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Will Occupy Wall Street Play a Role in the 2012 Election?

The all-consuming presidential election season looms. How will Occupy respond? Does it have to?

Protesters at "Occupy Wall Street" camp, Liberty Square
Photo Credit: Sarah Jaffe


 Sometime early next year, the mainstream media will begin focusing on the presidential race to the exclusion of virtually every other political story. This presents a challenge for Occupy Wall Street, which has both eschewed electoral politics and grown in part because of intense national media attention.

Will Occupy change how it operates when the mainstream media starts interpreting everything through the prism of presidential politics? Will a significant chunk of occupiers mobilize for Obama, when Democrats start whipping up fear of a Romney presidency? Might the occupiers instead pursue an effective issues-based strategy? Or will the movement ignore traditional politics and pursue other avenues for change? Will Occupy even exist as a relevant force by Election Day 2012?

Occupiers around the country are starting to consider these questions; those who haven’t will be forced to soon.

The first thing to keep in mind in thinking about Occupy and 2012 is the heterogeneity of the movement. Ask 10 occupiers what they think the movement should do in 2012, and you’ll get 10 different answers. It’s difficult to imagine the Occupy movement nationally — or even Occupy Wall Street in New York — coalescing around one particular response to presidential politics.

Interviews with occupiers in New York suggest that factions within the movement will focus their activism in many different directions at once next year. One faction is likely to pressure candidates on specific economic justice issues; others will protest and perhaps disrupt political events; and some will ignore the election entirely.

In Zuccotti Park, a reporter can find pretty much whatever he or she wants. Thus I’ve encountered a Brooklyn man distributing voter registration forms in the park (click for full size) …

… and also anarchists manning a “Vote Nobody 2012″ booth (click for full size):

Everyone agrees that Occupy has put wealth inequality and Wall Street corruption closer to the center of the national political discourse than it was six weeks ago. That in itself will have an impact on the presidential race. But it would be neither wise nor effective for the young movement to try to play the inside game of presidential politics, argue some participants.

“If things are going to shift, my take is that sustained organizing around issues and being a squeaky wheel has a shot. Organizing around candidates, parties, elections will not do it,” says Bill Dobbs, a member of Occupy’s press team and a longtime New York activist. “That means not ignoring electoral politics or the people in power but keeping them jumping. Staying at an arm’s length rather than discovering that kiss on the cheek from a politician quickly turns into a suffocating bear hug.”

There are at least three Occupy working groups in New York that are focused on how to interact with policy and the electoral politics.

The demands working  group is focused on coming up with policy goals that could, in theory, lead Occupy Wall Street to narrow its focus and pressure candidates to support specific legislative priorities during the election. But the demands group’s first  proposal, for a massive public works program that would lead to full employment, went nowhere late last month when it was  broughtbefore the general assembly. Some people expressed hostility to the very idea of demands.

There is also a politics and electoral reform  group. On Sunday it came to consensus on a  document calling for experimentation with various reforms “to curtail the influence of corporations and narrow political factions over our system of government,” according to T.J. Frawls, a 33-year-old Harlem man who is a member of the group. Between 30 and 35 people attended that meeting, held at  60 Wall Street, he says. The group now plans to bring the document — which mentions ideas like ballot access reform, proportional representation, and making Election Day a national holiday — before the general assembly at Zuccotti Park to see if Occupy Wall Street as a whole will endorse the idea.

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