Bloomberg News

Occupy Clashes Show Risks to Democrats in Embracing Protests

October 27, 2011

(Updates with injured veteran in fifth paragraph and New York arrests in seventh.)

Oct. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Clashes between members of the Occupy Wall Street movement in Atlanta and Oakland with police followed by dozens of arrests underscore the hazards for Democrats in embracing the burgeoning movement.

“With any nascent movement like this, there are always going to be risks because they haven’t clarified what they stand for,” said Glenn Totten, a Democratic political consultant in Alexandria, Virginia. “Anytime you take to the streets there’s an inherent sense that you are somehow rabble-rousers.”

The demonstrations, which began in New York on Sept. 17, are aimed at the financial industry and driven by the nation’s growing wealth gap. The top 1 percent of earners saw their inflation-adjusted, after-tax earnings grow by 275 percent between 1979 and 2007, while those with incomes in the bottom 20 percent saw an 18 percent increase, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

In Atlanta, police arrested 53 people early yesterday as they cleared a park that had been occupied by protesters for more than two weeks, according to the Atlanta Journal- Constitution. Police lobbed tear gas at protesters in Oakland Oct. 25 as they dismantled a two-week-old encampment and made more than 100 arrests, according to the Oakland Tribune. Police said protesters threw rocks and bottles at them. Scott Olsen, a Marine veteran who served two tours in Iraq, was hospitalized after he was hit in the head by a police projectile, according to the website of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Not Afraid

Patrick Bruner, 23, a spokesman for the Occupy group in New York, called the arrests “unconscionable” and said the protesters will not be deterred. “What the police and government seem to not have realized yet is that we are done being scared. They can’t frighten us away from exercising rights. Every time they attempt to shut us down we only grow stronger,” he said.

A march in New York last night that demonstrators staged in solidarity with their Oakland counterparts led to 14 arrests, police said. Charges were mainly for disorderly conduct, though some also face charges of assault, rioting, obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest, Paul Browne, a spokesman for the New York City department, said in an e-mail.

President Barack Obama and other Democratic leaders such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz have expressed sympathy with the protesters’ complaints. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee circulated to its supporters a petition backing the protests.

Stacked Deck

“Right now, it feels to people like the deck is stacked against them, and the folks in power don’t seem to be paying attention to that,” Obama said Oct. 25 in an interview on NBC’s “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”

Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the DNC, said there have been no formal meetings with Occupy members and the DNC isn’t advising candidates on how to approach the movement.

“It seems self-evident that this movement will be a potent political force, but it also doesn’t at all seem to be the type of movement that any political party should try to co-opt,” he said.

Democrats should be cautious, Doug Schoen, a onetime strategist for former President Bill Clinton, said in an interview.

“The vast majority of the American people are centrists,” he said. “While they may share some of the sentiments that some of the Wall Street protesters express, they don’t believe in radical redistribution of income.”

‘Post-Political’

The protests have injected the wealth inequality issue into the political debate, even as Occupy participants in New York and Washington said in interviews that they don’t want to become a part of a system they believe has failed them.

“The name a lot of people are using is ‘post-political,’” said Beth Bogart, 55, a documentary film maker who volunteers at the media table in New York’s Zuccotti Park.

Still, Jack Rothman, a professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Public Affairs who specialized in community organizing, said the movement already is having a political impact.

“Their impact as the ignition rather than the motor could be enormous,” he said. The protests may “wake up the forces in the country that are suffering and are dissatisfied,” spurring them to become political active, he said.

That’s what Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org, an online organization founded in its opposition to Clinton’s impeachment that became an advocate for the health care overhaul and other issues, said he’s seeing.

Not Since Iraq

“We’ve seen more enthusiasm and passion around these issues of economic fairness than any other issue since the Iraq war,” he said, noting that his members are joining the protests.

That energy “will help leaders who actually step into the fight for the 99 percent and hurt those who don’t,” he said, referring to the movement’s “We are the 99 percent” slogan that is a reference to Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz’s study showing the richest 1 percent of Americans control 40 percent of U.S. wealth.

MoveOn created a website called OccupyWishList.org. Protesters from Anchorage to Albany have gone on it requesting items such as sleeping bags, generators, hand warmers, batteries and even a Mac Book computer.

Energy Building

Athena Chavez, 64, a council organizer for MoveOn in Fort Worth, said the movement is prompting members who had been on the sidelines to get back involved. “With the Occupy Wall Street movement, the energy is building,” she said in a telephone interview. “Finally there is a movement out there that is giving voice to our frustrations.”

Labor unions representing groups from teachers to construction workers to nurses have donated food, money and storage space to the protesters and are participating in events.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement yesterday that labor leaders “are extremely alarmed by the increasing number of arrests of peaceful protesters across the country and call on elected leaders to stop ordering the police to make these arrests.”

Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers union, said in an interview that his members are joining the movement. “They are assimilating into the movement. They aren’t trying to control the movement,” he said.

Energy, Enthusiasm

Roxanne Pauline, coordinator for the Northeast Pennsylvania Area Labor Federation, said the protests have “energized the labor movement and a lot of others.”

“I think by them rallying together and showing personal strength and interest in their society, it will make politicians realize, ‘Ah, here’s another generation going to vote,’” she said in an interview from Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Whether the enthusiasm benefits Obama’s re-election depends on the stands the president takes over the next year, said Ruben. “Many Americans will be looking to see how hard is the president fighting for me and the regular folks,” said Ruben.

--With assistance from Chris Dolmetsch in New York and Brian Faler in Washington. Editors: Jeanne Cummings, Joe Sobczyk, Mark Schoifet

To contact the reporters on this story: Catherine Dodge in Washington at cdodge1@bloomberg.net; Esmé E. Deprez in New York at edeprez@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net


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