A huge march in support of the “Occupy Wall Street/We are the 99 percent” movement, called by unions and MoveOn, filled Manhattan streets today. According to the Guardian: “Thousands of protesters – with conservative estimates putting the number at around 15,000 – marched through Lower Manhattan, bringing the area to a halt. Numbers were swelled by support from unions and students. Tension built up when the march pushed down Broadway towards Wall Street. Despite the march having a permit, and the roads being closed, police funnelled protesters onto the sidewalks and into tightly-penned areas.”
Demonstrators interviewed by the New York Times expressed their frustration with the political establishment and the union leaders. “George White, 60, a retired union member who lives in Marine Park, Brooklyn, said it was up to the young protesters to champion bread-and-butter issues in the future. ‘Unions are on the way out,’ he said. ‘These are the children of mothers and fathers who have worked hard all their lives and now can’t put food on the tables. These are the children who can’t pay off their loans, who have nowhere to go and no opportunities.’ Julie Fry, 32, a lawyer who is a member of the union at the Legal Aid Society, said labor’s backing of the protest was momentous, and born out of frustration. ‘We’re so fed up and getting nowhere through the old political structures that there needs to be old-fashioned rage in the streets,’ she said.”
Earlier in the day, the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein summed up what he termed a “tipping point” for the movement: “Van Jones’s Rebuild the Dream and Russ Feingold’s Progressives United are blasting messages of support. Prominent elected Democrats such as Rep. John Larson, Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus; Rep. Louise Slaughter, ranking member on the House Rules Committee; and Sen. Jeff Merkley have all applauded the movement. … Occupy Wall Street has created a space for some type of populist movement to emerge.” In his column, E.J. Dionne echoed this conclusion: “… the anti-Wall Street demonstrators have created a new pole in politics.”
Already the movement has changed the political landscape in the U.S. On Tuesday, Obama made a speech attacking Eric Cantor by name, which would have filled the headlines for days only a month ago, but it was hardly noticed as attention turned to the phenomenal upsurge in support for the occupation.
Despite this major achievement, some are still criticizing it for not having clear policies or organization. Ezra Klein asked Rich Yeselson, a research coordinator at Change to Win, a union-supported campaign group, for his thoughts on the movement. In notes he sent to Klein, he said: “Whether [the Wall Street protests] will grow larger and sustain themselves beyond these initial street actions will depend upon four things: the work of skilled organizers; the success of those organizers in getting people, once these events end, to meet over and over and over again; whether or not the movement can promote public policy solutions that are organically linked to the quotidian lives of its supporters; and the ability of liberalism’s infrastructure of intellectuals, writers, artists and professionals to expend an enormous amount of their cultural capital in support of the movement.”
His list of requirements for a successful movement has a glaring omission: the situation of millions of citizens. The phrase “We are the 99 percent,” he goes on to say, “nicely encapsulates the potential of OWS to become a movement of democratic extension. But right now, the precise demands of the Wall Street demonstrators include grandiose ideas like abolishing consumerism. A bit vague, and can even Lloyd Blankfein get it done by the end of the next quarter?”
What Yeselson doesn’t understand is that this phrase has succeeded in connecting with the pent-up frustration of Americans and given them a voice and identity. Organizers cannot create or sustain a movement if the base is not there. And his dislike of grandiose ideas doesn’t grasp that ideals are needed to sustain a movement as well as organization. It’s a conceit of activists that they are the key to social change. They play a part, sometimes vital, but even Martin Luther King could not have exercised his genius for political leadership without the millions who suffered under racism and yearned to be free from it.
Moreover, the unions don’t have a monopoly of organizational ideas . Karen McVeigh reported for the Guardian that: “it is a major challenge to retain momentum and make decisions that speak for everyone among the few hundred students, campaigners and others camped out at Zuccotti Park and their wider network of supporters. … The direct action committee lies at the heart of this success. Numbering anywhere between 35 and 50 activists, the committee is ‘empowered by the general assembly’ to plan action. The committee includes campaigners, community activists and those with relevant organisational skills, some of whom live in collectives and already base their lives around a communal system.”
Different groups can be caught up in the larger movement and play important roles at different times. Even Democratic politicians can play a part; but as James Downie pointed out: “if Democrats want to work with the Occupy movement (or, indeed, make the “Republicans are the party of the rich” attack really work), they’ll have to undertake root-and-branch reform of their party’s relationship with Wall Street.”