Seizing on the popularity of Occupy Wall Street, a broad coalition of liberal-left groups and organizations created the 99 Percent Spring, a movement aiming to recruit and train 100,000 Americans to learn the ways of non-violent direct action. The initiative includes support from MoveOn.org, AFL-CIO, Greenpeace, the Working Families Party, 350.org, Campaign for America’s Future, United Students Against Sweatshops, CodePink, Global Exchange and Color of Change, among other groups.
The plan has been heavily promoted by celebrities such as Edward Norton, Elijah Wood, Marisa Tomei and Jason Alexander and political heavyweights like Van Jones, founder of Rebuild the Dream.
However, Occupy Wall Street protesters have expressed mixed feelings about the 99 Percent Spring, a response that should have been expected given a statement like, "Occupiers have varying opinions," is a beige platitude akin to, "humans have varying opinions on life." OWS is a big tent movement, and as such, it attracts the entire gamut of the (generally) lefty political spectrum.
"I can’t blame the Occupy movement for being at best suspicious," says Joe Macare of Truthout and the Occupied Chicago Tribune, and observer of the Occupy movement, pointing out the 99 Percent Spring has adopted the language and imagery of Occupy Wall Street.
"I think Van Jones means well and is a smart, formidable guy, but I disagree with a lot of what I’ve read in his analysis about the extent to which President Obama, as opposed to just the Tea Party, the GOP-controlled Congress, etc., needs to be held responsible for the mess the United States is in. If Rebuild the Dream and MoveOn.org are serious about challenging corporate power, that’s going to mean calling out a lot of Democratic policies and a lot of Democratic politicians who are bought and paid for by the private sector."
In a recent blog post for The Nation, Jones argues that all of this class war chatter is detrimental to Occupy, a movement founded on the very notion that wealth disparity exists and must be confronted for the sake of the survival of the "99 percent."
"The vast majority of Americans do not oppose their fellow Americans, simply because they are rich," Jones wrote.
In making this statement, Jones constructed a straw man. Generally speaking, Occupy Wall Street opposes corruption and corporate power, which they perceive as illegitimate wealth hoarded by the "one percent" who have rigged the US political system in their favor. The issue is not that there are rich people living in America. The issue is that some absurdly rich people, the "one percent", are only the "one percent" because they cheated, with an assist from the government, and are currently crushing the underclass in order to collect even more wealth than ever before.
Indeed, the majority of Americans do see a problem with wealth disparity. In a recent Pew poll entitled, "Rising Share of Americans See Conflict Between Rich and Poor," 66 percent said they believe there are "very strong" or "strong" conflicts between the rich and the poor—an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009.
Jones departs from Occupy’s philosophy in a number of ways, including his romanticizing of a non-existent bygone era in America that needs to be "reclaimed," which was packed with "justice and equality," and so his involvement in the 99 Percent Spring complicates things, as does MoveOn’s participation in the project.
Many Occupiers view MoveOn as an extension of the Democratic Party, since the group first rose to prominence supporting Democratic and progressive candidates and attacking right-wing figures. Conversely, Occupy is a movement that tends to view both the Democrats and Republicans as being culpable for growing class inequality and the corporate takeover of America.
I tweeted to Occupiers, asking them how they felt about MoveOn’s involvement in the 99 Percent Spring, and it seems the initial responders, meaning those who perhaps don’t understand the degree of the group’s involvement, tend to take issue with MoveOn’s presence:
"Training people in nonviolence is great! But for what means, Under what name? We want real change, not mobilizing DEM base," wrote @PHX99percent.
"Like an 80-year old dude throwing on a toupee and trying to be a pick-up artist. MoveOn just be yourself!" @TempeBacon wrote.
@Xanibrutal concurs: "If I wanted to be involved with MoveOn, I would have joined their generic grassroots organization instead of #Occupy."
Others in the movement see MoveOn’s involvement in the 99 Percent Spring as a potentially valuable asset, as long as MoveOn doesn’t start evangelizing on behalf of the donkey.
"These organizations are encouraging thousands of people to undergo direct action training, without any electioneering diluting that goal, despite the fact that we are six months out from a presidential election," says Occupy the SEC’s Alexis Goldstein. "This is unprecedented, amazing, and shows that there is an important focus on trainings and educations among groups that may have different strategies."
Goldstein adds that Occupy is fighting an information battle, and any effort to educate people on direct action is a positive act.
"If anything, this is Occupy ‘co-opting’ [MoveOn]," she says.
OWS has been talking about the value in maintaining a diversity of tactics since its creation, and many see the 99% Spring training as a natural extension of that. In a report on the training, Occupier Charles Lenchner addressed what he calls the "Halp! We’re being coopted!" concern:
Speaking as an occupier most active in the Tech Ops Working Group of the NYC General Assembly, my first response to the 99%Spring was envy. Why aren’t we initiating, leading or participating in this kind of serious coalition work? But that’s unfair. We are working on May First actions, which in New York include a march carried out together with labor and the immigrants’ rights movements. What we aren’t doing is training 100,000 activists and organizers in nonviolent direct action. So why not welcome an effort that is doing that?
