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It’s Time for MoveOn to Move and Stop Blocking Change

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities (RMBS) task force received ample attention from news and activist organizations alike following its dramatic announcement at last year’s State of the Union Address. The task force was supposed to investigate and prosecute Wall Street fraud that led to the housing bubble and the eventual collapse of the broader economy. FDL alum David Dayen’s recent piece in Salon reminds us that, one year later, the “new” task force has essentially amounted to what the “old” task force always was: “a conduit for press releases about investigative actions already in progress.”

Firedoglake was among a few groups that met the news of the taskforce with skepticism, but others like, Rebuild the American Dream and the Courage Campaign were ebullient in their praise of the president and NY attorney general alike. My inbox was flooded with emails like this one, calling on me to thank the President, and get ready for the Wall Street prosecutions to come rolling in.

One month after being tapped to chair the task force, Schneiderman and his fellow ‘Justice Democrat’ California Attorney General Kamala Harris dropped their longstanding objections to a rather pathetic nationwide foreclosure fraud settlement that not only allowed some of the biggest criminals involved to walk upon payment of a relatively paltry settlement, but as FDL contributor Cynthia Kouril wrote at the time, “The court system will be permanently corrupted by forged and perjurious documents… This settlement is an incredible breach of the social contract between the government and the governed.” Months went by without mention of or word from the taskforce. The New York Daily News began to wonder aloud in April of that year whether the taskforce would actually do anything at all, and David Dayen repeatedly wrote at FDL News of the complete lack of information that had yet to surface on the taskforce.

The public – or rather, those who knew about this disturbing trend – was outraged at Schneiderman’s inaction, but the biggest outside champions of the taskforce were nowhere to be found. There were no emails from MoveOn calling on their millions of members to urge Schneiderman and the President to act. Really, how could they? They had already declared victory at the formation of the taskforce, and so all leverage was lost. This lack of public pressure from the groups most influential with administration officials may have contributed to the fact that the RMBS task force still does not have its own offices, phone lines or staff.

To this day, it seems these Beltway liberals are incapable of understanding the nature of our predicament. The Nation Magazine’s editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel, for one, defended these groups’ efforts in the Washington Post, writing, “Dayen blames groups like the Campaign for a Fair Settlement, the New Bottom Line, Move On and the Campaign for America’s Future (disclosure: I’m on its board) for buying in to the plot. In reality, though, these organizations have been pressuring the Obama administration for months to clean house at Justice, devote real resources to the task force and make it a top priority inside the White House.”

But David’s response gets at the heart of what I would like to address in this post (emphasis mine):

…I’m sure the Administration trembles at the pressuring from the groups that sent out glowing press releases a year ago about the “real leadership” shown by the President in announcing a task force that, by this own admission, carried no guarantee of resources or prioritization.

Look, nobody likes having to admit they’ve been duped. But I reject the assertion that there are only two courses of action here, that “we can either fight to see that this investigation is real or we can take our ball and go home.” That fight over the investigation is doomed. What would be useful is to examine the role of these DC progressive groups, who continue to build coalitions aimed at “pressuring” the White House and who continue to fail in spectacular fashion.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time MoveOn and the establishment liberals have fallen silent when they were needed most.

At the onset of the Occupy movement, many people were very uncomfortable with the speed with which groups like, Democracy for America and others latched on to the “99%” messaging and began using it to further their own goals. DFA sold 99% bumper stickers. MoveOn held protests at Romney fundraisers, branding them “Hobnobs with the 1%” while quietly letting the President hobnob in Manhattan just weeks before.

