To Berger, the settlement seemed a travesty—a craven cash-for-immunity deal. So Berger proposed and helped plan the Foley Square march. Because of the arrests, its theme got lost in the scant media coverage it drew. But if you were there, that theme was plain, from the enormous papier-mâché rendering of 44 to a sign bearing the slogan OBAMA, DON’T BE WALL STREET’S PUPPET.
Given Occupy’s scathing view of the nexus between capital and the state, you might think that such a demo would be uncontroversial within OWS’s ranks. Certainly that’s what Berger thought. “Substantively, immunity is a big fucking deal,” he says. “If we as a movement are capable of acting at key junctures where we have the capacity to shift the dialogue, we should. And if we’re gonna build and broaden the movement, we have to show that we are capable of using the power that we have already acquired.”
But Berger’s proposal wasn’t uncontroversial. Quite the contrary. It sparked an agitated backlash, in which a handful of core OWS organizers attacked the idea on three grounds. The first was that it risked alienating African-Americans. “The people we think will be the heart and soul of this movement have yet to join it, even though you see them in Sunset Park and you see them in Harlem,” says Husain. “They identify with the president. So going after him isn’t the smartest move.”
OWS is the “rotten fruit of Obamaism,” says a strategist.
The second was that by focusing on Obama, the march moved away from a systemic critique to a personal one, and thus let other responsible parties slide. “You need a message around Obama that doesn’t let Boehner off the hook,” says Premo. “All government is beholden to the same masters.” And the third was that by assailing a specific policy, the march could be perceived as carrying an implicit demand.
Looking back on it, Berger allows that each of these objections had merit and admits he handled the internal OWS politics poorly. Still, the furor seemed to frustrate and deflate him. “What’s the point of this protest if we don’t do things like this?” he wondered. “It’s ironic. At first, people thought I was a Democratic Party mole. Now I’m like, ‘Fuck it, Let’s go after Obama!’ and they’re like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.’ ”
In truth, Berger is seen by some as something nearly as nefarious as a Democratic hack: an agent of the professional left. From the moment OWS broke through in the mainstream media, every organization and personage in the progressive sphere, from the labor unions and MoveOn to Van Jones and Howard Dean, has beaten a path to the movement’s door. “We were all like, ‘Ohhhh, here the come the activists!” says Katie Davison, a 31-year-old filmmaker who has worked closely with Teichberg on the OWS media effort. “I guess we’ve arrived!”
The attempts by the institutional left to make common cause with OWS have raised hopes in some but hackles in many more. Some of the annoyance can be traced to the condescension of the left’s old hands. “There was a gentleman who gave this lecture the other day and said, ‘I’ve been doing this for 35 years,’ blah blah blah,” recalls Sandy Nurse, a 27-year-old New School graduate and former U.N. contractor who has been instrumental to planning OWS’s major actions. “I said, ‘If you’ve been doing this for 35 years and you’re still at square one, you need to fucking think about how you’re organizing.’ ”
There is also a deeper source of suspicion toward the mainline left: the fear of co-option. “Everyone is jumping in and wants a piece of this,” says Husain. “The largest threat to this movement is at the institutional level, with these traditional, run-of-the-mill organizations getting in. The problem is that you start taking what is potentially a transformative movement and start making it into a corporation that resembles an organization that has been retarded and nonfunctional.”
The more grounded prime movers, though, express a more balanced view. “I don’t think it’s possible to co-opt this thing,” says Marom. “For example, Howard Dean is sending around fucking yard posters with ‘We Are the 99%, Occupy Wall Street’ on them, but we don’t do anything because of it.” As for the institutional left, he goes on, “if you want to have a real movement, you need labor and people who have ties to political institutions. What are we gonna be, just a thousand college kids?
“We talk all the time about the danger of being co-opted and who would be co-opting this,” Davison says. “It would be the liberals, and that’s not a bad position to be in … But I don’t feel we should be used in service of anyone else’s agenda. We are not a rent-a-mob.”