It’s Occupy Season again. In St. Louis on March 15, and in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park on St. Patrick’s Day, Occupy Wall Street activists returned to the streets after a four-month hiatus and were bloodied in mass arrests. Two activists plan a “99% Spring” with the goal of training 100,000 new insurgents. Encampments are sprouting up all over, from Albany, New York to Cardiff, Wales to Boise, Idaho. People putting their bodies on the line in defense of the middle class has become a global fact of life. A year ago, who would have imagined that?
It was hard to imagine, in fact, as late as August, just a few weeks before the disaffected and dispossessed starting camping out in Zuccotti Park and ended up changing the world, by changing the conversation. That’s when I started hunting for clues about when the hell Americans whose lives had been sucked dry by the vampire squids might finally rise up and reclaim their American birthright. I was working on a magazine article about Rebuild the Dream, an exciting new progressive group headed by the activist Van Jones, which I though might be just the spark. But then, in September, Occupy lit the prairie fire instead, and my piece became instantly, blessedly, irrelevant. Hence, it never ran; but I learned lessons while researching and writing the article that I think are worth sharing nonetheless – especially the ones that touch on a key debate between and among both Occupiers and their critics: whether asking for specific concessions from the powers that be catalyzes change or stifles it. Yes, the dreaded question of “demands.”
Those Occupiers who favor articulating specific goals for the movement like to quote the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who famously said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” “Demands are for terrorists,” their opponents quip back. One Occupier lately canvassed by the New York Times dismissed demands as “disempowering because they require someone else to respond.” Others object that goal-setting forces people to think small. In any case, the exercise requires some degree of top-down discipline, which Occupiers reject. (In Zuccotti Park last October, an attempt to form a “Demands working group” fizzled, in part because Occupiers thought it was “not open-source” and did “not act by consensus.”) The influential social theorist Judith Butler recently wrote that to submit demands is to grant “legitimacy to those who have the power to satisfy the demands” — which “would be giving more power to the very sources of inequality.” The draft of one Occupy manifesto, the Liberty Square Blueprint, insists, “Demands cannot reflect the time scale we are working with…. Demands imply conditions, and we will never stop.”
Well, maybe those guys will never stop. But it will take more than those guys to win. It will take all sorts of people to sustain Occupy – including, in big numbers, the less radically committed. Given that, here’s something else to consider about demands: When met, they can become the fuel that can keep a mass movement from declining in the face of ordinary human impatience.
My journey to that conclusion began one day at a car rental agency in my hometown, Chicago, on the South Side, where some 47 percent of homeowners are underwater. The young African American woman behind the counter asked me where I was heading. I told her I was off to research an article about a movement to make rich people and corporations pay their fair share in taxes and give jobs to unemployed people. She looked back at me pityingly, as if I’d told her I was off to chase UFOs.
I motored to my destination – a beach house in the resort town of Michigan City, Indiana owned by Jan Schakowsky, widely considered one of the most progressive members of Congress and one of the principles in Van Jones’s new group. I told her about the car rental woman’s incredulity. Forlornly, she replied, “I’m afraid people are beginning to accept the current economic situation a ‘new normal.’ You know – that it’s okay in a family to work two or three jobs, four jobs between the family, hopefully maybe one of them covers healthcare benefits; nobody expects a private pension any more, those are gone.”
And then she told me an evocative story about the old normal – the world that Occupy should be fighting to restore. Her dad, she said, had built their first family vacation house a few doors down, some sixty-odd years ago. He never made more than $25,000 a year selling furniture. Nowadays, the new houses dotting this stretch of Lake Michigan’s southern shore, built by tearing down the old, cost 50 times that. “There were very modest cottages close to ours,” Schakowsky said, emphasizing the words, dreamily recollecting a long-vanished social Shangri La. “You could do it. One guy could work at the steel mill, have healthcare for his family, he could have a secure retirement – and he might even have a little cabin where his wife and kids would go for the summer. And that was not weird, it was not greedy or overly ambitious – that’s how life was!”
That world was torn down, right here in Michigan City, by those who cared nothing for the confident middle class that built America’s mid-century greatness. “And what is infuriating” said Schakowsky, “I think to myself: ‘Why aren’t people rising up?'”
But then, last fall, they did rise up.
The question now is whether the energy that powered that uprising can reconstitute itself this spring and summer with anything like the same force. And this I severely doubt – at least so long as the only thing the movement knows how to demand is the root-and-branch reconstruction of society itself. Without, that is, stories like the one Schakowsky told me next, sitting on her Michigan City porch, about how she became a warrior for justice in the first place, and how in the process she built an army.
It was 1969. Schakowsky was a housewife with two young children, and she was in a grocery store studying a package of rancid pepper steak. “I had to ask the butcher how old this thing they called ‘pepper steak’ was.” He wouldn’t answer. “He told me I could go somewhere else.” She left.
