As an Occupy Wall Street activist and progressive Democrat, I’ve felt the tug of those sometimes opposing forces. This is my attempt to reconcile them.
With the Occupy Wall Street movement struggling in the aftermath of coordinated government raids across the country, now is the time for the rest of us to pick up the slack. The upcoming battles will be political, economic and cultural, and everyone has a role. Reform in America is a long relay race, and OWS, having run a sizzling first leg, is looking to hand off the baton.
Consider this: less than three months ago, a radical magazine that many had never heard of (and I did not know still existed) called for an occupation of Wall Street. The September 17 protest was widely mocked, particularly by commentators who questioned whether they would last through the weekend. By the night of Mayor Bloomberg’s violent and savage police raid on November 15, a rag-tag group of mostly young and mostly broke protesters had become an international news story and spread to hundreds of cities, bringing issues like income inequality and corporate personhood into the mainstream discourse. Now they sleep on church floors, await court appearances and need their allies to step up.The second leg of the relay belongs to all of us. OWS has continued direct actions against banksters, war criminals and other deserved targets. But liberals and moderates who see the excitement and eagerly await instructions on a bill to lobby for or a candidate to get behind miss the point. That’s your job. If you want certain campaign finance reform legislation, or want to elect a more progressive person to represent you, then take the lead! OWS will never be an electoral or legislative lobbying operation. Nor should it be. Many of the younger activists grew up during the George W. Bush presidency and have been bitterly disappointed by President Obama. Why should they trust a political system that has completely failed them? Those of us who still seek change through conventional political means should redouble our efforts, with the OWS-generated wind at our backs.
The second leg of the relay is also cultural. We need to educate ourselves about the financial industry, the War on Drugs, the size of our international military footprint, and the machinations of corporate right-wing interests to undermine unions, the New Deal and public education. Fortunately, the resources are out there waiting for us- Matt Taibbi, Amy Goodman, Michelle Alexander, Michael Lewis and many others. We must share our knowledge with co-workers, family members and the guy behind the counter. You can’t be neutral on a moving train, and you can’t be shy about a revolution.
The second leg of the relay requires us all to think harder about how we interact with the local economy and the environment. In New York City, commercial rent will always drive out the mom and pop shop for the ugly corporate chain, unless, of course, we don’t shop at the corporate chain. At a time when livestock and livestock feed uses a third of the earth’s surface and arable land, people in vegetarian friendly urban areas should consider cutting down on their meat consumption. Students at colleges and graduate schools can protest corporate recruiting fairs next fall, and make investment banking as noxious an industry for smart young minds to enter as tobacco. Artists can write songs and poems about the uphill battle we face.
The spirit of the OWS movement was meant to encourage people to take actions in their own daily lives, not wait for a bunch of radicals to enact a generation’s worth of changes in a few months. The Occupiers I’ve worked with are incredibly fearless, staring down Mayor Bloomberg, Wall Street and the NYPD, three forces that have cowed many so-called Democrats. The rest of us don’t need to be beaten and arrested to keep the momentum going. The third leg of the relay will involve taking over the power structures, and the relay anchor will bring about the changes this country desperately needs. But for now, just take the baton, and make a difference the best way you know how.