Tuned Out Hippies?

Since the Occupy movement began, many have attempted to position the group in opposition to electoral politics. Occupy in its purest form is nonpartisan, and since the beginning of the movement this has been a source of criticism.

If we want to really make a difference, we were told time and again, we should organize similarly to the Tea Party and begin to field candidates for office. When occupiers protested Mitt Romney or other hyper-conservative politicians, they’d be accused of being in bed with Barack Obama. If the movement protested neo-liberals like Obama, we were accused of being traitors to all that was good in the world because we obviously wanted Romney to win (Carnacing is not limited to blogs). Most of all, occupiers got accused of being disconnected from what their critics perceive to be real politics — we were lazy hippies who didn’t understand how the world works and worst of all we don’t vote.

Spelled out in lights: DO MORE THAN VOTE

Austin Overpass Light Brigade on November 5, 2012

Occupy and many allied activist groups stand in opposition to the idea that electoral politics should be the focus of American political engagement. It is especially opposed to the idea that just voting out one plutocrat and replacing him with a new one will fix our problems — even if that new plutocrat is a woman, from a racial minority, or practices an alternative religion or sexuality. Its ranks are full of activists who supported Obama with hours of hard work in the run-up to the 2008 election, only to “wake the eff up” over the succeeding years and realize real change doesn’t come from far-away leaders.

It’s my experience that occupiers are far more engaged with mainstream politics than mainstream America, which for the most part unthinkingly abstains from participating at all. While the average American simply does not vote, the question of whether to vote and how was an important concern to OWS. Members of Occupy Chicago spent hours in a heated debate over whether it was ethical to burn voter registration cards as a form of protest. Occupiers created street theater around the election: Occupy Chicago members took coffins to the Obama headquarters and launched Revs4Romney. On election day, Occupy the Stage in New Orleans protested the fact that Louisiana is one of eight states which disallow write-in candidates for President by performing a puppet show about the 2-party system at a polling place then accepting symbolic write-in votes (I voted via Twitter for Vermin Supreme). Occupiers held public debate-watching parties, helped Anonymous trend the hashtag #StopNDAA and livetweeted the elections.

Occupy groups also became closely involved in local issues at multiple elections since last September. Here in Austin, one Occupier made an unsuccessful bid for city council, while others became involved in the successful bid to make the city council itself more accountable. Austin will change from one of the country’s only completely at-large city councils to one where each council member represents part of the city.  The Occupy AISD working group fought new in-district charter schools by, in part, helping to unseat charter-supporter Sam Guzman. His replacement, Dr. Rev. Jayme Mathias, will be the first openly gay member of Austin’s school board. One of the Gulf Port 7, Ronnie Garza, is featured in the video at the top of this post. Another, Remington Alessi, ran for sheriff as a Green Party candidate. San Antonio’s Meghan Owen took 1.5% of the vote for the Greens in a bid to unseat NDAA-supporting Democrat Representative Lloyd Doggett.

Of course, many see Elizabeth Warren as a massive win for the goals of Occupy Wall Street.

An Ethical Dilemma At the Voting Booth

Guy Fawkes figures guard the 99% Ballot Box and bottles of Obamney Snake Oil.

Occupy the Stage's Obamney Snake Oil and 99% Ballot Box

The larger struggle over the meaning and effectiveness of our democratic system was reflected in the personal choices of Occupiers I spoke with while writing this story. Many expressed support for Dr. Jill Stein — she won my vote the moment I saw her and running-mate Cheri Honkala in person at Occupy Wall Street on September 17, 2012. Occupier Liberty Herbert voted for Stein but expressed half-serious concern over whether her recent arrest at the Tarsands Blockade was a way of pandering to activists. “It’s great to know I’m finally a demographic,” she told me with a laugh.

Courtney Horne, a participant in Occupy Baton Rouge, said:

I voted because I think it’s important to be active even if you don’t have a good choice. As a woman I consider defending myself against anti-choice politicians to be crucially important.

In addition to supporting a variety of third-party candidates, some made the choice to vote for the lesser of two evils, though with misgivings.

A swing-state Occupier shared her personal conflict with me:

I was tempted to boycott the vote, but decided that was the wrong path.

Part of my indecision comes from Occupy. Ever since this movement began I have become much more educated about the issues and the impact of certain decisions. I have gained a much deeper understanding about what I believe.

I tell myself I want to vote my conscience, and not the lesser of two evils. But this is not black and white.

If it was a fair game, I would vote for Gov. Gary Johnson. He has one of the highest ratings in terms of civil rights issues. He wants to end the war on drugs, partly because of the huge economic and social strain this causes, but also because he knows of the benefits of medical marijuana.

Tuesday, she wrote:

You’re the only person I will tell this to. I’m keeping this vote silent. I officially voted for Obama. But, I did it more so as a vote for the future of the Supreme Court.

I am not proud that I voted today, for I participated in a broken and corrupt system where the only choice was to vote against someone.

In 2011, a movement formed in part around failed dreams for hope and change. The careful observer in 2012 can see that direct action over dozens of crucial issues did more than just change the conversation, it had a powerful effect on the outcome of the democratic process. At just over a year since Occupy began, that work is only beginning.

What history says about the effectiveness of the new crop of activist movements is still to be determined. I predict in 2013 people will continue to take the streets, their numbers aided by the inevitable failures of the newly elected (or re-elected) to change the system from within.

Let’s hope our cause is aided by their surprising successes, too.

Update: Great minds think alike. Charles P. Pierce of the Esquire Politics Blog just published a remarkably similar article:

Occupy completely routed, at all levels of the national campaign, the economic balderdash spouted by the Tea Party and its billionaire sugar daddies. For a movement that allegedly had ‘no concrete goals,’ those are some pretty concrete results right there.

Video: Ronnie Garza on Russia Today.

DO MORE THAN VOTE photo by Kit O’Connell, all rights reserved. Photo of 99% Ballot Box by Occupy the Stage, used with permission.