Phase 2 of OWS: Occupying the Election?

Yes, Obama eats with Wall Street--but what can Occupy do when faced with a choice between him and a Republican candidate?

On Friday night, I went to a panel on “Phase 2” of Occupy Wall Street, hosted by the Platypus Review at NYU. The panelists were Hannah Appel, an anthropologist who is active in the OWS Think Tank, Brian Dominick, an activist organizer and social movement theorist, Erik Van Deventer, an NYU sociology doctoral student who is active in the OWS Demands working group, and Nathan Schneider, the journalist who started covering OWS this summer when it was still in planning and the editor of WagingNonviolence.org.

Phase 2: what is it, and what will it be? The panel took place shortly after the December 6th Occupy Homes action (see Astra Taylor’s excellent coverage for The Nation on the East New York anti-foreclosure action). People were galvanized by the action, which seemed to some to be an example of direct action at its most effective: around one thousand gathered to watch one homeless Brooklyn family be placed in an abandoned home that was purportedly foreclosed on by Bank of America (apparently it might not be, a little bird tells me), and local residents came out of their homes to join the march.

The panel was remarkably diverse, and thereby produced a rich dialogue on where OWS might be going. Dominick’s knowledge of social movements proved invaluable, as he highlighted the youthfulness of Occupy–not even three months underway–in the grand scheme of things. He also suggested, as many within OWS have, that Occupy is a continuation of the anti-globalization protests of the nineties (such as Seattle ’99, which was, like OWS, horizontalist). He added that Phase 2 seemed to be characterized by Occupy reaching out to local communities, as it had with the anti-foreclosure action. He, and others, thought this was a good thing, as it would help the movement grow and gain legitimacy

Schneider emphasized that Occupy was part of a global movement, not only as exemplified by Tahrir Square and the broader Arab Spring, but also the Spanish indignados who have been protesting and doing actions since last May, as well as the anti-austerity strikes and protests that have rocked Athens over the past year.

That Occupy Wall Street is global in nature, and that it rode on the wave created by other protests around the world,  is certainly true.  But it is also true that Occupy is, at it’s heart, an American movement, about inequality, collusion between government and finance, and lack of democracy in the United States.

While the panelists agreed that Phase 2 of Occupy would likely entail, above all, surprise, so that no one could predict where it would go, a lot of people are looking ahead to one particularly important opportunity for OWS to exert power in a big way: the Presidential elections, of course.

There has long been talk of occupying the primaries and the conventions, and from what I hear, it is still going on. Recently, New York Magazine‘s John Heilemann wrote a very thorough review of how specific individuals have pushed OWS forward, culminating in, essentially, an argument that the movement needs stronger leadership as it moves into 2012. Heilemann’s analysis is, I think, correct, and many within OWS do recognize certain people as primary organizers; horizontalism has no problem with individuals having strong personalities or visions as long as they are democratic in the way they pursue their agendas (or they are pursuing them autonomously).

But more importantly, Heilemann points out that OWS is in a very precarious place as the elections approach, because ultimately, so much of the dissatisfaction within OWS–though the media hasn’t really picked up on this–is directed toward Obama.

Heilemann quotes Occupy organizer Amin Husain, who (like me) volunteered for Obama’s campaign only to (also like me) become disillusioned. Husain says, on Obama:

“He cheated. He ran on a platform he never intended to push. He made promises he never intended to keep. I was just amazed in his inaugural speech how little transformative there was. And then Tim Geithner—what the hell was that? And then the bailouts. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what was going on. It was a continuation of the same bullshit.”

By the end of Heilemann’s article, where he posits four things Occupy needs to do to move forward (including abandon the “conceit” that it is leaderless and push some strong voices into the limelight), I am a bit afraid. There seem to be too many unknowns, too many possibilities, that could potentially result in a lesser-than-desired voter turnout for Obama next November. And no matter how disillusioned I am, and most of us are, with Obama (except the person who made this website, I guess), I am a believer in the “lesser of two evils” argument. And you will never convince me that Obama is not the lesser evil, given the choices thus far, or really, given the two parties as they stand. (Though perhaps we have cause to be somewhat optimistic, now that Republican strategist Frank Luntz is telling his clients that Americans don’t want to hear the word “capitalism,” because they associate it with moral ills.)

But for most involved in OWS, reformism does not hold as much appeal as radicalism, and therefore, I’m not sure that Occupy will ever come out in support of any candidate. I think it’s more likely that they will continue to focus on the abysmal efforts of either party to make significant, necessary changes in our country. I hope that they will continue to point out that the roots of that problem lie in the marriage between government and finance that we’ve seen in the past fifteen or so years in this country (otherwise known as “neoliberalism”). With revolving doors between the Fed and Goldman Sachs, an absence of restrictions on corporate campaign finance, and the strangling of Congressional efforts to regulate finance by big banks themselves, even if David Graeber were president of this country, we’d still be pretty damn stuck. So, what’s the answer? I don’t know. Mic check! We need a plan!

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