Corrected: In order to survive past May Day, the movement will have to fend off attempts at co-optation
Occupy Wall Street hopes for a national resurgence Tuesday with its plans for a May Day general strike. Equally important, however, to the movement’s future will be the result of a debate that’s been roiling the encampments for the past month. “Co-optation” is the word you hear activists whisper, whether you’re in New York, Atlanta or Albuquerque. Are unions and liberal groups like MoveOn valuable allies? Or do they pose a threat, seeing the Occupy movement as nothing more than a “brand” whose language can be slipped on and deployed to their own ends – namely, a Democratic triumph in November?
The source of these fears is the “99 Percent Spring” and similar campaigns, as Natasha Lennard recently explained in Salon. It sounds like something any Occupier could get behind: to train 100,000 people for “sustained nonviolent direct action” against targets like Verizon, Bank of America and Wal-Mart. However, it arose not in the encampments, but in high-level discussions among groups like MoveOn and Rebuild the Dream. AdBusters, the magazine that helped spark Occupy Wall Street, attacked the 99 Percent Spring as the product of “the same cabal of old world thinkers who have blunted the possibility of revolution for decades.”
“There is a real concern about what MoveOn is doing and if it is co-optation,” says Sayrah Namaste, an activist with (Un)Occupy Albuquerque. “People from (Un)Occupy see MoveOn as heavily part of Democratic Party politics and question what their motives are and how they operate.” Some of the 99 Percent Spring organizers are quick to dismiss Occupy’s critique: “Maybe Occupy is worried about its own viability,” said one core organizer who asked to remain anonymous.
This distrust stems in part from the campaign to end the Iraq War, which left-wing activists say MoveOn abandoned in 2007 after it became clear that newly elected Democrats wouldn’t fight to end it. There is also, however, a structural tension. “MoveOn is very top down,” says Leslie Cagan, co-founder and former national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice. “As best I can tell, they have never developed a democratic structure that allows the members to vote on who the leadership will be or how decisions are made, let alone have serious input into the positions that MoveOn takes.” What this top-down structure means, says Bill Dobbs, a member of the Occupy Wall Street press team and longtime antiwar activist, is that “Groups like MoveOn can walk into any Occupy movement and engage in the discussions, but we can’t participate in their strategy discussions.”
The 99 Percent Movement, which includes the 99 Percent Spring, appears to be a case of top-down decision making. To a large extent, MoveOn and other liberal organizations have simply used Occupy ideas and rhetoric to rebrand existing projects. “Occupy Wall Street happened and crystallized a lot of the frustration,” says Justin Ruben, the executive director of MoveOn. “It engaged millions more people and captured the imagination of the whole world. It had this 99 Percent frame that did something that nobody else had managed to do yet, which was to tell this whole story through characters and unify these twin problems of political and economic inequality. It was just an amazingly powerful frame. We said, OK, this is the name for it because people were walking around with signs saying ‘I am the 99 Percent.’”
In particular, the 99 Percent Movement builds on MoveOn and Rebuild the Dream’s American Dream campaign from last year. Some of the new campaigns are simply repackaged American Dream campaigns. “99% Candidates” were originally “American Dream candidates”; the 99% Voter Pledge “has been based in part on the Contract for the American Dream,” according to Ruben (though the 99% Voter Pledge was not actually written by MoveOn). He says some actions are new, but he acknowledges to Salon there’s a lot of old wine in a new bottle. “There is a bunch of groups that have been actively involved in putting the 99 Percent Spring together and these are the actions that they … have been planning since the summer before Occupy.”
While MoveOn and other organizations praise Occupy Wall Street for shifting the political terrain to the left, they are forging ahead with creating a movement that presents itself as Occupy’s successor. Writing in the Nation, Ilyse Hogue, who serves on the board of Rebuild the Dream and is the former Director of Political Advocacy and Communications for MoveOn, describes occupying public space as nothing more than a “tactic” that is now “dead.” Hogue wants to “make way for the new,” namely the 99 Percent Spring and the 99 Percent brand. Also writing in the Nation around the same time, Van Jones, the former Obama administration official who co-founded the Democratic Party-allied Rebuild the Dream, stated, “This spring 2012 will mark the long-awaited re-emergence of the 99 Percent movement.”
