Whether such absurdities will find much traction is an open question, but depending on how the movement conducts itself, there is a chance that the amount will not be zero. More worrying for Obama is the possibility that the growth of OWS might worsen the dilemma he already faces on the left, which shares, if less vehemently, the OWSers’ jaundiced view of his tenure. Amazingly enough, many of them were surprised when I pointed out that the demonstrations in Chicago in 1968 occurred at the Democratic, not Republican, convention, and helped to shatter Humphrey’s base—and it isn’t hard to imagine a similar fate befalling Obama should Occupy Charlotte come to fruition next summer.
“I’ve felt from the beginning that this was going to be a crucial problem,” says Gitlin. “A good deal of finesse might—might—succeed in creating a working alliance between Democrats and the movement, as opposed to a knockdown, drag-out cleavage. And both vectors matter here. The movement will have to reconcile its camps: those who say, ‘We want to push the Democrats hard to be progressive’ and those who scream, ‘Co-option.’ But a great deal depends on the Democrats. The other day, Bill Daley was asked, ‘Is [OWS] helpful?’ Daley said, ‘No, I don’t know if it’s helpful.’ Wrong!”
Gitlin smiles a rueful smile. “Of course, it’s also conceivable that the structural divergences are so great that they can’t be bridged. Sometimes these things blow up and leave everything in ruins.”
One early evening in November, Sandy Nurse and I were sitting on the floor of an OWS storage space, surrounded by backpacks, sleeping bags, piles of rain ponchos, and enough toilet paper, toothpaste, Kleenex, and Q-tips to stock a Wal-Mart. Nurse is a striking half-Panamian, half-Irish-American who grew up as a military brat, worked on activist causes such as human trafficking, and now is a self-described “ballbuster” logistician for OWS. She was telling me about the time when Charlie Rangel showed up while she was speaking before a march and wanted to address the crowd. “I turned around and said, ‘You can’t speak here, you’re too divisive a figure, you definitely don’t represent what this is about, so you probably need to leave,’ ” she recalled.
Given Nurse’s attitude, it’s not surprising that when Jesse Jackson arrived two weeks later, she was no more welcoming. This was at a smaller meeting in the offices of the Communications Workers of America at 80 Pine. On hand were about a dozen of the prime movers—Berger, Marom, and Premo among them—and some union representatives. No one was expecting Jackson, he came unannounced, and Nurse’s first thought was, Why should we interrupt this meeting for this person?
But Jackson played humble, taking the seat next to Nurse, asking if he was welcome, waiting quietly for his turn to speak. Then, holding Nurse’s hand, he proceeded to unfurl a soliloquy in which he described the occupiers as inheritors of the mantle of the civil-rights movement. He talked about Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, one of the last protests that MLK planned before his death. About Resurrection City, the shantytown on the National Mall that several thousand people populated in May and June of 1968. About how one advantage to having no identifiable leader is that “there’s nobody to assassinate.”
Jackson looked at Berger and asked, “What does Lyndon Johnson mean to you?” Berger shrugged. “The Vietnam War?”
Jackson folded his hands across his belly and declaimed, “Civil Rights Act of 1964—LBJ. The Voting Rights Act of 1965—LBJ. Medicare—LBJ. Medicaid—LBJ. Child Nutrition Act—LBJ. Jobs Corps—LBJ.”
A few of the OWSers greeted Jackson’s words with skepticism, but most found them powerful, inspirational. “The connection with historical movements is what gives this so much moral credibility,” says Berger. “For someone like him to tell us ‘You have a history, tap into that history’—literally, I have goose bumps.”
The question is whether OWS will heed the message of Jackson’s riff on LBJ: that the protesters need to ally themselves with semi-simpatico elected officials, and that merely howling about the depradations of the existing economic and political order won’t be sufficient to change either. “At some point, movements must take on some form, some identifiable agenda,” Jackson tells me later. “At some point, water must become ice.”
The most savvy and hard-nosed of the prime movers agree, and think that moment is coming soon. “My take has always been that this movement must move in the shape of an octopus,” says Premo. “The head of the octopus moves forward with a solid critical analysis of our economic and political system, but the octopus has eight tentacles, which can begin to gain concessions. There were organizations within the civil-rights movement that had the demands that allowed everything that was accomplished to be accomplished. The SCLC, CORE, SNCC, all the organizations within that movement had specific goals. And that’s the moment we’re in now, when we’ll probably see our SCLC, our CORE, our SNCC emerge.”