By Jake Blumgart, AlterNet
The American left has been waiting the whole Great Recession for a decent protest movement. Envious of their European counterparts abroad and the Tea Party at home, progressives watched with growing rage as the Obama administration compromised its way through its first term and historic Democratic congressional majorities withered away. Now, as Occupy Wall Street protests spread across the nation, the excitement is evident, despite the sobering circumstances.
Thursday, October 6 marked the opening round of Occupy Philadelphia, just one facet of a widening movement. Hundreds of protesters massed in front of City Hall and promptly began settling in for a long stay. The crowd immediately began organizing itself, creating everything from a “Welcoming and Comfort Committee” to a “Security Committee.” The encampment soon rang with the familiar chant “This is What Democracy Looks Like” and the theme of the occupations: “We Are the 99 Percent.” People erected tents, lofted signs, and debated each other ceaselessly. The mood was electric.
“This is one of the most amazing turnouts for an event I’ve ever seen and I’ve been organizing for 10 years,” said Amanda Geraci, organizer and participant.
As the day wore on, the crowd waxed and waned; swelling at the noon lunch break, receding at quitting time, and growing steadily again throughout the evening. The food committee set tables for eating, water and coffee. The family area, complete with No Smoking signs, provided room for children to play. Lawyers gave “Know Your Rights” talks. In the coming days, Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania staffers will be on call to provide crisis intervention and emotional support, as needed.
Philadelphia isn’t alone. Similar protests modeled on the famous Occupy Wall Street actions are spreading all over the nation. Occupy Philly lagged behind other large cities including Boston (September 30) and Seattle (October 1). Chicago, Atlanta, Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New Orleans, which also began its occupation on Thursday, are among the many other host cities. While it is hard to get an exact total, the website Occupy Together has a list of 865 participating cities, including solidarity rallies on every continent, save Antarctica. Chris Bowers at Daily Kos is charting the expansion of the movement in the U.S., although hismost recent post (from Tuesday) on the subject showed over 200 occupations.
Each occupation sports a regional flavor. One Philadelphia protester gave passersby an animated lecture on the city’s “corrupt politics” and argued for City Council term limits. The march that kicked off the New Orleans march began at the notorious Orleans Parish prison, an institution the Department of Justice has critiqued for violence against inmates.
But all the occupations focus on the same core issues: unemployment, corporate welfare, foreclosures, and crushing personal debt.
“There is no longer the guarantee that if you work hard you will succeed,” says Ben Webster, an Occupy Philadelphia participant who hopes to see the movement use direct action to prevent foreclosures, as protesters have in Spain. “The only thing many people come out of college with is debt. All we have is austerity and crisis.”
“The big corporations are getting richer and richer, while working people every day are getting poorer,” says Alfonso Pulido, a former machine operator in Chicago who was laid off as a result of the recession.* “In the face of unemployment and in this economic landscape we need to mobilize at every level to get jobs to return so that we can provide for our families. I’ve been here 23 years and never been unemployed before. I’m not interested in handouts, I’m interested in working.”
“Things are looking real bleak,” says Norris Simon, veteran and member of New York Steamfitters Local 638 (he left the Wall Street occupation to bolster Occupy Philly). “When I was young, you bought a house. That was the American dream. Now it’s the American nightmare.”
The ideology of the protesters varies dramatically. The Occupy Philly protests were home to social democrats (“Responsible Capitalism: Healthy Workforce, Healthy Economy”), anarchist anti-capitalists, and some libertarians. In Boston, media volunteer Joshua Eaton reports that Ron Paul-boosters, among others, can be found among the largely leftist occupiers. “Our motto is the 99 percent, not the 30 percent of Americans who are liberal Democrats,” Eaton said in a phone interview.
But despite these divisions, the focus remains on common discontents. “Ideology is left at the door,” Geraci says. “The diversity of viewpoints is being used as a strength instead of for infighting. We are all in this together.”
Demands at Occupy Philly range from the clearly sensible (“Tax Wall Street”) to the recklessly misguided (“End the Fed”). Despite the constant fretting of pundits, the protests don’t have a coherent set of universally agreed upon goals. But that doesn’t separate Occupy Wall Street from other social movements in American history.Mass movements aren’t good for pushing technocratic fixes or complex policy mechanisms. They are meant to demand the world and propel issues into the national conversation.
The reactions of the local establishments are as varied as the demands of the protesters. New York City authorities have been ham-handed in their treatment of the occupiers. Without the brutish (ongoing) efforts of the NYPD, it is very likely the initial protests wouldn’t have gained mainstream media attention. In Seattle, Mayor Mike McGinn also cracked down on the protesters. The police made multiple arrests in the process, although they were relatively restrained, for the most part. San Francisco’s occupations experienced similar treatment.
By contrast, police presence was minimal on the first day of Occupy Philly. The crowd even cheered for the police. (The night before the occupation began, several veteran activists shared less than fond memories of the Philadelphia Police Department, mostly dating from the Republican Convention of 2000.) Occupy Boston enjoys similar good relations with law enforcement. “The police have been absolutely wonderful and no arrests have been made, to my knowledge,” Eaton says, although he made clear that he only spoke for himself.
In Philadelphia, organizers told the general assembly that Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter “wants you to know that he too is a member of the 99 percent.” [He said] “We are welcome to set up tents and be here to express our opinions for as long as it takes,” organizers said, informing the crowd of their meeting with the mayor, the chief of police, and other city officials. According to The Stranger, Washington State Democrats have offered their halting support to the movement too, while numerous progressive Congressional Democrats have expressed full-throated solidarity .
But the occupation movement and the Democratic Party mostly circle each other warily. Since the late-1960s, many left-wing activists have had a less charitable analysis of electoral politics than their conservative opposites and are consequently less inclined to work with established institutions. A strong strain of this skepticism can be found in the Occupy protests, which include many anarchists and other confirmed-reform skeptics, along with disillusioned Obama voters. Generally, much greater enthusiasm is shown for the support provided by labor unions and other progressive advocacy organizations.
But the Occupy movement doesn’t have to get along with the Democratic Party. Social movements work best when they don’t directly synch up with established political interests. Politicians and policymakers need to feel unrelenting pressure that doesn’t ease up until they do something substantive. But there must also be political actors who have the power and the will to make those changes. And therein lies the Occupy movement’s chief weakness: This isn’t a politically advantageous moment for their demands.
If these protests had begun at the beginning of Obama’s term, with strong Democratic majorities in both houses, they could pushed stronger progressive policies. But today Congress is divided and a majority of states are controlled by Republicans, who will not be responsive to the Occupy movement’s goals. They have their own social movements to react to.
This isn’t to say that the Occupy movement is hopeless. There are still plenty of fixes they can push toward at state and local levels. But major change on the national level (outside, perhaps, some monetary stimulus) is unlikely in the near term. Even the Civil Rights movement, and its years of radical actions, had to wait until the Democrats held the presidency and massive Congressional majorities before they achieved their goals.
Jake Blumgart is a freelance reporter-researcher based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.
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