Occupy looks to hone agenda after camps fade

Los Angeles City sanitation workers clean up the aftermath of the Occupy Los Angeles after police broke up the large encampment of protesters who had been camping out for the past two months at City Hall, Nov. 30, 2011.
AP Photo/Gus Ruelas

NEW YORK - For more than two months, they were open-air communes where people came to rebuild society and start a nationwide discussion on how to close the wide gap between the rich and the poor. But as Occupy Wall Street tent cities fade away, a growing number of protesters are pushing to put a clear message ahead of the movement.

Alan Collinge has his list ready — return bankruptcy protection to student loans. Bring back regulations that were removed from the Glass-Steagall Act. End corporate personhood.

"They should come up with a short term list of no brainer agenda items," said Collinge, wearing a huge sign in the rain at New York's Zuccotti Park calling for student loan reforms.

More than a dozen other protesters interviewed by The Associated Press also came up with a wish list of specifics to address what they say is corporate greed and economic inequality. The list of demands ranged from the simple — get corporate money out of politics — to the ethereal (make sure Washington politicians act with a moral conscience).

Complete Coverage: Occupy Wall Street protests

Asking Occupy protesters what, exactly, they would do to reform government and the financial system is a loaded question and a source of internal conflict. Collinge, 41, of Tacoma, Wash., said he has unsuccessfully lobbied Occupy's general assembly meetings in New York to develop a strong platform, but has been rebuffed.

"A lot of people, they think that this should be sort of a catchall" for every issue, he said, the goal being to expose the economic problems in the country, not solve them.

Other cities' movements have held meetings of committees with titles like "cohesive messaging" to discuss strategy, but haven't agreed on listing specifics as a movement. The greater purpose isn't to influence the government or the financial system through classic demands, but to foster broad cultural changes that will gradually empower people to stop depending on big corporations and Wall Street money.

"All the energy has gone into an outcry over economic conditions, with the hope that others will join us and pick up issues they care about," says Bill Dobbs, press liaison for Occupy Wall Street in New York. "Our best hope is inspiring other people to take action to bring economic justice."

Some observers and experts predict that Occupy groups may spend the next few months focusing on smaller actions while waiting for the summer when the Republican and Democratic conventions would give Occupiers a world-wide audience.

But ask around, and protesters who spent weeks living in encampments and talking about the country's woes have a clear idea of what they want.

A number have called for limiting campaign donations and getting big money out of politics. Some Occupy members want to limit the amount of money a person is allowed to give a politician. Others want to ban corporate donations specifically, or the number of campaign ads.

"How did Abraham Lincoln ever become president without a television set?" asked Ryan Peterson, an entertainment company worker from Chicago who lived for weeks in Zuccotti Park. Paul Lemaire, a 20-year-old visual arts student from Brooklyn, wants the two-party system eliminated.

The influence of money in politics is one of the greatest factors behind the gap between the superrich and the poor, said James Parrott, chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute in New York, which published a report last year on economic disparity. It shows "that they're very focused in understanding the root causes" of the country's economic issues, he said.

The call for tighter regulation of campaign contributions won't gain traction anytime soon. The Supreme Court, in its landmark Citizens United decision in January 2010, cleared the way for corporations to spend unlimited funds to influence elections, often using money from anonymous donors. The court struck down most of the so-called McCain-Feingold law that had set tight restrictions on such donations, arguing that government did not have the right to regulate political speech.

Campaign regulation, stopping wars that strain resources, halting corporate personhood — the spending power given to corporations in the 2010 Supreme Court ruling — and addressing higher education costs have emerged as key goals of the Occupy movement in Los Angeles. Organizers say they are now focusing on sharpening their objectives, as police moved in to shut down the two-month-old encampment this week.

"We've been collecting ideas, seeing what the priorities are, vetting and researching them," said activist Suzanne O'Keeffe, a member of Occupy LA's Demands & Objectives Committee.

Los Angeles member Mario Brito said the movement plans to pressure elected and bank officials for a moratorium on foreclosures, and said members would "occupy" bank lobbies, boardrooms and executives' homes to force the action.

In Minneapolis, five members of the Occupy MN "Cohesive Messaging Committee" gathered to talk strategy this week at a downtown coffee shop, asking that people attending recent General Assembly meetings fill out cards expressing broad themes that were important to them. The group entered the cards into a spreadsheet and found economic justice, democracy, education and campaign finance reform as the common themes.

Collinge, an aerospace engineer who later founded a website about problems with student loans, lists the congressional bill he wants passed to return bankruptcy protections to student loans. The Depression-Era Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial banking from investment banking, is another named law cited at the top of protesters' demands in cities across the country. Most of the restrictions that regulated the two forms of banking were repealed in 1999, and are blamed by many economists for contributing to the financial crisis in 2007.

Kalle Lasn, the co-founder of Adbusters, the Canadian magazine that helped ignite the Occupy movement, supports a 1 percent global "Robin Hood" tax on big financial transactions. Similar taxes and increases have been proposed for years, including the Obama administration's "financial crisis responsibility fee" tax proposal of last year, intended to raise $90 billion over the next decade.

As individual protesters and movements fashion a platform, experts and organizers warned that defining the movement more broadly keeps everyone in and keeps responsibility in the hands of the power brokers.

"They've achieved a lot by having the open ended process that they've had so far," said Parrott, the Fiscal Policy Institute's chief economist. "They should be selective in that there are some people who are trying to glom onto the stage that they've created" with ideas that aren't part of the main movement.

Will Birney, who left his job as a waiter in Westport, Ct., to join Occupy's New York movement, has one wish, although it can't be passed into law or regulated by the Treasury Department.

"I would instill a fair conscience, if people could look to morality," said Birney, 26.

He knows he's reaching, but says that's the point of the movement.

"I'm not even thinking we're going to get concrete solutions out of this," he said. "All I want is a change."