In early November, Nathan Kleinman, an Occupy protester in Philadelphia, received an email from someone named Michael Pollok who said he was part of a group of protesters affiliated with the Occupy movement. Pollok said the group planned to hold a convention in Philadelphia during the week of July 4, when 876 delegates from congressional districts around the country would draft "a petition for a redress of grievances" to be presented to Congress.
Kleinman didn't like the idea, and he didn't think it would go over well with other people at Occupy Philly either. He had a few specific concerns, chief among them the fact that the event involved a representative model of government, as opposed to the consensus model that has characterized the Occupy movement from the beginning.
"I explained all that and had a back-and-forth with him. He got increasingly testy and his responses were increasingly dismissive, and so eventually I gave up on him and figured he'd go away," said Kleinman. "But that's not what happened clearly."
This week, the Associated Press and other media outlets reported on Pollok's plans for the convention, unleashing a bitter debate among occupiers over the question of who has the right to represent the movement. (The Huffington Post posted the AP story.)
After Pollok reached out to Kleinman, critics within Occupy Philly said, people involved in his organization, the 99% Declaration Working Group, brought their plans to the General Assembly of Occupy Philly. Just as Kleinman had warned Pollok, those ideas met with disapproval.
Rumors circulated through multiple Occupy sites that Pollok wanted to create his own party; there was vague talk of a power grab. "It was clear that he was trying to co-opt the energy of the movement," said Kleinman, "and it was not clear what those purposes were."
Many people involved in the Occupy movement were galled that Pollok seemed to be purporting to represent the movement as a whole. "It's not something these guys really have the right to do," said Aaron Black, a participant in Occupy Wall Street. "I suppose everybody can use the word 'occupy,' but I feel like this is extremely misleading and it's not something we support."
For his part, Pollok, a lawyer who advised Occupy protesters arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge last year, said he has no plans to start a new political party. He said he never claimed to represent the Occupy movement and noted that a press release about the convention plans described his group's members as "former" occupiers. But he added, "We have just as much a right to be part of the Occupy movement and the 99% movement as anybody."
Beyond that issue of legitimacy, the conflict has been fueled by a question crucial to the future of the Occupy movement: To what extent is the movement willing to engage with the mainstream political system? Pollok drew a distinction between the 99% Declaration Working Group and its critics in the Occupy movement, saying that his contingent wants to "reform" the system while its opponents want to "tear it down."
In reality, the division isn't so clear. Many who disapprove of Pollok's plans have said they are willing to work with the government. Aaron Black, from Occupy Wall Street, said he was one of at least 50 or 60 people from Occupy movements around the country who have met with members of Congress in recent months in an attempt to persuade them to outlaw corporate personhood.
The difference, Black argued, is that they present themselves as individual occupiers, not representatives of the movement. He also said they're acting with the support of the general assemblies in their cities.
In fact, no one embodies a willingness to work within the system more fully than Nathan Kleinman, who initially tried to discourage Pollok from holding the convention. For about a month, he has been running for Congress in the 14th District of Pennsylvania as a Democrat.
"I don't believe that Congress is the be-all end-all for how to improve the country," Kleinman said. "I'm still involved in Occupy Philly, but I'm in favor of a multipronged approach."