Occupy Wall Street is many things, but one thing it's not is partisan

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 13, 2011 

NEW YORK, N.Y. — The Occupy Wall Street protest may be a movement, a momentary phenomenon or something in between, but one thing its most fervent activists insist that it's not is a team of shock troops for any partisan political campaign.

That's a big disappointment to Democrats who wish the Occupy activists would animate their party the way the tea party lit up Republicans the past two years, but the protesters at the original Occupy Wall Street scene say that's not what it's about.

"I don't see us endorsing candidates or trying to form a party," said Mark Bray, 29, a doctoral student in history at Rutgers University and a member of the Occupy Wall Street press team. Efforts to shift the movement in a partisan direction would be unlikely to be approved by the consensus process at the protesters' regular General Assembly meetings, he and other protesters say.

"There would be so many people who would balk at the endorsement of any party or candidate that I don't think it would happen," Bray said.

Not yet, at least.

Like other protesters from various Occupy Wall Street organizing groups, Bray did not rule out political possibilities for the future. Indeed, protesters from the Occupy Cincinnati group have announced a platform for a new political party — the Occupation Party.

And after all, these protests are far from apolitical in nature. It's difficult to walk even a few feet in Zuccotti Park, the New York protest's base in Manhattan's financial district, without hearing political issues being debated and finding groups weighing in on a wide range of political subjects such as healthcare, education, national debt and defense spending.

Yet though most activists at Occupy Wall Street claim to be dissatisfied with the state of American government and politics, their views come in many flavors. Some are leftists of the '60s generation, others are curious newcomers to political activism. Still others are Ron Paul supporters, anarchists, or soured Obama campaign volunteers — and many more. How this chorus of interests will evolve politically is, they say, yet to be determined.

Last Wednesday, a group of protesters left for a two-week march to Washington D.C., with plans to arrive by Nov. 23, the deadline for the congressional supercommittee to decide how to deal with federal budget deficits. The activists plan to protest extending the Bush-era tax cuts.

But beyond such singular acts of protest, most Occupy Wall Street activists hope their movement will remain outside formal politics for now. They offer several explanations.

Some say they feel the political status quo is so corrupt, it's best not to engage with it at all. Elisa Miller, 38, a New Orleans resident who came to New York for the protests in late September, said she was personally boycotting the 2012 elections.

"This system is grossly dysfunctional," she said, then entered a heated exchange with a passing organizer about why she thinks electoral reform is impossible.

Several protesters said they want their effort to avoid being co-opted by or beholden to a particular party or candidate.

Many praised the protests as a space to nurture the exchange of new, progressive political ideas entirely outside of the two-party system.

"We're literally opening a space that did not exist before," said Kobi Skolnick, 30, who said he was amazed at the creative problem solving he's seen.

Others said that the question of what would become of the protests, politically or otherwise, was missing the point.

"The question to me is, what's the right way to come up with an answer to that, based on democratic principles?" said Bray, the press team member.

Or, as one middle-aged woman who wished to remain anonymous said: "The model is the message."

Above all, most protesters said they felt it was simply too early in the organizing process to get involved formally with politics.

"We have a lot of solutions to get to first," said Devin Balkind, 25. He's been involved with reaching out to other Occupy groups. "Once we're armed with the solutions, the politics will come."

Jack, 43, a member of the Politics and Electoral Reform working group who declined to give his last name, said he considered the Occupy Wall Street movement to still be very young. Therefore, he said, "I think that it's entirely appropriate for there to be this ambiguity at this point."

Organizers from various working groups echoed this statement, saying that they were now most concerned with the logistics getting their individual groups off the ground. Indeed, the majority of proposals passed so far by the General Assembly here have not been about ideologies, but requests for funding, many related to keeping the physical camp up and running. Proposals for funding storage bins, walkie talkies, and laundry were all approved in October, for example.

One notable exception came on Thursday night, when the General Assembly passed a $29,000 proposal to send a delegation of Occupy Wall Street activists to Egypt to serve as international observers in the country's parliamentary elections later this month. The proposal was sparked by a letter from a coalition of civil society organizations in Egypt, who requested a delegation from Occupy Wall Street.

Despite this foray into international elections, Occupy Wall Street's involvement in coming domestic elections remains uncertain.

Early last week, an elderly man weaved through the crowds and tents in Zuccotti Park before approaching a young woman staffing a table in the Media, Information and Outreach tent.

"Where is this going, all of this?" he asked.

Without hesitation, she replied, "I don't know. Let's stick around and find out."

(Palmer is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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