In the May 1 issue of the Spectator, I take note of the tension between the Occupy Wall Street movement and a collective of progressive organizations working together as 99% Spring. 99% includes institutional, progressive groups such as MoveOn.org, the AFL-CIO, the United Auto Workers, SEIU, and Rebuild the Dream. Although organized labor showed up early to support the Occupy movement, the 99 percenters’ appropriation of the movement’s language and message has provoked a backlash from occupiers. Most notably from Adbusters, the Vancouver-based, anti-corporate magazine that sparked the September 17 occupation of Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan.
Since Occupy came together in the Financial District, then spread across the country, Adbusters has posted (and e-mailed) regular “tactical briefings.” (Signing up for the e-mails is easy enough, and worthwhile.)
Recent briefings have advanced plans for the reawakening of Occupy, with a series of protest events that will begin on May 1 (or earlier, as plans are teased out for bridge slowdowns in Manhattan and West-Coast cities).
Last month, Adubsters departed from its organizational script and turned to 99% Spring: “Will you allow Move.on, The Nation, and Ben & Jerry to put the breaks on our Spring Offensive and turn it into a ‘99% Spring’ reelection campaign for President Obama?”
Other media outlets on the left have taken a critical look at training sessions 99% Spring has organized across the country, and reported they have little in common with the movement that captured the nation’s attention last fall.
In Pacific Free Press, Charles M. Young described a 99% event on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that was organized by a local Democratic Party club, run by a Democratic candidate for city council (Marc Landis), and attempted to impose restrictions on reporters. Obama buttons were also sold at the meeting, billed as training for non-violent protest. The left blogosphere has been filled with similar accounts.
I was in Portland, Oregon, on the last night of the same series of meetings: “to prepare ourselves for nonviolent direct action.”
The first indication that 99% Spring is a well-funded, organized, and technically sophisticated operation was a website into which I plugged my Portland zip code for directions to the nearest event. The process was simpler than the four steps required to locate a 12-step meeting via AA’s website.
The 99% training session at the Portland Peace House was listed as “closed” because all 30 slots were filled. Counting on at least one no-show, I drove to the address east of the Willamette River and just over one mile from downtown Portland.
The Peace House is an elegant American Arts and Craft style house collectively owned by the Metanoia Peace Community, a Christian pacifist group associated with the Methodist Church.
Inside, 20 trainees were gathered in a sunken living room beneath a cofferred hardwood ceiling — a scene decidedly lacking the grit and raw energy of Zuccotti Park or the Occupy encampment that police dismantled in downtown Portland in November.
I introduced myself as a reporter, a fact that seemed to bother no one. The meeting had a Quaker/Catholic-Worker vibe and was run by John Schweibert, the Peace House pastor who described himself as a “geezer activist.”
Schweibert led the group in proclaiming “we are the 99 percent,” then showed a film that described the history (and importance) of non-violent protest in the United States. The short film combined American history as documented by Howard Zinn, and organizing tactics as taught at the Highlander Folk School and later explained by Saul Alinsky.
Schweibert said the film, and a PowerPoint presentation, are curriculum supplied by 99% Spring. Related group activities appeared to be his adaptation of the 99% curriculum, including a discussion of how to plan and put in motion non-violent civil actions. The central narrative was that effective non-violent protest doesn’t just happen, it is planned and organized.
The 20 people in the room (the other 10 who registered never showed up) were a mix of teachers, union employees, and others working in social services and non-profit social services. By my rough estimate, two-thirds of the group was over 60, and only five individuals were under 30.
Portland is a long way from New York, both in distance and political culture. Maybe it was geographical and cultural determinism, but this meeting was nothing like the session run by Democratic apparatchiks in Manhattan, as described by Charles Young.
And it could be that the meeting held the same day in Eugene was far different from what I saw in Portland, where the Peace House hosting 99% Spring events also hosts Occupy Portland’s regular Wednesday meetings and separate events sponsored by the women of Occupy Portland.
Comments from readers who have attended 99% meetings would provide a better picture of what’s happening across the country, so please post. And Adbusters briefings — e.g., April 20: “Battle for the Soul of Occupy” — should be essential reading, not just for updates on the ongoing fight but for directions to actions and general strike planned on May 1 and thereafter.