Occupiers draw the line between protesting and political activism

Democrats line up to support Occupy Wall Street, but when Election Day comes, many occupiers say they won’t vote for any Democrats, or anyone at all.

“Voting changes nothing,” said Luke Johnson, 33, a member of Occupy Hartford. Johnson said he isn’t a registered voter and that he feels disillusioned by the idea of voting, working on a campaign or even supporting a candidate from the Occupy movement.


Craig Breitsprecher turns out for Occupy Hartford’s first public assembly in early October

“A lot of people feel like we don’t have enough choices,” said William Davis, 25, another member of Occupy Hartford. Davis said he’s a registered voter, but the idea behind Occupy Wall Street means more than political activism.

“This is a leaderless movement,” Davis said. “Even if we were to campaign for one of our own, we wouldn’t have the capital. This movement is supposed to be beyond all that.”

Another Occupy Hartford member, who wished to remain anonymous, said too many of the misinformed people vote and essentially negate the electoral process. He stood on the lot deemed Turning Point Park at Broad Street and Farmington Avenue, which offers a picturesque view of the Capitol Building, and pointed to the center of Connecticut politics.

“That is a mess,” he said. “We’re here to create something new.”

With no trust in the political system and no plans for political activism, how does a movement translate its protest into tangible change? Davis said change lies in the consistency of pushing their message and recruiting the support of more and more “everyday people.” He said the message focuses on ending corporate greed and its effect on politics, not abolishing the entire political system.

CSEA/SEIU Local 2001 spokesman Matt O’Connor has coordinated protests between Connecticut’s unions and Occupy Hartford. He said the Occupy movement’s political disillusionment hasn’t hurt it, but it’s possible the movement’s followers could insert themselves more directly into traditional politics — by voting, canvassing for candidates, etc. — in the future.

“It looks exactly like the labor movement did 100 years ago before unions were able to really achieve density among workers and build strong membership bases,” he said. “I think they’re right where all the great social and economic justice movements of the last hundred years were at one point.

“At some point should they put down the picket signs and vote?” he added. “That’s part of the movement’s growth process. Do they get to a point where it’s about electoral strength or do they remain a more community-based organization where it’s more civic than political?”

O’Connor said that while the labor movement shares some of the same ideals as the Occupy movement, it differs greatly in its emphasis on voting and in its view that the electoral process can create change. He said the labor movement finds it affects people most successfully when engaging voter activism and emphasizing civic involvement.


“We’ve got a system that is not just broken and overtaken by corporate money, but it also isn’t engaging the citizens of this country, and that’s something that both the labor movement and the Occupy movement share as a real source of frustration,” he said. “I guess it might just manifest itself in different ways only because within labor unions, we’ve been doing this for a while.”

O’Connor said he hesitates to classify the Occupy movement as the “Tea Party of the left” and so does Peggy Buchanan, the communications director for Connecticut AFL-CIO.

“Occupy is such a unique movement that I don’t think it can be easily categorized as the ‘Tea Party of the left,'” Buchanan said. “I don’t see it as a fringe movement, so I’m not really seeing it as a movement on the left.

“I think it’s a movement that’s drawing a lot of people from a lot of different walks of life. It’s really resonating with people.”

She also noted that while unions emphasize the importance of voting, she hasn’t worked with Occupy Hartford enough to know its position on political activism.

Many Democrats act quickly to defend the movement. U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said the protesters had the right to protest in New York, while carefully adding that he supported Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s eviction for cleaning.

“The movement will continue,” Larson told The Hill, a newspaper on Capitol Hill in Washington. “They’re still going to be able to go there. It’s just that there were some health issues and concerns of deterioration to the park, which is certainly not the goal [of the protests].”

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of “Nickel and Dimed,” a book chronicling the struggles of the working class, chastised President Obama and other Democrats in The Guardian, a left-leaning British newspaper, for not forcefully speaking out against the evictions in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan.

Eric Hyers, executive director of the Connecticut Democratic Party, agreed that it’s easy to identify with the movement.

“The fact of the matter is, when you look at soaring corporate profit and what the banks tried to do, it’s no wonder they’re protesting,” he said. But he’s also hesitant to draw comparisons between the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party.

“I don’t know that I’d call it that, but I can see why others would call it that,” Hyers said.