Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.
Editor’s note: Starting today, The ITT List will be providing The Daily Occupation, with updates, links and in some cases direct reporting on the Occupy movement that has spread from New York City across the world. Today: Rebecca Burns on the mixed reception given to politicians and civil rights activists in Chicago, Atlanta and New York. At Friday’s evening’s General Assembly of Occupy Chicago, members met the presence of Rev. Jesse Jackson with mixed reactions. After appearing earlier that day in front of the Federal Reserve Bank, where protesters have been gathering now for nearly three weeks, Jackson addressed the assembled crowd with a message of support. While some members cheered his decision to align himself publicly with the movement, others began to make “point of process” or “time” hand signs as his address stretched beyond the five minutes allotted to other speakers. One of the most recognizable features of the “occupations” taking place across the country is the leaderless form that they have taken. A structure has emerged that allows all participants equal opportunity to speak. A deep ambivalence toward breaking this format on behalf of high-profile speakers has emerged at several sites of the Occupy Together movement, as politicians have sought to schedule addresses to the assembled crowds—only to be told that they, like everyone else, must wait their turn.
While organizers say that this is necessary in a genuinely democratic movement, the mainstream media has been quick to seize on such moments as further evidence of any of the long list of (often contradictory) ills with which protestors are supposedly afflicted. Between issuing charges of tactical cluelessness and covert pro-Obama activity, critics recently tried to frame U.S. Representative John Lewis’ unsuccessful attempt to address Occupy Atlanta as an instance of racism. Lewis, a Democratic member of Congress and Civil Rights veteran, attended the Atlanta group’s General Assembly on October 7 but was unable to stay long enough to reach the front of the queue that had assembled to speak. While Fox News ran the headline “ ‘Occupy Atlanta’ Silences Civil Rights Hero John Lewis,” a statement from Lewis’ spokeswoman said that not only was he not offended, but the group’s organizing process reminded him of him of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), with whom Lewis organized a number of iconic Civil Rights-era protests. Occupy Atlanta was quick to apologize to anyone who had been offended by the incident and to make it clear that Lewis was welcome to return, but a more fundamental debate has centered on whether the Occupy Together movements should permit politicians to align themselves with the movement. In New York, when Rep. Charles Rangel showed up at Occupy Wall Street, he was reportedly booed by several protestors shouting, “you, sir, have no business being here—you’re part of the problem.” At Occupy Chicago’s General Assembly the following Sunday, members again discussed Jackson’s appearance and what it meant for the movement’s message. While several speakers said that they believed that the group needed to remain politically unaffiliated and focus on the fact that all politicians were culpable for a government beholden to corporate interests, other members believed that the group should allow all speakers, so long as none were given special privileges. “Everyone should get their five minutes,” summed up one member.