Boston – Everyone on the left side of American politics, from the near end to the far end, has advice for Occupy Wall Street. I'm no exception. But it's useful to acknowledge first that this movement has accomplished things that the more established left didn't.
The problems of growing economic inequality and abuses by the masters of the financial world have been in the background for years. Many progressives longed to make them central political questions.
Occupy realized that the old approaches hadn't worked. So it provided the media with a committed group of activists to cover, a good story line, and excellent pictures. Paradoxically, its unconventional approach fit nicely with current media conventions. And its indifference to immediate political concerns gave the movement a freedom of action that others on the left did not have.
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The breakup of some of Occupy's encampments signals a new phase for the movement. This does not have to mean its end. On the contrary, it is an opportunity.
Let's first dispense with a kind of narcissism that exists among Americans who lived through the 1960s and insist on seeing Occupy as nothing more than a rerun of the battles over Vietnam, Richard Nixon and the counterculture.
This frame is very convenient to conservatives who hope to drive a wedge between working-class voters and the Occupiers, much as Nixon brilliantly played construction workers against privileged hippies. That's the theme of an outrageous advertisement assailing Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren by Crossroads GPS, the group associated with Karl Rove. It accuses Warren, a Democrat, of siding with Occupiers who “attack police, do drugs and trash public parks.”
Notice that this is an effort to bury the movement's apt criticisms of the financial system beneath a pile of stereotypes. The Massachusetts Republican Party is reinforcing the message with regular “Occupy Wall Street Incident Reports” about anything bad that happens at demonstrations around the country. They run under a logo casting Warren as the “Matriarch of Mayhem,” in honor of her statement that she had created “much of the intellectual foundation” for the new movement.
To her credit, Warren has not backed off her support for the core ideas or goals of the movement. She has, however, emphasized that the demonstrators should obey the law.
That is good advice — as a general matter, but also as a political matter. If the Occupiers need to battle right-wing efforts to turn them into Abbie Hoffmans and Jerry Rubins (whom many of the Occupiers never heard of), they also need to resist a lefty sort of nostalgia.
It's not the '60s anymore. The protests of that era were rooted in affluence. Too often in those years, the left cut itself off from the concerns of the white working class and disdained its values. That's the history the right wants to revive. In fact, the Occupy demonstrations are precisely about the concerns of Americans who have been sidelined economically. This in turn is why polls show broad support for Occupy's objectives of greater economic equality and more financial accountability.
Thus the question going forward: Will the Occupy movement play into the hands of its enemies by living up to the stereotypes they are trying to create? Or will it instead move to a new phase that builds on its success?
Ongoing violent demonstrations will simply not help the cause, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s lessons on nonviolence are useful here. This movement is about something much bigger than “occupying” a particular space. Occupations proved to be a shrewd tactic. They are not a cause or an end in themselves. Focusing on holding a piece of public land simply makes the movement a hostage to the decisions of local officials, some of whom will inevitably be hostile to its purposes.
More importantly, the movement should remind itself of its greatest innovation, its slogan: “We are the 99 percent.” This is an affirmation that it is trying to speak for nearly everybody. Its tactics should live up to this aspiration by building support among the vast number of Americans who will never show up at the encampments. It should also want to help political figures such as Warren, who understood far earlier than most the costs of inequality and of the abuses of financial power. The last thing this movement should want to do is create fodder for the ads and emails propagated by Warren's foes.
The occupations have done their work. Now it's time to occupy the majority.