Time to occupy the Democratic Party

Politicians should see the Occupy movement as a call to engage instead of “business as usual”.

Occupy los angeles
Big companies fund local and federal politicans’ campaigns, which can result in pro-corporate policies [GALLO/GETTY]

The Occupy Wall Street movement is less than two months old, and its future trajectory is impossible to predict. But with the expansive strategy of last week’s general strike in Oakland, which brought tens of thousands of people into the streets, it’s beginning to look increasingly possible that it could be the emergence of a long-time force in US politics

The initial numbers are quite promising. While Congress’ approval rating has registered as low as nine per cent in recent polls, Occupy Wall Street enjoyed landslide majority support of 67 per cent of New York City residents in a mid-October poll. Just before that, a Time Poll found that 54 per cent of Americans had a favourable view of OWS, vs 23 per cent unfavourable. Even more telling, Time went on to ask about “some of the issues the protestors have raised”, and elicited even higher levels of agreement with the following statement: “Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence in Washington”: 86/11 per cent agree/disagree. “The gap between rich and poor in the United States has grown too large”: 79/7. “Executives of financial institutions responsible for the financial meltdown in 2008 should be prosecuted”: 71/23. “The rich should pay more taxes”: 68/28.

Meanwhile, also echoing the Occupy Wall Street message, a nearly simultaneous Washington Post/Bloomberg News Poll found the public overwhelmingly opposed to the Washington bipartisan consensus on slashing the welfare state. Respondents opposed “Reducing Medicare benefits” by 82/14 (77/18 among Republicans) and opposed “Reducing Social Security benefits” by 83/13 (79/16 among Republicans). Other polls have yielded similar results. When Occupy Wall Street says “we are the 99 per cent”, the polling says they are right.

Yet, it’s a long way from being a fledgling movement in sync with the public to building long-term influence and staying power. In the short run, the Occupy movement faces significant obstacles, not the least of which is big city Democratic mayors whose decisions have resulted in mass arrests, all too often involving police violence. Oakland is the obvious high-profile example, with an out-of-control police department that’s been under federal court supervision since 2003, with little to show for it. The 2003 consent decree was not demonstration-specific, but covered a widespread pattern of police misconduct in the use of force.

The hearing

At a hearing just one month before the projectile shooting of Marine Corporal Scott Olsen – which in turn lead to the one-day general strike – Judge Thelton Henderson lambasted Oakland’s continued lack of compliance, saying, “I’m not interested in listening to promises about how things are going to be” and “the city and the department still don’t get it”. The hearing was attended by Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and other top city officials – none of whom appear to have been listening.

But Oakland is hardly alone when it comes to Democratic mayors ordering mass arrests of Occupiers for exercising their First Amendment rights. In fact, aside from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg – a Republican turned independent – most of the mayors involved have been Democrats. Boston’s Mayor Tom Menino had 141 people arrested on October 11. Under Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, roughly 300 Occupy supporters have been arrested in a series of attempts to set up a stable base camp. In Atlanta, 52 protesters were arrested on October 26 under orders of Mayor Kasim Reed, who said the “last straw” came when a man carrying an AK-47 joined the demonstrators. But the man was rejected by the Occupiers, and what he did was legal under Georgia law. Besides, no Tea Party demonstration was ever shut down because someone there was carrying an assault weapon.

The weekend after Olsen was shot in Oakland, 27 Occupiers were arrested in Portland under Mayor Sam Adams, and 25 were arrested in Denver, under Mayor Michael Hancock. The Denver arrests were particularly violent as police in riot gear attacked peaceful demonstrators with tear gas and pepper spray pellets. Dozens more have been arrested in Des Moines, St Louis, Cincinnati, Seattle, Sacramento, and San Francisco – all with Democratic mayors.

While some mass arrests have been deliberately planned, and very professionally handled by police, the predominant pattern has been much more troubling: Despite a grudging admission that people have a right to protest, Democratic mayors have generally viewed Occupy demonstrators in a negative light, and have not shown much interest or inclination in any sort of productive relationship. The city of Los Angeles was a noted exception initially, with city council members even visiting them, and passing a supportive resolution, but more recently both the mayor and an initially enthusiastic councilmember have begun to talk about shutting them down.

The Democratic mayors’ hostility or indifference is so widespread as to seem somehow natural, and in one sense it is: it’s a business-as-usual response. But for mayors in the US today, business is anything but usual. All the budget cuts at the higher levels trickle down on them, along with their own direct revenue losses from crashing property and sales tax revenues. As the National League of Cities reported in its 26th annual report: “General city revenues are continuing to fall, with a projected -2.3 per cent decrease by the end of 2011. This is the fifth straight year of declines in revenue with probable further declines in 2012. Property tax collections are expected to decline by -3.7 per cent with further declines likely in 2012 and 2013.”

Long-term obsessions

With national politics still obsessed with long-term deficit cutting, things are only going to get worse for cities and their mayors, so long as politics continues to be dominated by the budget-cutting priorities of the one per cent. The Occupy movement is a catalyst for opposition to this agenda, and thus seemingly a natural ally for all mayors – but particularly Democratic ones, whose core constituencies suffer disproportionately compared to the GOP donor base. Yet, the record so far suggests that Democratic mayors are as out of touch with popular sentiment as their Beltway counterparts, and equally lacking in innovative thinking.

