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.

"'Does Occupy support candidates'—even if someone claims to be under the banner—is an absurd frame," he wrote. "This is how they pose these things first as questions, then as seemingly legit possible answers." Harris has a point—that adopting the Occupy mantle is earning Martinez press attention he wouldn't otherwise get—but it's also true that Martinez has legitimate support from some corners of the Occupy community. His campaign is staffed almost entirely with volunteers who spent months in Zuccotti Park. True, they're drawn from the most moderate, reformist circles in the movement, but those circles have been part of the loose constellation of philosophies that make up Occupy Wall Street since September.

The radicalism at the heart of Occupy has always been what makes it fresh and compelling against the drab background of an American left made up of cautious unions and the institutional liberal groups whose captivity to the Democratic Party Jane Hamsher famously compared to veal pens.

But Occupy has also always relied on more mainstream voices for its numbers. At its height, Zuccotti Park buzzed with as many people who wanted to reform the system as people who wanted to replace it. And for all the movement's ambivalence toward major unions, it is those unions' rank and file who have swelled Occupy's biggest protests to the tens of thousands.

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.

Even among Occupiers who doubt electoral campaigns can accomplish anything, most see the prospect of a politician running under the Occupy banner as a sideshow rather than a mortal threat.

"When people say they're speaking for the movement, and try to push us towards electoral politics and say that's what we all need to be doing, that's toxic," Occupier José Martín says. "But when politicians do that, especially when they've been down in the park and out on the marches, that doesn't have to hurt the movement. Raising consciousness in a way that makes other things possible down the line, however it's done, that's more important than keeping Occupy somehow pure."

Martinez acknowledges that his campaign rubs a lot of Occupy activists wrong, and says they're right to be suspicious. But he urges them to take a closer look at how he's conducting his run. It's not just that he shows up for marches and that a lot of his staff and volunteers are Occupy people, he says. Although his campaign looks a lot like any other insurgent primary challenge, he says there are some important differences. For one thing, he's not soliciting donations. Unlike Velázquez, whose top donor last election cycle—when she didn't even have a challenger—was Goldman Sachs, Martinez isn't out looking for that kind of support for his campaign.

"With this campaign," says Tim Logan, Martinez's field director, "we're asking: 'How do we make people power more powerful than corporate campaigns?' To say we're not going to approach this electorally, that's ridiculous. But how are we going to do it? Our ideal for fundraising is you fundraise for direct actions. You expect people to show up with money and gloves on their hands and you use the money you raised to do a neighborhood cleanup."

Actions like this help build neighborhood institutions and informal councils like the General Assembly, which served as the deliberative body in occupied Zuccotti Park, Martinez argues.

"Once you've got those neighborhood deliberative bodies, they can take on a lot of responsibility. Now you've got the community making decisions for itself, and because of how it came together, the candidate is accountable to them."

Erek Tinker, another Occupy-identified Martinez campaigner, says that by elevating the political literacy of constituents, you make it easier to throw you out if you cross them.

"We're teaching people how to be politically empowered," he says. "So if George becomes a hack, you can throw him out and do it yourself."

Most important, say Martinez and his team, is that if the model works, it's replicable. They're calling the strategy "Bum Rush the Vote," and they intend to spread it to races across the city and the country.

Martinez's deputy campaign manager, Cecily McMillan, is best known as the woman facing felony assault charges for a scuffle with a police officer on March 17, when the NYPD once again forcefully evicted peaceful protesters from the park. McMillan was arrested roughly and went into a seizure while handcuffed on the sidewalk. Video taken on the scene shows McMillan convulsing on the ground, her head repeatedly slamming into the pavement, as police ignore bystanders' pleas to call an ambulance or at least uncuff her and protect her head.

Despite this episode, McMillan is probably among the least radical people in circulation at Occupy Wall Street. When we sit down to talk, her first political reference is to the founding fathers.

"Jefferson's idea was that the most important check on the federal system was supposed to be a sort of bicameralism from below," she says. "The people's own grassroots politics would hold the government accountable."

If that sounds wide-eyed and credulous, it's the same sort of faith in popular organizing that made the General Assemblies of Zuccotti Park remarkable in the first place, she says.

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