“The 99 Percent Movement is the broad wave of folks who’ve been coming together over the last 14 or 15 months in increasing numbers to fight for economic justice and against inequality,” Ruben adds. “Within that, Occupy is one powerful, amazing and important part of that movement, but it is not limited to Occupy.”
Ruben insists that the 99 Percent Movement is “not a rebranding strategy.” He also says, however, “No one organization controls the 99 Percent brand.” MoveOn has also been eager to sponsor all sorts of campaigns, helping to create a meta-brand known as the “99 Percent Movement” that encompasses a product line including 99% Power, 99% Candidates, 99% Uniting, a 99% Voter Pledge, and events like “All in for the 99%” and “99% Spring Bank Protests.” MoveOn also employs a P.R. firm, BerlinRosen, to help promote its campaigns. Like inside-the-Beltway power brokers who play both sides of the aisle, BerlinRosen’s client roster includes Brookfield Properties – the “owner” of Zuccotti Park.
This type of double dealing is what led to the Occupy Wall Street movement to begin with. And its effects can be seen in the 99 Percent Voter Pledge, which is so watered down from the original OWS Declaration (and even the Rebuild the Dream Contract) – “Make the wealthiest one percent pay their fair share”; “Create good jobs now”; “Stop cuts to vital services”; and “Represent people, not corporations” – that Obama could endorse them, which, again, is probably the point.
“We are the 800-pound gorilla, and we work very actively on elections, including supporting Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates,” Ruben says. “If you think that is a terrible idea and you’re worried about energy from the movement that you love going into elections then MoveOn is an obvious target.”
Ruben continues, “There are real elections happening where people are choosing between candidates who want to cut taxes for billionaires and candidates who want billionaires to pay their fair share. And that’s a real choice.” Many Occupiers beg to differ. Sure, plenty say they will hold their nose and vote for Obama, but few think it will make a real difference. Bill Dobbs says, “If Obama is fighting for the 99 Percent, I’m Greta Garbo. He’s running around the country selling the presidency to raise $700 million.”
The Occupy movement has created an opening in which millions of people in unions and organizations like MoveOn are receptive to the idea that only radical changes can solve America’s social and economic crisis. But Dobbs cautions, “We need a resistance movement, not more Democratic Party-aligned advocacy. This kind of relationship needs to be approached with healthy skepticism. There are benefits but also perils because … social movements often wind up in the Democratic Party junkyard. That’s where contemporary feminist organizing has ended up. That’s where civil rights struggles have ended up.” For the Occupy Movement, the question is where it ends up this November.
Arun Gupta, a New York writer and co-founder of Occupy the Wall Street Journal, covers the Occupy movement for Salon. More Arun Gupta.
More Related Stories
- If Alex Pareene was a cable news executive...
- Portland's senseless war on fluoride
- Graphic video reportedly shows possible London machete attack suspect
- What economists get wrong about the jobs crisis
- Ted Cruz: "I don't trust the Republicans"
- Pa. governor "can't find" any Latinos to work in his administration
- Glenn Beck: "The American people have just been raped"
- "Original Coca-Cola had a very small amount of cocaine"
- Corporations accused of wrongdoing win battle to keep identities secret
- Weak, incompetent Democrats blow another one
- Lois Lerner, IRS disaster
- Cyber attacks could cause the next world war
- Donald Rumsfeld worried that marriage equality will lead to polygamy
- Experts: Fox News spying scandal a game-changer
- Biden cracks Obama teleprompter joke
- IRS official takes the Fifth: "I have not done anything wrong"
- Lessons from Lincoln leave gay immigrants behind
- Los Angeles elects first Jewish mayor
- Peter King: There's "hypocrisy" over aid by Oklahoma senators
- Anthony Weiner announces run for NYC mayor
- How policy nihilists in the Senate doomed LGBT immigrants
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11