How the Occupy Movement Can Move Forward


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.

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There are 9 comments for this post

  1. avatar thetruthsquad says:

    Yeah, I’ve seen these folks at Starbucks too. They’re the ones that come in to use the bathroom and leave the place filthy without paying.

    Here’s the difference between the Occupy movement and the Tea Party: the Tea Party is shaping the Republican party. They are voting. They are putting up candidates. They are raising millions. Occupy? None of the above.

    Until these folks get involved in the process instead of condemning it, all they’ll are more TV news shots about being arrested. And that helps no one.

  2. avatar Martus11782 says:

    I agree with thetruthsquad. I don’t consider any of the people in this Occupy movement to be “normal” at all. In fact, the images on news channels across the board have not exactly indicated that these people have any intelligence at all. If they did, they would be more focused on forming a legitimate political group that doesn’t just blockade and ravage the streets of local cities, but instead acts maturely and makes a more responsible effort to conduct themselves appropriately on live television.
    Do you think I would let my kids go out and join a group that has shown disregard for local laws and hostility toward law enforcement? In fact, how about the people who were looting? I didn’t exactly see anyone from this movement attempting to stop the criminals that were openly destroying property and stealing merchandise from local businesses. These people aren’t “hero’s” at all in my mind. And to actually mention that civil disobedience is “fun”? That’s just great. Let’s once again continue to put down those that serve in the police department and put their lives on the line every day to protect the laws of our state. And for what? A group of people who don’t respect anyone else? No thank you. As a native Californian, I am EMBARRASSED regarding the way these “Occupiers” are conducting themselves. They need to GO!

  3. avatar tegrat says:

    I don’t believe either of the above commentators have ever attended an occupy event. Non-violence is always stressed in any that I have been to, and in fact there were many in the Oakland incident that tried to stop the lunacy of the Black Bloc anarchists who are widely despised by the movement (e.g., http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/11/12/1035907/-To-the-black-bloc-anarchists,-F***-OFF!-This-is-Occupy,-NOT-Destroy?via=search).

    I am fully employed, make six figures, and fully support the occupy movement. Please define “normal”. I have yet to see any meaningful hostility towards law enforcement. You might want to review the film of the Berkeley students being clubbed by “law enforcement” without lifting a finger before making blanket assessments like that one. The comment about poor Starbuck’s bathrooms is a typical example of the kind of disdain people of privilege display towards those less fortunate than themselves, and an unsubstantiated assertion both about these individuals and those who participate in this movement. I, for one, am damn proud of the movement.

  4. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    As usual, I agree with Tegrat. I went to a meeting of another political group on Saturday. Most attendees were in their 50s and 60s. Some were retired. Others were professionals in various fields. We’d all been to Occupy events. It was actually pretty funny to see a bunch of older folks sitting on sofas, recliners, and spare dinning room chairs doing “sparkles” in response to a suggestion.

    I too am fully employed. I own my own business and my own home. I have a grown son, who holds a graduate degree, a management job, and also owns his own home. But he’s been laid off over and over. His house is underwater. And during one of his more frustrating stints of unemployment told me the whole American Dream thing is “a con job.” Talking to a lot of the students at the Occupy events I’ve gone to, they say the same thing. As a mother, it broke my heart.

    Spitzer’s piece is very limited. He’s only looking at Wall Street reform. I congratulate Mr. Clifford on the most spot-on description I’ve seen of what occupiers 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.”

    I also agree with Tegrat about being proud of the movement. And I think it’s too soon for them to get small or to be folded in to candidate campaigns. They’ve gotten this far this fast by being big. By being visible. And by being determined. If they give any of that up, they get ignored again. And the frustration Mr. Clifford rightly sensed will only continue to grow–along with the desperation, as their very real issues drag on and all the benefits in our society continue to flow exclusively to the top.

    • avatar tegrat says:

      Part of the beauty of the movement is the fact that it is leaderless. As my very astute gf pointed out, even a leader like Ghandi or MLK wouldn’t last two weeks in our media “news” environment, where destroying people based on their personal foibles is much more newsworthy than discussing the ideals for which they stand (and I’m not defending the all too human weaknesses of these individuals). There are (at least) two things that will kill this movement: public leaders and violence. Neither, to any significant degree, has been manifest to date.
      I too have a 23-year-old son. There is absolutely no way he will enjoy the benefits of the society I grew up in, and there is really no excuse for that (even allowing for bad parenting). We are broken. We can fix it.

  5. avatar Moravecglobal says:

    No documented evidence of Chancellor Birgeneau requesting tolerance for students protesting increases in tuition. UCPD employs force to silence students. UC President Yudof, Cal. Chancellor Birgeneau($450,000 salary) dismissed many much needed cost-cutting options. They did not consider freezing vacant faculty positions, increasing class size, requiring faculty to teach more classes, doubling the time between sabbaticals, cutting & freezing pay & benefits for chancellors & reforming pensions & the health benefits.
    They said such faculty reforms “would not be healthy for UC”. Exodus of faculty, administrators? Who can afford them and where would they go?
    We agree it is far from the ideal situation, but it is in the best interests of the university system & the state to stop cost increases. UC cannot expect to do business as usual: raising tuition; granting pay raises & huge bonuses during a weak economy that has sapped state revenues & individual Californians’ income.
    There is no question the necessary realignments with economic reality are painful. Regent Chairwoman Lansing can bridge the public trust gap with reassurances that salaries & costs reflect California’s ability to pay. The sky above UC will not fall when Chancellor Birgeneau is ousted.

    Opinions? Email the UC Board of Regents marsha.kelman@ucop.edu

  6. avatar Vince Boston says:

    Sterling Clifford and “thetruthsquad” point out political reality that none of my lefty friends want to hear. Occupy could grow to 3 million Americans “taking it to the streets”, and it wouldn’t flip so much as 1 congressional district from Republican to Democrat. Which is the ONLY thing that matters. Everything else is just moving the football up and down the field, without putting any points on the board! It’s all about flipping districts via bucks and ballots, baby, and nothing else.
    Instead of “street protesting” in a permanently Democratic congressional district (SanFran, Oakland, etc), OWS fans should drive to a Republican district in the Central Valley and try to flip it to Democratic. This especially applies to all the old arthritic lefty Boomers I see wondering around the Bay Area who are get all hot-and-bothered and think the 1960’s are back. Stop incessantly chattering with people who agree with you, and drive to Fresno and flip an Independent to a Democrat.
    But nobody want’s to do that. That’s “too hard” and “no fun”. Hence, Occupy “whatever” will never even flip 1 congressional district.

    OWS = a bunch of noise and fury, signifying…nothing, changing….nothing.

  7. avatar mp3michael says:

    So the same people at Occupy are at Starbucks? Uh ok. So that’s the crowd that pays $5 for a cup of coffee and wants a government handout? A “real safety net” as you say. So that safety net gives them a food stamps debit card that will work at Starbucks and Whole Foods?

    I’m sorry but your position is wholly illogical. But that’s the beauty of Occupy. Because they are aimless, anyone can substitute in their own positioning as you’ve done with “fix it”. Uh… what is the “it” and what is the “fix”? Nevermind with the messy part, back to protesting!

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