Occupiers’ Demands and Working-Class Activist Traditions

Thanks to Occupy Wall Street and its spin-offs, a national conversation has broken out over the purpose of protesting. I understand why defenders of the Occupy encampments say that it’s OK to put forward only general issues; it’s true that just being there spotlights the problems with the economy. But last Sunday’s New York Times editorial declared, “It is not the job of the protestors to draft legislation. That’s the job of the nation’s leaders.” What kind of elitist baloney is that?

Imagine if early Civil Rights activists had just marched and waited for Southern city or state governments to suggest desegregating lunch counters, buses or schools? We might still be waiting for Jim Crow laws to be overturned today. Though their vision

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was an idealistic “beloved community” and their overall goal was the end of racism, local civil rights groups strategically targeted particular segregated facilities and designed winnable, replicable mini-campaigns to win local victories and build their movement.

Or imagine if during the Great Depression, the labor movement, the unemployed councils and other activists had waited for the Roosevelt administration to suggest ideas for improving economic security, instead of relentlessly pushing them to build a safety net and legalize unions? We could have ended up with no Social Security and no collective bargaining rights.

It can be tricky to figure out strategic demands and to pick authorities to target, especially in an open group with great political diversity. Last week I visited Occupy Wall Street (where my nephew is an occupier) and saw flyers and signs about many issues, coming from several widely divergent ideologies, including right-wing libertarian, socialist, and non-economic issues such as animal rights and legalized marijuana, as well as the predominant progressive populist and anarchist messages on the economy. The openness of the occupations add to their excitement and egalitarian spirit. But there’s a more-talk-than-action pitfall that some past moments of exciting insurgency like this one have fallen into, the paralysis of analysis. It’s especially a risk for college-educated activists with highly educated parents, for whom debating ideas may be a familiar and comfortable mode.

One of my favorite moments of Occupy Boston so far was last week’s rally when occupiers went with the anti-foreclosure groups MassUniting and City Life to protest the Bank of America. I liked how specific the demands were on that particular bank, and the possibility of tangible success in changing foreclosure policies and preventing evictions. In the Alinsky organizing method taught by the Midwest Academy and field-tested by hundreds of thousands of mostly working-class and impoverished activists, campaign strategy starts with picking a winnable demand and a target authority who can say yes to that demand. City Life /Vida Urbana has decades of experience at winning improvements for the community by targeting specific authorities; it was exciting to see the occupiers following the leadership of this grassroots, mixed-race community group in targeting the Bank of America action.

In social change work, targeting specific authorities makes all the difference. In Boston we have some very obvious targets. Massachusetts Senator, John Kerry, is on the Super-Committee charged with reducing the federal debt. How about pressing him for a pledge to support no deal that doesn’t tax the rich and protect the safety net? Our other senator, Scott Brown, just betrayed unemployed people by voting against President Obama’s jobs bill. Massachusetts building trades unions quickly took him to task for that vote with a picket line at a bridge in need of repair. He needs more pressure to go against his party and vote to create public jobs. Both senators have offices in downtown Boston, a short walk from Occupy Boston’s Dewey Square encampment.

To paraphrase Frederick Douglass: power concedes nothing without a demand, never has, never will.

Betsy Leondar-Wright, author of Class Matters, is the project director of Class Action. This post grew out of discussions with the Social Movements course she is teaching at Boston College. She is writing a book about class culture differences in social change groups.

1 Response

  1. I’m not so sure legalized marijuana and animal rights aren’t economic issues. Seems to me they both have definite economic implications.

    I think there’s a vast difference between the civil rights movement, which had clear leadership from the NAACP and other groups and from spokespeople like Dr. King, and this very different Occupy movement which is multi-faceted, diverse, and horizontally organized. I know it bothers the heck out of lots of people that “they” haven’t stated an agenda. But I think “we” all know what the agenda is–major systemic change. That general vision can be broken into specifics in actions like you mentioned at the Bank of America, but I for one would hate to see things get specific too soon, because then it might limit the potential impact.

    As a member of the “older” 1960s generation, I am excited by the potential of Occupy in a way I have not been in my entire life. In my view, this IS the revolution we’ve been waiting for. I am pleased to play a supportive role and let this new way of organizing and being political develop in its own organic way.