Memo to the Occupiers

Occupy Wall Street has many on the left cheering.  That includes me, albeit with reservations.

As someone who devoted a good portion of his life to fighting  injustice—or as the late liberal icon and state legislator Robert Hagan was fond of saying “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”—I have a natural affinity for the folks camped out in New York and other cities around the nation and the world.

On the other hand, as someone who has spent the past 24 years striving to affect change by working both inside and outside the “system” I listen to the white noise that’s emanating from the protesters and all I can say is: “Really?”

Really, you have managed to garner the attention of the media around the world and you can’t figure out what the hell it is you want?

Really, leaders of the protests—to the extent there actually are any—are offended that the media is even asking what the hell you want?

Really, the best answer you can give is this kind of mumbo jumbo as reported in the New York Times:

The General Assembly has already adopted a “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City,” which includes a list of grievances against corporations and a call for others to join the group in peaceful assembly. To many protesters, that general statement is enough, and the open democracy of Zuccotti Park is the point of the movement.

Really, if that’s the point, you guys should all pack up your stuff, grab a low fat, grande latte on your way out, and go home, because you’re wasting everybody’s time.  Worse yet, you’re actually helping the very comfortable miscreants you’re supposedly there to afflict.

Let’s be serious, anyone who thinks the traders and financiers walking around in $5,000 bespoke suits in the offices overlooking the protests gives a damn about marches, chants, signs, or the invective that’s hurled at them as they arrive and leave in their limos and Town Cars each day is, in a word, delusional.  I’ve dealt with people like them, they know they’re evil, they enjoy it, they revel in it, and believe me, they’re laughing at the protesters all day, every day, including on the weekends whether they’re at their Beach House in the Hamptons or flying off to the islands on their Gulfstream Vs.

In fact, when they hear words like these from the occupiers they literally laugh so hard that Dom Perignon flies out of their noses:

In Boston, Meghann Sheridan wrote on the group’s Facebook page, “The process is the message.” In Baltimore, Cullen Nawalkowsky, a protester, said by phone that the point was a “public sphere not moderated by commodities or mainstream political discourse.” An Occupy Cleveland participant, Harrison Kalodimos, is even writing a statement about why demands are not the answer.

Yup, I can see the boys at City Bank reading this stuff in the NYT and then saying: “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOh we’re so scared of a public sphere not moderated by commodities” Give me a break.

Even someone as smart as Paul Krugman, whom I respect and with whom I usually agree, has been taken in by the “protest is enough” claptrap that, at least for the moment, defines OWS.

You see, until a few weeks ago it seemed as if Wall Street had effectively bribed and bullied our political system into forgetting about that whole drawing lavish paychecks while destroying the world economy thing. Then, all of a sudden, some people insisted on bringing the subject up again.

And their outrage has found resonance with millions of Americans. No wonder Wall Street is whining.

OK, Paul, Wall Street is whining, but guess what, they’re also winning.  That’s because they have bribed and bullied the political system, including the Obama Administration, into doing nothing either to punish them for the damage they’ve done to the economy or to stop them from doing it again.

While I’ll grant that the outrage being expressed does resonate with a vast majority of Americans, that outrage means nothing if it’s not converted into action that brings about real change.  That’s what turns a protest into a movement that fundamentally alters and improves the world we live in.

History provides many examples of how this works: Ghandi’s crusade to dismantle South Africa’s pass laws in the early 1900s; the labor movement’s battle to organize industrial workers in the ‘30s; Dr. King’s drive to secure passage of the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights statutes; the anti-Vietnam war movement that brought down LBJ.  Even this year’s protests in Ohio against SB 5.  All started as protests with clearly defined goals that turned into effective movements.

The same can be said for the Tea Party.  Derided as yahoos and know-nothings when they emerged to protest corporate bailouts and President Obama’s health care reform plan, they coalesced into a movement built on easily understandable demands: smaller government and lower taxes.  Their mantra was adopted by dozens of GOP Congressional candidates in 2010 and played a major role in ousting the Democratic majority.  Since taking power, the Tea Party members have been driving the legislative agenda in Congress—including killing virtually every initiative proposed by the President.

So, here’s some advice for the occupiers wherever you are.  Learn from history.  If you want Wall Street and the new Robber Barons to stop laughing at you, figure out the things they fear and hate the most, then make those things happen.

That’s a principle Tom Friedman of the New York Times grasped in a recent column.  He suggested that OWS demand that four reforms be imposed on the financial services industry.  Nice try, Tom.  Unfortunately, as you point out in the very same column, Wall Street owns Congress, having purchased it with $3.2 billion in campaign contributions over the past 20 years.  As long as that’s the case, it will be a very cold day in Zucotti Park and the other places the OWSers are congregating before the change they’re seeking occurs.

