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Occupy Wall Street’s Next Phase: Avoid Cooptation in Election Season
“This is Occupy 2.0, not Occupy on the fringe” said Rev. Jamal Bryant, outside the Federal Reserve building on Constitution Avenue, in Washington, DC. “We’re coming to every kitchen table.” Bryant is pastor of a Baltimore mega-church and co-leader, along with former NAACP executive director Ben Chavis and media mogul Russell Simmons, of Occupy The Dream, Occupy Wall Street’s new partners.
Defining “Phase Two” of the young movement is a popular pastime. The leadership of Occupy Washington DC, encamped at Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue, say their version of phase two will explore alternative economic models that give power to workers, while also gearing up for an “American Spring” mass mobilization beginning March 30. Back in mid-November, when OWS was barely two-months old, Democratic Party interloper Van Jones announced that his Rebuild the Dream outfit would inaugurate “phase two” of the movement with the recruitment of “2,000 candidates to run for office under this 99 percent banner“ – Jones’ ambitious bid for a wholesale Democratic buyout of OWS. There are lots of “phase twos” and 2.0s” out there.
What does Occupy The Dream’s virtual merger with OWS portend? Lots more Black people, for one thing. The clergy-centered group held demonstrations at Federal Reserve Bank locations in 16 cities on January 16, Martin Luther King’s federal holiday, leaving behind walkers and crutches to symbolize the central bank’s role in “crippling America.” At the Fed’s Washington headquarters, the call-and-response was nothing like the usual OWS mic-check. “We pray for a Robin Hood revolution, where there will be more for the poor and less for the rich,” Rev. Bryant preached to the crowd. “Instead of saying Amen, shout Occupy. [Occupy!] The revolution begins today. What do we want? [Justice!] No Justice? [No Peace!] What we gonna do? [Occupy!].”
Both Rev. Bryant and Occupy The Dream co-founder Dr. Ben Chavis were vocal Barack Obama supporters up to the minute they vowed to work in “lock-step” with OWS, at a press conference in Washington, December 14 – and Bryant was still urging his congregation to work hard for the president’s re-election, the following Sunday. (See BAR, January 11, “Occupy Wall Street joins Occupy The Dream: Is It Cooptation, or Growing the Movement?”) Bryant and Chavis are now publicly non-partisan, in the sense that they no longer directly advocate for Obama. Occupy Washington DC activist and AcronymTV reporter Dennis Trainor asked Bryant if he was serious about holding “both parties accountable” on the same terms. “Oh yes,” said the minister. But, what if Obama doesn’t give in to your demands? “He’s going to have to. Power concedes nothing without a demand.” But, what if? “Then we’re going to have to speak truth to power, hold him accountable. He can’t be president if he doesn’t have our vote. November 6 is going to be a day of destiny, when Occupy is gonna get up from the tent and go into the polling stations.”
Clearly, Rev. Bryant isn’t about to abandon his electoral power broker persona. The real “phase two” of Occupy Wall Street’s young career is a perilous period of greatly increased interaction of OWS with local Democratic politicians at the height of the election season. Although the presence of Occupy the Dream, comprised of political preachers, will surely accelerate the movement’s immersion in Democratic politics (which are embedded in the African American polity), the mostly white national leadership of OWS chose this path on its own.
It has been forty years since a presidential campaign took place in the presence of a grassroots movement – or, the remnants of a movement, back in 1972. Except for some older heads, OWS has little experience in avoiding – or even detecting – the Democratic Party’s cooptive machinery, as is becoming obvious.
At Harlem’s St. John the Divine Church, a Democratic state committeewoman and district leader presented OWS with a “Key to Harlem.” The ceremony was arranged by the same local Black Democratic leaders that have for decades been giving Wall Street banks, developers and other gentrifyers the “keys” to Harlem, driving out their own constituents. “It was further indication of the Democratic Party cooptation of NYC OWS,” said Nellie Bailey, of the Harlem Tenants Council and a founder of Occupy Harlem. “Even worse, speaker after speaker praised Dr. Martin Luther King without any mention of Harlem's massive unemployment crisis, gentrification, displacement – or of Obama’s wars and his signing of the preventive detention law.” Later, ceremonies at historic Riverside Church failed to mention President Obama’s name, his wars, or preventive detention.
