Somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000 people were out in the streets of New York City on October 5 for a march on Wall Street. The march was part of a planned community group/labor action to show solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, the occupation of Liberty Park in lower Manhattan that has been going on for nearly three weeks now. In the past week, major unions and community groups have endorsed the occupiers. These endorsements have greatly transformed how the establishment media and those in power discuss the occupiers.
One might recall in the first week the constant criticism centered on how the “hippies” in the park were disorganized and poorly dressed. The media also labeled them as “anti-capitalist,” though there was very little evidence that they were going to call for an end to capitalism in America. The protesters were belittled for having participants affiliated with Anonymous, the hacktivist group known for engaging in cyber direct actions against companies or institutions that violate people’s rights. They were characterized as anarchists and this was when the media covered them. It was not until after the second weekend when a white-shirted officer named Anthony Bologna pepper-sprayed female protesters penned in on the sidewalk by the NYPD’s orange netting that the media started to show more interest.
The second week saw an additional layer of criticism added. Now, Occupy Wall Street had an incoherent message or, worse, didn’t have one at all. The occupation had no cohesion, nothing holding everyone together. Each person had a set of issues they wanted to advance and, on top of that, they didn’t have any goals. This was all promoted despite the fact that the occupation is the message. This was repeated by pundits and commentators, despite the fact that their target should be enough for anyone to understand what is being protested: they are protesting the crimes of Wall Street and the systemic greed and corruption of the financial business sector, which politicians whose re-election campaigns depend on these corporations have protected from regulation and accountability. They are protesting how the richest 1% in the country has been able to concentrate the country’s wealth in their hands and use the government to push policies, which funnel more of the other 99%’s wealth into the hands of the richest 1%.
Largely, these criticisms from media and those in power were enough to keep progressives timid. Liberal groups and organizations paid attention to Occupy Wall Street but few spoke out in support in the early days. When unions began to show their support, like the New York Local 100 Transportation Workers Union (TWU), progressives started to speak out in support. They showed more elitism arguing the unions were going to come in and save the Occupy Wall Street movement. They were going to establish a set of demands and they were going to also outline goals Occupy Wall Street needed to achieve. (All of this TWU Political Director Marvin Holland roundly rejected saying, “I don’t think it’s our job to tell them what their demands should be.”)
The utter-contempt that existed toward this bottom-up movement has now been swept under the rug. The Occupy Wall Street movement has energy and momentum, which is exactly what President Barack Obama needs to get re-elected. It has people and media attention, which is why the organizers behind the “Take Back the American Dream” conference made a calculation to adjust messaging and include talk about Occupy Wall Street. They did this because the conference was to be about producing a movement that could counter the Tea Party and now, as Van Jones explained to attendees, a movement that could be a counter-balance to the Tea Party had sprouted. They acted as if the people in the streets were for their vision and agenda and talked about how those people showed it was time to build a “Rebuild the American Dream” movement to rival the Tea Party from the left. They even went to the steps of Capitol Hill for a two hour rally to “send a message” to Congress.
Now, leaders who are working on the Obama 2012 re-election campaign or progressive groups that will be canvassing door-to-door to convince people to not abandon Obama are looking to tap in to Occupy Wall Street’s energy. The country is about to see, as Salon’s Joan Walsh suggests, what happens when a movement without leaders meets leaders without a movement. The segment MSNBC host Ed Schultz did on October 5 indicates liberals, whom the Democratic Party counts on to deliver votes, will be working to contain this movement and make it seem these are really frustrated Obama supporters.
Schultz opened the segment saying, “The Occupy Wall Street movement is about to reach critical mass and the Republicans can’t do anything to stop it,” an immediate sign that Schultz is focused on how the movement can help Democrats. “There is no doubt that the Republican Party is afraid of the 99 percent message and now they are attacking it,” he added.
After framing Occupy Wall Street as a group of the left that is against the right, even though the organizers’ message is clearly about those at the bottom against those at the top, he continued, “This is the official start of the 2012 campaign. If this movement is heard by some candidate, this just may be the movement that starts a major change in this country.” You mean if someone like Barack Obama comes along and wants a second chance to show that he isn’t bought off by corporate and special interests, especially big banks on Wall Street? Because, while there is a growing primary challenger movement against Obama, there is a scant amount of support for that among progressives. And, if he is talking about congressional candidates, they face the same system Obama has been unwilling to challenge and no matter how good they are will be managed by the White House so they cannot get in the way of business as usual.
Schultz brought Salon’s Justin Elliott and GRITtv’s Laura Flanders on during the segment to add their take. Here’s a key exchange that took place between Elliott and Schultz:
SCHULTZ: Many of the things that I heard were that of the Democratic platform. Not to overstate or simplify the frustration of people but some of the major issues are right from the Democratic platform. Are they the winners here?
