The emergence of Occupy Wall Street has come just as Democratic leaders and President Obama himself are pivoting toward a more populist agenda. In recent days, a growing number of prominent Democrats have expressed solidarity with the movement’s anti-corporate message. But even in the heart of the nation’s capital, activists say that politicians shouldn’t be expecting their support — no matter how sympathetic they may be to a message about the widening income gap.
In downtown DC’s Freedom Plaza on Thursday, liberal organizers transformed a four-day anti-war event that had been planned for months into an Occupy Wall Street rally that brought out the media in full force. The rally brought together anti-war protesters and other social justice activists from around the country with local members of the Occupy DC group, which has retained a relatively small if steady presence in downtown DC’s McPherson Square. Signs of Occupy Wall Street’s growing profile and convergence with the organized left were scattered everywhere: AFSCME t-shirts, Teamster signs and young canvassers from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
But even with the Capitol building in sight down Pennsylvania Avenue, activists were disillusioned with the idea of using elections to bring about change — even if they liked some recent proposals that Democrats have offered. “I’ve lost faith in the electoral process — I haven’t supported a president in the last 10 years,” said Andrea, a 34-year-old waitress from Atlantic City, N.J., who declined to give her last name and who held up a sign describing herself as a single mother who’s been foreclosed upon. “But I try to keep my own political feelings to myself — I don’t like politics.”
By contrast, there was considerable excitement that a growing number of outside Democratic allies institutions — particularly labor unions — were showing solidarity with Occupied Wall Street. “It helps it grow,” said Sara Williams, a retired nurse from Madison, Wis., where she participated in the pro-labor protests this year. “Wisconsin was tremendously energized when [unionized] police and firefighters came.” Activists, in fact, are calling for even greater labor union participation in their demonstrations. “Their press releases are appreciated, but even more helpful would be for them to come and join us,” said Bales of Occupy DC, which was endorsed this week by a local branch of the Office and Professional Employees International Union.
Labor unions could serve as one bridge between the more radical activists who’ve been part of Occupy Wall Street — anarchists, socialists, and others — and a larger campaign to transform institutional politics and policy. Some at Washington’s Freedom Plaza remained highly cynical about the Democrats’ populist turn in an election year, which they paint as pandering. But even some of the skeptics of institutional politics expressed tentative praise for some of the latest Democratic proposal to tax millionaires, for instance, to pay for Obama’s job creation program — a bill that seems to fall directly in line with the protesters’ message.
“The bills aren’t perfect, they get watered down ... but I think it’s good. I hope they support the most important reforms and demands,” said Carol Brouillet, a mother and self-described activist from Palo Alto, Calif., as a man holding a sign that said “Tax The Rich” walked by.
And for all the ambivalence about electoral politics, Occupy Wall Street has also begun drawing out the Democratic base as the word has spread. Holding up a sign that said, “Vote out Tea Party Republicans,” Connie, a 53-year-old D.C. resident who declined to give her last name, described herself as an unapologetic Democrat and Obama supporter. She points the finger at Republicans for the inability for Congress to function — or do anything to help the disadvantaged — and says there’s an obvious solution.
“It’s the only way to go — as Americans we have power, and that power is to vote,” she said. Connie had only found out about the Occupy DC rally this week on the local radio but seemed encouraged by the gathering: “It’s going to get bigger than what they expect.”