Occupy Seattle: How a crowd is forming a reasonable agenda

Two days of visits show some very relevant demands, along with room for improvement.

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An Occupy Seattle protester holds up her sign.

Two days of visits show some very relevant demands, along with room for improvement.

The Occupy movement is gaining presence if not traction. Occupy Wall Street is now entering its second month. Occupy Seattle is in its third week. And similar actions have sprung up across the state in Olympia, Spokane, Tacoma, Vancouver, and several other cities.

Nationally — in fact globally — support is building to highlight gross inequality in the distribution of income and wealth. And pundits of various strips have weighed in, some concerned about sustainability. Others are like documentary film maker Michael Moore, an occupier who abhors the excesses of Wall Street and thinks we need an alternative to capitalism. He told a BBC interviewer that time will tell what form it will take and how we get there.

The encampment in Seattle has a daily agenda of activities ending with a general assembly. There are teach-ins and policy building discussions.

Even with some minor skirmishes, the city seems to be taking it in stride. Elected officials have given it their qualified endorsement. There have been complaints about public costs, especially overtime pay for extra security, but the Police Department has shrugged this off as a predictable and small expense, covered by their budget.

It seemed to be time for this somewhat reluctant protestor to pay a visit and find out how things were going, and where they are heading. I say reluctant, since I’m usually slow to get involved and arrive after the hard job of organizing has been done. And camping on the sidewalk at my age is not a pleasant thought.

Two afternoons of observing, mingling, and conversations at Westlake is not enough, but previous experiences may have helped. They go back several decades as a participant in various protest movements, marches, boycotts, and other struggles for peace and justice — nuclear arms, farm workers' rights, civil rights, anti-Apartheid, tax equity, and opposition to the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

I was arrested in one direct action at the South African consulate’s Seattle residence. Nothing like handcuffs to clear the mind.

And I admit to taking a pass on one — the Seattle anti-WTO protests. Some involved in those demonstrations simply wanted to put the WTO out of business, even if it meant resorting to violence. They were ignoring the obvious: the world needs an agency that adjudicates trade disputes. And the WTO is an essential part of the larger effort to construct a global policy umbrella that allows countries with disparate interests to work cooperatively for the common good. The WTO needed organizational reform, not revocation of its charter.

I went to Westlake without a reporter’s interviewing skills, but I think I did come away with a sense of what's at stake, at least for many of the occupiers. Although there are some recognizable long-time social activists involved, most seemed to be relatively new to the battle lines. Unlike many other younger folk one encounters in public these days, absorbed in the latest wireless gadget, they were very willing to talk. And, as expected, the interests of those I spoke with varied widely.

The first young man I encountered, an articulate UW history grad, was holding a white board sign that read “end tax breaks and loopholes.” Clearly a person after my own heart: I've long been interested in the subject at the state level. His focus was on federal tax policy and the need for a fairer U.S. tax system, but most interesting was his support of government programs and capitalism as the way to grow the economy. He was clearly drawing a line between himself and other protest participants, but was hoping the occupation “will shift the Democratic Party back to its more progressive values.”

Another was strongly for direct action on specific issues, such as helping local people caught in the home mortgage default bind. He was organizing a teach-in on direct action tactics, starting with small victories.

In general, conversations were indicative of the wide range of opinions among occupiers as to the ultimate solution, and ranged from somewhat possible to utopian. One gentleman wanted to see all laws and regulations put to a public referendum, while a second suggested a cash-less society in which all needs are somehow met, perhaps by everyone donating the surplus of their productivity to others.

As a group, the crowd at Westlake is working on a range of policy approaches to be considered at some future time. At this point it consists of a list of “demands” that range from specific to general, and from reform of the existing political/economic system to its radical restructuring. Sort of a choice between fix it or flush it.

The 42 current demands, which go far beyond income equality concerns, are essentially being prioritized through direct voting. Anyone can vote, and there is no limit on the number of votes one person can cast. This exemplifies the movement’s trust in an open democratic process.

Some of these demands require substantial definition and background: The current top vote-getter is “Corporate accountability”. Others, such as “Universal healthcare,” seventh from the top, are more understandable.

The second and third ranked demands, “Fair and equitable tax system” and “Tax the rich and big business” have an obvious overlap. Clearly the devil is in the details.

Some occupiers, concerned about being co-opted, will not like what I’m about to say. But as a former Democratic Party activist, I would expect to find many of Occupy Seattle's demands in the platform of the Democratic Party.

And, somewhat surprisingly, near the bottom of the ranking is “Oppose the two parties of big business.” An attached note says this is “mainly about ending corporate lobbying and 2 party system.” Presumably this ties into another demand: “Allow 3rd parties to participate meaningfully in elections.”

There are a few holes in protestors' demands. Some important areas are not explicitly mentioned, like protection of Social Security, immigration reform, foreign aid, and climate action. And concern about unemployment is addressed only in one demand — “Public works program to create jobs,” which doesn’t link unemployment to investment and tax policy. Understanding the interrelationships of policy demands is crucial.

The issue of reducing military spending is addressed in the group's demand to “End the wars — redirect war funding to meet human needs.” But the larger issue of the total Pentagon budget is not.

As the Occupy effort matures, there is room for improvement. There doesn’t seem to be an appreciation that many existing non-governmental organizations are working on the same or similar issues and could be allies — groups working for tax reform, social justice, peace, the environment, and reducing the influence of money in our political system.

Outreach beyond Westlake is crucial. "To occupy” applies to time and thought, as well physical space. A broader meaning would incorporate the notion that all of us need to be far more occupied in activities that focus our attention on important public issues.

And there is an urgent need to get beyond the practical problem of sustaining a street protest 24/7 into the winter months. The general assembly is preoccupied with this, as it should be. But the problem detracts from other, potentially more productive efforts.

What is most striking in all this is the fact that the movement's demands actually cover much of the agenda that President Obama has proposed but a conflicted Congress has failed to enact it. Overall, the thrust seems to be not to abolish the system, but to fix it.

This is not an easy task. By my count, at least half of the demands will require legislative enactments.

Can this be done without engaging with a despised economic and political system? A system that has allowed a huge mal-distribution of income and wealth to develop? My answer is a tentative no. Occupiers need to engage with elected representatives — the sooner, the better. The movement has taken on a problem that has much more daunting goals than earlier social movements, and they'll need all the help they can get.

But it’s also possible that the lasting effect of the movement will be indirect. That it will stimulate the public and elected bodies to remake society on a scale that not only reins in corporate greed, but instills a new social values system — a set of ethical standards that infuse all institutions of society.

As Michael Moore suggests, the ethical aspect has been missing from the debate on important policy areas such as health and poverty. And it’s clearly missing from the tea partiers’ competing agenda, to solve all problems by simply scaling back government. Perhaps the Seattle occupiers will help rectify that omission.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Dick Nelson

Dick Nelson is a former Washington State legislator. He currently contributes to the public debate on state and local fiscal issues through research and commentary. As when he was in the legislature, he prefers the Democratic Party.