In Chicago, Occupy the Dream and Occupy Chicago staged a well-attended King Day rally featuring top city Democrats on the dais, including Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle and congresspersons Jan Schakowsky and Jesse Jackson, Jr. Under such circumstances, there could be no real discussion of how the 1% have bought the political process – certainly not one that indicts the Democrats.
If nonpartisanship means avoidance of Obama’s wars and the destruction of due process of law, or requires hobnobbing with local politicians who all happen to be Democrats and Obama boosters – then it is a shallow and technical assertion.
In Washington, Rev Bryant made a real effort to be even-handed. He warned Democrats that folks might join (or start) a “third party.” Occupy The Dream’s top priority is campaign finance reform. “We don’t want politicians to be puppets. We don’t want them working for the biggest donor,” said Bryant.
The Dream demands “absolute security for Pell Grants” because there is “more student loan debt than credit card debt,” and “an immediate moratorium on all home foreclosures.” In the first quarter of this year, he said, “four million Americans will lose their homes because they have been robbed by an unjust system.”
Wall Street should also contribute $100 billion to communities “for entrepreneurship, job training and job placement.”
Why was the Federal Reserve targeted by Occupy The Dream? “It was this institution that gave money to AIG…to the Ford Motor Corporation…to Bank of America.”
It is in the failure to explication such general demands that narrow nonpartisanship becomes its opposite. It is meaningless to proclaim that the people don’t need politicians that are “puppets” of big donors, without pointing out that Barack Obama has raised more money from Wall Street than all the Republicans, combined; raised more money, in fact, from Bain Capital employees than Bain co-founder Mitt Romney; just as he raised far more cash on Wall Street than John McCain, in 2008, when Obama rejected public campaign financing because the big corporate bucks were coming his way. Most Black people don’t know any of this – and, in fact, assume that Wall Street favors Republicans.
Any call for a moratorium on foreclosures that does not note Obama’s history on the matter, is empty. The people should know – especially Black people, who harbor massive misperceptions about the First Black President’s actual record – that only Obama, of the last three Democratic presidential candidates standing in January, 2008, opposed both a moratorium on foreclosures and a freeze on rising home interest rates. As The Nation reported on January 24, 2008, Hillary Clinton favored a “voluntary” freeze, while John Edwards called for mandatory moratoriums. But Obama wanted no interference with home foreclosures or interest rates. Two years later, his position as president was virtually unchanged. Obama “rejected calls for a nationwide moratorium on housing foreclosures amid fears that such a move could cripple an already slow recovery of the U.S. housing market,” Reuters reported on October 12, 2010.
The people need Rev. Bryant and others in Occupy The Dream to explain the relationship between the Federal Reserve and the current administration in power. That’s not partisanship, it’s imparting vital knowledge. The Fed does not act in isolation. Although technically not even part of the government, the Fed in practice works hand in glove with the executive branch to coordinate economic policy. When the Fed “gave money to AIG…to Ford Motor Corporation…to Bank of America,” it was most often in collaboration with the U.S Treasury Department to achieve the administration’s political and economic goals. For example, the U.S. Treasury saved AIG from destruction and wound up owning most of the company. But that was only possible because the New York Federal Reserve Bank simultaneously bought up the company’s toxic mortgage-related securities, which it now wants to auction off for $7 billion. The Fed acts as an arm of the president in power. The relationship is even more intimate: Obama Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank.
For these reasons, the administration should be “held accountable” for the $16 trillion (or more) the Federal Reserve funneled to Wall Street under President Obama’s watch. But you didn’t hear that from Rev. Bryant – or, probably, from any of the Reverends in the 16 cities that Occupy The Dream targeted for Federal Reserve demonstrations. To treat the Federal Reserve as a kind of force unto itself, to pretend that it does not act in tandem with the administration, amounts to an absolution of Obama for the Fed’s crimes against the people – whether Rev. Bryant and Dr. Ben Chavis intended to, or not.
Technical political nonpartisanship defeats the purpose. The goal is to build an independent people’s movement by telling the truth. The deepening engagement of OWS, especially its national leadership in New York, with Democratic politics and politicians during this election season, represents the biggest challenge to the movement’s future. Maintaining political and independence and avoiding cooptation in this environment is the real “Phase Two.” There is no guarantee of a “Phase Three.”