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What Occupiers Learned From Obama – and What He Should Learn From Them
Occupy Wall Street protesters march at Zuccotti Park on November 5, 2011. (Photo: David Shankbone)

What Occupiers Learned From Obama – and What He Should Learn From Them

Occupy Wall Street protesters march at Zuccotti Park on November 5, 2011. (Photo: David Shankbone)

The first person I met at Zuccotti Park after it had become Liberty Plaza was Camille Raneem. She had been an Obama supporter and was disappointed, like so many, with his politics since the election. She’d been at Occupy Wall Street (OWS) since September 17, the day the camp sprang up.

“I’ve been waiting for this for three years,” she told me then.

Months later, she elaborated: “The two most shining moments of my life were election night 2008 in Times Square, just because everyone was so together. The second time I had that feeling of just complete and utter connectedness was the second night of Occupy, when we spontaneously organized a candlelight vigil at a couple of different spots by Wall Street.”

“Just walking through those quiet dark streets in the middle of the night with the lights, we were all completely silent, a hundred and some odd people in dead silence with their candles, it was beautiful and it took me back to when I started believing that I could have faith in my country again, that I could work together with citizens,” she continued. “That’s what I felt when Obama was elected. I had that shattered, but I never lost that hope because I knew it was possible.”

It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch at this point to say that Obama is responsible for Occupy Wall Street’s existence. The failures of his administration to stop the bleeding caused by financial meltdown have been well documented, as well as the disillusionment among many former supporters.

What’s been discussed less often is the fact that the Obama campaign trained a lot of first-time political operators, young people as well as older folks inspired for once to go beyond showing up on election day and then left without much to do. Organizing for America was supposed to continue the movement that sprang up around the campaign, but political movements are unwieldy things and the control of the Democratic National Committee shut down much of the free-flowing energy that helped elect the president. For three years, as Raneem noted, activists waited and wondered if they’d made a mistake.

But some of them were planning something else.

The Politics of Personalities

Marta Evry, a California-based community organizer and blogger at Venice for Change, did a survey recently of over 1,200 self-selected people, mostly political activists, about their feelings on the Obama administration. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she found that many of those who had worked or volunteered heavily for Obama in 2008 were undecided as to whether they will do so again – 47 percent of the respondents. Thirty-nine percent were undecided as to whether they would donate money to the re-election effort (82 percent of them had donated in 2008).

Evry told me herself that she’s not going to go back to the Obama campaign unless “something drastic happens.” The same is true, she said, for many of the people she worked closely with in 2008. But that doesn’t mean they’re dropping out of activism – and for many, their alternate solution has come through Occupy.

“There’s this kind of damaged sentiment,” Raneem told me. “We’ve already learned our lesson, that is that the powers of the people have to rest in the people.”

Amin Husain, who was involved in planning the Wall Street occupation from July on, was one of many who had given his time and effort to Obama in 2008, registering to vote for the first time in his life and going to Philadelphia to work as a legal observer at the polls. “I gave it my true shot,” he said. And for him it was the first and the last chance that the Democrats got.

Brook Packard, a musician and educator from Rye, New York, told me that she, too, was not a regular Democratic voter. After 2004 and her disappointment in the choice of John Kerry, she gave what she could, organized marches in her town and traveled to different places to volunteer. “You get sort of worn down; you vote; you work on the streets; you drive people to the polls – and then Obama goes and makes a sweet deal with Wall Street,” she said.

The picture of the Obama activist is often of a young person like Raneem, getting involved in politics for the first time during or right after college, but many of them were also like Packard, Evry and Husain: adults who thought Obama might be different than the standard Democratic politicians who’d never inspired them before. And still others, like Stephen Shepherd from Lexington, Kentucky, had been involved with Democratic politics for a while.

Shepherd got his start as a college Democrat at the University of Kentucky, worked on Congressional campaigns in 2006 and then became a field staffer for Obama in the Lexington area in 2008. Though Kentucky obviously didn’t swing Obama’s way, Shepherd noted that Fayette county had the highest voter turnout in the state and went heavily for Obama. “I was a hard-core Obama fan, just sure he was going to solve every single problem that we had,” Shepherd said.

It actually wasn’t just Obama’s failures (on health care and the Iraq war) that put Shepherd off the Democratic Party, either. He was also disgusted by Jack Conway, now the attorney general of the state and a Democrat, attacking Rand Paul’s religion during the 2010 campaign.

Disillusionment with Obama, for many of these activists, led not to a search for another hero – as Micah Sifry noted – but a turn away from the idea of heroes and toward the specific problems that need to be fixed. “The conversations are between people who are looking at the politics of personalities and people who are looking at the politics,” Evry noted and Raneem echoed her. Evry continued, “OWS is very issue-oriented. It’s not being built around leaders. You start looking at what do you believe in, what do you want to organize around?”

For Husain and Shepherd and others, their disappointment led to questioning the two-party system and returning to activism on the outside. “I got pretty cynical after 2010 and Occupy really re-lit my hopes,” Shepherd said. And Raneem points out, “I don’t believe that anybody can get anywhere close to running for president without having certain ties and certain interests.”

Packard agreed. “With Occupy, by not having a person, an agenda, the dream is shared by everyone and can be worked on by everyone. The dream is similar: no war, no patriarchy, the least among us gets strengthened.”

Husain wanted to be sure to note, though, that in Zuccotti Park, at least, the movement was kicked off by people who had always wanted to work outside of the political system. “The anarchists were the first. The hippies were first.”