There are reasons for this, author David Sirota explained recently in Salon, citing a number of different issues and examples to argue that “urban areas are a driving force behind the widening intra-party rift between the corporatist, pro-privatisation Wall Street Democrats and the traditional labor-progressive ‘Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party’.” More on this shortly.

But first, consider this: Not only is the Occupy movement popular, cooperation with it could make a good deal of sense. There are a number of ideas that local officials could implement to help their local economies that Occupy movement supporters would surely be pleased with. A prime example is the creation of local municipal banks, which could significantly amplify the benefits of moving people’s money out of the major mega-banks. Along with local small banks and credit unions, they can help provide the small business lending to help revive our economy that Wall Street banks have shown no interest in.

How mainstream is this idea at the local level? Consider this: In a recent candidate forum for an LA city council special election I am covering, one candidate was asked about the idea of depositing state, local and federal funds in local, state-chartered banks. The candidate readily agreed with that idea, but quickly expanded the horizon, saying: “I think the city of Los Angeles should consider creating its own bank to accelerate development opportunities.” The candidate was a moderate Republican, and longtime aide to the former Democratic councilmember, who has just been elected to Congress. He was just endorsed by the LA Times. If he could voluntarily advance this idea on his own, Democratic mayors could surely find some way to support it. And if this idea could bring those mayors closer together with Occupiers, and begin a dialogue, in place of costly confrontations, why not choose the path of cooperation?

Perhaps because they’re already cooperating with someone else, as described by Sirota. Historically, Chicago has been a bastion of “labour power and liberal economics,” Sirota notes. But that’s no longer true:

“In recent years, the Windy City has become ‘the most aggressive city in the United States in the privatization of public infrastructure,’ according to the Public Interest Research Group. Citing the city’s budget crisis, officials have sold off highways and parking meters at cut-rate prices – all to pad the profits of corporate investors (the schemes are now being explored by other Democratic cities including Pittsburgh and Los Angeles). Despite this, during its once-in-a-generation contested mayoral election in 2010, the city’s voters chose investment banker Rahm Emanuel over other far more economically progressive candidates, and Emanuel quickly filled his administration with corporate consultants eager to accelerate the privatization already under way. Now, Emanuel has declared war on organised labour, with the Associated Press’s headline blaring “Even in Chicago, Mayor Goes After Labor Unions.”

‘Corporate-friendly education’

Chicago is also where Obama’s basketball partner/Secretary of Education Arne Duncan built a reputation with his corporate-friendly anti-teacher education reform “miracle” – which, typically, turned out to be illusory after his appointment was confirmed. But it’s still the guiding inspiration for Obama’s teacher-hostile education policy, which, like his foreign policy, is much more a fine-tuning of Bush’s previous policy than it is a change in direction or philosophy. More importantly to the point at hand, corporate-friendly education policy has numerous friends in Democratic-run cities, as Sirota goes on to point out:

“On education, the Democratic-voting city of Washington, DC, was the place that launched the political career of Michelle Rhee, the face of the right-wing effort to siphon public school money into private schools; Democratic Los Angeles has seen a successful Wal-Mart-funded effort to encroach on traditional public education, with more privately administered ‘public’ schools than any district in the country; and Democratic New Orleans has seen a wholesale charter-isation of its schools.”

These policies represent a clear dividing line with the Occupy movement, which has plenty of teachers in its midst. In Los Angeles, one of the first actions organised by Occupy LA was a collaboration with public school teachers dubbed Occupy LAUSD [LA Unified School District]. Roughly 200 people marched on the LAUSD school board more than a mile away from Occupy LA’s base camp.

“Occupy LAUSD participants took on the district, education philanthropists and charter schools as well as giving voice to familiar themes such as opposing corporate greed and inequality,” the LA Times reported.

LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy was outraged, arrogant and confused. “Occupy LAUSD is both misinformed and contrary to the spirit and intent of Occupy Wall Street, Occupy LA, and the other laudable movements for economic justice that have sprung up around the country and the world over the last month,” he said. The fact that Occupy LAUSD was a co-creation of Occupy LA somehow escaped his grasp. He knew their own minds better than they did, apparently.

But a reporter for LAist understood the logic quite well: “Why conflate the one per cent of the country with a battered school district? Perhaps having billionaire corporations and types like Eli Broad, Bill Gates, Philip Anschultz, and NewsCorp, and Goldman Sachs directly fund the mayor’s Coalition for School Reform translates into policies that benefit that same one per cent? Could it be?”

The fact that Deasy doesn’t even understand which side he is on shows just how much public education work there is to be done. It’s not all up to the Occupy movement. To the contrary, the Occupy movement should be understood as a call to engage – a call to each of us. But it’s also a call to Democratic Party activists.

Whatever people in the Beltway may think, the Occupy movement is not going to be a tool of the Democratic Party. It only exists because the Democratic Party failed to deliver on its promise after its historic victory in 2008. Or, more precisely, it did deliver, but what it delivered was nothing like what it seemed to promise in the way of hope and change.

But this doesn’t mean that progressive Democrats can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. They can support and participate in the Occupy movement, and they can leverage its appeal to fight back against the corporate dominance of their own party – to occupy it for the 99 per cent. Pushing Democratic mayors to stop harassing Occupiers and engage in dialogue instead would be one way to do this. Pushing for the establishment of municipal banks would be another. And of course, pushing Democratic mayors and other local elected officials to oppose corporate education “reform” would be a third. No doubt there are many other ways as well. Progressive Democrats have their work cut out for them.

So do we all.

Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper

You can follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.