WASHINGTON -- Boot camp is about to begin.
On Monday and extending throughout this week, a coalition of progressive organizations from across the country will be hosting more than 900 training sessions with the goal of educating 100,000 participants in old-fashioned, in-your-face, direct-action protest techniques. The week of teach-ins are part of what the coalition is calling the 99 Percent Spring. Roughly 50,000 people will be taught in person, and plans call for another 50,000 to be trained online.
If that sounds like a familiar meme, it's not an accident. Pressured by Occupy Wall Street, the coalition's members -- including MoveOn, the United Auto Workers, Greenpeace and Rebuild the Dream -- are looking to move from more passive actions like online petitions, calls to Congress and town-square rallies to more aggressive Occupy-style targets and tactics.
It's a reflection of how the Occupy movement has forced some institutional liberal groups to radicalize -- or at least appear to -- to meet the new fervent climate, as stubborn unemployment and yawning inequality push activism outside the confines of traditional electoral politics. MoveOn-type activists who may have previously been content with a potluck and a petition campaign are now taking a look at more radical tactics with an open mind: Maybe Greenpeace, which long favored confrontational tactics years before Occupy, is on to something, they say.
And despite the Occupy movement's reputation for a steadfast refusal to work in alliance with any other organized group, lest it be "co-opted," Occupy activists will be leading some of the trainings. That hasn't prevented self-appointed defenders of Occupy purity from objecting to the 99 Percent Spring as a takeover by a Democratic front group.
Tim Franzen, an organizer with Occupy Atlanta, is leading three training sessions for the coalition. The coalition might train as many as 1,000 people in Atlanta, he estimated. He doesn't see MoveOn as co-opting Occupy. It's the other way around, he said. "The movement has co-opted them," he observed. "That's the sign of the times." Occupy has pushed all these organizations to be tougher, according to Franzen.
Institutional liberals were caught flatfooted by the Occupy explosion. "We were sitting in a boardroom wondering how to change the conversation," said coalition organizer Liz Butler, marveling at how the Occupy movement simply started up and did just that.
Occupy, of course, does not hold a patent on direct action. The union-led occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol in February 2011 predated the birth of Occupy movement later that year in September. And one of the most significant progressive victories of last year arrived thanks to mass demonstrations and arrests in November in front of the White House that led President Barack Obama to halt plans for the Keystone XL pipeline. Butler's organization 1Sky had merged with 350.org, which led those protests.
The trainings are a way, Butler said, to build off of the Wisconsin demonstrations, the D.C. actions against Keystone and the Occupy movement's encampments. "Our members were inspired by the courage and the moral clarity they saw," she said. "We need a whole lot more of that courageous action."
Said Larry Cohen, Communication Workers of America president: "We need direct action. Our members know it."
The organizing is not aimed at any one event, rally or issue and the effect will be unpredictable. Training tens of thousands of people in arrest techniques to make a political point tends to inspire people to put that training to use.
Each training session lasts a full day and covers a lot of ground. The curriculum is broken into three basic areas: explaining broader economic issues such as income inequality and attacks on workers' rights, encouraging participants to tell their stories of economic injustice and hardship, and teaching the nuts-and-bolts of nonviolent direct action.
The trainings' objectives, provided to The Huffington Post, include items like "define nonviolent direct action and the core methods of resistance," "explore case studies of direct action and the relationship between vision, strategy goals, tactics and power," and "learn what kinds of roles are required for an action." The sessions will focus on issues of economic justice, organizers said. The trainings include a role-playing scenario for a bank protest.
"We're not doing training for training's sake," says Mehrdad Azemun, national field director for the National People's Action. "This is about moving people and creating a lot of heat and light in the streets ... We need to be in the streets. We need to be in the bank lobbies and we need to be in the shareholder meetings."
The initial plan is to use the trainings to instigate actions for Tax Day on April 17 and upcoming shareholder meetings, Azemun said. Those actions will highlight corporate tax loopholes and workers' rights, he said. Organizers are planning actions at Coke's shareholder meeting later this month and at Bank of America's shareholder meeting in May, among others, for what Azemun calls a "corporate accountability movement."
Coke and Bank of America could not be immediately reached for comment.
No matter what Azemun calls the organizing effort, some Occupy veterans see the coalition as attempting to co-opt their hard work. They didn't camp out in parks and sidewalks for weeks and months just to have MoveOn -- and recent critic Van Jones and his Rebuild the Dream -- steal their meme. The movement has always been leery of old-guard progressive groups, especially the ones aligned with President Obama.
Yet the coalition's organizers are quick to praise Occupy for the inspiration as a way of blunting the criticism.
"MoveOn members around the country have worked hard to support it, and it's one of the things that inspired the 99% Spring," Ruben continued. "It's great that some Occupiers are participating in the 99% Spring, and of course many will not -- we know and respect that Occupy is a diverse movement with lots of different people with lots of different views."
Franzen, the Occupy Atlanta organizer, sees the coalition as a boost to the Occupy movement. "They have an audience that hasn't ever come out to a park before," he said. "This is going to bring a whole new segment of folks that have been on the sidelines."
Eighty-five veteran trainers ran sessions with more than 1,000 new trainers, who will then carry out the bulk of the work this week. Occupy New Hampshire contributed three such "trainers to train trainers"; Occupy Los Angeles and Portland offered one each. Rainforest Action Network, Ruckus, National People's Action and Greenpeace has contributed top trainers as well. MoveOn provided seven and unions sent at least 25.
Cohen, whose CWA workers have protested alongside Franzen's Occupy Atlanta, told HuffPost that this may move Occupy's message away from anger -- and its clashes with police. "How do we take action in a way that inspires a nation rather than is based on anger?" he asked. "The anger is understandable. Our goal is to be part of building a coalition of 50 million or more -- and not 5,000. We're not going to build something that will win primarily on anger."
Deborah Curtis, 64, certainly has reason to be angry. The disabled Phoenix resident recently returned to school to become a paralegal. Although she graduated her program, she hasn't been able to find employment. "I worked hard and I played by all the rules," she told HuffPost. "I'm still fighting to get ahead."
Curtis barely gets by on her disability income, she said, adding that her dire living conditions have led her to become active in MoveOn. When Occupy Phoenix took root, she attended two protests. But because of her fibromyalgia and the chronic pain associated with her condition, she couldn't do much more. "I can't be going to stay somewhere," she said. "I'm with them in spirit."She will attend a training this week, which may lead Curtis to participate in a direct action or two -- even if she has to use her walker. "I'm excited," she said. "It will give me the confidence and the relationships and the tools."