Occupy Wall Street, Act II: Go local

With many encampments razed or in jeopardy, Occupy Wall Street needs a second act. For now, many activists are settling on issues of concern to local residents. Will that weaken the movement, or strengthen it?

By , Staff writer

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    Participants in Occupy Miami, part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, pitched tents in a park by government buildings downtown. Unlike Occupiers further north, they won’t have to contend with freezing weather.
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As their encampments are razed, or as their tent cities dwindle with the onset of cold weather, the "Occupy Wall Street" movement – now almost three months old – needs a second act. And organizers of this grass-roots movement, which asserts that "the 99 percent" of Americans who are not Wall Street bankers, hotel chain heiresses, or real estate titans are getting a raw deal these days, appear to have lit upon an answer, for now: Go local.

So it is that the Occupiers in Knoxville, Tenn., plan to start occupying foreclosed homes, to dramatize banks' actions. In Detroit, protesters are collecting provisions for the city's neediest. And in Los Angeles, Occupy activists are readying for a Dec. 12 action to close the Port of Los Angeles for a day – part of a larger call for port closings from Tacoma, Wash., to San Diego to protest perceived union-busting tactics against organized longshore workers.

The question is whether Occupy forces are scattering their fire in so many directions that the movement will inevitably fragment and dissolve, or whether they will grow in strength and accomplishments by proving former House Speaker "Tip" O'Neill's famous pronouncement that, in the end, "all politics is local."

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Until lately, the movement has been largely about occupying ground in the name of the 99 percent – and trying to hold that ground in the face of city and police intervention. Since Sept. 17, when the first Occupiers settled in on Wall Street in New York, thousands of protesters have been arrested in cities across the United States (usually for refusing to obey police orders or for resisting arrest). The Occupy movement has been a way for people to rise up and vent their frustrations, but critics fault it for being unwilling or unable to devise a national action plan around something concrete, such as backing the Democrats' push to raise taxes on millionaires or proposing a constitutional amendment to limit special-interest money in political campaigns.

But that is as it should be, say those involved with the movement as well as its close observers.

"The question of engaging with local issues brings inherent challenges to the Occupy movement, but it is also the only way it can really move forward," says George Ciccariello-Maher, a political theorist and assistant professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, a city where police cleared an Occupy encampment on Nov. 30. The alternative is to remain on the level of macroeconomic analysis and national issues – and to jump into national electoral politics or lobbying. At this point in the movement's development, he says, those approaches would be difficult to sustain.

"The better approach is to focus on local issues that are crystallizations of national issues but in a local context," says Dr. Ciccariello-Maher.

Critics of the movement are dubious.

"As the Occupy movement becomes embroiled in local issues, it is the beginning of the end of the movement," predicts David Johnson, a Republican political consultant based in Atlanta and a former speechwriter for ex-Sen. Bob Dole, in an e-mail. "It loses focus from its national objectives, and local issues then lessen the cohesion of the movement."

In Los Angeles, where homeless people had occupied as many as half of the 500 tents that sprawled alongside City Hall before the site was razed, activists are tackling some root causes of homelessness, such as bank foreclosures. The group is demanding a moratorium on foreclosures from Bank of America.

"We are a microcosm of the larger issues," says Alissa Kokkins, a screenwriter and researcher who pitched a tent in the encampment on Day 1 and stayed until the city cleared it on Nov. 30.

In the Midwest, Occupy activists in Chicago and Detroit have rushed to tackle local issues. The Chicago chapter has teamed up with Stand Up! Chicago, a coalition of social and economic justice organizations. They and the nearby Springfield Occupy group are fighting Illinois's proposed $250 million-a-year corporate tax-break package intended to keep the two financial exchanges (the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Board of Trade) and the Sears Holding Corp. from moving out of the state.

Occupy proposes that a speculation fee be imposed on both of the financial exchanges. Occupy is "helping amplify our voice and we help amplify theirs," says Stand Up's Catherine Murrell.

Over in Detroit, "we really don't have to look far to see the incredible injustices that the 99 percent of Americans are facing," says local Occupy activist Jonas Goldstein, a 20-something economic researcher for a union. "Our city is crumbling. There is a lack of infrastructure; there are people with serious mental illness left on the street. If things are bad in the country, they're acutely bad in Detroit." An offshoot of the movement, Occupy the Hood, has begun to tackle local needs through projects such as food and clothing drives.

Even as Occupy organizers steer the movement toward local citizens' concerns, some observers predict that they will arrive quite naturally at the juncture of local, state, and national politics.

For instance, students on college campuses are increasingly organizing around their top local issue: tuition costs. As they work to solve the college-affordability problem for poor and middle-class families, they will have to address the political system, says Joan Mandle, executive director of Democracy Matters, a national student-based organization dedicated to campaign finance reform and removing "big private money" from politics. With states picking up a declining share of public university costs, the tuition burden is not only a local campus issue but also a state political one, she says.

"To solve local problems means seeing the way they are tied to deeper problems of politics," Ms. Mandle adds.

The notion that the Occupy movement is somehow switching gears doesn't sit that well with Patrick Coy, editor of the book series "Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change," and director of the Cen­ter for Applied Con­flict Management at Kent State University in Ohio.

"The move to go local really is misunderstood. It's not really a move.... It has been the focus throughout," he says. "It's been a deeply grass-roots movement, and in some ways the moniker that it is leaderless is mistaken. It is deeply democratic, rooted in local politics and symbolism."

Still, grass-roots involvement will vary greatly from city to city, and will introduce difficult questions, most observers acknowledge. "This introduces complicated questions of how to relate the local issues to the larger economic analysis," says Drexel's Ciccariello-Maher.

Over in Knoxville, where the Occupy movement is just getting on its feet, about 50 people have been assembling on weekends to strategize. One challenge, says resident and film editor Lee Jon Taylor, "is that this town is very conservative ... so we need to find issues that everyone can relate to."

At a recent assembly, the group voted to occupy local foreclosed houses. The decision was spurred by a woman who had lost her job and home. "Picking up on local issues helps pump up the larger movement," says Mr. Taylor.

The strategy is wise because the Occupy movement is still in a building phase, says Kyle Scott, visiting assistant professor of political science at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

"It's important to become invested at the local level," he says, "because you can have much more impact there." As the movement struggles to define itself, Mr. Scott says, getting elected to a city council or a school board "demonstrates that your ideas have support."

Going local has its challenges, however. Aligning with the needs and practices of other organizations can be, at a minimum, complicated, says Herb Smith, president of the Los Angeles Mission on skid row. Some of the economic issues highlighted by the Occupy movement dovetail with concerns of the homeless, but issues such as chronic mental illness and health care do not, he says. Beyond that is the question of mixed loyalties, he adds.

"Many of the banks that the Occupy group is targeting also provide some of our funding," he says. "We certainly are not in any position to kick them out."

Staff writer Mark Guarino in Chicago contributed to this report.


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