Brought to you by MoveOn.org
I wasn’t expecting much of today’s rally at the Trenton Statehouse, ostensibly in solidarity with November 17 Occupy rallies across the country, most prominently in New York. It was cold, rainy, and noon on a weekday, and Occupy Trenton’s encampment was rather paltry.
But I was expecting something. Trenton is the state capital, after all. New Jersey has suffered from stark income inequality for years, and Trenton particularly has been ravaged by politicians and abandoned by its people. Yet it can also come vibrantly to life when it needs to. November 17 was a perfect day for Trenton to wake up.
And yet, Trenton slumbers on.
It didn’t take long to realize Trenton’s demonstration didn’t quite fit in with the Occupy movement nationally. Professionally manufactured signs urging us to “Save the American Dream”; an expensive sound system, replete with podium, microphone, and speakers; and a Dream-buttoned flack collecting email addresses – this place smacked of moneyed influence even before the MC announced the first MoveOn speaker. There would be no ‘mic checks’ here. There would be no clashes with police. There would be no Occupation.
Sure enough, the substance matched the style. MoveOn’s first speaker hailed America’s “victory” in 2008 (afraid, perhaps, to mention Obama directly?), called for jobs instead of war, railed against those brazenly unilateral Republicans, decried the “setback” of 2010, and implicitly excused scores of offenses by the Democratic Party. Blaming everything on the Republicans creates two problems – it scorns potential support from libertarian Republicans who want end the wars on terror and drugs, and it pretends that Democrats haven’t been either totally complicit or leading the way in driving the country toward war, incarceration, surveillance, and austerity. They have.
More disturbing, though, was the bizarre relationship the rally leaders had with Occupy Trenton – a mix of disregard and exploitation. The Occupiers, only a handful of long-term campers, watched from across the street (one asked me where I’d come from, baffled the rally was even talking place), another encampment was said to be left alone five blocks away, and then a purported Occupy Trenton spokesperson got in on the MoveOn fun, concluding the series of speakers with an elegantly vague rant that lamented all of our problems while holding no one accountable. This is What Co-opting Looks Like.
So why use a sound system? Why have a rally? Why blather rhetorically against the financial elite when these fully functional major banks were all less than a block away, just begging to be occupied?
The answer is that MoveOn, and in turn Trenton for not resisting them, does not want to Occupy. As of now, Trenton wants to huddle in front of the statehouse, say mean things about Republicans, clap at the applause lines, and then scurry back home feeling righteous and political. Trenton wants to give MoveOn its email address, to be reminded when to vote the good guys back in. This is What Co-Opting Looks Like.
This, of course, is what has troubled Occupy Wall Street below the surface from its inception. This is what people talk about when they say they don’t want the movement to be co-opted. Before today, I’ve thought the Occupy movement has sufficiently resisted coercive efforts of various establishment organizations.
This is partly because, despite focusing primarily on economic and employment issues, the Occupy movement has brought together so many disparate groups: leftists, labor unions, libertarians, Tea Partiers, anarchists, teachers, nurses all take meaningful part.
Trenton has displayed varying ability to demonstrate political unrest while retaining autonomy. At collective bargaining rallies earlier this year, unions and leftists cheered on Democrats on stage and on giant TV screens just minutes before this:
the [New Jersey] Legislature seems poised to pass a union-busting bill that also gives a big payday to a major Democratic political machine boss, George Norcross. This is why the bill will pass a Democratic-controlled legislature, as this boss essentially controls the votes of over a dozen Democrats in Trenton. Governor Chris Christie is rubbing with hands with glee, as union workers (particularly the NJEA) are rightfully feeling betrayed by some of their own.
Yet a few months earlier, students, anarchists, average citizens, and New Black Panthers came together to protest a Neo-Nazi rally and the massive police force surrounding them. But here they are on the Occupy New Jersey website endorsing and publicizing this rally studded with MoveOn representatives.
For now, I’m relieved that Trenton is not a microcosm of the Occupy movement as a whole. But it does clearly show how co-opting works, and it should be a lesson for Occupy encampments in cities everywhere, as some legitimately worry that Occupy Wall Street will seep into Obama’s re-election campaign. A generally inclusive attitude is valuable, especially for a movement claiming to represent the 99 percent. But there should be no room for well-funded corporations who want to exploit genuine dissent for their own gains. Time to tell those groups to move on.