So what should the protesters demand or do?  Here’s two suggestions for starters.  First, fight for real campaign finance reform that reverses the Citizens United decision and takes the “For Sale” sign off the Capitol and the White House.  Renew the push for publicly financed campaigns started a couple of decades ago by folks like Fred Wertheimer.  Look, it’s a proven fact that politicians respond to the people who write the checks that finance their campaigns. So it’s logical to believe that if those checks come from Main Street rather than Wall Street the people with the power to reform the financial system might actually do it.  Now that’s something the fat cats will really hate.

Second, the protestors should head to Massachusetts and do whatever it takes to make Dr. Elizabeth Warren Senator Warren in January of 2013.  There’s no one Wall Street hates more, which should be motivation enough to support her campaign.  There’s also a practical reason: her willingness to fight for working families.  Elect her to the Senate where she can team up with a principled colleague like Bernie Sanders of Vermont and they can use the body’s arcane rules to grind business to halt—either to force passage of reform legislation or block bills that favor Wall Street.

Accomplish these two goals and the OWS will have taken a huge stride in going from “Really?” to really making a difference.

Leo Jennings

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17 Responses to Memo to the Occupiers

  1. Leo Jennings says:

    As the week draws to a close, I’d like to thank everyone who commented on the blog. I know many people are passionate about the OWS movement and like them I appreciate the sacrifices being made by those who are participating in the protests. I didn’t question their motives, only their strategy and tactics because like everyone who supports OWS, I am an advocate for substantive change. Indeed, the last 25 years of my life have been devoted to achieving it. It’s my hope that the protest does turn into a movement that yields real results.

    Thanks again for reading and responding.


  2. elecpencil says:

    The message is that the middle class is vanishing and we are not going to take it anymore. We need to take care of Main Street not Wall Street. We need campaign reform. We don’t give a shit if the suits looking out the window think it’s all funny. Marie Antoinette thought the crowds were a joke also. I love Liz Warren and want her in power at some level. At one time the unions helped make a middle class this time we need to lockout the union leaders. If not they will continue to be “cops for the boss” and concession away anything the Occupy movement gains. The unions need to learn the rank and file members are the union.


  3. Lou Martin says:


    Just a couple clarifications. I do not think that laws are meaningless, but I do not attribute them with the power to change society that you do. For example, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was supposed to have guaranteed all citizens, regardless of race, the right to vote in 1870. And right now, I could name half a dozen laws that are not being enforced or have been so weakened that they have become meaningless. While you may see this as naive, I believe that fundamental change–the kind of change we need–requires a mass mobilization of the people that transcends new legislation and new politicians.

    Also, I was trying to make the point that no organizer living today has been there and done that because this spontaneous movement, inspired by Egyptian youths, has now spread across the globe in surprising ways, unlike anything for many years.


    PS – I’m not offended.


  4. Patrick Finn says:

    I like your suggestions, but there’s a lot of “let an old lefty tell you how it’s done.” Emphasis should be on old. They’re young. Don’t hit them from behind.


  5. Steven Ashby says:

    I think the fact that this OWS critic ends up calling for activists to instead knock on doors for Democratic politicians says it all. That is the standard, tired response of Democratic pundits. I wrote a blog for my students about the October 22 protest in Chicago that resulted in 134 of us being arrested. Here’s an excerpt, my take on this debate….

    Some pundits and much of the mainstream media have attacked the OWS movement for not having specific legislative demands. I vehemently disagree. I think that:

    1), This is often just an excuse to attack the movement by people who completely oppose the movement, and who are searching for any excuse to denounce it.

    2), A strength of the OWS movement is that it offers a vision of a better America, a dream of an economy run in the interests of the people and not corporations. If it succeeds, some legislative reforms will be passed – undoubtedly modest, but a beginning. If it succeeds, it will spark and inspire much more organizing nationwide, that will eventually lead to much bigger legislative gains. But there’s nothing wrong with a movement having a vision for America rather than a focus on one or two pieces of legislation.

    3), I think the broad program of the OWS is very clear in its chanted slogans and placards.
    “We are the 99%” expresses a drive to mobilize the average person against the very rich who crashed our economy, yet are profiting while tens of millions suffer; the 1% who are living lives of luxury.

    “Tax, tax, tax the rich” expresses anger that the taxes of the wealthy and corporations are continually reduced while so many are suffering; that there has been a huge shift in income from the masses of people to the wealthy over the past thirty years; and that income inequality is worse than any other industrialized nation and is back to where it was in 1929.

