On October 1, 2011, seven residents of the Washington, DC area came together for the founding assembly of Occupy DC. Over the course of the last two weeks, that gathering of seven has grown to approximately 200 active participants on an average day.
I attended my first Occupy DC general assembly on October 5, and, over the course of the following week, interviewed over a dozen key participants in an effort to gain a clearer sense of their motivations and objectives, as well as the future direction of the group. (Full disclosure: I have since become an active participant in the group's political action committee planning sessions.)
As of October 16, the Occupy DC encampment has roughly doubled in size and is evolving into a vibrant community sprouting up through the sterile, technocratic metropolis in defiance of the political and financial elite who currently control it.
McPherson Square: Vortex of Participatory Democracy
Occupy DC planted its flag squarely between Capitol Hill and the K Street lobbyists who have transformed it from the seat of representative government into the epicenter of institutionalized corruption, reigned over by would-be feudal aristocrats who keep the population divided against itself through cynical partisan gamesmanship. Occupy DC's message to its K Street adversaries and their corporate patrons is clear: we're here to reclaim the power you've usurped and return it to the American people.
Occupy DC's presence in McPherson Square is intended to reclaim public space from which to generate a sense of genuine agency and empowerment through collective political action. It is about breaking the spell of consumerism, substanceless hyperindividualism and atomization that has lulled the nation into a state of helpless docility as economic opportunity and political representation are stolen from us.
Face-to-face communication and a shared experience of adversity is essential to building camaraderie and commitment in a way that cannot be matched by interaction through social media exchanges. These tools are important force multipliers, but they are by no means silver bullets for taking down the vampire states that are preying upon citizens in Middle Eastern and Western nations alike.
The base of operations being constructed at McPherson Square – which now includes food, medical and sleeping tents, and a makeshift media operations center with wireless internet capability – is expanding by the day and drawing more participants and supporters in with every political demonstration and outreach effort.
Whether out of cynicism, gross journalistic incompetence, or a combination thereof, media outlets such as Fox News have attempted to marginalize participants of Occupy Wall Street and associated groups around the country as fringe leftists, hippies, student adventurers and so on,
The participants I interviewed at McPherson Square, however, represent a much broader cross section of American society, from leftists of various political strains to progressives, liberals and centrists, as well as individuals without clearly defined political views: veterans, teachers, undergraduate and graduate students, as well as PhD candidates from the University of Maryland, American University, George Washington University and Georgetown. I have encountered white-collar professionals, aspiring business leaders and even one business executive, all of whom shared the same concerns about the co-optation of government by private interests at the expense of the public interest.
Motivations and Objectives
Though the media has pressed Occupy Wall Street to articulate a set of policy objectives, Occupy DC participants are concerned about the potential for factionalizing and co-optation by political parties or ideological groups. Some argue that Occupy DC must build its base of support before attempting to build consensus around what direction to take. Others have expressed that a focus on policy objectives would limit the potential of this nascent movement.
Occupy DC's development process essentially flips the traditional model upside down. Rather than developing policy objectives, a strategy to achieve those objectives, a campaign to operationalize that strategy, and organizational structures, political actions, etcetera, to accomplish a mission, Occupy DC starts with outreach and political actions in the absence of a conscious strategic framework or definitive set of policy objectives.
Organizational structures do exist in the form of committees to develop political actions and outreach objectives as well as generate and analyze media exposure. However, without policy and strategy, it has arguably been difficult to maintain a conscious and consistent focus on political impact and generating focused momentum.
Despite the lack of consensus around policy objectives and strategy, a common set of motivations among participants is clearly discernible.
Matthew Patterson, a University of California, Los Angeles political science graduate and self-described political centrist, expressed deep concern with the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling and felt that publicly funded elections would address the problem of corporations exercising undue influence over the electoral process. He also expressed frustration with the fact that banks have privatized profits while socializing losses, and he believes that the notion of corporate personhood and its associated problems needs to be addressed.
A 56-year-old product development and marketing executive, who has worked for Fortune 100 companies and agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity, also expressed deep opposition to Citizens United. He emphasized that Occupy DC has the opportunity to complement Occupy Wall Street by focusing on what he viewed as the root of the problem: Congress.
“We can't affect what corporations do except through our legislature,” and therefore, citizens need to pressure Congress to nullify the Citizens United ruling through electoral reform legislation.
Some believe reform is possible through the electoral process if voters start paying greater attention to the decisions their elected representatives are making on their behalf.
Iraq War veteran Michael Prysner pointed out, however, that in 2008 the Democratic Party was voted into power in the executive branch as well as both houses of Congress. From July 2009 until November 2010, it held a near-filibuster-proof majority in the Senate (59 seats) and a full 60 seats for a period of three months within that span of time, yet it failed to adequately address the systemic problems plaguing our financial and political systems.
