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Originally published November 16, 2011 at 8:45 PM | Page modified November 17, 2011 at 6:46 AM

A time to take stock of Occupy Wall Street

Everywhere, it seems, people want to weigh in about the Occupy Wall Street protests, but so far, the talk has translated into little action.

The Associated Press

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NEW YORK — Everywhere, it seems, people want to weigh in about the Occupy Wall Street protests, from business executives and politicians to your next-door neighbor. So far, the talk has translated into little action.

With police dismantling protest encampments city by city, few politicians or policymakers have publicly taken up the protesters' cause and done anything to address corporate excesses and economic inequality.

But some political observers say the demonstrators have changed the conversation in the U.S., and that is a big first step.

"They've shifted the center of gravity of the debate so that the whole question of wealth and privilege is now being discussed," said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. "In a democracy, what people are talking about matters."

Georgia state Sen. Vincent Fort, a Democrat who was among those arrested when protesters were expelled from an Atlanta park last month, said he is not troubled by the absence of any major tangible change.

"The Occupy movement is a relative baby. It's just a few months old," he said. "The most important thing it has done is to change the conversation in this country. You can't have any policy change, you can't have any legislative change, until the debate is changed."

Examples of real, measurable Occupy-inspired change in the political sphere are hard to come by, though some millionaires did arrive on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to urge Congress to tax them more, claiming they are not paying their "fair share."

In Rhode Island, Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse noted that Occupy activists encouraged customers to fight back recently against fees imposed by major banks, a fight that ended with Bank of America and its competitors backing down. Whitehouse is trying to channel the anger that has bubbled up in the Occupy movement against big banks as he seeks support for a bill to crack down on credit-card interest rates.

Union leaders say the Occupy movement has brought a spark of optimism and energy to organized labor after a summer of setbacks and assaults on bargaining power.

"The Occupy movement has framed the fight," said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union. "They've totally changed the debate within a 30-day period."

Labor leaders insist the Occupy movement's message of economic inequality was a factor this month in Ohio, where voters overwhelmingly repealed a law curtailing public employees' right to collective bargaining.

Political experts are skeptical of that claim.

"That's a stretch," said Paul Beck, a political-science professor at The Ohio State University in Columbus. "The sentiment of Ohioans on that bill very much precedes any of the Occupy Wall Street activities and their spinoffs in various cities."

As for why protesters have yet to turn the conversation into major action, critics said the movement has never clarified its objectives and is hampered by a lack of clear-cut leadership.

Kalle Lasn, co-founder of Adbusters, the Canadian magazine that helped ignite the Occupy Wall Street movement by issuing the initial call for the demonstration last spring, said the "original magic" faded somewhat as news coverage of the encampments around the country began to focus less on the participants' idealism and more on drugs, violence and homelessness.

"Somehow, we lost the high ground, we lost the narrative," he said. "Tactically, the moment was right to declare victory, have a big global party and come back swinging next spring."

Where does the movement go from here, especially now that police cleared out its unofficial headquarters, Zuccotti Park in New York City?

Will marches pack the same punch as a noisy, ever-present outdoor camp in the heart of New York's financial district? The protesters may learn the answer to that Thursday, when they plan acts of civil disobedience, including marches over bridges in several cities and an occupation of the New York City subway system.

"This thing has gone so far and reflects such intense feeling that I don't think there's any chance at all that we just saw it end," said Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University authority on the student left during the 1960s.

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