As the Occupy Wall Street protest enters its third week, spreading across the country and making headlines globally, much U.S. media coverage has downplayed the movement as unorganized and unserious, lacking leadership and clear demands.
But activist and author Van Jones sees the protest as just the beginning. On Monday, speaking before attendees at the Take Back the American Dream Conference — a Washington, D.C. meeting of multiple progressive organizations working to build a cohesive national agenda — he interrupted his PowerPoint presentation to give an update from New York. Describing the activists as courageous in the face of police pepper spray and arrests, he announced that U.S. Marine veterans were reportedly joining the protesters.
"Marines are going to protect them and stand with them in their dress blues," Jones exclaimed to hundreds of cheering participants, of various ages and ethnic backgrounds, assembled in a ballroom at the Washington Hilton Hotel. "This is a movement moment! Something's happening in America! Don't you give up on this country! Don't you give up on this movement! This is your movement!"
Staging a Left-Wing Tea Party
The movement Jones referred to is the American Dream Movement, an idea he helped spearhead in June. Gearing it toward disaffected Americans struggling to maintain their livelihoods as the largest corporations make record profits, he strategized, Tea Party-style, to get them all under one banner. Last summer he called on citizens to submit their ideas on jobs, health care and equality for an organizational charter called the Contract for the American Dream, and vote on them at house meetings around the country.
Both tactics had been utilized by the conservative Tea Party, which in 2009 enjoyed a bright media spotlight for effectively mobilizing thousands of Americans around the ideal of liberty from big government. However, the American Dream Movement, despite being backed by more than 70 progressive organizations, didn't appear to have done that much at the outset. Speaking today, the first day of a three-day conference that has drawn 2,000 attendees, according to representatives, Jones said that they have in fact been organizing — strategically and substantially:
When the Tea Party started they had 800 house meetings across America to launch their movement. When we started, we didn't have 800. We had 1,597 — three shy of double just to start! The media didn't say a word about it.
The Tea Party engaged 50,000 people to create their [Contract from America] agenda — everyone was shocked … We didn't have 50,000. With no Fox News, with no Koch Brothers — just with the people in this room, Netroots organizing, grassroots organizing — we didn't have 50,000. We had 131,203 — almost triple the Tea Party when we started! We didn't accept the lie that progressives don't know how to work together.
"Quit Just Blogging About It"
Along with the accolades, however, Jones also criticized the liberal crowd, which he accused of putting all their energy into electing President Obama and then sitting on the sidelines, or complaining in the blogosphere, when the president disappointed them.
Some people love the president; some people are mad at him. God bless you both. What are we going to do, though? What are we going to do about our country? We have the wrong theory of the president's seat. We somehow thought that by electing a single person, an individual who was inspiring … that we could just sit back and munch popcorn and watch him.
Jones pointed out that past presidents were pushed by outside agitators. Lyndon B. Johnson signed laws at the behest of the civil rights movement, for example, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt ushered in the New Deal after being pushed by the labor movement.
He further chastised progressive activists for segregating off into their own individual causes — labor, racial justice, LGBT rights, immigrant rights, environmentalism — instead of working cohesively toward common economic and social goals:
We talk collective. We talk Kumbaya. We talk solidarity forever. But we have enacted the most individualistic strategy in the republic. Me, myself, my group, my cause, my brand, my thing … If we can be as warm and sharing and kind as the Tea Party — which one might suspect is a relatively low bar — we might be able to do something for our country. That's the invitation to you.
To illustrate the collective power that he believes they wield, Jones invited to the stage leaders from 35 different organizations — including the League of Young Voters, People for the American Way, the American Federation of Government Employees, the Hip Hop Caucus and MoveOn.org — who announced the millions of Americans among their combined membership and stated their alliance with the American Dream Movement.
For the next two days, the conference will continue brainstorming ways to grow the movement and take it to every corner of the country. Through breakout sessions — such as "How Citizens Can Challenge the Bankers' Hold on Washington," "Challenging the Mainstream Media to Report Our Reality" and "Without Vision the People Will Perish: What Do We Believe, and How Do We Talk About It?" — participants hope to build a momentum that will not only rival but surpass the Tea Party's.
Jones, who has led the American Dream Movement from its inception, ended his remarks by saying that after the conference, he would no longer be its sole voice:
It's been a tough road for me. I came to this town with high hopes, just like many of you. Stepped on some rakes and left broken-hearted. But you have to ask yourself a question as a person, as a father, and as a movement: What happens when you have a big dream, and it gets crushed? … Do you just lay there forever, or do you get back up with a bigger dream? We're back now with an even bigger dream.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.