Thousands of Occupy protesters from across the country are expected to converge Tuesday on Capitol Hill to take their message to the halls of Congress, in what some observers say is the movement’s overdue moment to engage the American political system.
Protesters already have set up camps in public spaces, taken over foreclosed homes and shut down key shipping ports, but for the most part they have shunned the political system, viewing it as beyond salvation.
The congressional protest – which falls on the movement’s four-month mark and the beginning of a new session of Congress – appears to represent a strategic shift aimed at winning support of the many Americans disillusioned with the legislative branch.
“Often the complaint that I hear is that, ‘you guys are targeting the wrong people.’ And so we have that discussion about you know whether or not Wall Street is the source of the problem or really Congress is,” said Aaron Bornstein, a 31-year-old neuroscientist and member of the Occupy Wall Street Think Tank, which will hold discussions at the event.
“They’re really two sides of the same coin,” he continued. ”You can’t have the corruptive influence without both the people who are doing the corrupting and the people who are corrupted.”
Protesters have traveled from far-flung towns and cities such as Walla Walla, Wash., Greensboro, N.C., and San Diego by plane, car, bus and train. They have made posters and information cards – some about controversial legislation, such as the National Defense Authorization Act and the online piracy bills, SOPA and PIPA; and the voting records of members of Congress as well as their net worth. Some intend to camp at one of the two Occupy sites in D.C.
“Most of the people in our group … are Social Security folks,” said Norm Osterman, a 68-year-old retired teacher from Walla Walla. He said the important issues for him and his fellow retirees are saving Medicare, taxing the rich and ending corporate personhood. “So we’ve seen things come and go. And going to D.C. to complain seems like the only sane thing to do right now.”
“Like I say, if people are coming from Walla Walla, they’re probably coming from everywhere,” quipped Osterman, adding that many residents of his eastern Washington city are supportive of their group called Rebuild the American Dream since students had already taken the Occupy Walla Walla moniker.
A Gallup poll in mid-November showed congressional job approval hovering at 13 percent and the firm noted it was “low among all Americans, regardless of their political party identification.” Gallup noted that 2011 was on “track to be the lowest annual rating of Congress in Gallup’s history.”
‘American as apple pie’
Vietnam veteran and retired fine arts professor James A. Davies II is part of a Greensboro group that chartered a bus for the six-hour journey to the nation’s capital. For him, it’s imperative to have his “boots on the ground” to protect his children’s future and the right to protest, which he said “is as American as apple pie.”
“I have to do something to let it be known that there are things in this country that are happening that are wrong and that are contrary to what I grew up believing this country represented,” said Davies, 66, noting his grievances include the militarization of the police, suppression of freedom of speech and concerns about “corporate fascism.”
The Greensboro group, like others, will meet with their local members of Congress. The day will include a protest march past the three branches of government; a general assembly; teach-ins; a D.C. voting rights vigil, trainings, performances at an ‘open mic’ stage and a party. Some protesters plan to stay through the weekend so they can march against the landmark Supreme Court decision affirming corporate personhood and money as speech – known as Citizens United – on its second anniversary on Saturday.
Dorian Warren, an assistant professor of political science at Columbia University, said the twin events will tie their core concern about what the protesters consider Wall Street greed to its impact on the political system.
“This is actually the second prong of their (Occupy) critique,” he said. “It’s kind of a smart move to now make their next big event at the site of their second core critique of our democracy, so I think a lot of people will be paying attention.”
The event has raised questions about whether Occupy is becoming politicized, especially with an event focused on politicians. But some of those helping put together the day dismiss that idea.
“Our main message is that our elected officials are no longer representing the people and that’s largely due to corporate money running the show on the Hill,” said Mario Lozada, a 25-year-old immigration lawyer from Philadelphia. “The question as to whether or not Occupy Wall Street is becoming politicized — the answer is ‘absolutely no.’ We’re not supporting any candidate at all.”
In some parts of the country, however, Occupy protesters are engaging in the political process.
In parts of Florida, Occupy protesters want to work with Democrats to introduce legislation, according to Deana Rohlinger, an associate professor of sociology at Florida State University researching the Tea Party and Occupy. Protesters in Portland, Ore., also recently claimed credit for helping the City Council craft a resolution supporting the end of corporate personhood.
“The movement is creeping up on this really critical moment in its history because they’re going to have to decide whether or not to embrace party politics in some ways, and this is really contentious,” she said. “The movement wants to maintain its strength and some activists would see this as being extraordinarily hypocritical, to work within a political system that has been corrupted by the money of corporate America.”
“But there are a lot of activists that really believe that despite the flaws of the system, the only way that you can begin to create meaningful, lasting change is to figure out ways in which you can work within the system,” she added.
Chris McKay, a 44-year-old auto glass installer in San Diego who left his job to participate in Occupy fulltime, believes the movement will begin to focus on politics over the course of the year. But he noted the changes that have already occurred.
“We’re four months old, we’re learning, we’re adjusting, we’re growing,” he said. Before Occupy, people may have said, “’I’m one person, what can I do?’ Now, I think Americans are starting to think I am one person, but I can do something.”
In this handout image, James Davies participates in Occupy Greensboro.
“I’m excited about the occupation going and doing this,” he said about Tuesday’s event, before leaving on a cross-country bus trip. “I think it’s needed to make a statement that 2012 is the Occupy year. This is the year the Occupy movement really will gain the credibility that it needs.”