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Occupying the Street Is Not Enough


“Occupy” Dialogue Continues

“[S]imply being in a public place and voicing your opinion in and of itself doesn’t do anything politically. It is the prerequisite, I hope, for people getting together and voting and engaging things. . . . I welcome the [Occupy] Wall Street energy. . . . I agree with the general thrust of it. But it’s not self-executing. It has to be translated into political activity if it’s going to have the impact.”

—Rep. Barney Frank to Rachel Maddow

Last night Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the congressman who put the “Frank” in the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, told Rachel Maddow that he would have welcomed the Occupy Wall Street energy two years ago when he and Chris Dodd were working to push the Wall Street reform bill through Congress and against the resistance of financial industry lobbyists. (Mr. Frank is a former chairman of the House Financial Services Committee [2007–2011], and former senator Chris Dodd [D-Conn.] was chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.)

Congressman Frank also made the point—and we want to emphasize what he said—that those who are protesting must also vote. In November 2010 many disaffected liberals stayed home from the polls—yes, contrary to our directions—and their absence helped a wave of conservatives to be swept into office.

I don’t know what the voting behavior is of all these people, but I’m a little bit unhappy when people didn’t vote last time blame me for the consequences of their not voting.

Mr. Frank’s remarks about protest not being enough echoed a point made repeatedly in a dialogue about Occupy Wall Street that has been taking place among readers of this blog.

Our Readers Weigh In

Three of the most reliably thoughtful contributors of comments here at LNW are David in Berkeley, Cousin Pat from Georgia (who lives in New Orleans), and Kevin in Milwaukee. (See David’s previous appearances here and here, and Pat’s here and here.) Readers of the Oct. 6 post “Occupying Wall Street with Nurses, Teachers [and] . . . America’s Middle Class” may have read in the comments a dialogue among Cousin Pat of Hurricane Radio, LNW, and Kevin in Milwaukee (also a cousin, to LNW staff). That dialogue, which can be read in full here, included these remarks:

Pat: “I’m not sold on the #OccupyStuff ‘movement’ as anything other than pure, cathartic spectacle. I’ll believe whatever this is is worthwhile when people are inspired to take back their local school boards, city councils, and political parties—moving onward to affect municipal and state policy.”

Kevin: “We were in Madison every weekend all winter/spring and we will be in the occupy efforts as they unfold. . . . We are now both on the executive board of our union; we attended leadership union training over the summer; we’ve knocked on doors for recall elections and have been to countless town hall and school board meetings throughout our area.”

“I’m hopeful about the Occupy actions . . .”

In reply, David in Berkeley wrote an extended piece that agrees in part with Pat and Kevin, with some further thoughts of his own. David’s remarks are printed below in full, and Pat and Kevin’s dialogue can be read here.

I think Pat raises a valid concern, especially since the energy from the Iraq and Afghanistan war demos were dispiriting in the long run because of the elites’ indifference and complete control over the mechanisms of power. Also, low-level civic involvement—sure, who could argue with that? Just look at how successful the right-wingers have been with that. I recall reading someplace that Ralph Reed once said something to the effect that he’d rather have a thousand local organizers than one senator, and look how effective the anti-abortion/anti-science movements have been with that paradigm. (And that doesn’t even take into account the extra-legal activities that the right-wingers have accomplished, such as voter theft.) In a hopeful scenario, maybe a fraction of the people participating in Occupy demos, teach-ins, etc. will be catalyzed into following the established routes to power. It’s important, I think, that not everyone has the same skills and talents, and that a movement has to have more than one prong: some people are cut out for street performance and others for the meeting room. Also, the last exchange between Pat and Kevin (go Kevin and family!) made me think that in different parts of the country, there are bound to be different needs and ways of accomplishing action, and that what might be needed on Louisiana might be really different than in Wisconsin.

I’m hopeful about the Occupy actions though for bunch of reasons. As [LNW] said, spectacle (and fun, my two cents) matters. There are teach-ins where atrophied words and ideas used to critique capitalism are being dusted off. There’s cooperation among many people who grew up during a forty-year period where collectivity/the commons has been demonized and ridiculed; and from what I’ve read it sounds like the use of “general assemblies” and “human megaphones” (which I really like) gives people a taste for non-hierarchical political participation, an alternative to the usual “barely comprehensible guy with a bullhorn or microphone telling people what to do” (and leading the same old stale chants). Maybe a non-traditional approach to politics will open up a space to “think different.” It sounds like smart decisions have been made about how to deal with the police, by making the point that the movement wants protect their jobs and pensions too (even though there will always be cops who just want to bust heads, unfortunately).

