'Occupy' movement helps to spur nationwide coalition
Protesters are pushed Wednesday while trying to enter the Au Bon Pain cafe at the EQT Plaza on Liberty Avenue, Downtown.
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In the BNY Mellon parklet last week, there were few signs of the muddied and bedraggled Occupy Pittsburgh encampment that stood there two months ago. Behind chain-link fences, prim tulips brightened one corner of the park and blades of grass specked the well-trampled ground.
But Occupy Pittsburgh is far from gone, its members say. Neither is the anti-corporate sentiment fanned by Occupy Wall Street and off-shoot protests, which has carried over into a nascent nationwide coalition -- the 99 Percent Spring. The new group seems to promise better organization and a more streamlined message focused primarily on battling economic injustice.
99 Percent Spring, formed by several left-leaning organizations, including MoveOn.org, and a handful of labor unions, pledged to train hundreds of thousands in protest and nonviolent direct action tactics, seizing on a progressive and activist undercurrent that reared its head in Occupy Wall Street protests and the backlash against anti-union legislation in Wisconsin and Ohio. About 80 people received training at the Letter Carrier's building on the North Side on April 14.
Though some members of Occupy are skeptical of the 99 Percent Spring because of the involvement of MoveOn, observers said it has the potential to broaden the progressive movement. But others said it will still fall short of having any meaningful impact in the presidential election because of its weak connection to the Democratic Party.
"What makes the movement grow and help us become more influential and help secure policy ... is that people take part in different ways," said Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University history professor who studies social movements. "People can formulate their own tactics, their own demands within a larger framework."
If the training in Pittsburgh was any indication, the 99 Percent Spring may have the power to tap a different constituency, including many of MoveOn's 7 million members. About half of those who participated April 14 had never participated in a protest before.
Karen Bryant, a Green Tree-based marketing consultant, got an email from MoveOn about the event even though she hasn't been an activist since protesting the Vietnam War in the 1970s. She said she sympathized with some of the Occupy movement's message, but did not feel comfortable participating.
"That particular movement [Occupy] didn't resonate with me because I'm not going to go out and sleep in a tent. I'm really not interested in holding a piece of ground," she said. She decided to become a trainer after getting information about the 99 Percent Spring, though, seeing it as a better fit.
Across the country, more than 900 of these trainings were hosted in a variety of venues: homes, church basements, libraries and union halls. Lisa Frank, one of those who led the Pittsburgh training, dispatched other trainers to host sessions in West Virginia, Youngstown, Ohio, and State College. The 99 Percent Spring plans to train others through a self-guided online course.
In the Pittsburgh session, trainers asked participants to share their personal stories about why they were there. One young woman was moved to tears as she spoke about how her father's small business had to close. Others spoke about their frustration with transit cuts.
They were then led through a lesson on "the story of our economy," portrayed as a perpetual struggle between wealthy power brokers, the 1 percent, and the so-called 99 percent.
"There is a tension between equality of voice and inequality of wealth that goes all the way back to our founding as a country," said a passage in the training guide.
Participants learned about the Civil Rights movement and other movements it inspired. In subsequent sections, the training materials discuss how the 1 percent "didn't like this new balance of power" and "strategized" to "attack workers" and "take over democracy."
The second part of the training was intended to give participants tools to organize their own protests. Among the direct actions proposed were fighting foreclosures by occupying homes and crashing political fundraisers.
Lenore Palladino of MoveOn.org said the 99 Percent Spring was meant to equip community members with tools to create their own direct actions to address whatever issues they choose. It's meant to be highly localized, she said.
Liz Butler, of the Movement Strategy Center, is one of the 99 Percent Spring's coalition leaders. She believes the impact of the training will be potent as thousands more mobilize in actions across the country. Its other tool is the website, which allows local members to publicize their events on a calendar that's searchable by ZIP code.
Occupy's imprint is on the 99 Percent Spring and on the progressive movement, even if its members have become less visible.
Some of the coalition's leaders believe Occupy tapped into -- and fanned -- an already existing frustration.
