Around the Nation
9:01 pm
Wed November 30, 2011

Occupy Protesters Consider Political Future

Originally published on Thu December 1, 2011 6:19 am

Occupy Wall Street protesters have been removed by police from public spaces in Los Angeles and Philadelphia this week. Some cities still have active 24-hour protests in place, though earlier this month the original Occupy encampment — on Wall Street — was also shut down.

Now activists in New York and elsewhere are talking about the movement's next phase, including the degree to which Occupy activists should get involved in the 2012 election.

Lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park is no longer a tent city, but there's still activity here. In fact, small groups gather throughout the day for an exchange of ideas they call a "think tank." A facilitator guides things.

The discussion that follows covers a variety of topics, including politics and the election.

"One idea that I was thinking about is voter registration," says Jaime Vasquez, a Vietnam veteran and a former council member from Jersey City. "We have to go back home and register people to vote. Just sitting here for a year or so is not going to accomplish anything."

Vasquez argues that Occupy Wall Street needs to be aggressive in finding candidates it can support. He says the Tea Party did that, and so should progressives. But others here, like 20-year-old Anthony Batalla from Queens, say no.

"People have lost faith in American politics," he says. "It's too dirty. There's nobody for the people. Democrats, Republicans — nobody's for the people."

Even when Zuccotti Park was still full of tents and occupiers — before the police cleared everyone out more than two weeks ago — there was another element to this movement under way.

In offices scattered among nearby office buildings, meetings were taking place. They were mostly small groups, many bringing together brand new activists and veterans of protests going back to the civil rights movement. Basically, they are trying to formulate a plan for what comes next.

Tuesday night, more than a dozen people crammed into a small room with one desk and not enough chairs. Julien Harrison, 30, said it was just one of many meetings on many topics on that day alone.

"[They're] about all sorts of different things — logistics about housing, about food. You know, press relations strategy, direct action, outreach," he said. "There's about 80 different working groups right now."

Paul Getsos, 49, is a veteran community organizer. He says it's not unusual that there are differences of opinion about how the Occupy movement should view electoral politics.

"I think that push and pull and that conversation and debate is healthy," he says.

Getsos says the key is to hold all elected officials accountable, including President Obama, who's been a huge disappointment to many in this movement.

"Does that mean we're out to tear down or pull him down? No, but I think we have to be realistic that both the Democratic and Republican parties are beholden to corporate and wealthy interests," he says.

Van Jones, an activist who once worked in the Obama White House and now heads an organization called Rebuild the Dream, has been watching the Occupy movement closely. He has spoken at Occupy encampments and has met with those who are working on the next steps. He thinks the movement can work on multiple fronts. Protests and demonstrations are important, he says, but so are elections.

"There's no reason to do an either-or here. This can be one of the biggest movements in the history of the country," he says.

It's not a question of Occupy Wall Street needing to promote candidates the way the Tea Party has, Jones says. It's about candidates feeling compelled to address issues like income inequality, which this movement has made part of a national discussion.

"I think candidates who speak to those issues will be able to get some of the people who have been enthusiastic about the protests to be enthusiastic about politics," Jones says.

Back out in Zuccotti Park, there is little such enthusiasm.

"I would like to see us play no role at all [in the 2012 election] because it's too early for us to play a role," says Richard Muhammed, a 45-year-old energy consultant.

He says that's partly because of the state of politics in the U.S. today, but also because Occupy Wall Street has to first figure out what it is going to be.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep. Yesterday at this time, we were listening as police removed the Occupy protest camp from its spot near City Hall in Los Angeles. Other major camps were already gone. And this morning, we'll ask what - if anything - the movement does now. The protesters face the same question they have for months, whether they want to play a role in next year's elections.

NPR's Don Gonyea begins where the Occupy movement began, in New York City.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park is no longer a tent city, but there's still activity here. In fact, small groups gather throughout the day for an exchange of ideas they call a think tank. A facilitator guides things.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We'd like to give everybody a chance to speak that wants to speak. So what we do is we take stacks. Stack is just a list...

GONYEA: The discussion that follows covers a variety of topics, including politics and the election.

JAIME VASQUEZ: One idea that I was thinking about was voter registration. People have to go back home and register people to vote because just sitting here for a year or so is not going to accomplish anything.

GONYEA: That's Jaime Vasquez...

VASQUEZ: I don't want to compare...

GONYEA: ...a Vietnam veteran and former city councilman from nearby Jersey City. He argues that Occupy Wall Street needs to be aggressive in finding candidates it can support. He says the Tea Party did that. But others here, like 20-year-old Anthony Batalla from Queens, say no.

ANTHONY BATALLA: People, people have lost faith in American politics.

GONYEA: So you don't want to see OWS come up with candidates to run?

BATALLA: No. No.

GONYEA: Why not?

BATALLA: Because it's too dirty. It's too dirty. Politicians are - there's nobody for the people anymore. Democrats, Republicans, nobody's for the people.

GONYEA: Even when Zuccotti Park was still full of tents and occupiers - before the police cleared everyone out more than two weeks ago - there was another element to this movement under way. In offices scattered among nearby office buildings, meetings were taking place - mostly small groups - many bringing together brand-new activists, and veterans of protests going back to the '60s. Basically, they're trying to formulate a plan for what comes next.

JULIEN HARRISON: Anyone have other agenda items they would like to add?

GONYEA: This is from two nights ago. More than a dozen people are crammed into a small room. There's one desk, and not enough chairs. Thirty-year-old Julien Harrison is here. He says this is just one of many meetings on many topics, on this day alone.

HARRISON: About all sorts of different things – logistics, about housing, about food, you know, press relation strategy, direct action, you know, outreach. I mean there's about 80 different working groups right now.

GONYEA: Forty-nine-year-old Paul Getsos is a veteran organizer who says it's not unusual that there are big differences of opinion about how the Occupy movement should view electoral politics.

PAUL GETSOS: I think that push and pull, and that conversation and debate, is healthy.

GONYEA: But he says the key is to hold all elected officials accountable, including President Obama, who happened to be in New York City for a fundraiser last night and who's been a huge disappointment to many in this movement.

GETSOS: Does that mean we're out to tear down or pull him down? No, but I think we have to be realistic about, both the Democratic and Republican parties are beholden to corporate and wealthy interests.

GONYEA: Watching the Occupy movement closely is Van Jones, a progressive activist who worked briefly in the Obama White House, and who now heads an organization called Rebuild the Dream. Jones has spoken at Occupy encampments, and met with those working on the next steps. He thinks the movement can work on multiple fronts. Protests and demonstrations are important, Jones says, but so, too, are elections.

VAN JONES: There's no reason to do an either-or here. This can be one of the biggest movements in the history of the country.

GONYEA: But Jones says it's not a question of Occupy Wall Street needing to promote candidates the way the Tea Party has. He says it's about candidates feeling compelled to address issues, like income inequality, that this movement has made part of the national discussion.

JONES: I think candidates who speak to those issues will be able to get some of the people who have been enthusiastic about the protests to be enthusiastic about politics.

GONYEA: Back out in Zuccotti Park, there is little such enthusiasm. Forty-five-year-old Richard Muhammed, an energy consultant, says this about the 2012 election.

RICHARD MUHAMMED: I would like to see us play no role at all, because it's too early for us to play a role.

GONYEA: He says that's because of the state of politics in the U.S. today, but also because Occupy Wall Street has to first figure out what it is going to be. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.