Numerous Occupy DC participants have expressed frustration with student debt, high unemployment and the financial barriers to college education, coupled with the exorbitant concentration of wealth among the top 1 percent.
Matt Crosby, an Occupy DC Action Committee participant from northern Virginia, felt that Americans are living in what is devolving into a “feudal system” and that CEOs should make no more than ten times the amount of the lowest-paid employee in a corporation in order to limit social stratification and mitigate the potential for political instability resulting from it.
Legba Carrefour, an Occupy DC facilitator with an undergraduate degree in political science and communications from Virginia Tech, felt that, in contrast to Fox News' portrayal of the Occupy demonstrators, “People are doing this because they see their entire lives collapsing around them.” He described McPherson Square as “a base from which to launch attacks” against those responsible for the nation's financial collapse and “would ultimately like to see a general strike” in order to effect fundamental cultural, political and economic changes.
Michael Patterson, a former US Army intelligence collector, said he wanted to see greater regulation of Wall Street and shared sacrifice. He said the dire financial straits the United States is currently in can be traced back to one problem: the failure of regulators to do their jobs because they were co-opted by the financial sector.
“A minority in this country has declared war on the majority,” he said, and “politicians need to be made nervous.” They want to impose “serfdom” on Americans, said Patterson, and, “We have the right to defend ourselves.”
His perspective as a veteran of the Iraq War was foreboding. He noted that most Iraqis who joined the insurgency did so because they were backed against a wall and were forced to choose between fighting or allowing their families to starve.
His message to other veterans was, “Be vocal. People will listen to you. We swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and there are domestic enemies in our midst who are subverting our democracy.”
Micah Bales is one of the founders of Occupy DC. He shared a belief with others that change must first be effected in people's hearts before it can be translated into political and economic reform. “We have embraced radical materialism and greed, short-term interest and fear. God is calling us to repent” and embrace “a spirit of love,” said Bales, or “we will become part of the problem.”
“If we grow and begin to present a real challenge to the financial and political elite, we can anticipate law enforcement authorities shifting from a posture of accommodation to increasing repression,” I posited. “How should we respond to that?”
“If we fight repression with love, it will make us stronger,” he answered.
“I'd like to believe you're right,” I thought to myself, reflecting on the varied experiences of opposition movements in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and other places around the world. Democratic movements have prevailed through nonviolent resistance, as demonstrated by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, but when the other side disregards the rules of the game, it's nice to have close air support, as the Libyan rebels might attest, and the Iranian opposition might have wished for before being neutralized by their government's internal security apparatus in 2009.
Will Occupy DC evolve into a movement with clearly defined political objectives? Consensus must be built between its various political and cultural strains on how to proceed forward in order for this change to occur. Numerous currents of energy must be channeled in a focused, strategic direction without constraining the freedom of action of what is, in the end, a horizontally structured group of citizen volunteers.
One possible strategy would link Occupy DC with Occupy groups in other major cities around the country in an electoral campaign designed to eliminate obstacles to reform in both parties based on a comprehensive analysis of legislators' vulnerability in the 2012 elections. These groups would effectively operate as nonregistered Political Action Committees (PACs), running offensive media operations primarily through the use of social and print media in asymmetric battles against corporation-financed re-election campaigns.
The Occupy groups' ability to inflict political casualties in Congress would send an unmistakable message that further obstruction of both stimulus funding for jobs creation and systemic financial and electoral reform is unacceptable.
Detractors of electoral political strategy argue that, given the concentration of financial and political power in the hands of the 1 percent, elections are either too rigged for serious reformers to win, or, even if they do, they can be easily co-opted or otherwise neutralized once elected. These are valid concerns, particularly in the wake of Citizens United.
The ability to mobilize citizens to escalate from relatively nonthreatening civil disobedience actions to tactics such as large-scale strikes and shutdowns, however, will require Occupy groups around the country to build legitimacy for such tactics by first exhausting the electoral process, thereby exposing its failure as an avenue for substantive change. The 2012 elections offer an opportunity for the nascent Occupy movement to issue an ultimatum to Congress that further inaction and cynical partisanship will not be tolerated.
Events may overtake such deliberate planning, but it would seem prudent to prepare for an 18-24 month campaign strategy in the event that Occupy numbers do not rapidly reach the hundreds of thousands necessary to render the political establishment's repressive measures ineffective in key cities.
It is impossible to predict what will occur in the coming weeks, but one thing is certain – if Americans want anything to change, they will have to organize themselves to change it. The president, sympathetic as he might be to the plight of his fellow citizens, does not have the sufficient political power, or the will, to do what is necessary to challenge the institutionalized corruption that is plaguing our government. The sooner Americans accept that reality, the sooner they will develop the psychological conditioning necessary to join this fight and win it.