For many in the Occupy movement, Wall Street was so last year.
Congress is the new target as Occupy activists try to channel the populist energy of “the 99 percent” into tangible results.
More than 30 Occupy groups and 10,000 Facebook users are backing Tuesday’s Occupy Congress rally outside the Capitol, and they represent a growing faction within the liberal movement that says the path to reining in Wall Street runs through Capitol Hill.
“Congress is the place that we should focus,” said Natalia Abrams, a California-based activist. “I don’t think we’re ever going to get Wall Street to control its greed, but maybe we can get Congress to control their greed for them.”
That idea is drawing the movement’s focus from Manhattan to the Beltway and turning many of its activists into advocates for campaign finance reform, even as others oppose the shift toward politics.
Earlier this month, Occupy Wall Street passed a resolution supporting a constitutional amendment that states, “Corporations are not people, and money is not speech.” It marked a big step for the movement, which has a decentralized structure that has made reaching consensus difficult.
Amending the Constitution may be ambitious, but the goal gives Occupiers something concrete to rally around after the winter lull that followed their evictions from Zuccotti Park and other camps nationwide.
“I hope that this shows the country that we’re very much together and acting in unison,” Abrams said, referring to this new phase with the oft-repeated meme “Occupy 2.0.”
On the eve of the two-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision to deregulate corporate political spending, reform advocates see Occupy’s evolution as a way to amp up grass-roots pressure for their efforts.
“The Occupy movement is really breathing life into the drive for a Constitutional amendment,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, which is promoting a Jan. 21 event to “Occupy the Corporations.” Holman said his group has been in conversation with Occupy activists and considers that movement a “comrade in arms.”
Another group hoping to court the Occupy movement is the Move to Amend coalition, whose members include the Alliance for Democracy, National Lawyers Guild and Progressive Democrats of America. The coalition’s leaders plan to talk to Occupy rally attendees about local ballot initiatives that challenge the high court’s Citizens United decision.
“Corporate personhood and Move to Amend represent Occupy 2.0,” group spokesman David Cobb said.
Whether the Occupy crowd will work with campaign-finance advocates remains to be seen. Activists are wary of outside groups.
“We have a real concern about having people latch on to this populist movement for their political agenda,” said Mic Mell, one of the organizers of Tuesday’s Occupy Congress event. In organizing the rally, Mell said his group purposely didn’t reach out to the professional groups that have helped Occupy in the past, including labor unions and liberal organizers such as MoveOn.org and the American Dream Movement.
Infighting presents another challenge to Occupy’s advocacy push. Many Occupiers are sitting out the Capitol Hill rally, arguing that the current political system is too corrupt to engage.
“What’s showing up here is a gap between people who want to see the system completely removed and those that want to see it transformed,” Mell said.
Mell said he wasn’t even sure about the plans of all the groups who are coming to Washington. The official schedule — which includes teach-ins, time to visit Congressional offices and an evening rally for D.C. statehood — serves merely as a suggestion that Occupiers are free to ignore. An online wiki added an ever-evolving list of solidarity events and possible direct actions.
“Everybody gets to do what they want to do,” Mell said.
One of the wiki pages offered intricate plans for lobbying lawmakers and, if that failed, recruiting primary challengers to unseat incumbents. But the post had a big disclaimer running at the top: “This idea has not been approved and is not slated to occur at Occupy Congress.”
Occupy’s consensus-based approach makes it difficult for organizers to plow forward in any one direction. At the same time, many activists in the movement are itching for concrete action.
“In New York, the loss of the camp alone has triggered these kind of arguments because we’re required to make a next step,” said Stuart Leonard, who led a group of politically minded Occupy activists to New Hampshire ahead of last week’s primaries. They staged protests at events for Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney and, on principle, at the Democratic National Committee’s war room in Manchester.
“We’re trying to set the standard here for how you attack the system without necessarily being co-opted by it,” he said in reference to the bipartisan protest.
In addition to campaign finance, Occupy activists identified a host of policies that concern them, from the defense authorization bill that loosened regulations on the detention of suspected terrorists to the Stop Online Piracy Act that Internet giants Google and Facebook say would hamper online innovation. What’s not clear is how Occupy can influence such policy.
Daniel Gorski, an activist from South Carolina, suggested that Occupy’s role should be sparking conversations about how money corrupts politics.
“For those of us who want to work in the system, this is an opportunity to begin to open a dialogue with our elected officials,” Mell agreed.
Organizers of the D.C. rally haven’t discussed next steps, although some are staying in town until Friday for an “Occupy the Courts” event led by Move to Amend to mark the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., walks on Broadway after a Future Forum with young entrepreneurs in the Flatiron District of New York City, April 16, 2015. Reps. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Grace Meng, D-N.Y., also attended.