Real Talk, Not Hearsay, on the 99% Spring

A 99 Percent Spring test run A 99% Spring test run on March 3, 2012. (Photo: Stuart_E)

The 99% Spring initiative has generated considerable hubbub amongst occupiers, a group famously apprehensive about liberal organizations, especially ones that have exhibited close ties with the Democratic Party. Chief among suspicious organizations is MoveOn, which, because of its massive communication sphere, is thought of as the primary producer of the 99% Spring, which aims to conduct direct action training for 100,000 activists this month.

In fact, MoveOn is just one sponsoring group of many. It is joined by labor unions and activist/advocacy groups focusing on the environment, civil rights, immigrants’ rights, women’s rights, peace, energy, poverty, students’ rights, and a host of other issues. Some of these organizations (AFL-CIO, Greenpeace) have long histories of engagement with “establishment” politics, while others (Code Pink, The Ruckus Society) are prominent gadflies in the political sphere. Van Jones, the face of coalition member Rebuild the Dream, may be conflict averse, but remains instrumental in organizing the civil disobedience responsible for halting the construction of the climate-killing Keystone XL pipeline.

The problem is that the misgiving is largely based on hearsay. My good friends Allison Kilkenny at The Nation and Natasha Lennard at Salon have recently published articles compiling occupiers’ reactions to the 99% Spring (Kilkenny even solicited my reaction). One occupier compared the initiative to “an 80-year old dude throwing on a toupee and trying to be a pick-up artist.” Another, Jeff Smith, who is, full disclosure, a friend, warns that it risks “misdirecting, co-opting and ultimately trivializing” Occupy Wall Street. Mike King, writing for CounterPunch, worries that it will “defang that movement.”

This anxiety raises a number of obvious questions. In what sense is this a co-optation? Which component is Occupy Wall Street entitled to but the 99% Spring coalition not? That percentage? The season? The idea of direct action training?

Reactions are important, but it’s not as though we haven’t got access to an outline of what the 99% Spring actually consists of. I spoke with Mark Provost, an activist with Occupy New Hampshire, who made headlines this winter by challenging Mitt Romney on corporate personhood. Provost was one of eighty-five activists who made the trip to Washington, DC, to receive 99% Spring facilitation training. One week later, he attended a regional training session, identical to the national one, in Boston.

Provost indicated that among the activities planned for the seven-hour program are a teach-in on the economy; an excerpt from the documentary “The Heist” (“about our regulatory institutions and the political economy of neo-liberalism,” as Provost described it); a session investigating race, gender and other identity-based inequalities; a group share of each person’s “99% story” of economic hardship (à la the famous tumblr); and role-playing hassle lines for personal preparation for mass confrontation with coal companies, banks, or other corporate forces. “It’s true that it isn’t about civil disobedience. This is more vision, strategy, tactics, goals and power,” said Provost.

“The whole objective of 99% Spring is not training for training’s sake; it’s supposed to segue right into actual actions,” Provost said, noting that the targets, actions and scenarios are not suggested by MoveOn or any other organization. “It’s all participant-generated. The group conceives of the whole thing, creates working groups, etc.” To that end, there is time for local action planning, best-practice sharing and meeting the other participants.

The other participants are not the sort of milquetoast lemmings that would justify occupiers’ disquiet. “At one point, they said, ‘Stand up if you have two years or less experience organizing or being an activists,'” said Provost. “About five stood. A lot of people got up at ten, fifteen, twenty-five, thirty and there was one last woman with thirty-five years of experience doing this. They’re not spring chickens that can be led to slaughter by MoveOn or anybody.” What’s more, they were radical, by and large. “When they asked ‘What do you want to see?’ answers like ‘health care,’ ‘good jobs’ and ‘no debt’ came up,” said Provost. “But when someone mentioned ‘an end to capitalism,’ everyone started hooting and hollering.”

Union members from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the United Auto Workers (UAW) were well represented at the DC training, said Provost, as were members of, the environmental advocacy organization. What was absent, said Provost, was the Democratic Party. “It wasn’t partisan whatsoever,” he said. “I don’t vote for Democrats; I’ve never voted for Democrats. That’s the biggest misconception. This was more tools and techniques. It’s scalable, but because it’s scalable, it’s also top-down and I think that’s where the occupiers of any political persuasion are going to have the biggest point of contention.”

Not everyone is as pleased as Provost. Blogger “Nomad New York” attended a 99% Spring event and was disappointed, indicating that while “really amazing people showed up here tonight,” it was a “total fail” that attempted “to provide an alternative” to Occupy Wall Street. A longer blog post details Nomad New York’s full experience.

However, if this can “defang the movement,” it will be an indication that the movement lacked fangs to begin with. Is that what occupiers are actually worried about?