As for Pat’s point that the elites don’t care what the 99%’ers think and aren’t going to be shamed into changing their behavior: I agree, but I think something else might be at work besides shame. Specifically, I think the gathering movement might poke some holes in the sense of comfortable distance that the privileged have come to enjoy since Reagan’s ascendance. It might make some of them take notice that the consequences of their decisions re amassing increasing wealth and power are pissing large numbers of people off, and that means they too are going to have to change how they live in ways they might not want, as in increased security, further exclusion from people not of their class, etc. Maybe that might make a difference. In any case, just to be clear, I’m not encouraging any kind of intimidation or violence, and I’m glad that far the movements have been nonviolent and the police response not as brutal as it could be. I’m just speculating about how the human psyche may react to evidence of its own inhumanity.

Also, there’s a lot to say for the demos changing the vocabulary of public discourse. Last night, on our local Fox-affiliated channel 11 news broadcast, they reported on all three Occupy SF, Occupy SJ (San Jose) and Occupy Wall Street. If I recall correctly, the reporter used the terms “corporate corruption,” “corporate influence on the government,” and “growing economic inequality.” For a moment, I thought I might have accidentally switched the channel to Democracy Now!


Composite photo by New York Times


See also . . .

Rachel Maddow reports that Occupy protests took place in over 900 cities on 4 continents this past Saturday, Oct. 15. Meanwhile, Citigroup’s earnings rose 74% in 3rd quarter of 2011 to $3.8 billion.

We Are the 99 Percent Tumblr Archive

Occupy International: Occupy Wall Street Protests Go Global (slide show)

Right Here All Over” : a short film on Occupy Wall Street by Alex Mallis

Naomi Klein : “Occupy Wall Street: The Most Important Thing in the World Now” | Naomi Klein’s remarks to Occupants at Liberty Plaza on Thurs., Oct. 6

Nicholas Kristof (NYT) : “America’s ‘Primal Scream’ ”

Bryce Covert (New Deal 2.0) : “Why the 99 Percent is Crying Out

Just How Much Can the State Restrict a Peaceful Protest? | If the First Amendment guarantees the right to peaceful protest, why do peaceful protesters get arrested—and sometimes pepper-sprayed and beaten up? ProPublica takes a look at the legal precedents.

CEO empathy for Occupy Wall Street | A handful of financiers have broken ranks to support Occupy Wall Street, and some big business leaders are urging empathy as well.

2001 Bush Tax Cuts: Where the Deficit Began (July 2011, from the LNW archives)

Tyranny Disguised as Fiscal Discipline (March 2011: LNW archives)


Mother Jones: “It’s the Inequality, Stupid” (March–April 2011)

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2 Responses to “Occupying the Street Is Not Enough”

  1. Cousin Pat from Georgia Says:

    Glad to know our conversations on LNW are having an effect!

    If you’d have told me four years ago that something I thought and something Barney Frank thought would line up this seamlessly, I’d have eaten my hat. Especially this:

    I don’t know what the voting behavior is of all these people, but I’m a little bit unhappy when people didn’t vote last time blame me for the consequences of their not voting.

    Since I began to walk the path of citizenship in the classic sense, I’ve come to realize that if an individual wants any kind of change, voting is literally the least they can do.

    As far as what David said:

    I recall reading someplace that Ralph Reed once said something to the effect that he’d rather have a thousand local organizers than one senator, and look how effective the anti-abortion/anti-science movements have been with that paradigm.

    This. This exactly describes how the GOP leveraged the Civil Rights movement to take the whole of the South as a voting base today. You’ll notice, if you look, that the Democratic Party has all but abandoned the South from an organizational standpoint. There are no Democratic candidates for statewide office in Louisiana, and Georgia’s legislature has redrawn the lines to reflect absurd one-party control for the indefinite future.

    That’s why Wisconsin and the Midwestern states are so important: they are the last places where community political organizations can still go toe to toe with the right-wing machines.

  2. Levees Not War Says:

    What a difference four years can make. As for Democratic surrender of Louisiana and Georgia: sorry to hear this, though former DNC chair Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy for the national level was to actively seek the votes and participation of Democratic voters and candidates in every state (opposed by Rahm Emmanuel) after the 2000 and 2004 campaigns wrote off the South, as you describe. The Obama campaign of 2008 built upon that. (Then, regrettably, Rahm got to be Obama’s chief of staff.) But these are more national efforts. If locals follow the Cousin Pat prescription for citizen involvement then perhaps grassroots action can grow into a rejuvenated, and perhaps more imaginative, active, and more diversely thinking, Democratic party.

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