The protest moment that began with less than a hundred people sleeping overnight in a public-private park known as Zuccotti Park has grown exponentially into a full-blown media spectacle. The incidents of NYPD pepper-spraying protesters, the mass arrest of 700 protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge and the wave of endorsements from major labor unions, such as the United Steelworkers union and SEIU, have combined to give Occupy Wall Street the veneer of a full-fledged social movement. Simultaneously, the occupation has inspired citizens to launch other occupations in solidarity.
The past couple weeks have seen occupations spring up in Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Sacramento, San Francisco, St. Louis, Sacramento, and Tampa. These occupations have faced police repression, too—the most recent example being the raid of “Camp Two” of Occupy Boston in Dewey Square at 1:30 AM on October 11. The more occupations that are successfully launched, the more chance the “Occupy” movement has of becoming a movement that could really impact policies and politics in America.
However, Democrats are moving quickly to speak to the frustration of the “Occupy” movement. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent around an email on Monday asking party supporters to sign a petition to Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner and Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor that told them they stand in support of Occupy Wall Street. Nancy Pelosi, seemingly ignoring her disinterest in addressing the crimes of Wall Street when she was Speaker of the House from 2006-2010, said she was one of the many Americans, who are not satisfied with Congress. Vice President Joe Biden said, “The core is the American people do not think the system is fair or on the level…That is the core of what you’re seeing on Wall Street.” And, President Barack Obama has said, “I think it expresses the frustrations that the American people feel.”
Senior adviser David Plouffe’s remarks that Obama is on the side of the Occupy Wall Street protesters are equally notable. He said on “Good Morning America” on Tuesday that Republicans want to “unwind Wall Street reform.” On “The Early Show,” he said before the financial reform legislation went into effect, “Wall Street was able to write too many of its own rules.”
The empathetic and populist-sounding rhetoric of Democratic leaders is going virtually unquestioned on television, as Democratic Party leaders and White House advisers direct attention at Republicans and claim they are solely responsible for the broad-based frustration in America. The media is responding to Democratic Party “support” by promoting discussion on whether the rising movement could be a liberal or leftwing Tea Party. Ed Schultz is pathologically convinced the people in these demonstrations are frustrated Obama supporters, whom the Democrats can use to make gains in the 2012 election. And, on October 12, he used his show to advocate for the creation of a “99% Caucus” in Congress to counter-balance the Republicans’ “Tea Party Caucus.”
Rev. Al Sharpton is working to cast the “Occupy” protesters as the life force that will help Democrats win in November 2012. He used the October 11 edition of his MSNBC show to have Van Jones, leader of the “Rebuild the Dream” campaign, and contributor to The Nation, Melissa Harris-Perry, on to discuss how occupiers could make an impact in the upcoming elections. Van Jones came on to speak for the occupiers, even though he hasn’t spent one night occupying or sleeping in any camp. And, Harris-Perry declared:
As much as it was a kind-of populist movement that didn’t have clear policy goals in the beginning, it very clearly and very quickly got on the train of affecting one of the political parties by moving the Republican Party through elections and through those candidates in those midterm elections toward their own agenda. And so I am excited by the kind of populist movement that is “Occupy” but I would also like to see it begin to actually define some goals that will actually push the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, both parties and define some policy goals.
The danger of offering policy goals now is that they may not be in a position to bargain with power yet. The occupiers must decide in their General Assembly what type of climate or situation they wish to see before they define any policy goals. They also should not be getting involved in elections. Getting involved in electoral politics too early is what stunted the impact of the Wisconsin uprising. Instead of launching a general strike, activists became involved in recall elections Demonstrations fizzled out as that fizzled out.
Why are Democrats moving to co-opt the “Occupy” protests? They are because the occupiers are in the process of redefining the left-most parameters of Democratic Party politics. The top 1% and financial institutions on Wall Street, which have been the target of these protests, are counting on the Democratic Party to serve as the shock absorber that they have been historically. Campaign donors they need to win elections are looking to them to insure they get out in front of this and head it off before it has any lasting impact. As Anthony DiMaggio and Paul Street write in their book Crashing the Tea Party, they are performing the “critical system-preserving change-containing function” they are expected to perform. It isa function they they performed in response to the “agrarian populist insurgency of the 1890s, the working-class rebellion of the 1930s and 1940s and the antiwar, civil rights, antipoverty, ecology and feminist movements during and since the 1960s and early 1970s (including the gay rights movement today).”
