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'Battle for the soul of Occupy': Activists fear being 'pulled to the right,' becoming Democratic 'pet'

Occupy Wall Street protesters are planning coast-to-coast demonstrations Tuesday in honor of "May Day" or International Workers' Day. The protesters are calling for a general strike and are encouraging workers to stay home. The Morning Joe panel discusses.

As Occupy protesters hit the streets for a nationwide general strike on Tuesday, some in the movement fear the emergence of two new activist outfits made up of "old left" advocacy groups and unions is an attempt to turn them into a "pet" for the Democratic Party and President Obama’s reelection effort.

The new groups, 99% Power and 99% Spring, include backers such as MoveOn.org, Rebuild The Dream, AFL-CIO, United Auto Workers, CODEPINK: Women for Peace, and The Ruckus Society. The groups bring money with them – something in short supply for Occupy – but their efforts are being eyed warily by those who helped launch the Occupy movement.

Adbusters, the Canadian magazine that made the initial call for people to Occupy Wall Street on Sept. 17 of last year, has been running a blog series on their website, "Battle for the Soul of Occupy," in the last few weeks. In it, the publication has decried attempts to "neutralize our insurgency with an insidious campaign of donor money and co-optation."

"This counter-strategy worked to kill off the Tea Party’s outrage and turn it into a puppet of the Republican Party. Will the same happen with Occupy Wall Street? Will our insurgency turn into the Democrats’ Tea Party pet?" Adbusters wrote in an April 12 post. "Will you allow Occupy to become a project of the old left, the same cabal of old world thinkers who have blunted the possibility of revolution for decades? Will you allow MoveOn, The Nation and Ben & Jerry to put the brakes on our Spring Offensive and turn our struggle into a ‘99% Spring’ reelection campaign for President Obama?"

Skepticism of electoral politics runs deep in the Occupy movement and it could affect the ability of Democrats to mobilize activists during the 2012 campaign, despite attempts to appropriate the "99 percent" rhetoric. But Todd Gitlin, a former leader of the 1960s group, Students for a Democratic Society, who has just published a book on Occupy, believes the concerns of some in the movement are "outlandish."

Protesters hit the streets for May Day rallies

"It was inevitable that there would arise political actors that want those same reforms, although they don’t necessarily share the real-time spirit of the movement. These are the membership organizations, like the unions and MoveOn … who did turn out for the big marches in October and November, and who are numerically very large but were always from the beginning being met with suspicion on the part of the Occupy movement," said Gitlin, a professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia University.

"This represents actually a misunderstanding on the part of some of the Occupy people who feel weak, so they’re afraid of co-optation because they feel that the co-opters have the power to puncture their balloon," he added.

Still, the new groups don’t sit well with Charles M. Young, a writer at thiscantbehappening.net and a 1960s-era activist. He attended one of the mid-April training sessions held by The 99% Spring on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which he said was led by representatives of the Democratic Party and Wall Street lawyers, and where Obama buttons were offered for sale.

Up host Chris Hayes leads the conversation on civil disobedience in light of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the groups that are emerging to teach protesters non-violent demonstration tactics.

Young, 61, feared that Occupy could be "pulled to the right" by partnering up with them and felt the effort was part of a bid to keep the "Kucinich Democrats" from leaving.

"It looks very much like what they call an AstroTurf movement, you know, something from the top down," he said, noting he left the meeting "disillusioned." "I don’t remember anybody saying that there was a need for the 99% Spring before it came out."

"It does seem to be mostly the Democratic Party trying to keep the left in line for Obama and keeping things obedient, and that’s just not enough given the issues involved," he added.

In an email statement, Justin Ruben, MoveOn's executive director, said his group has electoral goals, but that his organization has "zero interest in trying to alter [Occupy] in any way."

"Growing economic inequality and the increasing influence of 1 percent cash in our political system are huge problems, and problems that MoveOn members care deeply about. Our response includes working to engage more activists in the fight for fairness for the 99 percent and to introduce activists to powerful tactics like non-violent direct action. That's what the 99% Spring is about," he said.

"Regarding elections, yes, there's no question that MoveOn sees elections as profoundly important, and we will be engaged in elections this year -- just as we've engaged in elections since our inception in 1998. But of course we work with lots of allies that don't engage in elections, and we respect that choice," he added.

Dorian Warren, an assistant professor of political science at Columbia University, said schisms on the left today are similar to those during the civil rights movements. There were "intense fights between the old guard" groups like the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the youth-led Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he said. In hindsight, the youth-led group played an important role, serving as "the left flank of the movement," he said. "That’s sort of the role Occupy is playing."

But Occupy should be skeptical and challenge the progressive establishment, he said. "Until September, the strategies of these groups, whether it was ‘inside the Beltway’ game or just traditional interest group politics, that was not working, and so the more radical tactics that Occupy innovated is what shifted the political terrain and they should stay focused on doing that."

The 99% Spring and 99% Power have given a nod to Occupy for leading the way, though they also said they had been drafting plans to engage in more public protest and focus on corporate accountability before Occupy existed. They had targeted the fall for their campaign, but then Occupy took off, which in turn helped them convince others of the viability of their own strategy, said George Goehl, executive director of National People’s Action.

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"It opened up some space for some of the things that we’ve been working on for a long time, and it was really just kind of liberating … in terms of what was possible and also in terms of kind of confirming what we thought," he said.

Goehl said members of Occupy have joined his group’s trainings – or led them – and some consider themselves as part of 99% Power. He said when he was in Des Moines last week at a protest, three of the 12 people arrested were from Occupy.

"I think what we’re seeing is … a growing number of threads that do speak to the need to be fearless truth tellers around what’s truly going on in this country to both engage in nonviolent direct action and to challenge the dominance of the corporate sector both, you know, in our economy and in our politics," he said. "And I think that, you know, Occupy is a thread of that, 99% Spring is a thread of that, 99% Power … it’s all part of the same thing."

He said that the notion that any electoral objectives were part of their strategy was "completely false."

"The organizations that actually started this idea don’t really run big electoral programs. It’s not been that kind of the focus in terms of strategies and tactics," he added.

In the end, Warren, the politics professor, said he thought there could be "too much focus on who’s co-opting Occupy versus Occupy just doing its work."

Success during big events like Tuesday’s May Day actions will actually depend on how many people that the unions, MoveOn and other groups turn out, Warren said. "In that sense, Occupy’s fate is linked to these other groups and these others groups’ fates are linked to Occupy."

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