BOOTING THE BOOTH - Many Occupiers wonder: Do elections even matter?

Posted: November 07, 2011

TOMORROW is Election Day - a hallowed occasion in American democracy, when inspired and informed citizens choose their government, and their future, in the sanctity of a voting booth.

Or, as they like to call it in the rambling tent annex of City Hall known as Occupy Philly . . . Tuesday.

"I don't think it's particularly relevant to the movement," said Michael Hanes, when asked about Election Day, picking up a refrain that echoed loudly over the nonstop drumbeat of Dilworth Plaza, less than 48 hours before the polls open.

"I think civic participation and the general assembly" - nightly meetings where Occupy protesters seek to make decisions through consensus - "are more important," added Hanes, who lives in Baltimore but was at the Philadelphia protest to lead a "teach-in" on consensus decision-making.

The main kiosk at the west entrance to Occupy Philly is plastered with fliers for a "die-in" later today at PNC Bank and a Tuesday night event,"Why Does the Curfew Matter to Occupy Philadelphia?" but not one reference to Election Day.

Indeed, when it comes to the anti-corporate-greed Occupy movement that has blown open the national political dialogue in just six short weeks since it debuted on Wall Street, the main election debate is this:

Do elections even matter?

Many in the mainstream world of political punditry, who ignored the Occupy movement at first, are now quick to lecture it on how it needs to hurl itself into electing candidates - if not tomorrow's then in the 2012 federal elections - if it truly wants to leave its mark on the United States.

Just listen to the granite-faced voice of The Establishment, former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, who initially sniffed at the protests but returned to tell the Occupiers that "[a]t some point you need the unglamorous business of government, which entails not consensus but hard choices and reasoned compromise. The job of protest is to mobilize a mood - but to mobilize it with purpose."

Serious and sober advice! But it's gibberish to the ears of some demonstrators who joined the movement precisely because getting involved in the electoral process - specifically, tossing out the GOP and replacing it with Democrats in the White House and, for a time, in Congress - did nothing to stop the flow of wealth to the top 1 percent or to punish Wall Streeters who committed crimes.

Michael Moore, the left-wing filmmaker and rabble rouser who has spoken at Occupy rallies from New York's Zuccotti Park to Oakland, says that an emphasis on voting is tantamount to an endorsement of politics as usual.

"This movement is so beyond just, 'Hey, let's get behind this candidate, get them elected to office,' " Moore told CNN's Anderson Cooper last week. "Those days are over. You know, we've all worked for candidates. We've all voted. We've all participated. And what have we gotten out of it?"

A Fordham University poll of 301 Occupy Wall Street protesters found that 25 percent had no plans to vote in the 2012 presidential election and, despite a clear liberal orientation, only 39 percent said that they currently plan to vote for President Obama.

Yesterday in Dilworth Plaza, Occupy Philly backers described a relationship with the voting booth that would probably be summed up on Facebook as, "It's complicated." Most said that elections are a civic duty, and many said that they will be voting tomorrow, but no one voiced much enthusiasm.

Jessica Herwich, an activist and 35-year-old high-school English teacher who lives in Manayunk, said that she will cast a ballot but that is just one form of voting, that "you vote with your dollar, you vote when you decide what to watch on your TV, you vote when you decide to do nothing."

"If elections changed anything, they would be important," said C.T. Lawrence Butler, a founder of the Food Not Bombs movement, who was visiting Occupy Philly from a commune north of Baltimore. "But most of the time it's between Tweedledee and Tweedledum." Surveys have shown that a majority of Occupy protesters voted for Obama in 2008, but are fed up over his coddling of Wall Street or the unending war in Afghanistan.

The lack of focus on elections is a little frustrating to Cheri Honkala, the homeless advocate on tomorrow's ballot as the Green Party candidate for sheriff in a bid to halt evictions. She visited Occupy Philly hoping to drum up support.

"People would be voting for a candidate who's not aligned with the banks or the multinational corporations," Honkala insisted.

Critics of the Occupy movement insist that it won't succeed unless it copies the right-wing tea-party movement, which has wielded clout in national politics by striking fear into the GOP establishment - by beating or merely threatening its candidates.

To the "grown-up" punditry class - including even the Daily News editors who assigned me to this article to match a front page picturing a voting booth with the words "Occupy This!" - a move into elections will be a much-needed sign of maturity for the Occupiers.

Here's why the political pundits (including Daily News editors) are wrong, in my opinion.

Remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the guy with the national holiday and that big statue on the National Mall. Do you know how many political candidates or parties King endorsed in his career? Zero.

In six remarkable weeks, the movement that began with Occupy Wall Street has changed the national conversation so that foreclosure, student debt and the lack of jobs are no longer taboo words on cable-news shows. Everyone should vote, and there will surely be some 2012 campaigns - consumer-advocate Elizabeth Warren's Massachusetts Senate bid is a template - that stir this movement.

But a too-partisan flavor would sully the movement in the muck of the two-party system it's trying to uproot, and muddy its message about money in American elections. Every successful social movement needs foot soldiers sitting in at lunch counters and facing police clubs on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The Lyndon Johnsons of the world and their righteous legislation like the Voting Rights Act will lead from behind - as always.

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