ELLIOTT: Maybe. I think there’s a mix. I haven’t found many Obama supporters in the crowd. As I said, one of the chants I kept hearing is how do we cut the deficit? End the wars. Tax the rich…[cutoff]
SCHULTZ: I think they’re Obama supporters. I do. I just think they’re frustrated Obama supporters.
ELLIOTT: Perhaps, there’s a strain of Obama supporters but there’s a strain of people who are far to the left of people here and they’re very dissatisfied.
Flanders jumped in to help Schultz understand:
What I heard is people wanted change. They wanted an end to war. They got more war. They didn’t want to see drone attacks, even taking out people who were threats to the country. They didn’t want to see a little bit of healthcare reform. They needed to see profit seeking out of healthcare. So, they’re frustrated and they are creating the movement that four years ago was channeled into electoral politics. This is being channeled into a global movement. And I think that’s what’s exciting about it because we need global change.
Schultz still wasn’t buying it. Showing his deep misunderstanding or ignorance of how people can influence power and have influenced power in American history, he said, “So, where’s the change? Let me ask you this — They’re not going to change the government of the United States but they can change who runs it.”
In the segment that aired, Schultz talked to union members or leaders, none of the people who have been sleeping in the park. He didn’t talk to one person who is really responsible for giving labor and the Democrats this opening for something they would never create on their own because they are too top down in their organization.
There are two immediate and glaring issues: (1) Will this movement allow itself to be damaged by liberal groups or Democrats who seek to divert it into campaigns for 2012 elections? Will it fight to hold on to its reputation as a group that is committed to a much grander vision for society than electing new people to positions in a representative democracy that no longer responds to the will of the people? And, (2) do Democratic Party operatives even want to use the energy of Occupy Wall Street to ensure Obama’s re-election?
Obama chief of staff Bill Daley responded to Slate’s Dave Weigel when asked about Occupy Wall Street:
I don’t know if it’s helpful…I wouldn’t characterize it that way. Look it: People express their opinions. In the new social network world, they can do it pretty effectively outside the normal way, historically, people have done it. So whether it’s helpful to us, or helpful for people to understand in the political system that there are a lot of people out there concerned about the economy — I know the focus is on Wall Street, but it’s a broader discussion that we’re having…Part of the thing here, about a balanced approach — I think people want to see fairness in the system.”
The Obama administration and whoever is working on his re-election campaign has the same kind of scorn that New York Mayor Bloomberg has toward the occupiers. And, it all goes back to the attacks on the “professional left” by people affiliated with the Obama administration. It all goes back to Vice President Joe Biden coming out and trying to whip progressives into volunteering for Democrats in 2010 to bridge the enthusiasm gap. And, it is related to President Obama telling the Congressional Black Caucus to “stop whining.”
The Obama administration sees itself as the adults. People who challenge the administration, who always oppose the administration on its every move aren’t acting grown-up. The occupiers are children. They can go out and protest but at some point they have to step aside and let the adults do the hard work necessary to eke out some sort of agreement or compromise.
This is the culture Obama has promoted. It is why vision and policy ideas are secondary to how best to manage the country. It is how undermining justice and the rule of law has been justified. And, through the promotion of civility and the necessity of acting grown-up, corporate and special interests have come out the winner. Income inequality has worsened. Liberals and progressives have been made to follow along or be cast as defectors or misfits.
This promoted culture decreases the likelihood that bold steps are taken to address crises (i.e. global warming, wars, debt, etc). It helps preserve the image and careers of political leaders, the profits of businesses and corporations, and ultimately, has a negative impact on the American population. It is this culture that gives people the cover to not address gross criminal, economic and social injustices in America that has moved Americans to participate in or support Occupy Wall Street.
What should the Occupy Wall Street organizers do? They should continue on the path they were on prior to all the labor and Democratic Party support. They should put the movement first and not bow to any Democratic Party or liberal organization operatives who seek to channel the movement into electoral politics or compel the movement to lower its sights. It should work to maintain a level of discipline and make sure it establishes what it is not. It should continue to aim for the impossible and remember that they have earned their power because they have occupied the park and stood their ground in the face of a media blackout, police brutality and contemptuous criticisms.
The occupiers did not come together to be the Tea Party of the left. They came together to take on corporate power and address problems that impact Americans who are conservative and liberal, left wing and right wing. And, to continue to grow as a movement that challenges the influence of corporations, special interests and the top 1% in government, they need to make clear this is not about building a better Democratic Party. This is about the war on poor, working class and middle class Americans, the constant attacks on unions and how Americans begin to have influence over their government so the assaults on poor and working Americans come to an end.