Progressives seek to co-opt diverse ‘Occupy DC’ movement

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Progressive organizations are rushing to take credit for a growing movement of Americans who are using social media to share their non-political stories of huge student debt, sinking mortgages, crippling health-care bills, dead-end jobs or endless unemployment.

On Wall Street and in D.C.’s Freedom Plaza, on twitter feeds, webpages and Facebook pages, the experienced and organized cadres of progressive activists are positioning themselves as the representatives of this fearful public.

Incumbent Democrats, eager for an answer to the tea party, laud their allied progressives as the heroes of an “American Spring” to a media that is also eager for a left-wing version of the highly successful small-government movement. Boosted by their funds and media-savvy professionals, several unions, MoveOn.org, CodePink, Rebuild The Dream and numerous other established groups have thrown themselves into the New York and D.C. protests.

But they’re snatching the media’s focus and the public’s recognition away from a real — although unfocused — wave of public concern about the downward slide of the economy.

Some politicians have recognized this spreading fear. “The American people are concerned about our country,” House Speaker John Boehner said Oct. 6 at an event held by National Journal. “The concern that I’ve seen over the last year, frankly, is turning to what I would describe as fear.”

That unaffiliated fear can be glimpsed on Tumblr’s ‘wearethe99percent’ channel, where hundreds of people describe their fears about debts and jobs — usually without pushing any political agenda other than “Occupy Wall Street!” or another city — and can be seen among some of the non-political people who congregate in Washington, D.C’s McPherson Square.

The progressive groups “are not us,” said Wes — he wouldn’t offer a full name — who says he is a non-political and non-partisan protester against government corruption. He won’t give his name because he’s got a job in government but he says that he stays in McPherson Square, only a block away from the White House, and avoids the progressives’ marches on Capitol Hill. If the McPherson group “ever allows its message to be taken over, it will become ineffective,” he said, adding that the left “is as corrupt as the right.”

“My last paycheck was $20. How can I live on that?” said Sara Moline, a cosmetic saleswoman who has had little interest in politics until now. She was holding a sign on K Street, and trying to avoid the nearby “crazy people” who are pushing their ideological agendas, she said. Asked what caused the recession, she fell silent, and then said “people got themselves into this mess.” (RELATED: Pipeline protester to ‘occupy’ Ronald Reagan Building)

“This is more of a local group” than the progressives’ march, said Rooj Waziri, an unemployed marketing-grad who owes $30,000 in student debt. The group “is just a bunch of people who are frustrated …. we just want money out of politics,” she said, adding that the group is being supported by Code Pink and MoveOn.

The group in McPherson Square fluctuates in size, but it is smaller than New York’s “Occupy” protests. The non-political people mingle with a rotating cast of outspoken progressives who are quick to offer themselves and their well-practiced comments to TV and print interviewers.

Early Wednesday afternoon, 13 media people interviewed 11 protesters, most of whom were experienced progressives. A few liberal sympathizers employed in nearby office buildings visited the square to enjoy the protest. “Finally, the cool kids have a party,” said one.

On Thursday, a lunchtime circle of progressives negotiated carefully with newcomers. Underneath a nearby tree, a balloon-born banner declared ‘Occupy’ while pre-made placards rested on the ground. The placards carried messages such as “I fight for a Union,” “Devolvemos Nuestra Voz” and “End Corporate Personhood.”

Few cited health care concerns or mortgages. Only two placards cited student debt — “Abolish student debt!” and “$ for students, not Sallie Mae.”

That afternoon, the lunchtime group was supplanted by a different set of people, including Moline and Al Wazir, while the progressives — and some of the non-political people — departed to join a loud march led by the progressives from Freedom Plaza to Capitol Hill. They tramped around downtown Washington, and past the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, chanting “This is what democracy looks like!”

The emotional punch of the movement, however, is found far away from the progressives’ raucous march through D.C., and far from the mixed and ever-changing group in McPherson Square.

It’s found online, where distressed people spill their tales of disaster, poverty, bad luck and carelessness.

At one site, wearethe99percent.tumblr.com, almost 800 unnamed people present their stories, via a single images of their story on a piece of paper. The paper is often used to partly obscure their face.

Most posters say they live day-to-day, on low wage jobs, many say they’re living in other people’s houses. A small fraction say they’ve lost houses, a quarter say they have expensive medical bills or untreated ailments, and a third say they’re trying to pay students loans of up to $120,000.

“I am terrified,” said one women with $100,000 in college debt. Another owes $113,000 and describes herself as “almost 30 and scared shitless.” Another graduate works three jobs to pay off a $30,000 debt.

A few posters say they’ve worked in prostitution or porn to pay debts.

A small fraction of posters say they’ve done well by living frugally, marrying well or by avoiding college, and a few criticize overreaching government and excessive taxes. “I don’t begrudge the 1 percent,” wrote one person who also declared that he was careful with his money.

But most posters portray themselves as struggling to get by on less than $30,000 a year, and working several jobs to pay for health care, for kids or the student-loans, and a fearful for their future when their bodies get old and their job prospects get dimmer.

“I was always told I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up,” according to one poster, who met her husband in college. The couple’s deferred school debts have now reached $150,000. “I didn’t know pursuing that dream would lead me to financial ruin before my real life even got started …. I make sure my kids know they have to work extra hard to earn scholarships because I can’t afford to send them to school and student loans will bury them in debt.”

Very few pitch a political agenda, or declare support for a political group, or for President Barrack Obama, who ran in 2008 on a message of ‘hope and change.’

The president focused on the New York protests and used it to buttress his call for regulation of Wall Street, when he was asked during a Oct. 6 press conference for his view of the protests. “I think it expresses the frustrations that the American people feel — that we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, huge collateral damage all throughout the country… I’m going to be fighting every inch of the way here in Washington to make sure that we have a consumer watchdog that is preventing abusive practices by the financial sector.”