To Demand Or Not To Demand?

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

This quote by Frederick Douglass was read to the General Assembly at Zuccotti Park on Sunday, October 30th, as the Demands Working Group prepared to make the case for Occupy Wall Street to adopt demands. And they wanted one demand in particular to start with:

“Jobs for ALL – A Massive Public Works and Public Service Program:

We demand a massive public works and public service program with direct government employment at prevailing (union) wages, paid for by taxing the rich and corporations, by immediately ending all of America’s wars, and by ending all aid to authoritarian regimes to create 25 million new jobs to:

  • Expand education: cut class sizes and provide free university for all;
  • Expand healthcare and provide free healthcare for all (single payer system);
  • Build housing, guarantee decent housing for all;
  • Expand mass transit, provided for free;
  • Rebuild the infrastructure—bridges, flood control, roads;
  • Research and implement clean energy alternatives; and
  • Clean up the environment.

These jobs are to be open to all, regardless of documentation/immigration status or criminal record.”

The GA actually laughed out loud when the facilitators suggested that the group take thirty-five minutes to discuss the proposal. After an hour has passed, they had not even made it through the Clarifying Questions surrounding the proposal.

Some of Occupy’s original organizers are furious that the Demands Working Group was able to make this proposal to the GA. They say that Demands can’t even be a working group because on the third day of the occupation of Zuccotti Park, the GA came to consensus that the occupation would not make demands.

In theory, a radical movement can create change in society simply by existing and bringing awareness of its values to broader society. But the Demands Working Group wants OWS to expand its influence beyond the realm of ideology to bear actual results in the form of policy. The group has even talked with the New York Central Labor Council about potentially organizing a mass march around the Jobs For All demand.

But many in the Occupy movement are skeptical of the notion of a demand because, as many in the GA said on Sunday night, it legitimizes the government and even empowers it to determine the success of OWS. There was also great mistrust in the crowd of the government’s ability to provide “good” jobs that don’t pollute the earth or exploit labor. The Demands Working Group even seemed confused about asking government to solve unemployment. “We do not ask or trust any political entity, we only trust ourselves,” one of the presenters declared minutes after stating that the demand was directed toward the U.S. government.

Some in the GA requested more details about how exactly OWS expected the government to create jobs for everyone. For that, the Demands group had a solid answer: “It is not the function of a social movement to propose detailed administrative procedures…but to unify around a demand.”

The conversation was eventually tabled for another night, since it was going on and on. This is clearly only the beginning of Occupy Wall Street forming anything resembling a platform – and it may never happen through the official channel of the General Assembly. The same heterogeneity that makes OWS strong and beautiful also prevents it from getting behind a specific demand. Instead, the movement is focused on its own self-organization, and lately, staying warm.

And that’s perfectly fine, for now, at least. Every day at Zuccotti Park or the Public Atrium at 60 Wall Street, where working groups meet and public teach-ins are held, a revolutionary consciousness is gaining traction and becoming fortified. Even though OWS hasn’t and maybe never will result in a common political objective, it is, as one occupier told me, empowering people with visions of social change that they can take back to their own communities. The conversation about demands is only beginning, but isn’t the fact that it’s happening at all something to rally around?



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