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Voices / Viewpoint

The next generation steps up

For a longtime activist, the Occupy movements might represent the best aspect of a disappointing Obama presidency

ARLENE DISTLER, an occasional contributor to these pages, is founder of Write Action.

Brattleboro

Whither goest Occupy Wall Street?

From the beginning, we knew, didn’t we?

The Occupy movement was not the end game. It didn’t matter.

What we were thinking, feeling, getting enraged about, getting depressed about, was finally being said, in many ways: “We are the 99 percent, and we intend to be in your face, speaking truth to power.”

It was said in the open, for all to hear, debate, be argued with, acted upon, even if those actions were symbolic.

* * *

In early October, I was in New York City for my son’s wedding. I did not fight the strong urge to go down to Zuccotti Park and see what it was all about.

The last time I demonstrated was the first big Iraq war demonstration in Washington, D.C. in 2003, along with busloads of people from everywhere. (Dora Bouboulis was our bus’s “marshall,” and even way back then, when few on the bus knew her, she could command our attention and respect.)

It was a wonderful, heady experience. It was empowering.

But we also knew that we were likely tilting at windmills and that just possibly no one in the White House cared that thousands had turned out in protest, hoping to reverse the decision to go to war.

We knew the Bush administration had its agenda, but still we felt the need to make a statement — if only to let the rest of the world know that citizens of the U.S.A. were not all marching in lockstep behind Bush toward a war that we feared would end up a disaster.

By the time we had returned to Brattleboro, we were — excuse the pun — bushed.

The trip, that eight-hour bus ride, took much more out of us than any of us had remembered from way back when. (Duh.)

So, with aching backs and sore feet, my partner Marty and I asked each other, “When is the next generation going to step up?”

What a joy to see that people have stepped up (and, unlike the ’60s, in a movement that has embraced all generations).

What a joy to see the energy, enthusiasm, commitment, and dedication at Zuccotti Park — and subsequently all over the country and in distant countries — in support.

But, as many have said, it is time for the next step.

“We are the 99 percent,” or even Codepink’s popular sticker, “Make Out, Not War,” has to translate into something concrete.

How to do that without prematurely fossilizing the movement is the issue. I’m sure that is what the organizers of the Occupy movement are afraid of.

But fear is not reality. There are things that can happen without undermining the spirit of OWS.

* * *

A friend has been saying to me for weeks, “I’d march on Washington.”

I couldn’t see it at the time — at least I didn’t feel ready — but with the OWS movements across the country being crushed, or simply being put on hold for the winter, it makes sense to regroup and come together in a march or other large demonstration (though maybe this time I’d take the train).

The fact is, there is a structure — and if not a structure, at least a network — in place for organizing such an action, thanks to all of the Occupy movements.

We must show the movement was not just a ragtag group of anarchists.

When I was at Zuccotti, a double-decker bus of tourists went by. A roar went up, along with fists and v-signs as the bus passed the park.

A moment earlier, I’d been talking to a demonstrator who insisted, “This protest action, more than any I’ve participated in, has the greatest cross-section of support.”

He was delighted with the synchronicity.

“See what I mean!” he said.

He was jubilant. As was I.

Now, when forces are trying to diminish what has happened, is when we must show the world, show ourselves, the power of our numbers, the strength of our commitment to economic and social justice.

* * *

The Occupy movement has been criticized by some (usually of a conservative persuasion) for not being willing to work within the political system to make changes.

But the critics are missing the point. The political system, as it stands now in law and even more so in practice, is the problem.

I could not say it any more clearly or concisely than a 1997 op-ed piece by Scott Turow in The New York Times.

Turow recalls that “in 1974, in the wake of Watergate, Congress carried out a broad overhaul of the Federal Election Campaign Act.”

However, he writes, this bill was “lamed” by Buckley vs. Valeo, a woeful Supreme Court decision of 1976.

“By enshrining the right to spend on campaigns in the First Amendment, the Supreme Court created a sort of ex officio House of Lords in the United States,” he wrote.

“As long as politicians, to secure their chances for re-election, must approach the well-to-do on bended knee, it is inevitable that the concerns of that narrow segment of society will have a disproportionate influence on national policy.”

Talk about being prescient. The degree to which Turow’s predictions have been borne out, and then some, is appalling.

Many people saw it coming: the threat of money to rot our democracy from the inside out. It is confirmation of money’s stranglehold on the electoral and legislative process that so little has been done at the federal level in the 14 years since Turow’s article to stop it.

Much of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 — known as McCain-Feingold — was overturned in 2010 by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the case that set the new precedent that corporations are people.

* * *

I was encouraged at Zuccotti Park that some of the young people I spoke with felt passionate about reforming the political system. I informed them that there has been a lot of work done already — it is but waiting in the wings.

The groundwork for publicly financed elections has been laid, most successfully in Maine. That state was the first to adopt publicly financed, or “clean,” elections. It is the only state whose clean elections law has not been challenged (and undermined) in court.

However, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections (MCCE) is working to come up with an alternative to the law’s matching funds provision, deemed unconstitutional during the Supreme Court’s hearing on Arizona’s clean elections law.

Since the law is non-compulsory in all four states that have adopted it, providing enough funds to match the resources of a non-publicly-funded candidate is an important way to level the playing field.

The court split along liberal/conservative lines and, through extraordinarily convoluted logic, struck down the matching fund provision as limiting free speech.

Perhaps the gift of “hope” that Obama gave us is to dispel the illusion that change can happen by electing the right man or woman president.

The past couple of years has been a dismaying spectacle and, while I am deeply disappointed in the man I helped to elect president, it seems evident that the system is so rife with big-money interests that no one person could possibly make a difference.

This disillusionment, throwing us back on ourselves, has made it possible for the Occupy movement to happen. And this, ironically, might be the greatest gift of Obama’s presidency.

So in this, democracy’s dark hour, the seeds of its renewal are embedded — an apt thought as we approach the solstice.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #131 (Wednesday, December 14, 2011).

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