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Occupy Wall Street Members Say They Welcome Solidarity But Don't Want To Be Co-Opted

Occupy Wall Street Cooptation

First Posted: 10/06/11 08:00 PM ET Updated: 12/06/11 05:12 AM ET

As labor unions and some Democratic Party politicians express support for the Occupy Wall Street movement, the core group of occupiers themselves are increasingly facing the question of whether too much mainstream support could dampen their radical message.

Protestors seem generally appreciative of the increasing union support for the movement -- but more wary of Democrats and establishment figures getting involved.

"We're very excited to have our union brothers and sisters march on the heart of greed," spokesman Patrick Bruner told HuffPost before a 10,000-strong Wednesday march organized in coordination with labor.

“We don’t necessarily think that the way they’re structured is the best,” Bruner said, referring to the unions' top-down organizational style. "But we believe the 99% needs a voice, and they're one of the few remaining."

Other movement members are skeptical of whether people like Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke can claim to understand the protesters.

Bernanke discussed the movement on Tuesday, saying the protesters "blame, with some justification, the problems in the financial sector for getting us into this mess, and they’re dissatisfied with the policy response here in Washington. And at some level, I can’t blame them."

"Nice to know he feels he has to say that," replied David Graeber, an anarchist anthropologist who has been involved with the protests from the beginning. "Otherwise meaningless."

"Obviously we welcome support from anyone," Graeber continued in an email, "but yes, [being co-opted is] a serious concern because a huge part of our message is our own internal democracy. The moment you even have a funding base it seriously limits what people feel they can say and do. And a top-down organization will always try to co-opt you. So we have to be very careful and insist people come on our terms or not at all."

Occupy Wall Street's terms may seem alien for people who are used to expressing themselves through unions or Democratic party politics. Unions rely on elections, shop stewards, and rigid grievance procedures to correct problems. The General Assemblies in New York's Zuccotti Park operate on a consensus model, with decisions emerging from a "progressive stack" speaking order that seeks to ensure "women and traditionally marginalized groups speak before men, especially white men."

Occupy Wall Street's style of protest, moreover, has much more in common with the 1999 anti-globalization protests in Seattle than it does with most unions' cautious demonstrations. The group spends nights camped out in "Liberty Square" and days on unpermitted marches. Despite their differences, union members and the people behind Occupy Wall Street say they have found common cause in opposing Wall Street's assault on "the 99%."

Jonathan Willson, a 21-year-old student who attends Johnson State College in Vermont, found himself in New York City's Foley Square on Wednesday night for a solidarity rally. No union member himself, he was surrounded by thousands from the labor movement and wore a DC 37 Local 372 trucker hat he'd been given the night before.

Since Monday, Willson had camped out with friends from school, alongside several hundred other occupiers in Zuccotti Park. "It's a little hard to find a place to sleep now," he explained.

Willson believes fighting Wall Street is more important than quibbling with union organization charts. "Hierarchy can't be a priority right now," he said.

Unions, meanwhile, are lining up to back Occupy Wall Street. In just the past few days, major organizations like the Communication Workers of America, the AFL-CIO and AFSCME have voiced support for the protesters' targets, if not all of their methods.

TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen, whose union made headlines after it was forced to bus protesters from the Brooklyn Bridge to prison, said he was happy to lend his union's support.

"Wall Street got bailed out after the recession. American working families didn't get bailed out," Samuelsen said at the Wednesday rally.

Samuelsen has been extremely critical of the NYPD's orders to bus drivers to transport the prisoners. Still, he continued, "these aren't rallies about police brutality. These are peaceful rallies with working families coming out here to say enough's enough, we need jobs, we needs jobs for us and for our kids."

Just hours after Samuelsen spoke to HuffPost, younger protesters broke off from the union rally and forced a confrontation with the NYPD that resulted in a wild melee of pepper-spraying and baton-wielding. Twenty-eight people went to jail.

As The New York Times noted on Wednesday, some in the union movement are "wary of being embarrassed by the far-left activists in the group who have repeatedly denounced the United States government."

Occupy Wall Street members, meanwhile, say they believe both unions and the movement can benefit from cautious collaboration.

"We have no trouble with allies as long as they don't corrupt the process," Graeber said. "There can be a great synergy if we are pressure from their left so they can get their reforms and they intervene to keep us out of jail ... but organizationally it's critical to keep them apart."

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