Can Occupy Wall Street Trust Its Own Candidate?

Running for Congress, George Martinez calls himself the Occupiers' candidate. The rest of the movement isn't so sure.

Others, inspired by the massive, if largely uncovered, protests rocking the streets of Quebec right now, see promise in organizing around student debt. Quebecois students have taken to pinning squares of red cloth to their clothing to communicate that rising tuitions put them "squarely in the red." In recent weeks, red squares have proliferated among American Occupiers as well, and a rolling series of solidarity marches, often accompanied, like those in Quebec, by the hearty banging of pots and pans, have become some of the most visible actions of the movement.

More formally, there are discussions of a student-debt strike, as students and graduates are asked to sign a pledge to default on their student debt once a million people have signed on to the campaign.

"There's a lot of talk right now about what Occupy should look like," says Amin Husain, a longtime Occupier. "There's a growing consensus that debt is an issue to focus on."

Running in the Democratic primary for New York’s Seventh Congressional District, George Martinez campaigns in Carroll Gardens with his deputy campaign manager, Cecily McMillan, herself a veteran Occupy Wall Street activist. Martinez says he’s the first Occupy Wall Street candidate 
to run for Congress.
Mark Hewko
Running in the Democratic primary for New York’s Seventh Congressional District, George Martinez campaigns in Carroll Gardens with his deputy campaign manager, Cecily McMillan, herself a veteran Occupy Wall Street activist. Martinez says he’s the first Occupy Wall Street candidate to run for Congress.
The media have focused on Occupy Wall Street’s street protests and the dramatic police response. But for many participants, the real strength of Occupy lies not in flashy street battles but in the community and structures for mutual aid—outside of conventional politics—that the movement nurtures.
C.S. Muncy
The media have focused on Occupy Wall Street’s street protests and the dramatic police response. But for many participants, the real strength of Occupy lies not in flashy street battles but in the community and structures for mutual aid—outside of conventional politics—that the movement nurtures.

Asked if elections should play a part in Occupy's agenda, Husain is dismissive, but respectful, comparing them to another faction that posed headaches for Occupy Wall Street back in Zuccotti:

"It's the same sort of issue as the drummers back in the park," he says. "The point is, these people are going to do that. It may or may not be something we think is productive, but we don't need to use our energy policing it. Occupy is about one no and many yeses."

For those unfamiliar with Occupy Wall Street, Husain's dismissal of electoral engagement as a distraction might be perplexing.

When the camp at Zuccotti Park first sprang up nine months ago, the mainstream media's mantra, once it was dragged kicking and screaming to cover it at all, was, "Yes, but what do they want?" When it became too embarrassing to pretend not to understand the movement's focus on income inequality, financial reform, and corporate influence spelled out in the Occupation's declarations and innumerable cardboard signs, the conventional-wisdom dismissal shifted: "OK, maybe we know what they want, but sleeping on the street is not the way to get it."

If only these kids would get over themselves, get organized, and get some people elected, the sentiment went, they might have a shot at actually getting something accomplished.

But the Occupiers' spurning of conventional politics was never a failure of organization or maturity. It was a political calculation—born partly of the anarchist ideology woven inextricably into its roots and partly out of a shared appraisal that the political system, especially after the Citizens United decision, is irretrievably corrupted by corporate influence.

This outlook was coded into the movement's origins and foundational documents.

"[Corporate interests] have passed laws allowing the government to be controlled by the banks (including the fed) and corporate interests, which wrests control from the people," reads part of the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, accepted by the movement's General Assembly last September.

Six weeks later, amid growing concern that the Democratic Party was making moves to co-opt the energy of the movement, the General Assembly agreed on a Statement of Autonomy.

"Occupy Wall Street is a people's movement. It is party-less, leaderless, by the people, and for the people. . . . Occupy Wall Street is not and never has been affiliated with any established political party, candidate, or organization," the statement reads. "Those seeking to capitalize on this movement or undermine it by appropriating its message or symbols are not a part of Occupy Wall Street."

For many Occupiers, the disavowal of direct electoral engagement is still important. "The 1 Percent controls the core of both parties," says Bill Dobbs, who helps handle communications for the movement. "Spending energy on elections is a step backwards. This country desperately needs a resistance movement. If there's anything we've learned from Obama and every other candidate who seduced large numbers of people into working for them, it's that what matters is who's around after the election to keep the pressure on, far more than who's in office."

Could sympathetic elected officials help Occupy grow and pursue its agenda? Doubtful, says Dobbs, pointing to the example of New York City councilmembers who have been visible allies of Occupy Wall Street. "For all the time that individual city councilmembers have spent with Occupy Wall Street, they haven't succeeded in backing off the NYPD one millimeter," he says. "That's why you need pressure on the entire political apparatus, not a few people who bleed off the steam and energy."

Wasted energy is a recurrent theme among Occupy's electoral skeptics.

"What you're basically saying is 'I really hate the way the system works, so I'm going to vote for this guy through the system to change the system,'" Jo Robin says. "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. How many times do you go around that circle?"

When I took to Twitter to solicit thoughts on politicians running under an Occupy banner and said I was writing about Martinez's campaign, Malcolm Harris responded simply, "Please don't do that."

Harris, who writes for the New Inquiry and who is at the center of a legal battle over whether the NYPD is entitled to view his deleted Tweets in connection with his arrest during the march on the Brooklyn Bridge last fall, argued that even acknowledging Occupy-branded campaigns in an article without expressly framing them as opportunistic is itself part of the co-option process.

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