Over the weekend, Occupy Wall Street held its largest march yet on the streets of lower Manhattan. Somewhere between three and five thousand people participated in the march that ended on the Brooklyn Bridge after the New York Police Department (NYPD) led hundreds to inadvertently commit one of the most powerful acts of civil disobedience in recent American history. Seven hundred or more occupiers were arrested, the largest mass arrest in the country since the protests against the imminent invasion of Iraq.
The past three days saw support grow tremendously, as major unions decided to endorse the occupation. United Steelworkers Union, United Federation of Teachers, 32BJ SEIU, 1199 SEIU, Workers United and the New York Local 1 Transportation Workers Union all came out in support. They and Make the Road New York, New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts and the Alliance for Quality Education now plan to have their members participate in a “Community/Labor March in Solidarity with Occupy Wall Street” on Wednesday at City Hall. New York University (NYU) students have called for a walkout to show solidarity with the occupiers and protest student debt and soaring tuition rates. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has spoken in favor of the occupation, as has Van Jones, whose “Rebuilding the Dream” summit is in Washington, DC, this week.
The more well-known players in liberal politics get involved (in addition to celebrities and media figures that have shown support), the more pressure occupiers will feel to speed up the organic General Assembly Process that has been unfolding. It is how decisions about what to do each day and how to organize the space in the park have been made. It is part of what has given the occupation its strength.
The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein is the latest to bluntly ask, “What does ‘Occupy Wall Street’ want?” Klein notes there are now proposals for agendas the occupation should support, which people like Mike Konczal of The Roosevelt Institute and Nicholas Kristof, columnist for the New York Times, have put forward. He suggests the increased support from unions and community organizations (which he calls the “activist left”) will lead to protests being joined to an agenda that already exists.
The absence of demands makes the “Occupy” movement much more potent. So, why do they have to issue any demands yet?
The nature of the occupation’s organization hinges upon the belief that electoral politics have failed to address gross injustices. It rests upon the idea that no piece of legislation will provide the solution to systemic problems in society. It stems from the notion that petitions, calling your representative, going to conferences and holding permitted rallies and marches have been ineffective. Corporate and special interests control the agencies, bureaucracies, institutions and politicians, which participate in the electoral and political process, so much that citizens have virtually no power to influence how dire problems are addressed.
The persistent calls for Occupy Wall Street to make their demands may be understandable but they stem from those in media and in power, who are getting anxious because they do not seem to want to use already established mechanisms to create the change they desire. Instead, the occupiers intend to influence society without urging citizens to go out and vote, without asking people to call their representatives or senators to demand they support a bill, without latching on to a slick, well-funded advocacy campaign designed to survive media spin. They want citizens to no longer be afraid and isolated and go out and find hope in connecting with fellow Americans, who wish to deliberate and further create political space for influencing society. They want a nonviolent uprising to further take shape, something that makes the media and the power elite uncomfortable.
Outside organizations may seek to tie the movement to an agenda they are pushing. Participants in the summit will come from major unions and liberal-leaning institutions that have recently indicated support. The “Take Back the American Dream” summit will likely feature some discussion of Occupy Wall Street yet the summit will not have organizers on the ground participating in the General Assembly process. This is not surprising.
One year ago, liberal-leaning institutions, like the AFL-CIO, American Federation for Teachers, NAACP, SEIU and the Sierra Club, came together and organized a major rally called “One Nation Working Together.” An individual wearing a United Auto Workers Union T-shirt told me he was glad people came out and there was good camaraderie but he was disappointed because they didn’t march. I noted then the organizers had used the word “march,” that they were going to march for jobs, education, immigrant rights, justice and more, but all they did was hold a 4-hour rally at the Lincoln Memorial.
I concluded what they meant by “march” was they were going to “march” on the polls on November 2 to overwhelm the efforts of the Tea Party to take control of Congress (they failed). The rally had an indirect benefit to the politicians and corporations that most opposed the agenda being promoted at the rally. The organizers managed the anger and frustration of people and ensured the rally only discussed issues that were not taboo to the power elite (like war). Organizers made certain the event did not involve any kind of an independent movement that would result in major acts of civil disobedience, direct action or electoral activism outside of the two dominant parties in America, the likelihood that the rally would have any sort of influence on politics was reduced.
The “One Nation Working Together” rally was permitted and controlled. Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, is spontaneous. And, it is not only a response to the failure of politicians to address injustice and social problems but also the failure of the liberal class to stand firm and not back down in the face of attacks on poor, working class and middle class Americans. It is a symptom of the liberal class’ constant compromising of values and principles to get piecemeal reforms that only further entrench corporate and special interests into society, making it difficult to create change (for example, credit card, financial and health care reform, all passed under President Obama).
Occupiers should not worry about liberal institutions or advocacy organizations hijacking their movement right now. What they should worry about is how they characterize what they are inspiring. For example, the “Take Back the American Dream” campaign is more likely to achieve its agenda because there are people out in the streets demonstrating and creating the climate for people to care about this project. It will likely receive more attention from media and politicians because there is a social movement inspiring discussion about the American economy. There doesn’t need to be a choice between supporting the campaign or an occupation but what people do need to be conscientious of is the fact that conferences, summits, advocacy campaigns, petitions and Internet activism has all been tried and hasn’t had a measurable impact in the past ten years. What hasn’t been tried is the kind of resistance on display in Liberty Park.
The life and the life of other occupations depend on the willingness of others to donate money and supplies. As long as they are receiving support, they do not have a hard deadline for establishing a set of demands. They can bring people together each day and night to discuss what kind of agenda the movement should coalesce behind and they can truly engage in participatory democracy, giving every single person who wants to speak a chance to suggest what Occupy Wall Street should stand for and do next.
They do not need to know how they will impact politics or how the new society they envision will come about. Only politicians who fear having to make a decision between the people and financial interests, which donate to their campaigns and hold them captive, need to know the movement’s demands so they can figure out where they stand. Only commentators, pundits or partisan hacks need to know so they can better spin the movement to fit their agenda or political views. Only targets of the occupiers’ anger, the top 1% and financial corporations, need to know so they can properly allocate resources to stop people from gaining power.
Stating specifically how they intend to make change now will only result in lowered expectations for change. Considering how this can help any set of politicians win in 2012 will mean the movement slowly deflates. Worrying about what this may do to President Barack Obama’s chances for re-election will severely handicap the movement.
American democracy is currently incapable of addressing the country’s biggest problems in society. The occupiers understand this. They are beginning to lay the foundation for the construction of a more equitable society.