Having argued more than once that the Occupy movement needs to develop a set of common principles, a coherent agenda and a leadership structure, we thought we’d ask a political professional to offer advice on where the movement can go from here.
By Sterling Clifford
Special to Calbuzz
You don’t really see it on TV, but if you stop by Occupy Oakland, the crowd looks familiar. Some hipsters on laptops, a couple of homeless guys, men in khakis moving in and out, and a surprising number of children. I’ve seen this group before: every day in fact, at Starbucks.
Yes, there are plenty of classic liberal stereotypes and wackos. But there are also plenty of once middle-class folks worried they will never be able to afford homes, never be able to pay for their kids to go to college, worried that the freeways are crumbling and that the air is getting dirtier. And they’re not sure why those with huge piles of money feel no need to pitch in.
The group is eclectic, the list of specific grievances virtually endless. But their demands are actually pretty simple – Fix It!
Ok, so it isn’t simple. But it is coherent. The protesters want a social safety net that actually catches people, an economic system in which those who benefit the most contribute the most, reasonable environmental safeguards and a general renewal of the uniquely American ideal of opportunity for all.
As Calbuzz rightly noted, the existence of Occupy has already changed the national political conversation. That’s quite an accomplishment in just a few weeks. But the esteemed men of Calbuzz asked the right question too. What’s next?
Occupy has reached a critical moment. Big city mayors, as sympathetic a group as Occupiers are likely to find, are running out of patience and money for police overtime. Reporters looking for new angles have begun writing about frustrated small businesses near protest sites, and the hooligans who turn every protest in Oakland into vandalism against Foot Locker and Men’s Wearhouse will only get worse.
The latest plan floating around Occupy Oakland is the takeover of foreclosed property. The protesters tried a similar move a week ago in a building that once housed homeless services. It didn’t draw much attention to a lack of services for the homeless, but it did make the protest look dangerous and unruly.
The political reality is that those who hold and seek office will respond when they feel pressure at the ballot box, and that is where Occupy has to go now.
How does a loosely organized group with a loosely defined agenda actually change things? The Tea Party showed us how.
Get small. It’s not possible to sustain the numbers at the Occupy sites now. It is possible to keep people engaged. Neighborhood and Congressional district-sized groups who meet less often, who attend town halls and candidate forums will keep the part-time protesters involved and the issues on the table. Tea Party activists were unavoidable in 2010, and Occupy activists should be unavoidable in 2012.
Be good; know who your friends are. Civil disobedience is fun. Nothing makes the powerless feel powerful quite like standing your ground against riot police and tear gas. But traffic laws and closing parks at night aren’t the laws that concentrate wealth at the top. Big city mayors are a liberal group; they might be the elected officials most sympathetic to the goals of Occupy. Work with them, and let them find ways to accommodate and amplify the message. Especially in Oakland, distancing a protest with legitimate grievances from rock throwers with no political agenda is the only way to get 51% of the 99% on board.
Identify candidates, work hard for them. The Tea Party caucus in the House of Representatives is small. But the budget fights over the summer and the permanent deer-in-the-headlights look on John Boehner’s face are proof you only need a few votes to throw a wrench in the political machine in Washington. There are open, competitive seats in California, and swing districts around the country where Tea Party candidates won surprise victories in 2010. With enough support on the ground and enough small contributions, those seats can be won in 2012.
I’ve visited Occupy protests in three cities. If you had to pick one word to describe the mood at all three, it would be frustration. The far right channeled its frustration into elections in 2010, and nobody can say it didn’t make a difference. It did – things got worse. Making things better depends a lot on what the Occupy movement chooses to do next.
Editor’s Note: For another take on how the Occupy movement can move forward, check out Eliot Spitzer at Slate.
Sterling Clifford, who served as Jerry Brown’s campaign press secretary in 2010, is a communications and campaign consultant.