The "99% Spring" Movement to Train 100,000 Activists: Co-Opting Occupy or Helping Spread its Message?
Next month, activists and organizers across the country are planning to train 100,000 people in nonviolent direct action for what they call The 99% Spring. But despite borrowing one or two of the Occupy movement’s favorite slogans, The 99% Spring hasn’t been called for by any general assembly. Rather, this massive and controversial effort is coming from the institutional left — a diverse coalition of labor unions, environmental and economic justice groups, community organizations and trainers’ alliances. While some celebrate what appears to be a mainstreaming of resistance thanks to Occupy, others are crying co-option.
“This spring we rise!” write 99% Spring organizers in a letter to “America.” “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. We are the 99%. For the 100%. And this is our moment.”
In a press call organized by The 99% Spring, Liz Butler of the Movement Strategy Center affirmed the effort’s solidarity with the Occupy movement. “The focus,” said Butler, “is to give additional amounts of people the tools to take direct action around these issues, complementary to what is happening in the Occupy movement.” On the same call, MoveOn.org’s Justin Ruben explained that his organization is promoting the training for nonviolent direct action to its more than five million members.
Joy Cushman, an organizer and trainer from the New Organizing Institute, insists that the intention of the project is not to compete with the Occupy movement. Rather, it’s a framework so that existing organizations can incorporate direct action into the work they’re already doing and capture some of the Occupy spirit. “The hope is that if people are not directly connected to campaigns, they will be able to take action locally for what is affecting them,” she told me.
What is now The 99% Spring actually began last summer. Inspired by the Madison Capitol protests and the Tar Sands actions, leadership from Jobs with Justice, National People’s Action and the National Domestic Workers Alliance realized that the 2012 election year needed to be about issues, not the candidates.
A meeting was called for November 2011 — and then, in mid-September, Occupy Wall Street began. “As a professional organizer, I was really humbled” says Cushman about OWS. “They were able to shift the entire national debate with the way they were organizing. We realized that nonviolent direct action is the way we have to go because the democratic system isn’t responsive anymore.”
Earlier this month, more than 70 people participated in a two-day national training in preparation for the upcoming regional trainings. The hope is that more than 1,100 trainers will be equipped to organize local trainings in their communities during the week of April 9–15, when more than 700 trainings around the country have already been scheduled.
Each training will have its own local flavor, depending on who the trainers are and where it is located, but a common curriculum ties The 99% Spring together. In an email sent from SEIU Vice President Steve Thorton to potential trainers, he broke down what to expect at each event: storytelling; teach-ins on economics; community-building skills; goals, strategies and tactics to mount campaigns; and, of course, techniques of nonviolent direct action.
OWS Press team volunteer Dana Balicki sees this as at least a step in the right direction. “The groups of the 99% Spring are groups that can engage mainstream America,” she says. “They haven’t stepped up enough, they need to be pushed, but this effort can be a good thing.”
Both OWS and the organizations involved in The 99% Spring encompass a wide range of views regarding electoral politics and the means for social change. MoveOn.org actively campaigns for Obama, while other participating groups like the Ruckus Society are known for more radical, issue-based campaigns involving direct action.
Still, some are skeptical that an organization like MoveOn.org must be up to something. An anonymous writer at CounterPunch has alleged that The 99% Spring is really a MoveOn.org front for the Democratic Party, here quoting activist John Stauber:
[“]In this latest case, the so-called 99 Spring, MoveOn is enlisting other NGOs to create the appearance of a populist uprising from the Left, when it’s all about keeping the rabble in line and aimed at the Republicans to re-elect Obama,” he continued.
As will be seen throughout this series on foundation-funded Democratic Party aligned non-profit groups poisoning the genuine grassroots, MoveOn.org is far from the only culprit playing this rotten and cynical game.
CounterPunch also cites former MoveOn.org employee Ilyse Hogue’s controversial article in The Nation, “Occupy is Dead! Long Live Occupy!”, which contends that Occupy’s modus operandi has outlived its usefulness — while having fired up the more established institutions. A 99% Spring, therefore, would seem to be Occupy’s grown-up, more institution-friendly replacement. The CounterPunch article has circulated on Occupy organizer email lists, spreading fears that progressive organizations are trying to hijack OWS’ energy or co-opt its message for their own purposes.
But, in the same issue of The Nation, historian Frances Fox Piven rejects the “false dilemma” between electoral politics and protest movements. Piven argues that
movements work against politicians because they galvanize and polarize voters and threaten to cleave the majorities and wealthy backers that politicians work to hold together. … [T]he great victories that have been won in the past were won precisely because politicians were driven to make choices in the form of policy concessions that would win back some voters, even at the cost of losing others.
The Occupy movement and establishmentarian anything — politics, corporations, non-profits — will always have an odd relationship, but that they would have some relationship is inevitable. Just as many Occupy organizers have backgrounds working in more traditional organizations, it’s hard to imagine The 99% Spring without the inspiration of Occupy. “It says something about the power of the Occupy movement,” says Zack Malitz, a Tar Sands Action volunteer who is planning a 99% Spring training,“to have made it politically possible for so many organizations to commit to training 100,000 people for nonviolent direct action.”
But OWS is about more than just direct action. Its emphasis on horizontalism and decentralization is at the heart of its approach to achieving social change as well. The OWS General Assembly’s “Statement of Autonomy” warns, “Any organization is welcome to support us with the knowledge that doing so will mean questioning your own institutional frameworks of work and hierarchy and integrating our principles into your modes of action.” It’s not clear to what extent organizers of The 99% Spring intend to do this. It may end up happening just by default, because so many people have been involved in Occupy encampments over the past few months, participating in Occupy culture.
The organizers of The 99% Spring have been careful not to imply that they are OWS. “We don’t want to pretend that this is an Occupy-endorsed thing,” says Joy Cushman. “But the 99 percent and 1 percent frame is very helpful to explain our understanding of the world and our constituency.” She adds that individual occupiers have been involved as trainers and in shaping the curriculum for The 99% Spring. “The energy that they bring, the moral clarity is very helpful for more institutional groups — unions, MoveOn. It’s radicalizing them, in a way.”
But Dana Balicki, like others in the Occupy movement, remains cautious. “So long as they don’t come out with a whole long list of demands,” she says, “we can work together.”