On grassroots’ relationship to top-down organizations

by J.A. Myerson

On September 21st, three days after the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, The Nation published a piece by Katrina vanden Heuvel, the magazine’s editor and publisher, and Robert Borosage, head of the progressive think-tank Institute for America’s Future, called “Can A Movement Save The American Dream?” The article went on to be the lead story in The Nation’s 10 October edition. The writers advertised the American Dream Movement, which is so far not a movement at all, but a coalition of all the same organizations that are part of all the normal top-down progressive events — including Borosage’s annual DC-based conference. (During the Bush years, when I went, it was called “Take Back America.” Now, it’s “Take Back The American Dream.”)

The American Dream Movement is being led by Van Jones, the President’s erstwhile green jobs czar (erstwhile for being hounded out by a right wing that hates greens, jobs and czars), who described it on MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, as “a progressive balance of power to the Tea Party.” Finding a left-wing version of the Tea Party is something of a preoccupation for The Nation, whose publication of Johann Hari’s “How To Build A Progressive Tea Party” inspired many, myself included, to help start American versions of UK Uncut. We did some organizing and demonstrating as US Uncut, but the group wasn’t the movement it hoped to be, and a lot of the energy that went into it is now focused on Occupy Wall Street (as well as a lot of the personnel involved with its New York City affiliate). US Uncut, for the record, is one of the groups in Jones’ coalition.

Now, Jones, whom I really like and respect an awful lot, is offering support to Occupy Wall Street, writing at the Huffington Post, “A new generation has gone to the scene of the crimes committed against our future. The time has come for all people of good will to give our full-throated backing to the young people of the Occupy Wall Street movement.”

Let’s be really clear about this: the Wall Street occupiers are, of course, grateful for any support coming our way. We have actively recruited solidarity from labor and have succeeded, the list of unions having taken a public stand in solidarity now including, in one way or another, TWU, 1199/SEIU, PCC-CUNY, NNU, SEIU 32BJ, UFT, PSC, CWA 1109, USW, LiUNA and WGA East. Many of these groups will help Occupy Wall Street mobilize a mass rally for Wednesday 5 October. But let’s be really clear about something else: the support we seek must actually be support. That is, support from top-down organizations often takes the form of attempts to 1) co-opt the power of the grassroots group, 2) advance their own agenda and 3) attribute it to the bodies in the square.

There are two things about the Van Jones pronouncement that make me apprehensive. Firstly, there is an attempt to insinuate that our movements are going synonymous.

A movement was born after Madison, Wisconsin, to oppose these injustices. It has now spread to every Congressional District. We call ourselves the American Dream Movement. We engaged 130,000 people to crowd-source our own jobs agenda — the Contract for the American Dream. In August, tens of thousands demonstrated for jobs in rallies across the nation. Next week in DC, we host our first national gathering: the Take Back The American Dream conference.

The Occupation of Wall Street — and the occupations throughout the country — are expressions of the same spirit and dynamic. And these particular demonstrations, perhaps uniquely, contain the spark to grow into a movement that can be transformative. They are the first, small step in the creation of a movement that can restore American Democracy, and renew the American Dream.

I am not sure the 130,000 clicks online or the people who will hop a bus to DC to gather in a massive hotel and hear from stars of the left actually are “expressions of the same spirit and dynamic” as the hundreds — now thousands — of people down on Wall St. who are engaged in direct democracy, civil disobedience and constant, grassroots, leaderless activism. That is not to say that I hold any animosity toward Jones or Rebuild the Dream or any of its affiliated organizations; it just must be clear that they are engaged in a different project, a top-down organizational approach to making progressive changes to the American economy. This is a fight that has to be waged on every front available, so I’m grateful that Jones is doing that work. It’s just not our work.

And, secondly, Jones appears to have a different target. As my friend Charles Monaco points out via e-mail: “The American Dream Movement is certainly being branded and marketed as the anti-tea party, and Van Jones speaks often of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ where ‘us’ is progressives, and not the 99%.” Monaco additionally notes, as I have, that tea party folks are welcome to participate in Occupy Wall Street. Indeed, some have.

Corporatism is a steam-roller, and the only ones who don’t get flattened are the 1% driving the thing. The Tea Party, by and large, is also part of the 99%. As Phillip Anderson explains, “Being the ‘anti-teaparty’ is entirely inconsistent with ‘we are the 99%.’ And ‘we are the 99%’ is how we win.” The thing is, Occupy Wall Street is the movement vanden Heuvel and Borosage called for in The Nation. It’s spreading everywhere and shifting the narrative, and it’s only two weeks and two days old.