    “Tax the rich, feed the poor” expresses a desire to see the government put the interests of the poor, the unemployed, and working people ahead of the interests of the rich and multinational corporations.

    “The banks got bailed out, we got sold out” expresses the same anger – that the government has tens of billions to bail out banks and the wealthy, yet 9 million homes have been foreclosed in the last three years; the corporations are sitting on $2 trillion and profits are at record levels, yet there are 25 million who can’t find jobs; that tens of millions are suffering – and yet the government is doing very little to help.

    And the chant that electrifies the crowd captures who the protesters are and their determination to not give up:
    “One, we are the people.
    “Two, we are united.
    “Three, the occupation *is* *not* *leaving*.”
    (The chant can’t be understood by just reading the words; you have to hear the drums beating as the words are shouted out.)


  6. Leo Jennings says:

    If I seem to have a “been there done that” attitude, it’s because I have been there and done that for quite a while. What I find interesting is the sensitivity to what I view as constructive criticism reflected in many of the responses to the blog. If some are offended by my call for concrete goals–I’ll use that word today because “demands” appears to be repellant to some–I’m simply reflecting a fairly widely-held view (see for example, the Tom Friedman column referenced in the blog) that for the protest to evolve into an effective movement those protesting are, at some point, going to have to figure out what they want and how to get it.

    And while I do respect everyone’s views, I feel compelled to respond to this statement by Lou Martin:

    “And I would say that all the examples you mention (Ghandi, industrial unionism, the Civil Rights Movement) resulted in change because of the mass mobilization of the people, not because of well defined demands. I would argue that even the Voting Rights Act did not change American politics nearly as much as the creation of organizations for change and the mobilizations that followed.”

    In each of these cases, the well defined goals that were achieved is what resulted in fundamental and lasting change. Ask African Americans in the South who can now register and vote without facing attack dogs, fire hoses, and cops named “Bull” if the voting rights act made a difference and the answer will be a resounding “yes.” The same can be said for the other components of the civil rights legislation passed because the movement led by MLK demanded they be enacted. If those laws hadn’t been passed, the marchers would still be in the streets and minorities would still be unable to exercise their right to vote.

    Finally, I’ll admit to being puzzled by the failure to understand the importance of reforming the campaign finance system. Maybe folks will grasp the absolute necessity of doing so when Wall Street purchases the White House, the House, and the Senate for the GOP next year. When that happens we all see fundamental change–but we won’t like it very much and there won’t be a whole hell of a lot we can do about it.


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  8. Lou Martin says:


    I appreciate the thought you’ve given to the Occupy Wall Street movement. I’m not really sure why you took the condescending tone that others have mentioned. You seem to have a “been there, done that” kind of attitude.

    But the OWS movement has now grown to hundreds of cities in the US and around the world. I just heard a report that 2000 South African youths have joined the movement and that China has been internet searches that contain the word “occupy.” I don’t think this is quite like anything you’ve seen in your 24 years of organizing, and I believe it’s because the organizing strategies of the past 30, 40, maybe even 50 years have been uninspiring and ineffective.

    And I would say that all the examples you mention (Ghandi, industrial unionism, the Civil Rights Movement) resulted in change because of the mass mobilization of the people, not because of well defined demands. I would argue that even the Voting Rights Act did not change American politics nearly as much as the creation of organizations for change and the mobilizations that followed.

    Finally, I’ve been listening to coverage of OWS on Democracy Now!, and whether they’ve been in NYC or Louisville or Oakland, the people they’ve interviewed on the streets have been extremely articulate about why they are in the streets, and they find connections between the execution of Troy Davis, police brutality, the war in Iraq, corruption on Wall Street, and envrionmental destruction. I think they’re on to something, and I don’t think this movement is anything we can harness and aim at our particular well defined demands. And that’s what gives me the hope that it can grow into a movement beyond party politics that will result in real change over time.

    Lou Martin


  9. I’ve been seeing a lot of this lately.

    Overturn Citizens United? Really? That’s the best we can come up with? Things were so much better two years ago? Elect Elizabeth Warren? That’s what we can do?

    Many years ago, a professor said to me there was a failure of the imagination. I only kinda got it at the time. It was when someone, recently, pointed out that more people can imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, that I got it.

    So many people are so used to lying in the gutter (I’m stealing from Oscar Wilde here) that they think getting to the curb should be our aim. “Don’t aim for the stars. We’ll never make it. The curb is a realizable goal.”

    Too many radicals have forgotten how to dream. A tear in the old system has opened up, and their response is that NOW we can get those “reforms” that they had “bravely” asked for, cringing in supplication before the powerful.

