Occupy Wall Street Comes to D.C., but Can It Take Root?

The tea party precedent suggests that a movement can flourish even with an unclear identity and some pretty far-out ideas

Occupy DC - Molly Riley Reuters - banner.jpg

Occupy Wall Street is spreading so fast to so many cities -- close to 1,000 at last count -- that the movement is already struggling to maintain its focus and identity. Will it become an arm of the labor movement? Will it get swallowed up by what Robert Gibbs memorably labeled "the professional left"? Or will it stick to its resonant critique of a federal government looking out for corporations and the wealthy and to hell with everyone else?

If all of this sounds technical or trivial, it's not. The future of Occupy Wall Street as a political force may well depend on how well it conveys its message and mission. "We can no longer afford to let corporate greed and corrupt politics set the policies of our nation," the group says on its main website. The dire consequences are found on a companion Tumblr, "We Are the 99 Percent," about all those suffering in a recession economy in which the richest 1 percent own 40 percent of the nation's wealth.

There's no better example of the perils and distractions ahead than a confusing multi-day protest at Freedom Plaza here in Washington, D.C. At a kickoff rally Thursday, most of the literature and some of those milling on the plaza were from Occupy DC, and local media repeatedly characterized the rally and a march to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as part of Occupy DC.

Yet the initial organizers were longtime anti-war activists marking the 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, and those who attended the event -- called Stop The Machine -- held signs and banners raging against pretty much the entire American status quo: the military, corporations, Wall Street, political corruption, the president and capitalism itself. Lyndon LaRouche acolytes scurried around with flyers about LaRouche's seven-point recovery plan (item one, impeach Obama) and visiting Wisconsin marchers carried a huge banner proclaiming "Solidarity with Palestine."

Organizer Kevin Zeese opened the rally by saying Occupy DC is "separate from this but allied with us closely," and some of its members "are joining us here today." The real Occupy DC protests started six days earlier and 10 blocks away at McPherson Square -- but haven't drawn nearly as much attention as Zeese & Co. "We are NOT Stop the Machine," Occupy DC felt called to explain on its website. "Our focus is on the economy, corporate corruption of our political system, and the negative effects of corporate personhood ..."

Zeese himself embodies the potential for brand dilution. He has been an activist for jobs. But he's also been an activist against war, for voting reforms and for legalizing marijuana -- even a Green Party candidate for the Senate. In short, he's an archetypal member of the so-called professional left.

Fractured movements are not necessarily ineffective. Protests during the Great Depression had many different sponsors and took many forms. Some had clear goals and others were expressions of despair. The "Bonus Army" -- World War I veterans demanding their pensions be paid out early -- staged the first march on Washington. Armed farmers in some communities tried to intimidate local banks about to foreclose. In Nebraska, beset by rock-bottom prices, farmers marched on the state Capitol and erected blockades to try to keep produce off the market. Chicago experienced a two-year tax strike along with protests by jobless workers, unpaid teachers, people on relief and even housewives angry about high prices and false advertising.

Today's protestors are aiming for the political heights achieved by the tea party. Their precedent suggests that a movement can flourish even with an unclear identity and some pretty far-out ideas. Tea party candidates last year proposed repealing multiple constitutional amendments and eliminating what seemed like half the federal government -- and still some of them won their primaries and general elections. One of them even surmounted jokes about witchcraft and masturbation to win a Senate nomination. And though only 28 percent of the country has a favorable impression of the tea party, it is still wielding enormous clout in the Republican presidential nomination process.

Like establishment Republicans who are still trying to decide how close to hold the tea party, Obama and Democrats are gauging the impact of Occupy Wall Street and approaching it cautiously. The profusion of free speech at the Thursday rally suggests that's a prudent course for now. Some of the protestors, who clearly don't live in the same gridlocked political universe as the rest of us, are dreaming big in ways no politician would go near.

Take Candace Wolf, 62, a professional storyteller and oral historian from Takoma Park, Md., whose hand-made sign read, "Just Say No to War and Capitalism." Yes, she would like to end war and replace capitalism with socialism. "It sends up all kinds of red flags and harkens back to the Soviet Union," Wolf acknowledged of the latter, but maybe "we can make socialism work so it doesn't reproduce some of the errors of the past."

Veronica Fellerath Lowell, 70, of Silver Spring, Md., and a retired Catholic Charities worker, got no love for her sign supporting a 25 percent cut in the military budget. "Why don't we just cut it off altogether? I'm sick of it," a passing woman said to her. Lowell later told me 25 percent was just a starting point. She would prefer a minimalist military -- maybe even no military, like in Costa Rica, where the police force handles security.

Even the core Occupy Wall Street message was expressed in language strong enough to make a conventional pol rush off the plaza. "We will fight these corporate monsters and their wholly owned subsidiaries, the people who now operate the levers of power in this city," radio talker Mike Malloy, the rally emcee, bellowed from the stage.

Those wholly owned subsidiaries include Obama, some protestors said. "My feeling is that poor Mr. Obama is being run by Goldman Sachs and we can't have that," said Barbara Gummere, 65, a retired tennis coach and business owner from Hendersonville, N.C. She said the purpose of the protest was to "show the government of this country that the people are not going to wait any longer for change in Washington."

Asked about Occupy Wall Street at a White House press conference just before the rally, Obama said he understands the frustration and urgent needs of those who are on the economic edge. Mostly though he talked about how he is in favor of consumer watchdogs and against hidden bank fees, derivative cocktails and gaming the system. As for why his administration hasn't put Wall Street titans on trial for fraud, he replied, "The president can't go around saying 'Prosecute somebody.'"

A short while later, onstage at Freedom Plaza, a guitarist sang of police who greeted protestors with "truncheons and bullets to the head." The song -- "When the Dictator Ran Away" -- is about Mohammed Bouazizi, the despairing Tunisian fruit-seller who set himself on fire and triggered the Arab Spring. Even the most impassioned protestors aren't likely to claim parallels with deeply oppressed Arab nations. But Occupy Wall Street has identified a real problem at an opportune moment. With leadership, luck, focus and money, political clout is not an impossible dream. The tea party triumphs prove it.

Image credit: Molly Riley/Reuters