I'm only speaking for myself here. For the purposes of this post I'm referring to The 99% as the broader movement, as it has been around at least since the Wisconsin protests, and Occupy Wall Street (OWS) as a major event and component of that movement.
First off, credit to the protesters. Just as we saw earlier this year in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan, boots on the ground activists are renewing hope. Their activism serves as a reminder that progressive movements have triumphed despite seemingly insurmountable opposition from powerful interests before and can do so again. The vibrant array of protesters in New York have set in motion something truly remarkable, as cities across the country are joining in. Needless to say, Occupy Wall Street is doing a lot of things right.
The 99% movement's strength comes from its focus on the urgent problems facing everyday Americans and accountability for the culprits who crashed our economy. Wall Street's actions effectively threw people out of their jobs, out of their homes, and into a state of constant economic insecurity, if not poverty. Three years after the crash they caused, the Great Destroyers on Wall Street still haven't been held responsible and adequately reigned in.
Here's George Addison, who works with a New York community group, hitting the nail on the head.
"We needed this. People are really struggling across the country... they need hope. They need to know that there's a voice out there that is willing to fight back for the issues that matter."
We're in the middle of an unemployment emergency and an ongoing foreclosure crisis that is directly related to the Crash of '08. Meanwhile, the responsible parties on Wall Street are making out like bandits. They continue to exert a truly insane amount of influence on our elections and the agenda elected officials pursue once they're in office. In short, Wall Street and K Street crashed our economy and subverted our democracy. The 99% have every right to be livid.
There are a lot of ways in which The 99% is not like the Tea Party. The 99% movement doesn't have a "news" channel dedicated to boosting it. It doesn't have extreme right-wing billionaires shoveling money into it from the get go. But perhaps the most important difference, and one that shouldn't be lost on journalists, is what the two groups are angry about.
The 99% protest the economic destruction wrought by an unhinged financial sector, pervasive and persistent unemployment and underemployment, rampant income inequality, union-busting, zombie slashonomics, and a government that is supposed to be by, of, and for the people but has been put in a stranglehold by corporate interests.
The Tea Party (AKA conservative Republicans trying to rebrand themselves post-George W. Bush) protests the invisible creeping menace that is Sharia Law, a perceived lack of enough (re)showings of president's birth certificate, their fear that government might be involved with Medicare (the horror), and the existence of science. Sure, Tea Partiers say they're concerned about taxes, but they lack even a cursory understanding of who pays what and when changes were made. (Note how many of them waved signs that roughly translated to "Oh No! Latinos!" at what was ostensibly a tax protest.)
The OWS protests may come across to some as "all over the place"; and a lot of issues are being protested. But the protesters are talking about very real problems. The same can't be said about the Tea Party.
The Right-Wing Response
The 99% protests are peaceful and proudly so. As organizers have repeatedly made clear, the one thing that is sure to get someone booted from an OWS event is violence.
Still, leading Republicans like Eric Cantor claim that the protesters are, if not an immediate danger, pitting Americans against other Americans. This is like Bizarro Achilles shouting "Your heel is exposed and I will strike you there, haha!" Pitting Americans against Americans is what the Republican Party does. It's their thing. Much like the charges of "class warfare," this is another example of the right inanely accusing progressives of doing something conservatives have been doing for a long time.
The 99% movement is about uniting people around common battles, common vulnerabilities, and common aspirations. Standing with the 99% are a significant number of people who are themselves well off but are also strong believers in economic fairness and responsive government. The political success of Eric Cantor and the interests he champions is dependent on people being divided in trivial ways. So if Cantor really wants to talk about who is pitting Americans against other Americans, that's a debate progressives and Democrats should welcome.
Side note: While in the Virginia House of Delegates, Cantor earned the name "Overdog" for his eagerness to go to bat for the already powerful and well connected, regardless of the damage done to his state. And now he's among the first to defend Wall Street's against the scourge of peaceful protesters. Have no fear of accountability Wall Street, Overdog is here.
Not About President Obama or the Democratic Party
One of the right-wing's first arguments for dismissing the OWS protests was that it's all part of some kind of plot to distract from President Obama's low approval ratings, or build support for his re-election. Unsurprisingly, considering the people making it, this claim is detached from reality. The participants in the OWS protests obviously aren't in on the plot.
Many of the same factors that are driving the president's approval rating down and turning his re-election into a steep uphill climb are fueling the protests, but OWS will only be "good news" for the president's re-election if his team see the intensifying economic insecurity and justifiable anger as a wake up-call. Either way, providing cover for the president is clearly not on the to-do list of OWS as a group. If anything, the opposite is true.
There a lot of Democrats who are optimistic about what the OWS protests could turn into who are also going to vote for the president next November. I'm one of them. However, if I or any other Democrat were to go down to Zuccotti Park or any other Occupy protest and proclaim that what's most important is re-electing President Obama, it's safe to assume that I would be laughed off. As anyone who actually listens to the protestors can tell you, that's just not what this is about. Any attempt to convince this movement to make a specific politician the center of its efforts would not be well received. And I think that's fine by Democratic partisans who are thrilled by the emergence of the OWS protests and the 99% movement. It's entirely appropriate.
