The Occupy movement around the country is gearing up for what some have called the “American Spring.” Still reeling from the hammer-blow of police repression which put an end to the birth phase of the movement, the Occupy movement has been driven underground over the past two months, like many other hibernating organisms.
Though much of our energy has been spent keeping a pilot light for the movement alive, in churches, union halls, and community centers, many of us are looking forward to a rekindling of the fire from the coming warmer weather of spring and the ability to reclaim the outdoors and public spaces in ways that put our movement on the map in the first place. Tapping into this reality is what the newly-created “99% Spring” coalition seeks to do, but this is a bittersweet development.
On the one hand, the coming together at a national level of unions, community organizations, and progressive forces under the banner of a “99% Spring” is a welcome development and recognition of the power of the Occupy movement to change the political discourse in America. The coalition’s website says that it “From April 9-15 we will gather across America, 100,000 strong, in homes, places of worship, campuses and the streets to join together in the work of reclaiming our country. We will organize trainings to: Tell the story of our economy…Learn the history of non-violent direct action, and Get into action on our own campaigns to win change. This spring we rise! We will reshape our country with our own hands and feet, bodies and hearts. We will take non-violent action in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi to forge a new destiny one block, one neighborhood, one city, one state at a time.”
This might sound fine on paper, but when we look closer at who is behind this effort, a more disturbing threat to the Occupy movement becomes clear: co-optation.
Do sunflowers come from machines?
One obvious problem with the 99% Spring coalition is the corporate character of many of the organizations involved. For example, labor unions like the UAW, AFL-CIO, AFT, and SEIU, are top-down corporate hierarchies that are ruled by labor bureaucracies whose officials make six-figure salaries and are separated by a vast gulf from the rank-and-file.
Many of the community organizations are part and parcel of the non-profit industrial complex and are not organized by, accountable to, or rooted in the communities they claim to serve.
99% Lieutenants for the Democratic Party
Not only are almost every one of the organizations on the endorsers list structured in a top-town, corporate-hierarchical, anti-democratic way. They are also all beholden to the Democratic Party. In February, for example, the Associated Press reported that
This year, AFSCME is expected to spend at least $100 million or more on political action, including television advertising, phone banks and member canvassing. The effort is to help the president, Democrats running for the House and Senate, gubernatorial candidates and key state lawmakers. With increased spending planned by other labor groups, including the powerful Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO, unions are likely to top the $400 million they spent to help elect Obama four years ago. (1)
The unions spent $400 million to elect Obama and Congressional Democrats. What do they have to show for it?
We must not forget that it was mayoral section of the Democratic Party that launched the scorched-earth war on freedom of assembly and speech represented by the Occupy movement—in Oakland, Austin, Atlanta, Albany, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, Denver, Chicago, Portland, Pittsburgh, Seattle, New Orleans, Baltimore, San Francisco, Hartford, Philadelphia, Boston, and Los Angeles. With coordination and guidance from Obama’s Department of Homeland Security and FBI, the Democrats cumulatively and summarily destroyed these physical occupations and encampments across the country, arresting thousands of peaceful protestors and zero Wall Street criminals, banksters, or corporate parasites in the process.
Yet most, if not all of the endorsers of the 99% spring are going to pressure the Occupy movement to support Obama and the Democrats in 2012. The argument from the 99% Spring coalition will be that Obama’s faction of the two-party dictatorship in America is a “lesser evil” when it comes to spending trillions of dollars on wars and prisons, and that the Democrats will do a less-worse job of dismantling public education, gutting social services, and criminalizing dissent.
We must reject these attempts at co-optation because they will moderate, neuter, and dilute the potent militancy and system-transformational potential which the Occupy movement has to offer.
A Lesson from History
In 1960, the civil rights movement took an immense leap forward when tens of thousands students and young people launched the wave of sit-ins and lunch-counter occupations throughout the south, using direct action for desegregation. The next year, the Kennedy administration and a coalition of liberal foundations and organizations created the Voter Education Project to try and steer the student activists away from the highly public, visible, and disruptive direct actions that had inspired a generation of new activists and revitalized the civil rights movement.
Archie Hunter, a Black activist in the movement, summed up the problem with this effort to co-opt the movement into electoral channels for the average Southern Black: “It’s only a ballot he’s putting in the box, and he wants food. He wants a ballot put in his stomach.” This would mean that a civil rights activist was now going to have to tell a person who had “12 children, living in a shack, working for, say $12 a week…’You should get out and vote. This will make your condition better.’” (2)
Today, when millions of workers are unemployed, millions of homeowners are facing foreclosure, millions of Black and Latino people are incarcerated or under ‘correctional supervision,’ and millions of students are suffocating under debilitating student debt, the 99% Spring will essentially be saying ‘you should go vote for the party that raised more money last year from Wall Street than all the Republican candidates combined. This will make your condition better.’
The key task for the Occupy movement is to protest, mobilize the righteous anger of the 99%, expand the movement particularly in the Black and Latino communities, and maintain its independence in order to continue the project of building a global movement strong enough to take political power into our own hands—the collective hands of the global 99%.
So let us work with the 99% Spring to the extent they can help broaden and deepen the power of the 99% and the movement for social justice and equality that Occupy revitalized last fall. At the same time, let us oppose any attempt by their corporate-structured endorsers to co-opt Occupy and appropriate our slogans and appeal for their own purposes.
(2) Lance Hill, The Deacons for Defense, 2004. UNC Press: Chapel Hill, p. 33.
Brian Kwoba is an activist with Occupy Boston.