A Possible “Second Act” for Occupy Wall Street

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A second act for Occupy Wall Street? That’s been the question looming over the Occupy movement. As put by Reuters, “Protest veterans had said for weeks the Occupy Wall Street movement needed to have a second act if it lost its hold on Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan”. A communications specialist answered the question: “has the protest movement passed its peak, or does it have a ‘second act?’” by offering a series of communications strategies ranging from declaring victory to going corporate. Crain’s New York Business made the OWS second-act prospects the topic of a podcast.

For some nonprofits, there is broad acknowledgment that Occupy Wall Street has put income and wealth inequality onto the national agenda in a way that rivals the impact of the 1962 publication of Michael Harrington’s The Other America, which profoundly affected President John F. Kennedy. But inserting an issue into the national debate is one thing; translating it into concrete action is another. Nonprofits, used to translating societal concerns, complaints, and frustrations into specific demands for program and policy changes, are addressing issues around the core Occupy analysis that moneyed interests have gamed the system to protect wealth and to advance the interests of the top 1% against the bottom 99% of the nation. Can the leaderless Occupy movement make the transition from complaint to program? If it does, what will it do?

Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics, thinks the issue is that money corrupts the political system and ensures that the institutions of the wealthy never really get to the soft underbelly of the top 1% (look at the Dodd-Frank banking regulation law, which, though the banks hate the law, leaves the big banks big and powerful, just like they were when they drove the economy into recession in 2008 and 2009). Lessig thinks that the problem of corruption is not the corruption of individuals like former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich but the corruption of the political system institutionally through “an entrenched set of incentives that skews the motivations of political actors”—a dynamic that could be neutralized by undoing the nexus of money and power in politics through a Constitutional Convention.

While recognizing that there hasn’t been a Constitutional Convention since the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a writer for the Atlantic that organizing around a Constitutional Convention could help produce change even if the Convention were never convened. He also notes that one of the original sort-of-demands from Occupy Wall Street (via Adbusters) was to have President Obama “ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.” And now a group called “the 99 Percent Declaration” has begun organizing for a “National General Assembly” to be held on July 4, 2012, in Philadelphia.

Lessig recently made his pitch directly to OWS partisans: “Here is a version of the Occupy Wall Street slogan that 99 percent of Americans could actually agree upon: campaigns financed by the 1 percent will never earn the confidence of the 99 percent, or appear to any of us as anything other than corrupt. We, all of us, must demand an end to that corruption”. 

Is the second act for OWS campaign finance reform?  Capping corporate executives’ salaries?  Attacking the corporate “personhood” (that corporations are treated in the law as “people”)?  Becoming a movement to revive organized labor (since unions increasingly showed up as supporters of Occupy gatherings)?  Fielding a slate of candidates for public office?  Or packing it up for the winter and coming back in the spring “ready to rumble”, as Adbusters suggests?  What’s your advice for the Occupy movement?

  • David Lynn

    Hopefully they change to Occupy Congress and focus on campaign reform. Nonprofits know real solutions come through legislative policy changes, not just treating the symptoms.

  • David Nuttle

    A Constitutional Convention is needed to pass a new Amendment requiring that equality and balance must be achieved in specific areas to include budgets, opportunities, etc. … and if those conditions are not created, current Senators & Congressmen/women may not stand for re-election.

  • Regina Podhorin-Zilinski

    A Constitutional Convention sounds like just the ticket. They need to go for something really big that makes profound structural and political change happen. Perfect!

  • Chrisvh

    I just do not see how they would qualify as a non-profit period. They are not a religous group or a education group. They have not even filed for status with the federal government. I find it hard to believe that owe I talked to a lawyer and he said it will be OK. That is not the way things work. They do not have a mission statement they hardly agree on anything at all. But back to the facts I have to buy the name from the state and then apply for status through the government and you know what I know that they did not do these things.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Chris: It’s actually very easy to become a nonprofit, though much harder to be a good one. But there are several indications of local Occupy groups–much like some local Tea Party groups–looking to institutionalize themselves through 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) status. For example, Occupy Wilmington NC has taken steps toward becoming a nonprofit although this article implies a pretty loose mission for the new group (http://www.starnewsonline.com/article/20111119/ARTICLES/111119605). Occupy Los Angeles is now getting assistance to become a “nonprofit foundation,” which seems to be vague journalistic talk for becoming a nonprofit (http://www.alaskadispatch.com/article/occupy-wall-street-are-protestors-getting-cold-yet). Occupy Portland (Oregon) has actually filed for nonprofit status (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/18/occupy-wilmington-files-f_n_1097351.html). The question is not whether they would qualify, but what do they want to do as nonprofits, and what would nonprofit status do for (or to) them. Thanks for your comment.