Progressives need three things in order to be successful: electoral politics, public policy, and strong movements. We need all three, and recently we haven't had nearly enough of the latter. I'll continue to be adamant that everyone should vote. That's really basic, and I doubt getting OWS participants to "Occupy the Voting Booth" and urge others to do the same will be very difficult. Who they vote for is a somewhat different story. Progressive Dems can make our case to those who are open to listening, voter to voter, but at the end of the day the president will have to seal the deal.
The awful economy, the escalation in Afghanistan, and things like the extension of the Bush tax cuts have alienated a lot of people -- probably considerably more than the White House realizes. If the president had gotten his "Grand Bargain" and cut Social Security and Medicare, much more of the anger at the protests would be directed at him. (The Obama re-elect should send John Boehner a big basket of whatever it is Boehner likes because he really saved them from themselves on that one.) The tar sands pipeline decision looms large. I could go on. It's hard to say what percentage of the statements made that people won't vote to re-elect President Obama or are leaning against voting to re-elect him will hold up, but it would be a big mistake to dismiss the sentiment outright.
The people at OWS, broadly speaking, don't see involvement in politics as solely or even mostly about president elections. They might agree with Dems that presidential elections are obviously important, but they believe electoral politics must be part of a larger strategy. And they're right about that. Voting and then demobilizing (or being demobilized) doesn't get good results.
Political junkies who tend to get lost in who is "winning the news cycle" shouldn't forget an important underlying principle at work here: the point of involvement in politics isn't to elect any person with a "D" after their name. Politics isn't (or shouldn't be) about "our team" vs. "their team" just for the sake of having a team to cheer for or someone to root against. The people at OWS underscore this.
For what it's worth, I think there are a number of Democratic candidates who the 99% movement could enthusiastically support. When the time comes, Dems should advocate for them to do so. But that support won't be based on party identification alone.
Now would be a good time for a new reality to sink in with more establishment Dems: We had a Democratic trifecta in a time of crisis and we did not rise to the occasion. There are reasons for this; some of them valid explanations and others specious attempts to excuse timidity and political malpractice, but that doesn't change the consequences of this failure.
The Third Way-types who thought the "no where else to go" dynamic would hold indefinitely or that "better than the crazy Republicans" would be sufficient to rally the progressive base were wrong -- again. Thanks in no small part to Beltway "centrist" dogma and assorted adventures in unicorn-spotting, the Democratic Party doesn't have an effective left flank, it has a left flank that sees the party itself as ineffectual at best and unworthy of support at worst.
It will take action, not just talk, to keep this assessment from getting worse. Influential Dems in DC can come up with a new derisive term for the disaffected, or they can take responsibility and make necessary improvements. Only one approach stands a chance of working.
Co-opting and Allies
There is reportedly a lot of concern at OWS about being co-opted. This is understandable on some level, but I also think there is an easy way to gauge whether a group can be seen as a trusted ally: does the group have a track record of standing up to Wall Street's political power and standing up for core progressive values?
Labor unions like the AFL-CIO and the USW have protested Wall Street for a long time now, raising many of the same issues as OWS. They're an obvious ally. Community groups, Rebuild The Dream, and groups like Russ Feingold's Progressive United are also obvious allies.
There may be significant divergence of opinions on whether, when, and how much to support specific candidates. That is fine. It doesn't have to preclude the different strains of thought from working together on the core issues and building the movement as a whole. Unless a group is trying to steer the movement to something that is not in line with the interests and stated goals of the movement, concern about being co-opted may be overblown and arguments about taking different paths can be debated on the merits.
Enter The Paulies
As a general guiding principle, movements need to have open doors.
With that said It's evident that Ron Paul supporters and Alex Jones acolyte nutjob conspiracy theorists want to claim OWS for Ron Paul-istan. Operation Take This Thing That Is Happening And Make It About RonPaulRonPaulRonPaul Part 85,302 is underway.
To be clear, Paul's Ayn Randian ideology flies in the face of the spirit of the protests. His ardent backers would not be interested in building a fundamentally progressive movement. They are good at making Ron Paul the center of attention, but that's about it. They're very vocal and will present themselves as a powerful contingent that must be pandered to. (They shouldn't be.)
Who knows how best to deal with them. For now, it's probably enough just to be aware that the Ron Paul-loving "End the Fed" people have a different agenda from everyone else and will insist that the entirety of the movement is with them.
"Hello political activity that can be written about and vlogged and made into a Ron Paul Blimp Straw Poll Victory. We have identified you."
Clearly, this Occupy Wall Street business is all about Doctor Paul, Austrian Economics, End The Fed, Ayn Rand, and yelling "yeah, let him die" about hypothetical uninsured sick people, for freedom.*
Differences And Division
Significant cultural differences undoubtedly exist between OWS and current or potential members of the 99% movement -- the drum circles being a ubiquitous example.