"The thing to remember is that people were so ready to stand up. They were so frustrated by what was happening in the United States," said Ms. Butler
She said she hoped the 99 Percent Spring and Occupy would complement each other.
About five of those who showed up at the training were Occupy Pittsburgh protesters, but people involved in both Occupy Pittsburgh and the 99 Percent Spring are careful to distinguish their groups.
"There is a lot of leeriness right now among many Occupiers whether or not this is a good continuation of the movement or whether it's the establishment co-opting the message," said Bram Reichbaum, a member of Occupy Pittsburgh.
Some of this suspicion comes from the fact that MoveOn has a political arm that supports Democratic and progressive candidates through a political action committee. Occupy, for the most part, has deliberately stayed out of electoral politics.
"I think it's important that Occupy maintain its own authenticity ... and not allow the movement to become some proxy for some political party's agenda," said Khalid Raheem, a North Side-based organizer with the National Council for Urban Peace and Justice who also participated in Occupy Pittsburgh.
But Marcina Bruno, a longtime activist who joined Occupy Pittsburgh in the fall, said she was reassured after attending a session for trainers so she could become one herself. She saw tactics popularized by Occupy throughout the training.
"I didn't want some political party trying to train myself or Occupy ... to co-opt us," she said. "To my delight at the trainer's meeting, I found that was not the case at all ... it wasn't about politics except the fact that politics are botched by the corporations."
Mr. Raheem said he's seen a resurgence of activism because of Occupy. He's found new allies, he said, evidenced by a protest against the state's new voter identification law at the state Department of Motor Vehicles Downtown.
"It unified many of us around our own constituents," he said.
But because of Occupy's stance of staying out of electoral politics, Indiana University sociology professor Fabio Rojas doesn't expect much effect on the presidential election this year. Mr. Rojas, who studies social movements, said that for the most part, Democrats have not been eager to court the support of the Occupy movement.
"They have a very weak connection to the Democratic party. ... How many Democratic Party leaders come out and say 'I agree with Occupy Wall Street and I want their vote?'" he said.
He said the movement's distaste for electoral politics will ultimately limit its potency. "What works most of the time is voting. That is the ground zero of American politics. The way you win power is by getting your people voted in."
It's still unclear whether the involvement of MoveOn eventually will shift the focus of those frustrated with the status quo toward politics.
Occupy and tangent movements may have an effect in a less direct way, influencing public discourse and shaping the debate.
Mr. Kazin, the Georgetown University professor, said he saw hints of the resurgence of the progressive movement in the populist undertones of President Barack Obama's speeches, especially concerning issues of economic equality.
In Ohio, unions mobilized huge numbers of voters to defeat Issue 2, an anti-collective bargaining bill that was the trademark of Republican Gov. John Kasich's first year in office. In Cleveland, the police union brokered an unusual alliance with Occupy Cleveland over the issue.
On Tuesday, a majority of shareholders rejected the compensation package for top executives at New York-based Citigroup, which some saw as an echo of the anti-corporate sentiment being expressed by protesters right outside the door.
A day later, in Pittsburgh, activists disrupted an EQT Corp. shareholders meeting after raising a variety of issues, questioning everything from executives' compensation packages to EQT's role in Marcellus Shale drilling.
Barry Mitnick, a professor in the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh, said he did not believe the Citigroup vote necessarily stemmed from sentiments stirred by Occupy Wall Street, but rather by institutional shareholders who wanted to express displeasure with the company's poor performance. The Dodd-Frank Act, passed in 2009, enabled them to hold an advisory vote. Still, he said, Occupy played an indirect role.
"In the current environment, it becomes easier for them to use that tool," he said.
And that sums up the hopes of many of those involved with 99 Percent Spring. If they can't influence mainstream electoral politics, they hope to shape the discourse and change the conversation.
"In many ways, nonviolent direct action becomes the strategy of folks when the institutions that provided for us are so clearly broken," Ms. Frank said.
First Published April 22, 2012 3:27 pm