    Have you learned nothing from history!?! Even if we never make it to the stars, even reaching for them and failing will get us farther than trying for the curb and succeeding. The impossible has become possible!

    Maybe we won’t make it. History says we probably won’t. So what? I’d rather try for everything and fail than try for nothing and succeed.

    Down with the tyranny of low expectations!


  10. paulgarver says:


    You are certainly right that winning real campaign finance reform and electing Elizabeth Warren as U.S. Senator from Massachusetts are very important causes for the entire progressive left. In fact, both campaigns are strongly underway in Massachusetts, and are broadly supported by a wide spectrum of diverse organizations.

    Even though I strongly agree that the occupations would be wise to endorse such demands, there are formidable obstacles to their doing so. The consensus method of decision-making at general assemblies has many merits, but incurs the substantial disadvantage that a small minority of participants can block or indefinitely delay decisions. If it were possible to poll all of those who participate from time to time in protests, rallies and other actions related to the occupations, there would be overwhelming support for a broad spectrum of reforms. However some of the smaller core of activists who sleep at the sites overnight have philosophical issues with raising concrete demands not immediately connected with the tactical functioning of the occupations.

    This should not overly concern us. The day-to-day occupiers are a highly visible and integral part of a much larger social and political movement, which is already enlivened by the occupations and making good use of the space they offer to reinforce their own specific demands. Everyone does not have to do the same thing at the same time for their actions to be mutually reinforcing and symbiotic. We must all remain open to the usefulness of other methods and styles of political action.

    I agree with Jack Metzgar’s injunction for patience and John Crawford’s sense of timing.


  11. Larry Hanley says:

    I’m writing from Oakland, California, and for the moment, I’m going to ignore the condescension of the “grab a low fat grande latte” ilk. As John Crawford notes above, that kind of attitude just revives memories of the unhelpful Old Left/New Left generational splits of yesteryear.

    But, I will take more seriously the injunction to: “Learn from history.” And, history is much more ambivalent about movements and the political system. The labor uprisings of the 1930s, the post-war civil rights struggles, and even the most recent anti-war movement – – all of these can be read as history’s arguments to resist the demand for demands, platforms, charismatic leaders, and marching through the institution. In each case, once movement leaders stepped into the halls of power with a list of demands, something truly radical – – workers’ power, racial freedom, world peace and anti-militarism – – became just another interest group.

    In my own experience, inside and outside the system – – whether in delegate assemblies or the streets of New York – – the surest path from a radicalism that challenges things to a reformism that reaffirms the way things are is to adopt to the style, rhetoric, customs, and eventually beliefs that enable access to the institutions of power.

    One of the great things about the current Occupy movement is exactly the way it mystifies, frustrates, and in some cases infuriates the expectations of the establishment – – in both its liberal and conservative flavors. Who remembers Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, a challenge that was continually greeted with the refrain from pundits and politicos: “What does Jesse want?”

    This frustration actually conceals its own demand: speak our language. And, failing to speak the crusty, tired language of power, “we” can only hear you as chaos and disorder, as a problem rather than a source of hope and power. How ironic then that it took a “liberal” mayor, Jean Quan of Oakland, to fire the first rubber bullet – – perhaps liberals, desperate to find their own Tea Party, are even more frustrated with the Occupy movement’s refusals than the party of Fox.

    Learn from history. For the past two decades, a new kind of movement has been brewing across the globe. Let’s remember “the Battle for Seattle” – – the first appearance of mass anti-globalization protest in the U.S. and an event equally frustrating to liberals and conservatives for it’s lack of leadership and structure. Fast forward to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Italy, Israel, Chile, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Oakland – -the same leaderless masses rising up against inequality and for freedom (even if it’s sometimes simply the freedom of assembly). No doubt, part of this global movement draws on long traditions of emancipatory thinking (from Bakunin to Bookchin) and draws on new cultures of organization and communication spawned by social media. (Think Wikipedia as one familiar form of these new emergent modes of cooperation, solidarity, and labor.)

    Whatever else may emerge from the Occupy movement, one of its main engines is clear: things are bad, and the political system is incapable of responding to these bad things. Join Fred Wertheimer? Support Elizabeth Warren? As if the political system weren’t already corrupt before United Citizens. As if we haven’t already rallied behind some candidate of “change.” To suggest both is simply to suggest an incomprehension of the forces – – of frustration, anger, and hope – – that are driving the Occupiers.

    When your choices are reduced to playing the game (according to bent rules) or taking your ball home with you – – occupying the playing field challenges the rules and opens up an alternative game entirely – – no matter how loudly the referees keep blowing the whistle.


