By Ezra Silk
I am sitting in a Starbucks in some distant outpost of metropolitan Dallas. There are Comfort Inns and Wells Fargo mini-towers all around, and the man sitting next to me is reading the Drudge Report. A nauseating, lounge-style cover of “Here Comes the Sun” just mercifully concluded.
Anyway, I just wanted to offer a few comments on some semi-recent Occupy coverage.
New York magazine’s John Heilemann has written an interesting piece entitled, “2012=1968?” As you may have guessed from the title, Heilemann poses the question of whether Occupy Wall Street will split the Democratic vote and hand the presidency to the Republicans, ala the anti-war movement, Gene McCarthy, Humphrey, and Nixon in 1968. These types of, “Will history repeat itself?” stories can sometimes be painful, but this one is pretty good. I recommend it.
Heileman affirms a few of the things I’ve said, albeit with a slightly different twist. First, he decisively concludes that there are leaders, and proceeds to skewer the mythology of leaderlessness:
The people plotting these maneuvers are the leaders of OWS. Now, you may have heard that Occupy is a leaderless uprising. Its participants, and even the leaders themselves, are at pains to make this claim. But having spent the past month immersed in their world, I can report that a cadre of prime movers — strategists, tacticians, and logisticians; media gurus, technologists, and grand theorists — has emerged as essential to guiding OWS. For some, Occupy is an extension of years of activism; for others, their first insurrectionist rodeo. But they are now united by a single purpose: turning OWS from a brief shining moment into a bona fide movement.
That none of these people has yet become the face of OWS — its Tom Hayden or Mark Rudd, its Stokely Carmichael or H. Rap Brown — owes something to its newness. But it is also due to the way that Occupy operates. Since the sixties, starting with the backlash within the New Left against those same celebrities, the political counterculture has been ruled by loosey-goosey, bottom-up organizational precepts: horizontal and decentralized structures, an antipathy to hierarchy, a fetish for consensus. And this is true in spades of OWS. In such an environment, formal claims to leadership are invariably and forcefully rejected, leaving the processes for accomplishing anything in a state of near chaos, while at the same time opening the door to (indeed compelling) ad hoc reins-taking by those with the force of personality to gain ratification for their ideas about how to proceed. “In reality,” says Yotam Marom, one of the key OWS organizers, “movements like this are most conducive to being led by people already most conditioned to lead.”
Now, Heilemann doesn’t really answer the question of whether the leaders in New York are leading the national or international Occupy movement (I think he basically takes it for granted that they are). It’s very hard to tell. When I ask local Occupy leaders what role Occupy Wall Street (the New York protest) plays in the movement, they offer a variation on a theme. The theme is that while the New York protest is the “flagship,” or even “the mothership,” it leads by example — not by fiat. From what I’ve seen and heard, Occupy Wall Street holds enormous symbolic power and in many ways charts the direction of the national movement, but it does not rigidly control the other protests.
Heilemann also notes, as I have, that Occupy Wall Street has largely steered clear of the Obama Wars. He writes about an early November protest at the State Supreme Court building against the proposed foreclosure settlement being pushed by the Obama administration:
Which is to say, in most respects, it was just another day at OWS. But in one way it was novel: This was the first and only demonstration to date, as far as I can determine, aimed directly at Barack Obama.
The proximate cause of the protest was a proposed settlement between a coalition of state attorneys general and the country’s biggest banks in the months-long state and federal investigation of widespread mortgage fraud—in particular, “robosigning.” A few days earlier, Berger had heard that a deal worth north of $25 billion was close at hand; the White House and the Justice Department were leaning hard on the A.G.’s to get onboard.
To Berger, the settlement seemed a travesty—a craven cash-for-immunity deal. So Berger proposed and helped plan the Foley Square march. Because of the arrests, its theme got lost in the scant media coverage it drew. But if you were there, that theme was plain, from the enormous papier-mâché rendering of 44 to a sign bearing the slogan OBAMA, DON’T BE WALL STREET’S PUPPET.
Given Occupy’s scathing view of the nexus between capital and the state, you might think that such a demo would be uncontroversial within OWS’s ranks. Certainly that’s what Berger thought. “Substantively, immunity is a big fucking deal,” he says. “If we as a movement are capable of acting at key junctures where we have the capacity to shift the dialogue, we should. And if we’re gonna build and broaden the movement, we have to show that we are capable of using the power that we have already acquired.”
