What if Occupy Created a Movement so Big it Couldn't Control it?

What if Occupy Created a Movement so Big it Couldn't Control it?
Adam Martin

Occupy Wall Street is going on a press offensive to correct a round of stories on Wednesday that reported it was planning a national assembly for the summer, the latest example of the decentralized movement seeing its name used in ways its organizers don't support.

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Occupy groups in New York and Philadelphia say they never ratified a plan by a group called the 99 Percent Working Group to hold an assembly of Occupy "delegates" in Philadelphia on July 4. In fact, the Occupy groups say, they specifically denied the 99 Percent Declaration Working Group's request for their approval. But the plan nonetheless got reported as an Occupy action. It's just the most recent in a string of cases where the momentum of Occupy Wall Street as a movement got beyond the control of its "official" organizers in ways that contradict Occupy's own principles of autonomy.

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The report in the Associated Press sounded like the kind of thing people have been waiting for from Occupy Wall Street since it set up in Zuccotti Park and then refused to issue a list of demands: The 99 Percent Declaration Working Group would arrange an online election to select 876 delegates from occupations all over the country, and then on July 4, those delegates would meet in Philadelphia to ratify a petition that the group would submit to the U.S. Congress, the Supreme Court, the president, and every candidate for office. Finally, the thinking went, those in power would know what Occupy Wall Street wanted, and could figure out whether and how to give it to them. 

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But the 99 Percent Declaration Working Group doesn't represent Occupy Wall Street, at least according to Occupy Wall Street. On Thursday, the Occupy PR team in New York issued a statement disavowing the plan: "The 99% Declaration and its call for a “national general assembly” in Philadelphia in July is not affiliated with or endorsed by Occupy Wall Street, and the organizers’ plans blatantly contradict OWS’ stated principles." It quoted a resolution passed by Occupy Philadelphia's general assembly: "We do not support the 99% Declaration, its group, its website, its National GA and anything else associated with it." And it asked reporters to please check with Occupy Wall Street before running such stories. But aside from asking, there's not much Occupy can do to keep others from using its name. 

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"We're not everyone's boss. There was a discussion about trademarking Occupy Wall Street. And we actually pursued that for a while. But what we realized is … we're taking on the wealthiest 1 percent, they have so much power," organizer Haywood Carey told The Atlantic Wire. "We're not going to sit here and file lawsuits against everyone and say we're Occupy, you're not Occupy." So a PR push clarifying its message is about the most the group can do to curb what it sees as misuse of its name.

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Essentially, something can only be considered an "official" statement or action by Occupy Wall Street if it gains approval by the group's general assembly in New York. It's a cumbersome process, and most Occupy-related actions don't go through it -- but they're done in "good faith" with the guidelines the group ratified in its Statement of Autonomy, so there's usually no problem. Lately, though, more such Occupy-branded actions that diverge from the group's ethos have been popping up. Remember the Occupy Super PAC last week and quickly drew the ire of the movement? Or the Occupy candidates, who've emerged despite the fact that the group has specifically pledged not to endorse parties or candidates? Or that delegation from Zuccotti Park that nearly (gasp) met with Congress before thinking better of it?

"You only need our permission if you want to use the phrase we are Occupy Wall Street, or if you want to use our money," Carey said. The money's in a bank vault so it's not really available for the taking, but the name's out there. And whether Occupy approves or not, people are using it.