From the Party to the Streets – Using Obama’s Organizing Techniques to Occupy

The Obama campaign was a strangely open place; anyone could walk into a campaign office, be handed a walk list or a phone list, given cursory training and put to work. Volunteers were given personal logins to the voter database, demonstrating an extreme amount of trust in people whose backgrounds had not been vetted at all. Given that sort of freedom and responsibility, many were dismayed when Organizing for America (OFA) turned out very differently.

Evry was active with OFA during the battle for health care reform, but was disappointed by the organization’s refusal to let activists pressure Democratic lawmakers who weren’t supporting the bill. So instead, she and her group did their own organizing to target local Democrats. “I would not have thought to do that four years ago,” she said.

That’s what the Obama campaign empowered her to do, she noted, and it did so for a lot of young people, who immediately saw an outlet in Occupy for those skills they’d honed with the confidence they felt from winning.

Technology was an important part of the Obama campaign – tools like gave activists experience in self-organizing, so putting together protests on Facebook became second nature. Raneem pointed out that a lot of central people in the media and public relations teams at Occupy in New York had either campaigned for Obama or other Democrats for years. But, now, using those skills for themselves, she said, “At the end of the day they’re the hero, not somebody that they’ve spent 40 hours a week calling other people about.”

Husain was part of the original email list that created the “We are the 99 percent” slogan and he pointed out that that slogan didn’t come from a vetted, professional, controlled analysis or a trained media team. “It was 256 emails back and forth and a meeting. That came from a visceral place.”

Working together is a pleasure in itself – that’s been one of the tenets of Occupy’s reclamations of public space, that being with other people is in a way its own reward. And that, too, was something that people organizing for the first time with Obama learned. “Human beings were meant to work together,” Packard said. “[The Obama campaign] really brought people together, which is maybe why the hope crashed us so.”

Evry, too, noticed this, that giving people positive feedback on the campaign (including, ultimately, the victory) kept them coming back. “They start forming community, you start forming these relationships that go beyond the political,” she said.

The boost that comes with wins and with solidarity has helped carry Occupy to some startling places. Ironically, some of the things that helped OWS catch on in the beginning didn’t look like wins – penned-up girls being pepper-sprayed in the face, 700 arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge – but surviving those things together helped push less radical activists to another level of activism beyond phone banking and calling one’s representative.

Packard became involved with Occupy when her husband, Bishop George Packard, received a call from Chris Hedges, asking him to support Occupy’s call for Trinity Church to allow them to occupy Duarte Square. Bishop Packard, a retired Episcopal clergyman, was arrested in Duarte on December 17 when, after Trinity refused to grant access to the space, he was one of the people who climbed over the fence and briefly took the square anyway.

“I was always the free radical in the family,” Brook Packard said. “It’s been sort of a growth for him.”

Suddenly, Occupy tactics are everywhere and even state and local politicians have been willing to join in. Packard told a story of a group of senior citizens in her town, who together with county legislator Judith Myers, occupied a bus stop in protest at the elimination of service to their homes.

Shepherd, whose occupation in Lexington, Kentucky, had been in place since September 29 in front of a Chase bank, noted that they, too, have gotten support from state and local politicians, including a state representative, Kelly Flood, who took a handmade sign from Occupy Lexington and presented it to OWS in Zuccotti Park.

Still, Husain noted that there has been tension between what he terms “the very traditional well organized people” and “those who are like ‘No, this is an uprising.'”

“There’s room for everyone in here,” he said, but the debate that remains is between those who argue that Occupy is about the political process and others who say that it’s not, “that it’s a transformative movement that is going to go beyond any election.”

A Declaration of Independence?

Husain himself is on the side that chose uprising. But he also pointed out that the movement doesn’t try to dictate whether people should or should not take part in the process. “Each individual is autonomous; they can do whatever they want; we don’t have rules; it’s about freedom and empowering each other.”

Over and over again these days, pundit after pundit has waggled a finger at Occupy, calling for activists to occupy a voting booth, to not forget electoral politics, to remember, after all, to vote. But few of them seem interested in talking to the Occupiers themselves, many of whom are quite pragmatic about electoral politics.

Raneem pointed out, “For occupiers to come out and overtly ask the American people not to vote, it won’t expedite us organizing together any faster.”

For Shepherd, he’s intrigued by Elizabeth Warren and a fan of Bernie Sanders, but isn’t going to work for just anyone “just because they have a D next to their name.” He advocates working with local politicians – as he noted, his local Occupy has gotten support from progressive state legislators and in New York, city council members Jumaane Williams and Ydanis Rodriguez have been huge supporters of OWS.

The Obama question even seems moot for some of the people I spoke to for this story – the frustration with the electoral system extends to an electoral college that renders one’s vote largely meaningless in either a true-blue state like New York, where Packard wonders whom to vote for, or a solid red one like Shepherd’s Kentucky.

Raneem pointed out the way that Occupy the Primaries, in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, put pressure on Republican candidates (and also on Obama) and created space for independent activism around the campaigns and a dialogue about the election. And as the political conventions get closer, new crackdowns on dissent in Charlotte are already drawing scorn.

Evry argued, “If you can come in and take over Zuccotti Park, you can come in and take over the Democratic party.”

And perhaps that’s true. Perhaps wresting control of the party from those currently in charge would be its own type of declaration of independence. In a way, though, that’s what happened with Obama, who ran an insurgent campaign against the presumed nominee, Hillary Clinton and won, only to disappoint.

But in that insurgent campaign, fueled by volunteers and small donors as well as Wall Street money, a bunch of activists learned not to wait their turn either. They learned to make things happen on their own and this year they’ve taken another huge step, calling into question not just the man who is president, but the way the system works from the bottom up.

As Husain said, “This movement isn’t about left and right and center, it’s about ‘What does it mean to be a citizen of the United States?'”

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