Occupy Wall Street: Time to become more overtly political?

Occupy Wall Street activists should hire political consultants and assemble a list of demands, suggest many pundits. Many bleary-eyed protesters vow that they will not be bent to a neat electoral timetable.

Seth Wenig/AP
A few of the Occupy Wall Street protesters sit in a nearly empty Zuccotti Park in New York, Wednesday.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has been reeling from site-clearing police raids in recent days, not to mention vandalism; a shooting Tuesday at the University of California, Berkeley, during a protest; and even a homicide at the edge of a camp in Oakland, Calif. But the struggles aren’t just along these lines: The battle has moved to the message front as well.

Is the movement, as some critics and even supporters suggest, falling apart from a lack of focus – instead becoming a magnet for miscreants and malingerers with too much free time?

Many pundits suggest that it’s time for the activists to hire political consultants and assemble a list of demands – in short, to become much more involved in electoral politics. But many bleary-eyed protesters vow that they will not be bent to a neat electoral timetable. What they’re doing, they say, is birthing the blueprint for a new social paradigm. It’s a somewhat messy process, but it’s real-time, direct democracy in action, they say.

“It’s a very complicated movement with many things going on,” says Nathan Schneider, editor of the website Waging Nonviolence, who has been covering the New York Occupy Wall Street from its inception. At its core, he says, “it is calling on people not to enact policy proposals, which is what people expect, but rather to rethink how politics work.”

It is notable, he says, that no politicians have emerged. “They are quite consciously not building political parties or jumping into the electoral process,” he notes, adding that they think doing so would “fall too far short of their real demands.”

On the other hand, he points out, there are specific Occupy working groups tackling topics such as economics, immigration, education, and student debt. And a glance at the Occupy Together calendar reveals a brisk schedule of upcoming events. Those include a call Thursday to block the New York Stock Exchange from opening; a rally Saturday in Oakland against police attacks and social-services cuts; the Occupy the Highway march on Washington, scheduled for Nov. 23; and a Global Day of Action, set for Dec. 10.

The Canadian anticapitalist Adbusters Media Foundation, whose call this summer for a movement to match Egypt’s Tahrir Square takeover launched the Occupy Wall Street movement, itself has reservations about the timetable of events. It published an open call on Tuesday for the movement to pack up for the winter on Dec. 17 (the three-month anniversary of the movement's founding) and come back in the spring, “ready to rumble.”

That’s not what author TJ Walker thinks should happen. The movement needs to build on current momentum, not fade away for months, says the managing editor of The Daily National who recently penned the book, “Occupy Wall Street Message: Bust Up the Big Banks!”

But while Occupy’s “idealism is admirable,” its current actions are not producing tangible results, Mr. Walker says. He calls his tome a handbook for the movement to accomplish substantive goals.

An unfocused message, he says, “allows critics such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity to fill the void and define the movement purely in negative terms as being about anarchy drugs and fighting capitalism.”

Despite the recent violence at or near Occupy protest sites, surveys such as a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll show that 66 percent of Americans support a main thrust of the Occupy movement – that “resources, money and wealth should be distributed more evenly.” The groups need to leverage that support into action, says Walker.

“People are saying, ‘You’ve done a good job spotlighting the problem. Now do something about it,’ ” he says.

In analyzing the Occupy movement, comparisons to the tea party pop up often, points out James Hoopes, professor of ethics in business at Babson College in Massachusetts. But, he says via e-mail, “comparisons with the Tea Party are misplaced because they imply that the Occupy movement is political.”

Rather, he says, “it is an economic movement and constitutional movement,” because it objects to the way our society is presently constituted to include corporate power that does not answer to the people.

A swift tea party-style move into electoral politics would contradict the Occupy movement’s essential values, says George Ciccariello-Maher, assistant professor of history and politics at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

“The Occupy movement currently draws its strength from a very different logic, one rooted in direct and participatory democracy,” he says in an e-mail. “It’s tempting for Americans to assume the ‘next step’ is to form a party, a lobbying group, or electoral bloc, when in reality the Occupy movement is attempting to build something qualitatively different.”

While Democrats might increase the corporate tax rate or re-regulate banks, “no party – not even a third party – will get behind the sort of reconfiguration of politics from the bottom up that the Occupy movement embodies,” Professor Ciccariello-Maher says.

The future and strength of the Occupy movement, if it is to continue, lie less in the ordinary political process and government regulation than in civic regulation and constitutional reform, says Professor Hoopes. This might take the form of direct, popular, nonviolent action against corporations, he notes. As an example, he points to Bank of America’s recent retreat on debit-card fees in the face of consumer insurgency.

“Many corporations already have watchdog groups devoted to them – Walmart Watch, for example,” Hoopes notes. A next logical step for the Occupy movement, he writes, would be to “form a national, maybe even an international Corporation Watch to serve as a general monitor and communicator between democratic forces and corporate power.”

Some Occupy members acknowledge that many Americans feel uncomfortable with the movement’s chaos. But a single political issue or agenda would be too simple, says Allan Brill, a member of the Occupy Oakland media team.

“Those editors, those congressmen and public officials want something concrete so they can try to meet those needs and say, ‘See, we gave you that, so you can go away now,’ ” he says. The issues are “too global and interconnected” to do that, he says.

“Our treasury, our children’s treasury is being spent,” Mr. Brill says, adding, we want it to stop “before it gets to our grandchildren.”

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