Occupy Makes Space for Community Advocates

By smashing the wall of media silence about America’s wealth and income divide, the Occupy movement has opened a dramatically new terrain for organizations campaigning for economic and social justice.

Take the federal budget as an example. A year ago, in the face of draconian housing budget cuts by the Tea Party-led House of Representatives, the National Alliance for HUD Tenants (NAHT) mobilized low-income tenants in 19 cities nationwide on Valentines Day to urge Congress to “Have a Heart, Save Our Homes.” Congress fully funded Section 8 and public housing operating programs in 2011.

But this victory was short-lived. By August, the Tea Party-driven Budget Control Act threatened permanent deep cuts not only to housing, but the entire domestic legacy of the New Deal.

Along came Occupy. In a few short weeks, through a creative mix of non-violent direct action, democratic practice, humor, and brilliant use of social media, the Occupy encampments demanded attention in a way that establishment media could not suppress, belittle, or ignore.

The movement grew rapidly as it gave voice to countless new activists who knew things were deeply wrong but previously had found no way to act on their insights or find them validated in mainstream discourse; and it won — at least for now — the larger battle for the cultural discourse.

Occupy volunteers also mobilized new energy and support for a broad range of pre-existing campaigns, from anti-foreclosure rallies and occupations to marches demanding jobs and support for labor and anti-war struggles. On Election Day, the Massachusetts Alliance of HUD Tenants (MAHT) and its allies asked voters throughout Boston to sign letters to Sens. Kerry and Brown urging them to oppose cuts, invest in jobs, close corporate tax loopholes, tax the rich and end the wars.

Occupy Boston contributed volunteers to help with the effort, but what was perhaps most striking was that Boston voters, even in traditionally conservative neighborhoods, were willing to sign letters full of such ambitious demands. Clearly, the message had caught on. We delivered 4,500 letters.

Nor was this effect limited to liberal Boston. In October, NAHT board vice president and Texas Tenants Union volunteer Rachel Williams visited McPherson Square Occupy in Washington, D.C. “I saw the community and businesses donating food, people of every race and color fighting for the same cause,” she says. “It inspired me to take the same message back to Texas.” Back in Beaumont, Texas, Williams could see Occupy’s effect on ordinary people: “It’s like you light a match to a fire.”

Williams had no difficulty collecting 750 postcards opposing cuts and demanding taxes on the 1 percent from beauty salons, churches, shopping malls and barbershops. “People were eager to sign,” Williams observes. At a neighborhood store, customers heard Williams talking about the postcard and several, including a barbershop owner, a rap artist, and the cashier, asked for more than 100 cards to redistribute. “People in Beaumont are definitely aware that we are the 99 percent,” says Williams.

When Williams delivered the cards to Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), three TV stations covered the event. Occupy’s success in shifting the media terrain has opened new doors for organizers nationwide.

Occupy’s targets are fighting back. Much is at stake in this struggle over narrative, and not just the outcome of the 2012 elections. The budget and tax issues alone that will be decided in January 2013 will shape the country’s future for decades to come. And the underlying crises of inequality, poverty, unemployment, mortgage foreclosures, and a broken political and financial system remain to be addressed.

It’s up to us to support Occupy in every way we can, and to take advantage of the precious space the movement has created for our work in the streets, in the halls of Congress, and at the polls.

For those fighting housing budget cuts, we need to deepen our alliances with peace, labor, and other constituencies with a stake in the federal budget to repeal the Budget Control Act, tax the 1 percent, and cut military spending as the only way to avoid permanent cuts to programs for the poor and middle class.

Occupy has given us the space to win — it’s up to us to use it.

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