With Occupy Albany out of the public eye, liberal legislative goals suffer
More than six months after Occupy Albany was uprooted from its encampment near the state Capitol, the group persists, working out of a small storefront on Madison Avenue in downtown Albany. And since being forcibly removed by the city of Albany on Dec. 22, its members admit some aspects of life are now better.
“I think it’s a mixed bag,” said one Occupy Albany organizer, Colin Donnaruma. “On one hand the movement has been somewhat diminished. But we also used to spend an enormous amount of time trying to feed ourselves and keep warm.”
But most would go back to the old way of living in a minute: The change of location poses a risk for a movement built on the willingness of its participants to risk physical discomfort—and it has diminished the fortunes of liberal allies seeking to capitalize on its political muscle.
When Occupy Albany was uprooted, the movement was at its zenith; two weeks earlier Gov. Andrew Cuomo had agreed to an overhaul of the state’s tax code that looked a lot like the “millionaires’ tax” that liberal, often union-backed interest groups had sought to extend for the prior two years. Many involved, or at least those willing to speak about the sudden reversal, credited the political momentum created by the spontaneous uprising.
Those involved with Occupy Albany say that the compelling narrative created by a group of people risking physical harm in the dead of winter—and the sheer excitement of the movement’s underlying illegality—has been impossible to recreate. And as the Occupy movement has ceased to fill the public consciousness, progressive activists say it has become more difficult to create momentum for the 99 percent’s agenda.
“Occupy Albany was fierce in its advocacy for the minimum wage, but there’s absolutely not the ability to attract the same great numbers of people or to have an encampment that generates 24/7 media coverage,” said Michael Kink, the executive director of the union-backed Strong Economy for All Coalition. “And I’m not sure there’s any sort of switch that you could turn on or off.”
The effort to hike the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8.50 was perhaps the best example of Occupy’s impact on the legislative agenda, with a coalition behind it that was very similar to the one that pushed for an extension of the millionaires’ tax.
During this year’s movement to raise the minimum wage, Occupy activists in early June stormed the office of Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, whose conference refused to take up the minimum-wage bill. A resulting six arrests brought a flurry of media coverage, but nothing close to the sustained drumbeat at the original Occupy Albany or of Zuccotti Park.
Where once lawmakers could be educated at “teach-ins,” Occupy organizers have grown frustrated that their stunts—like presenting Cuomo with a giant check to parody the $2 million that the Committee to Save New York took from the gambling industry—have had to get more and more creative simply to gain a little attention. The media moved on to other stories, with coverage shifting to the Republican presidential nomination contest nationally, and to other legislative battles in New York.
As a result, the pressure that prodded both Cuomo and Senate Republicans into backing last year’s overhaul creating a higher tax bracket for high-income earners seems to have diminished. Ultimately the minimum-wage bill never got the Senate floor, with forces on both the second or third floors apparently less concerned about the movement’s long-term staying power or its ability to translate its message to the ballot box.
For Occupiers, the plan is to keep pushing the same issues of class and corporate corruption. Unlike the Tea Party, which has always had an element of Astroturf to it, no real electoral movement from Occupy has sprung forth. And for their liberal allies, the challenge is to harness the resonance of the movement toward an electoral political system, which the Occupiers have no real interest in engaging.
Doug Forand, a Democratic political consultant who has been heavily involved in both union issue advocacy and Senate Democratic campaign efforts, said the hopeful sign for progressives is that the agenda pushed by Occupy activists resonated broadly—even if the issues at hand are no longer being constantly put forth by the media.
Forand predicted that raising the minimum wage could well be part of a broad postelection deal tied to legislators’ pay raises—a deal more in classic Albany fashion than Occupiers would ever hope to strike. Still, if such a deal were made, it would be because the minimum-wage issue had become a toxic one for Senate Republicans at the ballot box in November, Forand said.
“It will be because they need to release a pressure value on that particular issue,” Forand said. “There needs to be something to rally attention around issues. And you’re going to see elections doing that.”
But for Occupiers, the idea of trading a legislative pay raise for a minimum wage is a crass one.
“We don’t engage in that type of traditional lobbying or trading,” Donnaruma said. “We have clear issues, and we present them.”
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