," called a speaker on the ballroom stage at the Washington Hilton. "They got unity on Wall Street. They got unity in 50-some cities. And we've got unity in this room."
It was a remarkable gamble: hundreds of student, environmental, labor, feminist, immigrant and minority-rights leaders pledging support for a cause they neither foresaw nor controlled. Even more remarkable was the man speaking that day: Van Jones, a Tennessee-born activist who just two years earlier had resigned his post overseeing green-jobs programs in the Obama Administration amid a growing scandal over his radical past. Jones is now back in the spotlight, leading the fight to get progressive groups to support the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Alternating between rabble rouser and PowerPoint-wielding professor, he laid out his theory of how the left had gone wrong by ceding the national conversation to the Tea Party and why the Occupy protests could help bring it back on track. "They went down there to the scene of the crime against our future," he said, his thunderous tone somewhat at odds with his red power tie and rimless glasses. "They went down there, and they have been camping in the rain. They have been pepper-sprayed, they have been falsely arrested, and they never once broke discipline." The crowd of national activists howled its approval. "There isn't another leader who can pull people like that together," says Robert Borosage, a director of the Campaign for America's Future, which agreed to rebrand its annual conference at Jones' suggestion as a meeting of the American Dream Movement.
Jones' remarks that day were in many ways the start of a full-scale embrace of Occupy by the liberal establishment. The protests have remained a diffuse operation, directed only by local activists who meet in city squares across the country. The protesters didn't solicit outside leadership, and for weeks Democratic politicians, from President Obama on down, didn't quite know whether or how to get on board. But with Jones' participation, the protesters are now supported by a coalition of more than 70 liberal organizations--including MoveOn.org several large labor unions and Planned Parenthood--that provide resources and a more coordinated message. Tarps and zero-degree sleeping bags have flooded into squares through a website set up by Jones' partners. Thousands of the groups' members have turned up for marches, and 350,000 signed a petition to Mayor Michael Bloomberg after he threatened to evict the protesters from lower Manhattan so the park could be cleaned. When Occupy protesters pushed for a boycott of bailed-out megabanks, Jones started a Move Your Money website, gathering 70,000 pledges from people across the country to transfer their funds to local community banks or credit unions.