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Liberal Groups Take Up Occupy Mantle in D.C.

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
Well-funded liberal groups such as MoveOn.org organized protests on the Hill to push for the president’s jobs plan and an extension of unemployment insurance benefits.

The rain-soaked protesters who stormed Capitol Hill on Tuesday in an attempt to “Occupy Congress” are not officially part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but they are an example of how established liberal groups are trying to capitalize on the grass-roots movement and shift it from protests to direct advocacy.

Tuesday’s labor-backed sit-in, which targeted mostly Republican lawmakers, was actually focused on a legislative agenda that predates the Occupy movement. Hundreds of activists lobbied Members of Congress to pass President Barack Obama’s proposed jobs plan and extend unemployment insurance. 

Their demands were tame compared with the cries for a new economic order from New York’s Zuccotti Park, where scruffy protesters had camped out for two months. But even as the Capitol Hill protesters shouted that they are the “99 percent,” language introduced by OWS, it was unclear whether the D.C. effort had the backing of the larger grass-roots movement.

“There’s a lot of dissension within the Occupy movement of what level to engage elected officials,” Michael Premo, an Occupy activist in New York, said in an interview.

The disagreement highlights the transition OWS is undergoing. As the activists battle evictions and fading media interest in their public sit-ins, their supporters (they claim not to have leaders) are trying to figure out how to sustain the movement.

Along the way, they are receiving pro bono support from professional agencies such as FitzGibbon Media and established liberal advocacy groups all too eager to harness the grass-roots momentum.

The Capitol Hill action — led by the American Dream Movement, a coalition that includes MoveOn.org, the Service Employees International Union and the local jobs group Our DC — aimed to direct the movement toward legislative advocacy.

“Occupy Wall Street is the proper message. ... We’re saying to legislators, ‘You’ve heard this message. Now do your job,’” said Elbridge James, board president of Progressive Maryland, a group that advocates for working families.

As part of Tuesday’s action, James and hundreds of others with the American Dream Movement lobbied Members of Congress.

Some Occupy activists joined in, but others disagreed that lobbying Congress is the best way forward.

At the same time as the D.C. action, a group called Occupy Our Homes launched a more radical effort in New York. Organizers planned to help a family move illegally into a vacant, foreclosed home in Brooklyn. Other activists were expected to take similar actions in other cities.

Jonathan Smucker, a leader of the Occupy Our Homes effort, said he is not interested in appealing to Congress through traditional advocacy routes.

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