But Berger’s proposal wasn’t uncontroversial. Quite the contrary. It sparked an agitated backlash, in which a handful of core OWS organizers attacked the idea on three grounds. The first was that it risked alienating African-Americans. “The people we think will be the heart and soul of this movement have yet to join it, even though you see them in Sunset Park and you see them in Harlem,” says Husain. “They identify with the president. So going after him isn’t the smartest move.”
OWS is the “rotten fruit of Obamaism,” says a strategist.
The second was that by focusing on Obama, the march moved away from a systemic critique to a personal one, and thus let other responsible parties slide. “You need a message around Obama that doesn’t let Boehner off the hook,” says Premo. “All government is beholden to the same masters.” And the third was that by assailing a specific policy, the march could be perceived as carrying an implicit demand.
Looking back on it, Berger allows that each of these objections had merit and admits he handled the internal OWS politics poorly. Still, the furor seemed to frustrate and deflate him. “What’s the point of this protest if we don’t do things like this?” he wondered. “It’s ironic. At first, people thought I was a Democratic Party mole. Now I’m like, ‘Fuck it, Let’s go after Obama!’ and they’re like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.’ ”
I have also said that the Occupiers are focused primarily on a systemic critique that conveniently leaves the issue of Obama on the periphery. But to Heilemann, Occupy Wall Street’s silence on Obama is also part of an effort to reach out to the black community. I was not aware of that.
Generally, I figured that some of the more prominent occupiers, having read the history of internecine warfare on the left, were seeking not to split the Democratic vote. According to Heilemann, I might have been wrong about the history part…
More worrying for Obama is the possibility that the growth of OWS might worsen the dilemma he already faces on the left, which shares, if less vehemently, the OWSers’ jaundiced view of his tenure. Amazingly enough, many of them were surprised when I pointed out that the demonstrations in Chicago in 1968 occurred at the Democratic, not Republican, convention, and helped to shatter Humphrey’s base — and it isn’t hard to imagine a similar fate befalling Obama should Occupy Charlotte come to fruition next summer.
Um, if Heilemann is being honest, then that is really bad. It doesn’t entirely contradict my experience, though. I remember a seemingly well-educated young woman at Zuccotti asking me to explain to her what the New Deal was. And a protester at Occupy Richmond confessed that she didn’t know much of anything about the Civil Rights movement.
But there were plenty of others I spoke with who were extremely well-versed in history — much more so than myself, in some cases. So Heilemann might be cherry-picking here. But if he’s not, then alarm bells should be going off at every Democrat-affiliated institution in the country. These people should really know the story of the 1968 Democratic convention. Then again, now that Nixon is being retrospectively heralded as a liberal lion, maybe the 1968 convention wasn’t so disastrous for the left, after all…
I just signed up for the Occupy Wall Street online forum. The current proposal under debate appears to be an effort to coordinate a national protest vote in the 2012 elections on behalf of a “mic check” write-in candidate:
“Mic Check” For President – One Way to Unite the National Occupy Movement !!
• OWS exists because we recognize it is not currently possible for ordinary citizens to redress their grievances or even have their voices heard through traditional electoral politics. The “Mic Check” Proposal seeks to formalize this recognition by withdrawing our consent to be governed by the illegitimate political system of the 1% and the political parties beholden to the 1%.
• We will withdraw our consent by refusing to continue voting for Wall Street candidates, including all Democratic and Republican candidates. These legacy parties have proven themselves to be working for the 1%.
• By actively and cooperatively rejecting 2-party system candidates, this protest vote will quantify our shared discontent and demonstrate our strong disapproval of the current system. It is not the same as not voting and cannot be equated with apathy or general disillusionment.
This is just one proposal, and it’s very hard to tell whether it carries any weight within Occupy Wall Street’s decision-making apparatus. There is also some pushback in the comments.
But, if you are a Democrat, it might be time to start freaking out. These activists, whether they are occupying public parks or not, seem to be here to stay. The Party is going to have to decide pretty soon whether to appease the protesters (a potentially impossible task) or whether to crush them. As I see it, a middle-of-the-road approach could lead to disaster.
Ezra Silk is a freelance journalist reporting on the Occupy Wall Street protests. This was re-posted from his site: http://americaoccupied.org/