NEW YORK—The mushrooming Occupy Wall Street protests, now on the verge of spreading to more than 1,000 cities and towns across the U.S. and beyond, may have come of age this week.
But the second most interesting number (apart from the anger-tracking figures updated at OccupyTogether.org) is 38 per cent — President Barack Obama’s approval rating, according to the latest Gallup survey.
Occupation up, Obama down. It’s an equation the White House is desperate to change, as the Democratic machine grapples with how best to harness the progressive populist uprising to generate electoral energy for November 2012.
The rolling fury that took hold of lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park three weeks ago remains audaciously leaderless. But it is also changing quickly, as new blood arrives to bolster the cause, in ways that are dismaying to Occupy Wall Street’s earliest adopters.
On Wednesday, it was the arrival of Big Labor that seized the headlines, as unionists marched in the thousands through Manhattan’s financial district. But in the encampment that night — and truly, the hardcore actually sleeping on these paving stones comprise 140 characters or less — fear of co-optation was rampant.
The Occupy Wall Street hardcore sees itself as bigger than partisan politics. And the disappointment with Obama — after what they view as a series of business-friendly surrenders on financial regulation, the environment, budgets and even health-care reform — borders on contempt.
But they don’t own Occupy Wall Street anymore. That was evident Thursday morning, when the encampment began to fill with even more arrivals. And some of the new faces showing up in Zuccotti seem more representative of the working-class angst gripping the country.
Take Sean Finnerty, for example, a 26-year-old Alaskan who came down on a break from his job in the oilfields. He was a bundle of energy Thursday, taking stock — and then taking charge.
“What the hell is this doing here?” asked Finnerty, pointing to an anti-Wall Street leaflet that reeked of anti-Semitism, replete with a hand-drawn swastika.
“This is sick. I’m taking it down. Anybody who thinks they can defend this can talk to me,” said Finnerty as he tore the hate-filled paper to shreds.
Finnerty told the Star he arrived the night before. But he admitted he got “the cold shoulder” from many of the young radicals in the square.
“I guess I don’t have the right tattoos or haircut for some of them,” he said. “But I don’t care. I’ll sleep beside them because the cause is right.
“This thing is still in its infancy. And they need working people like me for it to really take off.”
Finnerty pointed to two construction workers eating lunch on the curb — two of the more than 3,000 men working on the massive site next door, building new towers from the ashes of 9/11. Then Finnerty pointed to some of the previous night’s Occupy Wall Street revelers, still asleep in their bags.
“These guys start their jobs at 7 a.m. Do you really expect them to relate to a bunch of kids who sleep till noon?
“If this thing is serious, they need way more working-class people like me. That’s why I came. This protest is not a fashion statement. And it’s definitely not about getting Obama re-elected. We have to focus it or we’ll be co-opted.”
The powerful online component of the Occupy movement has been withering in its criticism of Team Obama’s ties to Wall Street. One widely traveled post Friday seized upon a passage in journalist Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men, in which the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance called on imprisoned insider trader Dennis Levine for guidance on how to act upon alleged malfeasance in high finance.
Levine’s advice: “You need to send out a slew of indictments, all at once, and on 3 p.m. on a sunny day, have Federal Marshalls perp-walk 300 Wall Street executives out of their office in handcuffs and out on the street, with lots of cameras rolling. Everyone else would say, ‘If that happened to me, my mother would be ashamed.’ ”
Others, such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, suggest the rise of OWS in “numbers too big to ignore” presents “what amounts to a second chance” for Team Obama to harden its rhetoric with solid action.
“The Obama administration squandered a lot of potential goodwill early on by adopting banker-friendly policies that failed to deliver economic recovery even as bankers repaid the favour by turning on the president,” wrote Krugman.
“Now, however, Mr. Obama’s party has a chance for a do-over. . . . And if the protests goad some politicians into doing what they should have been doing all along, Occupy Wall Street will have been a smashing success.”
Yet it is far from clear if the still-amorphous movement — which plans a sister rally in Toronto next Saturday — will succumb to electoral machinations.
In a statement Friday, a new branch of the Occupy movement billing itself as the “Occupy Wall Street 99 Per Cent Working Group” released a statement saying: “We will not be co-opted by hierarchical organizations. No matter how wonderful their cause may be.”
In Washington, meanwhile, a splinter group took hold under the banner of Occupy State Department late Thursday, sleeping overnight to ensure that Friday’s final hearing on a controversial pipeline to double the flow of oilsands bitumen to the United States included an abundance of voices opposing Keystone XL.
The controversial $7 billion project would carry millions of barrels of oilsands crude a week through six U.S. states to refineries in Texas, The Canadian Press reports.
Team Obama, which is expected to decide on the pipeline in December, has repeatedly signaled in subtle and not-so-subtle ways it is ready to expand America’s consumption of Canadian oil.
If so, far from being Obama’s own personal Tea Party, the Occupy movement is likely to turn even harder against him when that call is made.