To those who see the differences as cause to keep distance, I'd say that an initial "this is pretty out there" reaction to certain idiosyncrasies is probably natural. The drum circle stuff isn't for me either. It may even be a little irritating. Some of us who agree with the sentiment of the OWS protests might feel more at home at a labor rally in Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, or Lansing. But let's remember that it takes all kinds. Whether someone is straight out of Pittsburgh or acts like they're straight out of Portlandia, that's not what really matters.
At the same time, while there's nothing wrong with the more outlandish behavior, the opponents of OWS will attempt to use the cultural divide to keep people with many of the same views as the OWS protesters from joining or voicing support. The presentation question isn't an easy one. It's been suggested that the more outlandish protestors, for back of a letter term, de-hippy-ify themselves. While people shouldn't dress in a way that isn't consistent with who they are, voluntarily toning it down a little would be helpful. Or other people can join in to help balance out the crowd. Presentation matters, but at the end of the day, people shouldn't get bogged down in relatively insignificant differences.
Then there's the question of the left flank of the OWS protests. Some protesters bring with them signs and slogans that are a little much. Here I'd point to the New Deal as a guide. There were vocal organizations well to FDR's left that did a lot to make progress possible. The Tea Party has pulled an already very conservative Republican Party even further to the extreme right. The discussion inside the Beltway is routinely far to the right of both what the country needs and what most people want. An assertive actual left can help restore some balance. Supporting OWS doesn't mean you agree with everyone there about everything. And there are much worse things than having vocal people to your left.
The Internal Debate
Discussion of the protests that turns to constructive criticism may seem like carping from the side lines to the protesters that are on the ground. After all, they are the ones doing the difficult work. The criticism reflects two things: the potential of the protests and the urgency of the moment. In this respect, the criticism is a compliment.
Without getting into things that will be decided by those who are on site, I think there can be broad agreement that two of the most important characteristics for OWS/The 99% to have going forward are accessibility and relevance. In other words, know your coalition and know your audience. Avoid esoteric jargon when speaking to the public at large and recognize that what gives the movement its power to affect change is that its speaking to urgent problems facing the 99% of the country the movement is named after.
Sometime fairly soon, the organizers at the OWS protests may need to come up with an answer to one question a protestor raised: Is this a protest or is it Woodstock?
Listening to those who are camped out at OWS, it's clear that the community aspect and the whole experience of being there is deeply meaningful to them. And of course that's a positive thing. Still, if OWS begins to be seen as more of a Woodstock-type event than a protest, its political relevance will start diminishing. This doesn't seem to have turned into a problem yet, but in the coming weeks it very well could.
Again, Occupy Wall Street's appeal is that it is going to take on Wall Street's power and rally people to the cause of breaking Wall Street's grip on our economy and our political system. "Occupy Wall Street" resonates in a way that "Gathering at Zucotti Park" wouldn't. There are probably ways to reconcile the need for an experience and the need to have forward motion on some kind of agenda, but it's doesn't hurt to be aware of the tension and the potential trade-off.
Crazy: It Comes With The Territory
To their credit, the people at OWS have done a very good job of dealing with the kind of individuals who show up to any event like this that draws a sizeable crowd and receives media coverage. When some idiot held up a large "Zionist Jews Control The Stop Sign That Made Me Late To Crazy Land" type sign, he was soon countered by signs labeling him, appropriately, an a-hole whose deranged views are anathema to the 99% movement. LaRouchies, Birthers, the UFO Disclosure people, the "Stop the Lizard People" people, and who knows who else could show up next. But this comes with the territory and OWS seems to have got this covered.
There's a lot of good suggestions around about specific things to include in an eventual platform. From reigning in Wall Street (examples: a financial transaction tax, breaking up the big banks, getting aggressive about the foreclosure crisis by forcing action the banks really won't like); to campaign finance reform and voting rights; to direct job creation and stopping counterproductive austerity hysteria economics; to fighting union busting, the big carbon polluters, and the interests who try to play the 99% against each other over things like race, gender, and sexual orientation; there are a lot of issues and themes people can organize around that will have the added effect of further illustrating what The 99% movement is about.
The 99% could call for ending our forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and using the resources to rebuild at home. The war this country needs is a war on unemployment and foreclosures and stagnant income. The good jobs that could be created using the resources we're wasting in Afghanistan would definitely help. As I've said before, forget "pivoting" to jobs; we need to kick the jobs crisis in the teeth... repeatedly, until it goes way. The president and Congress should be waging war on our economic enemies like unemployment and foreclosures -- enemies that need to meet the doctrine of overwhelming force.
The 99% movement and the OWS protests could become a voice of conscience and true pragmatism; the voice for what is needed and what is right, not what a broken system and timid politicians will sign off on. Two simple questions: If we got the money out of politics, so that Wall Street and K Street didn't dominate the discussion, what would we be talking about right now? And how do we get the money out of politics?
There are a lot of directions this could go in but there is reason to be optimistic. The bottom line is that our government is not supposed to be for sale. It has been stolen. And it's long past time to take it back. Here's to the OWS protests and the broader 99% movement leading to the long overdue end of the big moneyed interest's domination of American politics.