A Moment of Hope for a New Movement: Update from the Center for the Working Poor

December 15th, 2011

By Paul Engler

Every once in a while, a rare and special moment comes when you realize that you are doing more than turning out for just another protest. Instead, you realize that you are in the middle of true social movement. You realize that you are a part of history.

For me, such a moment occurred after I had been camping out for a week at Occupy Los Angeles, sleeping in the middle of downtown LA with about 300 other people. This was not my first time occupying a park, nor was it my first time at a really big protest. After all, we had 1.2 million people in Los Angeles take to the streets to march for immigrant rights in 2006. But this was different.

What triggered my realization was not the constant organizing activity—the crazy demands of six-hour consensus meetings on the steps of City Hall, the steady planning of non-violence trainings, or the constant phone calls from activists around the country. What led to the unique moment was another phone call—one from my mom.

Early one morning, while I was still in my tent at the occupation, my mom called to tell me that my beloved uncle Bernie had died of cancer. A few days later, I flew to rural Wisconsin for the funeral, visiting the area where my mom and her six siblings had grown up on a farm. The small towns in the area are really small. They are towns with little money. At family reunions, my uncles who still live there view my stories of getting arrested at protests as exotic and unreal. In the long car rides between different family events and different potluck dinners, I never expect to drive by a local demonstration. Yet there, where I least expected it, I saw one. In Viroqua, Wisconsin, population 6,000, I drove by a group of people in near-freezing weather, waving signs and standing near a small collection of tents. Their signs had slogans about our democracy, about Wall Street corruption, about greed and exploitation. They said, “Occupy Viroqua.”

I couldn’t believe it. “Holy crap,” I realized. “Viroqua, Wisconsin has an occupation in its town square!”

As it turned out, so did Des Moines, Iowa, where I grew up. I began getting calls from a handful of old friends, many of whom were arrested in an attempted occupation of the State Capitol Building, an action that was on the front page of the local paper for days. They then successfully relocated to another park, where some meetings swelled to include hundreds of participants. I listened to these reports, and I could hardly believe it: “In Des Moines, Iowa?!”

That’s what did it. Viroqua and Des Moines. That’s when I realized that Occupy Wall Street has tapped something that is deep and widespread. It has inspired protest in unlikely places and among unusual suspects, more so than almost any protest I have ever been a part of. It’s not just New York City and Los Angeles and Chicago. Hundreds of America’s smaller cities and towns—places like Des Moines and Viroqua—are having occupations, meetings, and marches. They are witnessing a tactic—the occupation of main parks in cities across the country—that has never been used on this scale before. They are part of history, I realized. We are part of history.

The occupations, although still young, are making an impact. In a matter of weeks, there has been a drastic shift in public opinion. It is the type of shift that we see only in times of crisis, catastrophe, political scandal—or at times when social movements are somehow able to grab the media spotlight for weeks. The focus of the debate in Washington has switched from the deficit to jobs, from cutting social services to taxing the rich. People are talking about inequalities of wealth and income. There is a new mood in the country.

After long refusing to respond to angry customers complaining about their new $5 monthly debit card fees, Bank of America dropped the idea—just days before tens of thousands of people closed their accounts at bailed-out banks (including B of A) in a protest known as “Bank Transfer Day.” The account closings were accompanied by large marches in major cities. Recent tallies suggest that more than 650,000 people have transferred their money in the past two months. My contact at a local community credit union tells me that the influx of new members has been hugely significant for them.

The elections on Tuesday, November 5 in Ohio, Maine, Mississippi, and Arizona also reflected the new tenor of public opinion. Among other wins, progressives scored victories against anti-labor legislation and anti-immigrant politicians. Moreover, media interest in issues of poverty has picked up tremendously. After Occupy LA had started, I received a call from a major media outlet that wanted to do a story about “the working poor.” They found my organization by typing our name, the “Center for the Working Poor” into Google. The reporter wanted to meet some of the unemployed workers to whom we serve food on a monthly basis and learn more about their stories. In the five years since founding the center, this is the first time I have ever gotten such a call.

But the biggest of all the improvements the movement has brought about is that more people around me than I have ever seen before are acknowledging the reality of what Dorothy Day so eloquently called “the dirty rotten system.” They are investing faith in the idea that maybe a new movement can change this system.

In the early days of the Occupy Wall Street, the media constantly asked, “What do they want?” At first I thought, like many experts and pundits, that we needed a clear, focused demand. I thought that without one the movement was not going to be effective. But there were some things that Occupy Wall Street had gotten right, more right than I knew at first. Everyone is so angry at the system. This is the one thing that polls indicate beyond all else: People do not feel that things are fair or that our country is on the right track. So why not just focus this discontent on the right target—Wall Street—and let people shout their thousands of grievances?

Although I would not repeat this strategy, and although it might have been less efficient than I would have liked, few can deny that it has worked. A thousand messages of discontent have created a compelling meta-narrative. The common theme for the multitude of grievances is that our democracy is corrupt with money, that it is not working, and that we have to make Wall Street pay for the mess it has created. Polling by the Times during the first month of the occupation, when news coverage exploded, showed that 54 percent of those asked supported the movement. For people who watch polls, this result was amazing. It was remarkable that so many people even knew about the movement, and it was doubly astounding that more people supported it than did the Republicans, the Democrats, or the Tea Party.

Right now the movement is experiencing a chaotic transition, shifting from a hyper-focus on encampments and occupation to an embrace of different forms of organization and a variety of protest tactics. It is undergoing the necessary and inevitable evolution required to go from protest to social movement.

At the Center for the Working Poor, we have asked– what can we do to support this movement and be part of it? Our participation has been intense to say the least. If you are interested in a more detailed update of our community over the last 6 months (Center for the Working Poor, aka the Burning Bush Community), go to this link. We now have a dedicated bunch of students and activists that we are training in our unique model of nonviolent community organizing.  We meet every week at the Center as an “affinity group” or as Elise calls it, “our magical family.” In addition, we have been doing weekly non-violent trainings for the Occupy movement.

Elise Whitaker is now a full time worker for our community and spends most of her time at the occupy LA meetings. We worked all night at Occupy LA during the raid, and recruited, trained, and formed all the non-violent monitor teams from the Occupy LA’s action committee. On the night the police evicted the encampment, Elise and a student leader named Guido from our affinity group got arrested. Many of our friends were among the 270 arrested in civil disobedience who spent 2-4 days in jail. There were some very intense moments of physical conflict at the raid, and it was definitely one of the most challenging times I have ever had to maintain non-violence within a protest. However, other than a few small incidents of throwing empty water bottles and other such macho antics, the movement stayed non-violent, with almost no property destruction.

Our participation is far from over. We have helped form the “best practices” sub-committee of Occupy LA that is networking with our friends in Occupy Wall Street, Des Moines, Chicago, Oakland, and Colleges around the country.  We need your help in order to keep this movement alive.

We ask for your support so we can maintain our community, which includes providing food and housing for our volunteers at the Center. Please consider a generous donation this season. Please visit our website at Center for the Working Poor.

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