Occupy's Next Crossroads

What happens next is anyone's guess. Is the Occupy movement poised for a comeback? Or is it about to be co-opted altogether? Can both, in fact, happen simultaneously, and would that be a good thing or not?
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The movement that Occupy Wall Street began is at another crossroads, it seems. It isn't the first such fork in the road, and it certainly won't be the last. What happens next is anyone's guess. Is the Occupy movement poised for a comeback? Or is it about to be co-opted altogether? Can both, in fact, happen simultaneously, and would that be a good thing or not?

This week kicks off an effort known as "The 99 Percent Spring" by an impressive coalition of groups with solid lefty credentials (labor, Van Jones, MoveOn.org, etc.). The goal is to hold a series of "teach-ins" that will train 100,000 people (half in person, half online) in nonviolent protest techniques. The Huffington Post reports on the details:

The organizing is not aimed at any one event, rally or issue and the effect will be unpredictable. Training tens of thousands of people in arrest techniques to make a political point tends to inspire people to put that training to use.

Each training session lasts a full day and covers a lot of ground. The curriculum is broken into three basic areas: explaining broader economic issues such as income inequality and attacks on workers' rights, encouraging participants to tell their stories of economic injustice and hardship, and teaching the nuts-and-bolts of nonviolent direct action.

If the phrase didn't have such militaristic overtones, I would call it "boot camp for protesting." Lefties have decided that the Occupiers were onto something and are looking to expand and build on what Occupy Wall Street set in motion last fall. The 99 Percent Spring folks aren't organizing any one protest over any one particular issue; they are merely training people how to go about doing so for the upcoming election year. They've even got some Occupiers teaching their seminars.

But, as with all things Occupy, some purists are already charging that it's all an attempt to "co-opt" them, their message, and their movement. The Occupy movement is planning a very concrete (and ambitious) event for May 1: a nationwide "general strike." They fear outside groups will dilute their message and taint them by association, somehow.

This is, to a large extent, silly. Here's a quick question: is the Occupy movement inclusive or exclusive? As with all things Occupy, there is no one clear answer; it is both at the same time, in a way. The movement is inclusive, as evidenced by the fact that to join, all you had to do was show up. Anyone could be part of the "General Assembly," if physically present when the group met. But Occupy also has a creeping sense of exclusivity to it, as well, mostly in fear of the dreaded fate of being "co-opted" by others (up to and including their biggest worry: being co-opted by the Democratic Party). "Being co-opted" is defined differently depending on whom you talk to, but it generally means some outside group would somehow hijack the Occupiers' pure message and bend it to their own aims.

At the same time, the Occupiers are attempting to encourage (one might say "co-opt" if one were being ironic) other groups to support their cause in a visible way -- labor groups, especially. The re-launch of Occupy Wall Street (Occupy 2.0?) is slated for May Day, and the Occupiers would love it if they brought the country to its knees for a day as workers everywhere walked off their job in solidarity. That's really the only way a general strike could work.

The May Day plans and the 99 Percent Spring don't seem to be mutually exclusive but complementary. If the folks who attend the 99 Percent Spring turn out in force on May Day in cities across the country in support of the Occupy protest, how can anyone involved in either see that as a bad thing, especially if the 99 Percenters teach others what they've learned, and so present an image to the media of peaceful, nonviolent protest techniques that are time-tested and proven?

Any successful movement needs both dreamers and doers. If composed of mere dreamers, nothing ever gets accomplished. If composed of mere doers, things may get accomplished, but without any real direction toward any goal. A prudent mix of both is required not only to move but to move forward toward something. This requires both a lot of people out in the streets and the discipline that people trained in the art of protest and street theater can bring.

The Occupiers should be proud of what they've achieved already: the change in the conversation in Washington and on the nation's airwaves. The phrase "99 percent" is used in the discussion now, and the ideas behind that simple phrase have gotten enormously more attention than they did before anyone set foot in Zuccotti Park. That is not easy to do in American these days. Compare the coverage pre-Occupy and post-Occupy in the media on the subject of jobs, for instance. Pre-Occupy, the entire conversation was about slashing the federal budget. Post-Occupy, the conversation has at least shifted somewhat toward the economic plight of millions of Americans. It's hard to remember now, but pre-Occupy this was deemed "old news" or "not news" by national news directors and editors, and now it will likely be a centerpiece of the upcoming presidential campaign. That is a big victory, even if a bit intangible.

The problem of the Occupy movement has always been defining a path forward. Seeing the utopia at the end of the rainbow is always easier than trying to figure out how to get there, to put it another way. Asking Occupiers what they would change about the system brought forth many admirable goals: ending the power of Big Banking, getting rid of lobbying and money in politics, solving the student loan crisis, and many other worthy ideas. But when asked how to achieve those goals, many Occupiers shied away from working within the existing political system altogether, seeing it as so corrupted and ineffectual as to not be worth the effort.

But how else is any of this stuff supposed to happen? Overturning the Citizens United decision, just to pick one, would likely (at this point) require an amendment to the Constitution. This would be an enormous achievement, and a fundamental realignment of money in politics, but it would also require an almost Herculean effort to pass. That effort would have to take place not only on the national political level (Congress) but also in statehouses across the land (ratification), and it would take years and years of very hard work to accomplish. That's not to say it isn't worth such an effort, but absent such effort it is never going to happen.

All movements face this ultimate dilemma: work within the system, or work to create an entirely new system. But creating an entirely new "paradigm" would be even harder than passing an amendment to kill the Citizens United decision -- and getting large groups of people to agree on what that new system would be seems (at this point) to be an almost impossible task for the Occupiers.

The Occupiers need to ask themselves some very bedrock questions about what it is they are trying to do, and how exactly they plan to get there. Here is how I would compose such a self-examination:

Do you want to get something done? Or do you just want to get on television? Do you want to take steps, however small, toward your ultimate goals? Or do you just want to make a certain point, and make it as loudly as you can? Can you accept the fact that in order to achieve any change at all, it will likely have to come from the same corrupt system you are protesting? Or will you remain pure and not change anything in any concrete way? Will you welcome fellow travelers along the path you foresee, even those who might have their own ideas about what to push for next, or will you exclude any group that doesn't share your ideological purity? What is the point of your movement, and how do you see yourselves getting there?

These are important questions, and I am quite obviously biased in the way I have framed them. I do believe that "the system" needs a good grasp by the collar and a healthy shakeup every now and again, but I also believe that ending "the system" and building a new one from scratch on better, more utopian lines is simply not going to take place in my lifetime. Call me a cynic if you must, but there it is.

Working within a corrupt system to achieve even incremental change is hard: it takes a long time, and it takes a monumental amount of effort (and some luck). It is not easy. The only easy thing is getting frustrated by the glacial pace of change and giving up on "the system" altogether.

The other thing change requires is numbers. Taking over a park -- even in every city in America -- is one thing. But getting millions of Americans who likely largely agree with your basic goals to influence politicians is another. Achieving even that is going to require some helping hands, which is why the 99 Percent Spring and the Occupy Wall Street folks would do far better to march forward hand-in-hand than worry too much about being "co-opted" or about anyone's ideological purity.

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