#OccupyLA: Who Speaks For Us?
We Don’t Need a Leader, But We Need Something
When the General Assembly in Woodruff Park in Atlanta declined to allow John Lewis, famed civil rights activist and sitting U.S. Congressman to deliver a few words of encouragement, I believe this movement made a curious and possibly detrimental turn toward the irrelevant. The reason for this is straightforward: I do not believe you can assault our broken democracy and our broken economic system simultaneously. By rejecting elected and aspiring representatives of the people from engaging in this movement and taking its message to city halls, state houses, and the impotent galleries of the U.S. Congress, there is a chance we could doom this protest to the alternate fates of destructive riots or perpetual but inconsequential unrest.
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The obvious sticking point for many of the folks in these protest is that the most visible and powerful leader in our country, Barack Hussein Obama, is a person that many of these same people enthusiastically voted into office in 2008. We are the same folks who, when conservative activists took to town halls all around this nation to protest the progressive reforms the President tried to implement, stayed home and watched the Daily Show rather than applying equal but opposing pressure to make those reforms take hold in a meaningful way. We didn’t turn our election fever into community service en masse. We stayed home on Election Day 2010. At the time, we were not the ones we were looking for. And now we’re telling the Democratic Party and everyone interested in public office that they are not welcome among our Assemblies, and that we intend to tear down the political system at the same time as we crush Wall Street and anyone who makes a lot of money.
It’s easy to reject out of hand any one who seeks to harness this momentum for personal gain and power. ‘The revolution will not be monetized” we say, and I agree. But just as the Tea Party welcomed new candidates (and some old hats) who embraced their message of slashing budgets and zero taxes (regardless of their individual views on religion, marijuana, foreign policy or the gold standard) so should we embrace political figures who will take our outrage at a rigged economic system, indentured servitude through institutional debt, opaque capital markets, and special tax treatment for capital gains and high incomes and pass laws that fix it.
Does this discount the probability that we will collapse capitalism and install direct democracy for the United States through a nationwide uprising and unending live-in? Yes it does. No matter the outcome, this break with idealism is the inevitable end of this protest. It can either happen in a focused way, where the movement shifts to the ballot box, or it can happen catastrophically, picking off supporters here and there until the movement fragments and loses steam because of an unhealthy drive for idealistic purity and unrealistic expectations.
Who Could Be Our Champions?
“When you criticize capitalism, don’t allow yourself to be blackmailed that you are against democracy. The marriage between democracy and capitalism is over.”
– Slavoj Zizek at Occupy Wall Street, 10/8/2011
Different protests have allowed different kinds of folks to take the People’s Mic and address the crowd. In LA we got Danny Glover, Sojourner Truth and Tom Morello. New York got some of the best, including philosphers Slavoj Zizek and Kanye West. This is my favorite of them all:
I love Zizek. He is a visionary thinker and his argument for the end of dogmatic thinking has always resonated with my iconoclastic mind, and it obviously clicks with the kids at Zuccotti Park as well. He lays out the frustrations people have with the intractable limits on collective action set by the CW junkies of the Beltway, Wall Street and the media . He expressly refutes the claims that this is a Communist movement, and he rejects the idea that anything anti-Capitalist is inherently Marxist. He tells the crowd to stick it out, and not to succumb to the same nostalgic defeat that our parent’s generation met with the protests of the 60’s and 70’s.
Philosophers and writers like Zizek and Chomsky and others are certainly in the paternity of this movement, as are the activists like John Lewis who fought for civil rights. But they won’t be the folks who take the charge and make a mark on American law and economy. That must be led by others.
Elizabeth Warren, Harvard professor, mastermind of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and current MA Senate candidate has been on a roll. Ever since President Obama chose not to nominate her to lead the Bureau she conceived, she’s been spitting liberal philosophies on her way to a close call in the polls versus the likable and relatively centrist Scott Brown. She’s brought her same message of accountability and the need for a progressive tax burden to the people, and she’s been receiving a great response. She’s even laid out the case for liberalism better than Barack Obama, our supposed socialist wunderkind, has ever done after six years with the national microphone. Her case is simple, intuitive, and totally practical, and it speaks to people’s frustration with the financial caste and the way our economy seems to be in constant crisis, to the detriment of 99% of us.
