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.
“I think it’s clear that we can’t compete with the money of Wall Street and the money of the big banks to influence politicians. We don’t want to,” Smucker said in an interview. “We’re in a process of creating a new revitalized civic in this country.”
Ben Campbell, who is leading an Occupy Wall Street offshoot called Occupy Fundraisers, disagrees and said he would prefer to work within the current political system.
“There’s a little bit of a divide between the radicals and reformers. Ultimately, we’re all working toward the same goal,” Campbell said.
On Monday, Campbell protested a fundraiser for GOP presidential candidate and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) to draw attention to the role money plays in politics. He also supports a constitutional amendment introduced by Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) to limit corporate influence on government.
“The movement is trying to go beyond symbolic marches to concrete actions that create change,” Campbell said. “We have no illusion that we’re going to protest and it’s all going to be fixed.”
So far, OWS has operated with open membership and the requirement of complete consensus. How long it can continue to do that remains to be seen.
The Zuccotti Park activists have more than 100 working groups tackling different issues. This week, Occupy events included a hunger strike for open spaces, a protest against a tear gas manufacturer and an effort to occupy Broadway and highlight the role of art in activism.
“You can expect if the movement takes off that there are going to be a lot of failed campaigns, but some things are going to take off,” said David Meyer, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies protest movements. He added that it is typical for grass-roots movements to splinter into different efforts, and it doesn’t necessarily mean their demise.
“The fact that people are going to disagree and do different things doesn’t mean it can’t be a movement,” he said.
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.