Another writer, Lance Selfa, expertly documents the Democratic Party’s history of co-opting social movements in the fourth chapter of his book Democrats: A Critical History. Selfa explains, while repression has been part of why US social movements have failed “to achieve more or to build a lasting political alternative to the corporate domination of politics,” another explanation is the “’carrot’ of political representation through the two-party system that has served as one of the bulwarks of American political stability.”
Quoted in the book is radical scholar G. William Domhoff, who wrote the following in 1972:
Despite the social and economic hardships suffered by hundreds of millions of Americans over the past one hundred years, the power elite have been able to contain demands for a steady job, fair wages, good pensions and effective health care within very modest limits compared to other highly developed Western countries. One of the most important factors in maintaining those limits has been the Democratic Party. The party dominates the left alternative in this country, and the sophisticated rich want to keep it that way. Democrats are not only attractive to the working man, but vital to the wealthy, too, precisely because they are the branch of the Property Party that to some extent accommodates labor, blacks and liberals but at the same time hinders genuine economic solutions to age-old problems.
The Democratic Party has typically integrated groups who feel the political process is unresponsive to their interests or does not give them proper representation. Groups integrated usually wind up making agreements or deals to not alienate allies within the Democratic Party. [Read most of the fourth chapter of Selfa's book here.]
Occupy Wall Street could be this group, like Van Jones’ “Rebuild the Dream” campaign. It could hire consultants and develop a slick messaging scheme that would counteract the impact of the Republican Party, which has successfully advanced corporate and authoritarian policies in society over the last decades. It could make a deal for access so regular meetings could be held with politicians in power. It could compromise principles and values to get piecemeal reform and gradually win support for a carefully crafted agenda that will receive a nominal amount of attention within the Beltway. Or, it could actually take notice of the fact that they are succeeding because they have not done any of that.
They have been told they need better messaging yet they have already forced a re-framing of discussion on economic issues by declaring, “We Are the 99%.” They already have politicians like DNC chairman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz willing to meet with occupiers. They have House representatives introducing legislation in Congress they would not have introduced prior to the protests. Neither is good enough to address the systemic problems in this country, which occupiers have been highlighting, but each represents the first sign that the movement could achieve real and lasting change.
Democrats will drain the vitality of the “Occupy” protests. They will try to convince protesters that what they are really angry at is Republicans and not a system rigged by both parties to serve corporate and special interests.
Liberals are likely to grow increasingly cautious and condescending if it looks like this energy will hurt Obama in 2012 and help a GOP candidate win the presidency. Democrats will use the two-party system, which gives off the illusion of choice, to cajole protesters into lowering their expectations and voting for Democrats to at least prevent the GOP and Tea Party from making gains.
As the weather becomes colder and organizers become more and more exhausted, Democrats will offer pragmatic fixes and perhaps ways to establish “legitimacy” within the establishment (assuming the protests are still ongoing). The occupiers will have a choice: become NGOized (as writer Naomi Klein might say) or stay true to the decentralized spirit of the occupations and continue to be an organic grassroots force for shifting the paradigm of debate on US economic and politics in society.
There is no single measure the occupiers can take to overcome the combination of repression and co-optation of movements by politicians, which has historically combined to neutralize movements, except for the fact that they can stand firm and face down repression and co-optation. They can make clear their principles. They can make clear their values and principles. They can make certain people never forget they are the 99% and they have struggled and made it this far. They can consistently note the widespread support they have to be a movement that ushers in an era of dignity and economic justice for all. They can even keep the conversation open so income inequality and unemployment isn’t only addressed but other issues, which plague society, can be addressed as well.
Occupy Wall Street has given Americans an opening. Skeptics and cynics keep a distance because they don’t know where it will go. The oppressed join in because they know this may be the last chance they have to shift the power from the few to the many. And, the world watches anxiously because they are tired of the most powerful nation in the world exporting economic destruction to countries abroad. They are sick of watching Americans tolerate such gross injustice.
On the other hand, President Barack Obama does not think the banks did anything illegal in the economic collapse. Democrats have not been willing to push for criminals on Wall Street to be held accountable. They have hesitated to do anything meaningful that would alter the control Wall Street has over Washington. Occupiers should keep this in mind when Democrats come to Liberty Park to offer concessions or make deals.