Boom. Easy. Don’t start or support unnecessary wars of aggression to protect us from the relatively insignificant problem of terrorism. Eliminate tax cuts for the most wealthy. Stop signing healthcare bills that are written for the benefit of for-profit insurance companies and drug makers but neglect to effectively lower costs or increase coverage for the poor. And give us a viable counter-argument to the ever present myth that the rich are always productive, and any policies that ask them to chip in will hurt the economy.
She is running for Senate right now. Does this make it less likely she join in the demonstrations and help us get a visible, credible, powerful advocate in the federal government and beyond? Unfortunately, yes. She has to target the truck-lovers in Western Mass and might be nervous about dancing around with us bongo banging hippies. But maybe if we ask real hard, she’ll make an appearance, and help us continue to make our ever sharpening message that the institutions that we support as taxpayers, mortgage holders, students and workers must work for the many, and not for the few.
What About Him?
Barack Obama is the President of the United States. His job is to represent the interests of all Americans, regardless of their views. He is, for all intents and purposes, the primary defender of the status quo. Disappointment with his presidency is rife throughout these protests, it lingers beneath the surface and occasionally erupts in the form of “if the President wants to finally help us, he should…” or “We tried to work within the system and look what it got us…” etc. What’s magnificent about this attitude is that it opens the door to anyone from any political stripe who is dissatisfied with the state of things to join the protest without supporting or rejecting the current administration. What it fails to grasp is the gravity of the electoral moment, and that Obama’s best chance for reelection may be to embrace his own populist movement and force the GOP onto its heels by making them defend investment banks and billionares while 20% of people can’t find a decent job.
Some people forget that the Republican Party did not just summon the Tea Party and its adherents for their own political benefit. It was quite the contrary. The Tea Party coalesced around a dissatisfaction for supposedly conservative politicians who were cooperating with a liberal President. The Teabaggers wanted ideological purity, and Republicans could either get on board or get out of the way. The ones who rode that wave to power are now the most idealistic politicians in Washington, and they are rewarded for their adherence with an enthusiastic base and political cover for their biggest scraps with Democrats and their own leadership.
Barack Obama needs popular sentiment of any kind that might be favorable to his election chances, and in this way, he could be a very powerful ally for the Occupy movement. Yes, it’s possible that Obama will strike a path to election along a centrist path, as he has always done. But his policy agenda since this summer has been solidly in the populist camp. The American Jobs Act calls for a public/private infrastructure bank and increased spending on schools. He wants to tax the rich. He defends Dodd-Frank. These are the seeds of policy that can blossom into a reexamination of our debt system and capital markets. With appropriate pressure and a focused agenda of economic reform, I do think that Obama could be cornered by the politics of the moment and take on the mantle of the working class – in a real and permanent way. He is a man who is acutely aware of his own grandeur, and it’s no secret that he fancies himself an historical leader, even if such a claim is unwarranted as of yet. But as a conscious individual who is a part of these protest and also a supporter of the President, I can’t help but to see the enormous potential of a people’s groundswell occurring simultaneous to a progressive Presidency which is in turn boxed in by a lagging economy and an imminent election. This is our moment.
We need to look at the tools at hand and ask, what do we want to accomplish, and when? How will we do it, and who can we trust to carry it out? Maybe I’m missing the point – maybe this is really about forming a sustainable protest commune in every city until the Federal Reserve is closed and we revoke land grants all over the country and give the property to whomever lives there. Maybe I’m being short sighted. But I like to think this movement could have a real impact in law, finance, healthcare, and every community in this country through the democracy to which we are inheritors by right.
Am I being too idealistic?