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Occupy, the 99% Spring, and the New Age of Direct Action

Collaboration or cooptation? Expansion or dilution? Mark Engler on what to make of the 99% Spring.

four trees by  b k

Photo by BK

Over the past several weeks, a broad coalition of progressive organizations—including National People's Action (NPA), ColorOfChange, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), MoveOn.org, the New Bottom Line, environmental groups like Greenpeace and 350.org, and major unions such as SEIU and the United Auto Workers—has undertaken a far-reaching effort to train tens of thousands of people in nonviolent direct action. They have called the campaign the 99% Spring.

Starting this week, many of these same groups will be rallying their members and supporters to use newly honed skills to confront the shareholder meetings of corporations across the United States—charging executives with abusing workers, the environment, and communities in pursuit of profits for the 1 percent. They are calling the drive 99% Power. With prominent actions gearing up this week—starting with major protests at Wells Fargo meetings in San Francisco—the campaign may soon be coming to a city near you.

The Genesis of the 99% Spring

Although this month's 99% Spring trainings have taken place in the shadow of the Occupy movement, the coalition building behind them actually predated the emergence of Occupy Wall Street. Last summer, a handful of organizers from groups such as Jobs with Justice, NPA, and NDWA had discussions in which they lamented the lack of direct action in recent years. As NPA Executive Director George Goehl explains, "We felt what was missing in terms of organizing and in terms of the broader fight was that there wasn't enough energy pointed towards challenging corporate power: That's not going to government and saying, 'Reign these guys in,' but actually going toe-to-toe with big corporations."

The groups envisioned bringing together organizations to work across single-issue lines, using more confrontational strategies. For the fall, they planned overlapping weeks of action in eight major cities—which resulted in arrests from Boston to Los Angeles of activists demanding accountability for the big banks and protesting foreclosures. Since the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park exploded into a nationwide phenomenon at the same time, these protests were largely covered in the media as part of the Occupy movement. Participants from the Occupy encampments joined in the demonstrations, and actions that had been organized by community groups, in turn, helped to create a sense of national scope and escalating drama for the movement.

The idea for spring trainings as a follow-up to these efforts coalesced early in 2012, and a wide range of groups signed on to make them happen in a remarkably short period of time. During the week of April 9-15, more than 980 trainings took place, covering communities throughout the country.

Coalition or Cooptation?

The plan for the 99% Spring was ambitious in several respects. First, the organizers aspired to train a massive number of people: 100,000 total, roughly half in person and half through an Internet version of the curriculum. (Final numbers are not in, but more than 40,000 had signed up for the mid-April events. Online trainings continue.)

"I think it's healthy for grassroots movements to question involvement of bigger organizations. At the same time, we need to see that groups like unions who might support the Democrats are not our enemies."

Second, the curriculum for the full training covered seven hours of material. It combined elements that might typically be presented in three different sessions: By way of introductions, participants started with a version of the public narrative exercises developed by Marshall Ganz. Public narrative provides a method for talking about one's own experiences that motivate participation in collective action and for identifying a common story of struggle. Next, the trainings included a teach-in about inequality in the American economy and about the growing power of the 1 percent. This information was similar to that commonly provided by groups like United for a Fair Economy. Finally, the events featured a brief history of nonviolence in the United States and instruction in some skills that might be used in direct action—the type of material that is often covered by groups like Training for Change.

As the 99% Spring trainings neared, they attracted some controversy. Significant debate arose about whether the drive was an attempt by established organizations to co-opt the Occupy movement. In particular, the involvement of MoveOn.org, which some occupiers consider part of the mainstream political establishment, drew fire from more radical activists.

The magazine Adbusters warned that the trainings were an attempt to "neutralize our insurgency with an insidious campaign of donor money and cooptation," and that the goal of the effort was to "turn our struggle into a… reelection campaign for President Obama." Occupy Oakland activist Mike King similarly charged that the true motivation of the campaign was to neuter the movement and divert it into electoral efforts. "We should not have our tactics determined by the Democratic Party," he wrote.

Joshua Kahn Russell, a trainer and action coordinator with the Ruckus Society and 350.org, responds, "I think it's healthy for grassroots movements to question involvement of bigger organizations. At the same time," he says, "we need to see that groups like unions who might support the Democrats are not our enemies. We need to be building across some of these differences if we're really going to be talking about the 99 percent."

"Our main message is, 'We're all in this together,' this is about working across geography, race, creed to build an economy and democracy that works for the 99%."

The large number of trainings offered, and the fact that different local groups were responsible for hosting different events, meant that the tone of the trainings varied. While one participant reported seeing Obama buttons for sale at an Upper West Side Manhattan training, many other events, including one in downtown Philadelphia, featured vocal criticism of Democrats and open airing of disappointment with the current administration. For its part, the 99% Spring curriculum did not include electoral material, and the economic education video used at trainings showed Bill Clinton repealing Glass-Steagall regulations on banks—an act depicted in a profoundly negative light.

