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Occupy The Progressive Movement: Why Occupy Should Embrace "Co-Optation"

An Occupy organizer asks: When established groups show up wanting to help, then who's really co-opting whom?

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The worst thing we could do right now is make Occupy Wall Street into a small "radicals only" space. We cannot build a large-scale social movement capable of achieving big changes without the involvement of long-standing large membership institutions, including labor unions, national advocacy organizations, community organizations, and faith communities. Radicals never have and never will have sufficient numbers to go it alone. We have to muster the courage and smarts to be able to help forge and maintain alliances that we can influence but cannot fully control. That's the nature of a  broad populist alignment.

If we are to continue building on the momentum that Occupy Wall Street kicked off, we can't treat institutions and individuals as if they were one-dimensional characters with simple and permanently fixed motives. Larger membership organizations can be complicated, and their programs and politics are often a mixed bag. The temptation for radicals is to focus on everything they've ever done wrong (i.e. all the things that radicals don't like). But many of these institutions and movements began with premises that are not so far from our own. We have to figure out how to invite them and the people inside them to shift and to change. This includes institutions we don't align with on every issue and who have disappointed us in the past. Achieving significant changes requires building broad alliances. While of course there are lines to draw (e.g. we should never align with organized racists), generally we can't afford to be puritanical when it comes to building a broad movement.

One Co-option at a Time

Social movement theorists have a term for the sort of co-option that Occupy Wall Street should prize: infrastructure co-option. Nascent movements become mass movements not by building their own infrastructure entirely from scratch or recruiting new volunteers one at a time, but by "co-opting" existing institutions and social infrastructure into the service of the movement and its goals. The Civil Rights movement went big when existing institutions—especially black churches and schools—came to identify strongly as part of the movement. Organizers provided opportunities for members of those pre-existing institutions to make this new identification actionable and visible. This was cultivated to such an extent that, eventually, to be a member of certain institutions implied active involvement in the Civil Rights movement. When this happens with enough institutions, the movement gets a huge boost in capacity. And capacity means power.

Over the past few months many organizations and constituencies have been watching Occupy Wall Street, trying to figure out whether and how to relate to it. These organizations—including faith communities, the NAACP,  MoveOn.org, labor unions, community organizations, and many other groups—understand how they and their members are affected by the crises that Occupy Wall Street has named and confronted. Some of them are already engaging in important ways, explicitly as part of—or in support of—Occupy Wall Street. And many more have long been engaged in work that clearly aligns with the movement's core values—and probably even deserve some credit for helping to lay the long-term organizing groundwork that helped create OWS.

But there are still significant barriers standing in the way of broader constituencies conceptualizing themselves as part of a 99% movement and getting actively involved. The first and most obvious barrier is that many groups haven't really been asked to get involved. During the first couple months of OWS, if a group wanted to get involved, it was typically a matter of them taking the initiative to approach us and ask what kind of support they might provide. Usually the answer was some variety of "Come down to Zuccotti Park" or "Stand up against Bloomberg for our right to occupy the park." Often the groups that wanted to support OWS simply showed up. While this kind of involvement made perfect sense when we held the park, it's clear that we now have to come up with other ways for more people and groups to take action as part of the 99% movement.

 
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