Occupy Protesters Consider Political Future

Occupy Wall Street protestors 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 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 and getting them. He says the Tea Party did that –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. “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 underway.

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, was there. He 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 releases, relation strategy, direct action, you know, 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 that 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 for many in this movement.

“Does that mean we’re out to tear and pull him down? No, but I think we have to be realistic that both Democrats and Republican parties are beholden to corporate and wealthy interests,” he says.

One who has been watching the Occupy movement closely is Van Jones, an activist who once worked 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 that the movement can work on multiple fronts. Protests and demonstrations are important, Jones says, but so too 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.

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, 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.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.