Lenchner goes on to call the training "fantastic," "inter-generational" and "racially diverse," and explains that it draws on the legacy of Cesar Chavez, the post-Seattle anti-globalization movement, and the OWS narrative of the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent.
He does address the concerns that MoveOn.org may be trying to co-opt OWS, but writes, "the 99% Spring is an example of a large powerful organization placing resources in the service of a fairly radical agenda and allowing others to take the lead."
"Drop your defenses," Lenchner encourages his fellow Occupiers, "rest assured no one is talking about elections."
Jeff Rae, an OWS protester, who recently had the New York District Attorney’s subpoena his tweets related to the Brooklyn Bridge mass arrest, says it’s "easy to be skeptical of groups like MoveOn." However, Rae points to the other signatories as evidence the movement isn’t being watered down.
"You will see people from Ruckus Society and [the Rainforest Action Network], all who do pretty radical direct action stuff," Rae says.
"I’m not a big MoveOn fan," OWS protester Jesse Myerson says, "I’ve criticized them publicly when they’ve tried to co-opt OWS. But that doesn’t mean that it is a toxic organization that can contribute nothing to the movement. If providing you with 100,000 Americans trained in direct action isn’t the most useful thing MoveOn, and its many awesome partners on this, could be doing, what is?"
Myerson warns against Occupiers becoming purists, meaning picky over who can call themselves Occupiers to the point of total extinction.
"[MoveOn] isn’t a monolith. It’s a pretty big group with a really big-email list and an executive leadership accountable to it," says Myerson, adding that the e-mail list was used strictly for political stuff, specifically liberal/progressive stuff. As a result, MoveOn’s niche became the activist wing of the Democratic Party. Now, with many liberals disappointed with President Obama’s performance and drawn to the revolutionary spirit of Occupy, MoveOn finds itself in a difficult position.
"[The Democratic Party] base is showing tendencies toward abandoning the [party], and I bet a lot of MoveOn people feel the same pull. But then there’s MoveOn’s now longstanding institutional relationships and their knowledge that some critical things are going on legislatively that could really use some activist support in the streets. It’s a tough bind," he says.
Myerson says he expects a mixed bag now that MoveOn is involved, but it’s "not up to us to judge MoveOn; it’s up to us to grow our movement."
"A revolution is not an e-mail list. It isn’t 100 or even 100,000 people in the streets. It’s a widespread social consensus that overtakes the institutions of power," he says. "Right now, it needs to be about generating consensus. On the scale of hundred of millions of people. The neo-liberal monster is a big enemy."
Micah Uetricht, an Occupy Chicago protester who was arrested with 174 other people during a protest in October, expected to hear about a significant 99 Percent Spring backlash from OWS.
"The 99% Spring is a pretty unabashed attempt on the part of much of the ‘institutional left’ to capitalize on the grassroots momentum that Occupy put in motion," he says.
However, Uetricht says that he hasn’t noticed any kind of outright rejection of the effort among Occupiers in Chicago.
"What I’ve seen and heard from Occupiers in Chicago is a very mature, thoughtful kind of radicalism."
Protesters certainly understand the dangers of engaging with these groups i.e. the risks of co-option, but they also understand these established organizations may also become valuable partners down the road.
"Occupiers also seem to understand that even though these groups are far from perfect and don’t have the same kind of radical commitments that much of Occupy does, organizations like unions and community groups are the ones who are going to do the practical work of trying to implement the kinds of change OWS is demanding," says Uetricht.
It’s Occupy’s job, Uetricht says, to push the country’s policies and dialogue to the left, but that doesn’t mean it can’t engage with the mainstream left on these kinds of projects.
George Goehl, executive director of National People’s Action, a network of grassroots organizations using direct action to battle economic and racial injustice, who recently appeared on Bill Moyers’ Moyers & Company to discuss the 99 Percent Spring, believes now is a crucial time to education Americans about non-violent resistance.
"The plans for this Spring grew out of a belief that to truly reorganize our economy and address mass political and economic inequality we will have to challenge those that most benefit from the current structure: corporate executives that consistently violate values of fairness, decency, and conservation," says Goehl. "Non-violent direct action has long been a powerful means for doing just that."
"The political system is so messed up, and income inequality is such a huge problem, that we need a stronger response," says Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn. "Simply put, the goal of the 99% Spring is to empower activists to use non-violent direct action so they an challenge growing economic inequality and confront the increasing concentration of political power in the hands of the 1%."
Ruben stresses that the 99 Percent Spring work is separate from MoveOn’s legacy of promoting and supporting progressive candidates.
"The 99% Spring is not part of that work," he says, adding that the 99% Spring is happening through MoveOn.org Civic Action, a c(4), while the electoral work is housed in MoveOn’s PAC.
All parties seem mindful of the dreaded accusations of co-option, but rarely does such an annexation occur overnight. MoveOn being mindful of co-option accusations and compartmentalizing training in a separate wing of its franchise, Occupiers discussing the need to remain autonomous and perhaps co-opt MoveOn’s members, all of this is part of OWS’s ongoing struggle to maintain its identity without becoming a purist movement that alienates potential new converts and isolates the fledgling movement to the point of extinction.