Moreover, while the coalition that backed 99% Spring includes MoveOn.org and major labor unions, which have significant involvement in electoral politics, it includes many scrappier groups as well, such as the Ruckus Society, the Rainforest Action Network, the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, and NPA. "As an organization that's been taking over bank lobbies and doing direct action for 40 years, some of the criticism is a little tough to hear," says NPA's Goehl. "We’ve been as critical of the president as basically any progressive group."

"Our main message is, 'We're all in this together,'" adds Tracy Van Slyke, co-director of the New Bottom Line. "This is about working across geography, race, creed to build an economy and democracy that works for the 99 percent. There's a lot of appreciation for Occupy, and a lot of people from Occupy are participating. But there's a really wide range of groups involved. We’re focused on what we can all do together."

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In many locations, Occupy activists were involved in organizing or were active participants in the trainings. "This is not an Occupy project," Kahn Russell says of 99% Spring. "At the same time, there's obviously a lot of crossover because our movements are interdependent. I personally have done trainings in support of occupations in many parts of the country since well before the 99% Spring, and I identify with the Occupy movement tremendously. I think there's a lot of people who are playing that bridge role."

In an election year, it is highly unusual to see many of the larger, established progressive organizations investing in training members for wide-scale direct action instead of in electoral campaigning. Given this, some have commented that it might be more accurate to see Occupy as having co-opted MoveOn.org, instead of the other way around. Particularly striking, as Josh Harkinson at MotherJones noted, is an e-mail that MoveOn.org Executive Director Justin Ruben sent to his staff earlier in the month. "It's clear that the sorts of tactics we've engaged in in the past are no longer enough," Ruben wrote. He subsequently stated, "We know that whoever wins in November, they are still going to be listening more to the 1 percent than to the rest of us because our political system is completely broken. So we don't have the luxury of not engaging in this kind of action."

Next Up: 99% Power

Apart from its engagement with Occupy, the 99% Spring brought together a remarkably diverse collection of organizations. Many of these rarely have occasion to see their work as part of a common cause. As Kahn Russell notes, "The thing that's most exciting to me is that 99% Spring is putting union members together in the same room with environmentalists, with domestic workers, with peace and justice people, and they're talking with each other for the first time."

"Big alliances like this are challenging," he adds. "So seeing so many different groups agree on the need for street heat, to act directly without having power-holders dictate to us the rules of engagement—all that is remarkable to me."

Owing to the wide range of coalition members, organizers decided that the 99% Spring trainings would not be intended as preparation for any specific action, but rather to give skills that could be applied to a range of campaigns. In some sessions, participants felt that the actual nonviolence training provided seemed truncated (especially since it came at the end of a long agenda) and that next steps seemed unclear. This contributed—as one report back from a training in lower Manhattan described it—to a sense of "aimlessness."

"We want to go directly to the board members and executives of the 1 percent who are behind these corporations. We want to bring a unified set of demands that they stop pillaging our environment, that they create good jobs, that they get their corporate money out of our democracy."

Yet, in other cases, the trainings led immediately into action. As one example, in Des Moines, Iowa, more than 100 people—including a large contingent of family farmers—marched directly to the house of Mike Heid, a top official at Wells Fargo, to oppose the bank's investment in private prisons and its mistreatment of immigrants.

"For some people, that's a pretty big step," says Goehl of the rally at the banker's home. "It’s not getting arrested. But it is breaking the 'be nice' rule."

While the 99% Spring itself did not agree on a common agenda for action, many of the same groups are involved in 99% Power. This campaign will involve confrontations at more than three-dozen shareholder meetings taking place between now and May. The New Bottom Line's Van Slyke calls it "the largest mobilization around shareholder meetings in U.S. history."

Describing the campaign's goals, she says, "We want to go directly to the board members and executives of the 1 percent who are behind these corporations. We want to bring a unified set of demands that they stop pillaging our environment, that they create good jobs, that they get their corporate money out of our democracy."

Things will get started in earnest at Wells Fargo meetings in San Francisco this week. There, Occupy activists and community groups alike will be coming together to confront the corporate gatherings and possibly even shut them down. Subsequently, major targets will include meetings of General Electric in Detroit; of Verizon in Alabama; Bank of America in Charlotte, NC; Walmart in Arkansas; and Sallie Mae in Delaware—which student activists are making a special focus. "At a lot of the meetings you'll see a thousand-plus people doing actions, and at almost all the meetings there will be people inside the meetings as well as outside," Goehl explains.

Since these efforts are not exclusive with other spring protests, such as Occupy's May 1 actions, the coming weeks promise to be a busy season. Trainings will also continue, but some of the most pertinent lessons may be gained through direct experience. "I believe the best way to train people to do nonviolent direct action is to go do nonviolent direct action," says Goehl. "And that's what's going to happen."


Mark EnglerMark Engler wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Mark is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books). He can be reached via the website DemocracyUprising.com.

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