The 99% Movement Has Something for Everyone -- But Is it Occupy?
A version of this article was originally published by Salon.com.
By all measures the Occupy movement is a powerful brand. It has thousands of spin-offs such as Occupy our Homes, Occupy Money, Occupy the Hood, Occupy Gender Equality and Occupy the Food System. It has powerful name recognition, snagging “ word of the year” honors in 2011. And now ardent supporters are manning the ramparts to defend its integrity.
Adbusters, the culture-jamming magazine that helped spark Occupy Wall Street, is accusing unions and liberal groups clustered under the banner of the 99% Spring of tarnishing Occupy’s sterling name. Launched in February by groups like Greenpeace, the Service Employees International Union, MoveOn and Rebuild the Dream, the 99% Spring announced it would train 100,000 people in April for “ sustained nonviolent direct action” against targets like Verizon, Bank of America and Walmart.
These groups, Adbusters belllowed in an online missive titled “ Battle for the Soul of Occupy,” are “the same cabal of old world thinkers who have blunted the possibility of revolution for decades.” Adbusters fingered MoveOn as one of the primary saboteurs of Occupy, and linked to an article in Counterpunch that claims the 99% Spring “is primarily about co-option and division, about sucking a large cross-section of Occupy into Obama’s reelection campaign, watering down its radical politics, and using these mass trainings as a groundwork to put forward 100,000 ‘good protesters’ to overshadow the ‘bad protesters.’”
It’s a fiery broadside, but there’s little evidence to back it up. I queried occupiers from San Francisco, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Little Rock and New York who joined 99% Spring trainings and not one witnessed election-year politicking. Others stressed the coalition includes organizations that would bolt if it was promoting the Democrats. One core organizer of the 99% Spring who preferred to remain anonymous blew his stack when I asked if there weren’t legitimate reasons for occupiers to be suspicious of the effort. “Why don’t people look at the fact that MoveOn, this huge organization that has set much of the tone for the progressive movement for the last 10 years, is now trying to engage in a radical culture shift by moving its members from clicktivism to getting them to put their bodies on the line in nonviolent street protests and militant eviction defenses in their neighborhoods. Maybe Occupy is worried about its own viability.”
Some observers go further, claiming that Occupy is the one co-opting MoveOn. Josh Harkinson writes in Mother Jones: “It seems that America’s best-known progressive fundraising organization is now taking its cues from Occupy Wall Street.” Nathan Schneider, writing in Waging Nonviolence, takes a more nuanced approach by concluding that while the 99% Spring is indeed co-optation, there is also an opening. Because the thousands who participated in the 99% Spring are a juicy target, he argues that Occupy should be asking how to “turn these people’s attention to structures of oppression, rather than to stump speeches and delegates?” Schneider gives voice to the many Occupy activists who want to engage with broader forces. As one activist observes, “The worst thing we could do right now is make Occupy Wall Street into a small ‘radicals only’ space.”
But the real story is how the main groups behind the 99% Spring – such as MoveOn and Rebuild the Dream – have created a meta-brand known as the 99% Movement that encompasses a product line including 99% Power, 99% Candidates, 99% Uniting, a 99% Voter Pledge, and events like All in for the 99% and 99% Spring Bank Protests. (Rebuild the Dream, MoveOn and SEIU are sponsors of nearly every formation.) Broadening the coalition to include radical left organizations that reject electoral politics is a sophisticated way to enhance the overall brand. Such groups can feel confident they are maintaining their independence from elections by participating in the 99% Spring, but they are still building the 99% brand, which will then be used in forms like the 99% voter pledge and 99% candidates to boost the Democratic Party’s fortunes come fall.