A key moment for leftists | Bleader

A key moment for leftists

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Occupy Chicago protesters on LaSalle Street in late September
  • Mark Bergen
  • Occupy Chicago protesters on LaSalle Street in late September
It's great weather for a protest. And Chicago is having one, as protesters are assembling at this hour to "Take Back Chicago," a theme that must be confusing to Mayor Emanuel, who feels he already did.

Protesters will be marching from five sites to the Art Institute's Modern Wing at Columbus and Monroe for the main rally, expected to begin at about 5:15. The Modern Wing is the site of a reception this evening for the Mortgage Bankers Association, which is convening at the downtown Hyatt Regency this week.

Organizers are predicting 7,500 protesters. Their press release also promises key visuals for media, including marching bands and 12-foot-tall corporate welfare-king puppets.

"Occupy Chicago" is participating, but today's protest was organized by Stand Up Chicago, a coalition of 19 neighborhood organizations and unions, and was in the works before Occupy Chicago began camping out in late September near the Federal Reserve Bank at Jackson and LaSalle.

This is a key moment for leftists in Chicago and nationally. Will their protests grow? Will they take the shape of a movement? What kind of movement?

Some on the right have branded the Occupy Wall Street protesters anarchists, Todd Gitlin wrote in yesterday's New York Times—which some of the occupiers consider a compliment. Gitlin is an author and sociologist, and in 1963 and 1964 was president of the leftist Students for a Democratic Society. Anarchism, he wrote, "has been the reigning spirit of left-wing protest movements for nearly the past half century....In this recent incarnation, anarchism, for the most part, is not so much a theory of the absence of government, but a theory of self-organization, or direct democracy, as government. The idea is that you do not need institutions because the people, properly assembled, properly deliberating...can regulate themselves."

But some structure usually helps. One of the early SDS rally cries was "Let the people decide," which in practice meant "Let's have long meetings where everyone gets to talk," Gitlin wrote yesterday. By 1967, SDS was rapidly growing, yet so distrustful of leadership that it abolished its offices of president and vice-president. Two years later, after internal fighting, only a splinter group remained. Leftist groups of the 1970s continued to give "limited authority to their own leaders," who often denied they were leaders at all, Gitlin observed.

The core of Occupy Wall Street "doesn't seem to have a plan, or even to take kindly to the idea of consolidating a list of demands," he wrote. "And yet, by taking the initiative, they have aroused...less romantic and more conventionally organized allies who do not disdain political demands....Having set out to be expressive, the anarchists have found themselves playing, willy-nilly, a most strategic role."

In other words, many on the left, including unions and Democrats—and, in particular, President Obama's administration and his reelection campaign—are hoping to fuel up on the Occupy energy.

Movements like Occupy Wall Street "hope to remain forever under construction, fluid, unfixed," Gitlin wrote. "The interesting, difficult, even decisive moment in the career of such a movement comes when allies arrive, especially allies...more taken by the idea of getting results."

Which means the Occupy groups probably can't remain under construction much longer, or they could be left behind. Occupy Chicago took a step toward a more cohesive shape on Friday, when it became the first of the Occupy groups to identify proposed demands, posting a dozen on its website to be voted on. Among the dozen: repeal Bush tax cuts for the wealthy; fully investigate and prosecute the Wall Street criminals; eliminate corporate personhood; forgive student debt. Stand Up Chicago, far more organized, has proposals instead of demands—the coalition released a detailed jobs plan last week.

Of Occupy Wall Street, Gitlin wrote: "A month from now, this movement, still busy being born, could look quite different."

A month from now, it will be colder, in New York and in Chicago. The size and direction of the movement may well be determined by these next few weeks.

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