Would You Vote for an Occupy Protester?

The Christian Right's tactics would help Occupy 2.0

With last week’s evictions of Occupy Los Angeles and Occupy Philly from the encampments they’d held for nearly two months, the last vestiges of the grassroots social movement that sprang up in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park on September 17th, and briefly flourished in dozens of municipalities across the nation, have been largely swept from public view.

Yet the movement is hardly dead. On the contrary, with their involuntary exodus from the confines of a handful of increasingly inhospitable public parks, the protesters have been given the latitude to explore their power in more practical, and ultimately more effective ways; so far they appear to be off to a good start.

This week, thousands of unemployed activists launched “Take Back the Capitol” and are currently staging sit-ins at U.S. congressional offices to demand lawmakers address their concerns. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, groups operating under the common rallying cry “Occupy Our Homes” began taking over foreclosed properties across the country, in some cases moving in homeless families and in others keeping existing homeowners from being evicted. At last count, Occupy Our Homes actions were under way in more than 25 cities and towns that have been hard hit by the poor economy.

Yet for all the media attention these endeavors garner, they rarely elicit enduring systemic reform. That’s not to say they don’t play a role; but in order to make a lasting impact on national policy, Occupy activists need to form a second tier to take the concerns of a majority of Americans—like jobs, health care, fair wages and debt relief—out of the streets and into the political arena where they can start influencing policy.

Realizing such a goal will require patience and determination, but neither is lacking from this movement. However, the shift would also mean working within a system in which many protesters have lost faith (if they had any at all) and adopting a more nuanced approach—one that has been applied successfully by the right for years, but for the past three decades has been lost on progressives.

Many young activists are rightly wary of the “institutional left”—not out of a generational distrust of anyone over 30, but because they’ve witnessed its failure to make any significant progress in spite of the best intentions. Ironically, the failure of progressive activism to disrupt corporatist policy in America may be rooted in the very virtues that define it as a movement. Since the 1970s, the left has been very adept at issues-based activism that gauges the success of any effort by its ability to affect change in the most direct and compelling way possible. As a result, there are thousands of grassroots community organizations across America advocating for the poor—helping them navigate the legal system and access social services, for instance—but few engaged in coordinated efforts to change the system that allows for impoverished people. For the socially conscious, it’s the ultimate Catch 22: How do you worry about, say, reforming tax policy when there are families at risk of losing their homes?

While the progressive left has been busy attacking the symptoms of inequality, moneyed interests and their benefactors in Congress have been patiently installing the mechanisms to broaden that inequality. And why not? They have the leisure to.

With the rise of the Occupy movement, however, everyday Americans may finally have a network in place for leveling the playing field. After all, 99-to-one are pretty good odds. But in order to make them effective, Occupiers will need to do some serious soul-searching, and that will likely mean relinquishing some of the original tenets of the movement that will ultimately hinder its ability to evolve.

To start with, the movement needs to abandon its visceral distrust of leadership. Horizontal consensus may work at a local General Assembly (barely) but it won’t be effective at the national level. Front-line protesters need to begin seeing themselves as foot soldiers in a battle to save the American Dream, and they need an officer corps to champion that ideal at the next level. There are plenty of protesters already playing this “leadership” role even if it’s unpopular to admit it, so let’s drop the charade, call a spade a spade and get on with it.

Next, some Occupiers need to tone down the revolutionary rhetoric; as enticing as it may be, it’s simply not an American story. At least, not in 2011.

Shortly after the Occupy movement’s formation, a rift began to emerge between so-called “reformers” and a more radical element. This was especially evident at Occupy Philly, where reformers under the umbrella of the Reasonable Solutions Committee formed a splinter group and accepted a city permit without General Assembly consensus. That was a bad move, because it revealed dissent within the movement, ultimately weakening it; but that doesn”t change the fact that those on the radical fringe need to realize that some of their actions have the potential to alienate the very people they claim to be fighting for. Once this happens the movement loses credibility and might as well adopt a new slogan, We Are the Five Percent, because it will no longer have the sympathy and support of the majority of 99 percenters.

Social change comes in two ways: through evolution and revolution. Both are subject to the will of the people but each can only thrive when certain conditions exist. Revolutions are typically sparked by a singular emotive event (for instance, the self-immolation of a fruit vendor) and follow years of repression. Revolutions employ a rapid top-down approach to change, America requires a more gradual bottom-up approach. It’s no less effective, but a lot less sexy.

By drawing parallels between what was happening in New York and, say, what happened over the winter in Egypt, the movement risks ignoring the unique variables of the American experience and in doing so, failing to craft strategies that cater to those variables. Protesters need to make sure they’re fighting the right fight. Zuccotti Park was not Tahrir Square. Egyptians suffered three decades of arbitrary arrest, torture and marginalization by a unelected dictator. They had no vote that mattered and no political process to speak of. Egyptians were being crushed under a boot; Americans are being slowly suffocated. The end result may be the same, but the method of escape is different.

Lastly, and most importantly, Occupiers need to leverage the powerful tool they have created—a rapid response team of activist citizens with the common goal of advancing the cause of social justice in the United States—into a viable platform for change. And the last time I checked, the best way to do that for lots of people with little money is called the vote.

Occupy Wall Street has changed the conversation, now it’s time for OWS 2.0 to change who’s doing the conversing.

About midway through the occupations, I went to hear longtime progressive activist Frances Fox Piven speak at Temple University about the demise of the progressive left and the rise of Occupy Wall Street. Responding to a question about the movement’s potential she remarked: “There is no way to work toward long-term change without engaging the electoral process.”

I’m inclined to agree. But engaging the electoral process doesn’t mean being co-opted by the Democratic party establishment. After all, the Tea Party wasn’t co-opted by the Republicans, it was the other way around. Nor did Tea Partiers change Republicans; rather, they created new ones.

Occupy activists need to use the network they have built to create localized “get out the vote” councils that can be called upon to support candidates for local and state office. And then they need to run, run, run. Run everywhere and for everything: from school board to the state senate. I’ve talked to plenty of activists right here in Philly—many of them in their twenties—that have the intellect, insight and charisma to do just that. Once they run it’s up to the OWS network to drive the vote.

It’s been done before. In the 1990s the Christian Right propelled itself to national prominence by winning local elections. There’s no reason the 99 percent can’t do the same.

After all, the vote is still the most underused activist tool we have; it’s the great leveler. In the voting booth, we are all the one percent.