Protesters Debate What Demands, if Any, to Make

In a quiet corner across the street from Zuccotti Park, a cluster of 25 solemn-faced protesters struggled one night to give Occupy Wall Street what critics have found to be most lacking.

“We absolutely need demands,” said Shawn Redden, 35, an earnest history teacher in the group. “Like Frederick Douglass said, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand.’ ”

The influence and staying power of Occupy Wall Street are undeniable: similar movements have sprouted around the world, as the original group enters its fifth week in the financial district. Yet a frequent criticism of the protesters has been the absence of specific policy demands.

Mr. Redden and other demonstrators formed the Demands Working Group about a week and a half ago, hoping to identify specific actions they would formally ask local and federal governments to adopt. But the very nature of Occupy Wall Street has made that task difficult, in New York and elsewhere.

Although Occupy Seattle has a running tally of votes on its Web site — 395 votes to “nationalize the Federal Reserve,” 138 for “universal education” and 245 to “end corporate personhood,” for example — Mike Hines, a member of the group, said the list would soon be removed because the provisions had not been clearly explained and because some people were not capable of voting online.

“It feels like we’re all in a similar boat,” Mr. Hines said of other Occupy movements. “We all want to include as many voices as possible.”

In New York, the demands committee held a two-hour open forum last Monday, coming up with two major categories: jobs for all and civil rights. The team will continue to meet twice a week to develop a list of specific proposals, which it will then discuss with protesters and eventually take to the General Assembly, a nightly gathering of the hundreds of protesters in the park.

A two-thirds majority would have to approve each proposal, and any passionate opponent could call for the entire vote to be delayed.

The General Assembly has already adopted a “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City,” which includes a list of grievances against corporations and a call for others to join the group in peaceful assembly. To many protesters, that general statement is enough, and the open democracy of Zuccotti Park is the point of the movement.

“Demands are disempowering since they require someone else to respond,” said Gabriel Willow, a protester strolling past a sleeping-bag pod of young adults in the park last Monday. “It’s not like we couldn’t come up with any, but I don’t think people would vote for them.”

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Although Monday’s open forum was meagerly attended, politically active members like Cecily McMillan and David Haack, who first proposed formulating demands in a pre-campout planning meeting in August, said they were ready to take action. Mr. Haack, who in 2009 tried to run for the White Plains City Council, admitted feeling disillusioned after the group struck down their proposal in August, but now he feels inspired by the movement’s “true democratic process,” even if it means slower progress going forward.

“Let’s give ourselves two weeks,” Ms. McMillan said about presenting provisions to the General Assembly. Ms. McMillan, 23, a New School graduate student, feels such dedication to the cause that she has contemplated taking a sabbatical from her studies — but she has begun to worry that the movement could become “a joke” without specific goals. Still, with the right demands, she said, more union members and diverse contingencies could join.

In Austin, Tex., participants agreed on four demands, including an end to corporate personhood and tax reform. One Austin activist, Lauren Walker, linked the movement’s goals directly to government officials.

“This is our time because we’re coming up to the 2012 elections,” she said, suggesting that protesters saw the presidential election as a “deadline” to draft revolutionary policy suggestions.

Elsewhere, Occupy Boston, Occupy D.C. and Occupy Philadelphia were among the many groups in the movement slowly formulating demands, though in each city, opposition has arisen from skeptical demonstrators.

In Boston, Meghann Sheridan wrote on the group’s Facebook page, “The process is the message.” In Baltimore, Cullen Nawalkowsky, a protester, said by phone that the point was a “public sphere not moderated by commodities or mainstream political discourse.” An Occupy Cleveland participant, Harrison Kalodimos, is even writing a statement about why demands are not the answer.

Joseph Schwartz, a political science professor and an Occupy Philadelphia participant, said he thought the movement’s “anarchist strain” discouraged a demand-making environment.

Whatever it is, New York’s small group of focused activists said they would not yield.

“If we don’t make demands, the political parties will make them for us,” a longtime protester, Eric Lerner, 64, said from his spot in the cluster last Monday. “We have to get it right this time.”