  12. Leo Jennings says:

    Jack, the time for patience is long past and John, sorry for the tone, but the fact is there is an opportunity being lost that may not be regained.

    As for patience, why is it that progressives always have a need to be patient and conciliatory and accommodating? It’s time we took a page out of the conservative handbook. When Grover Norquist launched Americans for Tax Reform in 1985 at Reagan’s behest there wasn’t a lot of soul-searching or self-flagellation. They had a goal: shrink government by defunding it–and a strategy for accomplishing the goal: force GOP candidates to sign a no tax-hike pledge. For 26 years Norquist has been the defacto head of the GOP, exercising his power at the now famous or infamous–depending on your perspective–Wednesday meetings during which he keeps the parties varied interest groups and constituencies in line.

    There’s nothing similar on the Democratic/progressive side. That’s why we’ve had two failed attempts to reform the health care system in 19 years, no substantive labor law reform, too many free trade agreements, too little money for education and job training, no energy policy, and the exploding disparity in the distribution of wealth that’s occurred over the past 20 years.

    Finally, if you think you can achieve any reform without completely reconfiguring the campaign finance laws you’re really not paying attention to what’s happening in this nation. Citizens United has opened the floodgates for corporate money to pour into the political system. Combined with the millions spent on lobbying we now face a scenario in which the richest Americans and the multi-national corporations they control have the ability to buy elections and dictate policy. Until something is done about that the reforms I believe we all want to see will not be implemented.

    Big money once again killed health care reform, it killed Elizabeth Warren’s appointment to head the CPB, it bought the GOP majority in the House in 2010, and may well buy the Senate and the White House in 2012.

    If you think giving control of the political system back to the working class by eliminating the influence of big money is “too limited a goal” you really don’t understand how American politics and policy making is functioning today.


  13. Several critiques of the critique. First, its tone. It has that flavor of the old against the young. One lesson of the Sixties should have been that the age war on the left killed off a lot of possibility. In the mutual assault, nobody listened to each other where they might have actually achieved much more.
    Second, the actual proposals put forward here are surprisingly off the point. Reforming public financing is, as Metzgar suggests, far too limited a goal, and as for the election in Massachusetts, let the folks up there take that up–with all the force they have to muster. This movement is much broader than that, should generalize its strategy (yes), then let the local issues be dealt with locally.
    On the other hand, the remarks about the Tea Party are concise and correct. A consensus does need to be arrived at–a working set of grievances, something like a truncated Declaration of Independence. The old format worked pretty well under conditions of colonial rule to stir people to action–and it doesn’t send up red flags, so to speak. Didn’t Bobby Seale speak of a Yankee Doodle Dandy revolution?
    Time is leaning towards some kind of consolidation. When the officials in the occupied cities are starting to turn off the heat, it’s time to make a list of grievances and take the work inside meeting halls. But please, not with that superior tone and not by focusing on narrow demands.
    John Crawford


  14. Leo Jennings says:

    Roy, let me give you an example from my personal experience. When I was in the Ohio AG’s office the folks from Moody’s paid us a visit because we were in the process of developing a legal theory to hold them accountable for overstating the soundness of the mortgage-backed securities that are at the heart of America’s foreclosure crisis. During the meeting their counsel smugly repeated a defense they had used in other suits filed to hold them accountable for their actions. “Let’s say we’re talking about a bank robbery. We (Moody’s) didn’t walk into the bank with a gun. We just drove the robbers to the bank and drove them away. That’s it.”

    He was smiling when he said it–he really believed that being an accomplice to the collapse of the housing market was no big deal. They knew what they had done, they just didn’t care because they made-and make–a fortune providing ratings for financial instruments. If that’s not evil I don’t know what is.


  15. Jack Metzgar says:

    Be patient, Leo. Occupiers have learned their history lessons. They know power concedes nothing without a demand, and that movements that make fundamental change are not built in a day — or an election cycle. This movement is raising much more fundamental questions about inequalities of income, wealth and power than can be solved (or even addressed) by public financing and electing an especially good Democrat. If they keep asking the right questions, inviting the rest of us to participate, we may get a vision that is broad enough to sustain a movement with a whole host of demands around a single theme. My candidate: spread the wealth around and the power that goes with it.

    Jack Metzgar


  16. Roy Wilson says:


    You say that the Wall Streeters (the bankers, not occupiers) “know they are evil”. If pressed, I would probably say that they are evil, but how do you know that THEY know they are evil?

    Recall the Nazi exterminators: evil they were, but saw themselves as virtuously engaged in a public health campaign (Robert Jay Lifton documents this quite extensively).

    BTW, I am not calling for them to be excused, morally or otherwise.



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