Throughout the winter of 2011, local governments managed to find rare bipartisan consensus in mutual hatred of the Occupy encampments in their communities. Crackdowns began across the country at an alarming rate. Examples include:

  • Charlotte City Council has proposed an ordinance that “makes camping on public property a “public nuisance” and would prohibit “noxious substances,” padlocks and other camping equipment that city officials fear could impede traffic and create public safety issues.” (Convenient, since the DNC was hosted last fall.)
  • City officials in Bloomington posted an eviction notice for Occupy Bloomington after three arrests during a downtown march. Gov. Mitch Daniels also introduced new ‘security rules’ for the Statehouse, including allowing no more than 3,000 people to be inside the statehouse at any one time, “no protest signs larger than 2’ X 2’, no signs on sticks, no obscenity, no engaging in lewd acts contrary to state law, no Coke cans. Also no gambling.”
  • Occupy Eugene actually inspired the city to build a wrought iron fence around the home of a city council member who voted to forbid fires at the encampment. Councilman Poling says “his family is unnerved and some neighbors appalled, such as a family with two small children out looking at Christmas lights who saw five masked women demonstrating topless in front of his house.” Poling then went so far as to equate the topless protesters with the 1994 drive-by shooting at a Eugene synagogue by white supremacists, and demanded the city pay for redecorating his home. All Occupy Eugene asked for was to build a homeless shelter in the city.

But suddenly, at the moment Occupy could have really used their enthusiasm to rally to the movement’s defense, MoveOn, DFA and the others disappeared. As crackdowns intensified, Firedoglake and others called on our activists to lobby their local governments and speak out against the crackdowns, and show up at encampments in solidarity. We sent supplies and livestreamed on our front pages, doing everything we could reasonably do with the time afforded to us to protect the Occupy camps, but it wasn’t enough.

In a President’s first term, one might reasonably argue that these groups should avoid advocacy that could possibly ‘hurt’ their candidate’s chances at winning an election. While I don’t personally agree with this strategy, others are entitled to their own and I respect that. If MoveOn doesn’t feel it can safely navigate the space between supporting Occupy and the President at the same time, it may choose sides as it pleases.

But we are in the President’s second term. Giving the announcement of the RMBS working group a standing ovation — while completely hyperbolic — makes some sense 1 year out from Obama’s re-election. But now that he’s back in office (and assuming MoveOn’s protestations against Wall Street crimes are sincere) wouldn’t one expect to hear calls for action from Schneiderman and the administration, given their total failure thus far?

There is a troubling pattern to the efforts of some of the most visible, well-known advocacy groups on the left that seem, time and time again, to actually empower our opponents rather than empower our movement. When MoveOn and DFA failed to rally to the side of Occupy when they needed them most, they gave a pass to local governments to crack down and devastated the veracity of the movement itself at a time when it could have really dealt a blow to Wall Street. When the MoveOn coalition failed to follow through on their calls for justice for Wall Street crimes after the formation of the RMBS working group, it gave the public the false impression of progress while allowing Wall Street criminals to continue about their business.

The pattern goes something like this:

1. MoveOn comes out swinging at Wall Street, latches on to the emotions of the moment and pulls everyone into a big ‘progressive’ campaign with a coalition made of groups either affiliated with MoveOn or with other (Veal Pen) groups with close ties to the administration.

2. Then there is a moment of mass potential. Whether it’s the crackdowns at the height of the Occupy movement or the announcement of the RMBS working group, this moment attracts substantial press and public attention.

3. The next step should be to leverage the energy of that moment to continue to push for real change in the face of adversity: defend Occupy, or use your considerably large base of activists to urge the government to prosecute Wall Street criminals. But instead, MoveOn et al declare victory in the boldest terms and recede into the background. The coalition is not effectively activated. Everyone feels accomplished, and they should because they just managed to further cement the status quo.

4. Our opponents on Wall Street and in government seize on these opportunities as any shrewd actor would, recognizing that the public’s leverage has been squandered. With the campaign over, they can proceed apace with their agenda. Occupy camps were destroyed and MoveOn was nowhere to be found. Eric Schneiderman didn’t even so much as get a separate phone line for the RMBS working group, and continues to spoil what little remaining chances are left for Wall Street prosecution, and MoveOn is nowhere to be found.

Meanwhile, settlements with Wall Street criminals abound and Americans suffer. Aside from the recent lawsuit announced against S&P, which seems promising for now, not a single Wall Street executive has been jailed for their role in the financial crisis. The least MoveOn and their partners could do is send out an email.

Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein is campaign director at FireDogLake

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