A week later, she heard a commotion around that same meat counter, the same butcher yelling the same thing at another young housewife. But that housewife, whose name was Jackie Kendall, did not budge. Schakowsky, impressed, joined forces with Kendall and together they started a new organization – they called it “National Consumers United” – and soon figured out what no one else had: that every packaged item in a supermarket had something called an “expiration date.” Problem was, the expiration date was stamped on packages in code. Kendall and Schakowsky cracked the codes and published them all in a book; and then they moved out to the stores. “We would take the old stuff off the shelf. Oscar Meyer, the packaged meats – big offenders. And once we got the codes for baby food and infant formula – days, weeks, months, years behind the date.” They would put the offending items in carts and wheel them up to the store manager, having stuck them with pencil holes so they couldn’t go back on the shelves.
Now, I guess it’s possible they were inadvertently lending “legitimacy to those who have the power to satisfy the demands.” The managers didn’t feel legitimated, though. They felt scared shitless. So did their corporate overlords – especially when the women warriors started buying stock in the grocery chains and attending shareholder meetings. At one, held in a produce section in suburban Chicago, they inspired a stampede of stockholders demanding their proxy votes back. The CEO lost it: “I don’t know who you people are! You’re either Communists or spies from Jewel!” – the rival Midwestern grocery chain. They got on NBC Nightly News. Chains started stamping sell-by dates on their products. Oscar Meyer did so nationally. “Here we are, little nobodies, and the whole marketplace has changed! And it was like, whoa! What else can we do?”
Meat, modest meat – and a crucial opening salvo of the modern consumer’s movement, one of the most significant political developments of the 1970s. Demands were made; demands were satisfied. A popular movement grew. Citizens like Schakowsky and Jackie Kendall, who’d never fought the power before, consecrated their lives to activism – and stayed active, year after year after year.
One more story: It is 1989. Schakowsky, by then a professional troublemaker, is executive director of the Illinois State Council of Senior Citizens, looking out for the interests of the elderly. A new bill is passed in Washington, purportedly to fix Medicare’s deficiencies in handling catastrophic illness. But in a deal negotiated behind close doors between congressional power brokers and industry representatives (sound familiar?) it will be financed by a surtax on all Medicare recipients – giving poor seniors the highest effective tax rates in the nation. Schakowsky seeks a meeting with the most powerful powerbroker of them all, Chicago’s Dan Rosenkowski, then the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Reluctantly, he agrees to see them at a city facility for seniors in his working-class district – but only with her group’s leaders, not the 200 activists she has brought along. They would have to wait in another room – and he would only meet with the leaders if they promised not to “scream and yell.”
“So we had a debate in the other rooms about screaming and yelling,” Schakowsky chuckles. And they came up with, yes, a demand: They wouldn’t scream and yell, if he would at least show his face before the larger group.
He agreed. But in order to get to that larger group he had to walk through the senior center’s cafeteria. Which was where, entirely of their own accord, diners started booing him. He made for the exit. The codgers started chasing him. “And he walks a little faster. And a little faster. He’s finally galloping with all these seniors in tow behind him. Gets in the car. Now the cameras are there…he gets into his car, and the car is now surrounded by seniors. Including this woman, Leona Kozen, who’s in front of the car.”
I looked up Leonia Kozien. I learned she briefly became a national hero. Here’s the Chicago Tribune’s account of what happened next:
“As Rostenkoski dashed through the crowd to a waiting car and locked himself inside, Kozen took up a position in front of the car, holding a sign that read: ‘Seniors for Repeal of the Catastrophic Act.’ After blowing the horn, Rosenkowski’s driver edged the four-door sedan slowly forward, and Kozien was still on the hood, determinedly holding her sign only inches from the windshield. Except for the glass, she was virtually face-to-face with her congressman. ‘I was a little nervous,’ Kozien said later. ‘But I could see through the car window that he looked more afraid than I was.'”
More afraid than she was. Because he was faced with a demand, backed with the power to make it stick – the power of a movement.
About a month later, the bill – a major piece of legislation! – was repealed, an extraordinarily rare accomplishment. And all because people, many of whom, like Kozien, had never protested anything before, made the right demand to the right person at the right time and in the right place. “Congressmen saw what happened,” Shakowsky concludes triumphantly, “and said that if Dan Rostenkowski was vulnerable like that, they were vulnerable, too.”
Visionary radicalism can be galvanizing. But it can be enervating, too. For here is something that is also radicalizing: a sense of accomplishment. Of momentum. Of changing the world – even if only, at first, a little bit. We need both, to the exclusion of neither. Otherwise, the 1% will keep winning the game.
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He writes a weekly column for RollingStone.com.
Also by Rick Perlstein
• Romney and Son: What Mitt Learned from his Dad
• Why Newt Gingrich’s Greatest Triumph Was Founded on a Scam
• Why Mitt Romney’s Mormonism Doesn’t Matter
• Ronald Reagan: Welfare Queen of Montana (or: Tax Tips for Mitt Romney)”
• Obama at Halftime: How He Fumbled, Why He’s Recovering
• What Obama Needs to Change to Win
• Why Democrats Have a Problem With Young Voters
• Rick Santorum Was Wrong About Obama and College – But Not Completely Wrong
• Are Conservatives Crazier Than Ever?