After the tents came down in Academy Park last winter, with help from the Albany Police and an eviction order issued by the city of Albany, Occupy Albany, along with other Occupy movements across the country, seemed, for those looking from the outside in, to fade quietly with the setting sun of yesterday’s news. With the exception of a few highly publicized Occupy camp evictions like the one in Oakland, Calif., coverage of Occupy activities failed to make headlines in mainstream media outlets.
As the collective attention moved on to a plethora of other issues and stories, Occupy members, including those in Albany, have been busy doing exactly what detractors said they were incapable of accomplishing: getting focused.
“It was a communicative phase,” said Matt Edge, an Occupy activist and Berne resident. “The first year was a formative one. We were talking, learning, and having teach-ins. Everyone wanted to know what our demands were. But we weren’t ready for that, we weren’t there yet.”
Edge noted that Occupy was “discredited for being in this formative stage,” and while it may not have been clear to others, people inside of the movement were taking their time to plan before they were ready to “communicate what they had learned.”
The most recent expression of one of Occupy’s political platforms stretched from Albany down the New York State Thruway, into New York City, and onward to Washington, D.C. “We just completed what I believe to be the biggest banner drop in [United States] history,” said Edge. “Ninety-nine 12-feet-wide banners were dropped within a single hour on a Friday morning just before commuter traffic.”
The banners were hand-printed by Occupy activists, and each contained a similar message: Get money out of politics. There was a unique phrase on each banner indicating a reason to do so. One read, “For people over profits.” Another stated, “For affordable healthcare.” The result was the concentrated, collaborative efforts of one inner faction of Occupy: The Money Out of Politics (MOP) working group.
In the early stages of the movement there were (and still are) meetings called General Assemblies. Attendees, with the common goal of finding a home to voice their dissent, found themselves part of large groups. Enter early criticism of Occupy: These meetings seemed somewhat overwhelming, and the communicative hand gestures used by the masses were openly mocked by naysayers. The lengthy process of giving each person an equal voice raised query to the effectiveness of the newly formed resistance. But through these gatherings, working groups were formed to establish smaller venues where protestors could concentrate on their specific issues.
“My interest was in affecting change regarding our societal condition,” said Susan MacBryde, an Albany resident. “At this point, things are not conducive to a true democracy.” After attending a GA, MacBryde signed up with the MOP group. She helped to make the banners for the September event, and was aware of the plans to execute the drop.
“All banners were scheduled to hang between 6 and 7 AM on Sept. 14, initially between Albany and Philadelphia,” she said. “Three core banner-hanging teams had been established in upstate New York, Philadelphia, and New York City. Not all banners got hung in that hour, and an ‘A’ team from Albany to Philadelphia collected unhung banners which they then hung along their way on I-87 and on I-95 through [Washington, D.C.] on Friday and Saturday.” After leaving the capital, the group dropped additional banners in Maryland and Delaware before they returned to New York city for the Occupy march on Sept. 17, to celebrate the anniversary of the original occupation.
The operation was difficult and risky. Extensive thought was given to securing the banners and to the consequences if those involved were intercepted by police. “No permits were sought,” said MacBryde. “We knew they would not be granted. This was intended as a nonviolent political action of civil disobedience. We had a legal team research the liabilities. All banner droppers knew they faced a $50 fine and up to two weeks in jail if arrested. All were willing to take that risk. We had legal representation ready for any arrests.”
Like Edge, MacBryde believes that campaign finance reform would help to address a multitude of other issues. They hope that removing the funds flowing from special interest groups and corporations to political candidates will ensure that politicians represent the desires of the people who elect them, not the conglomerates writing enormous campaign checks.
Edge camped out during the first week of the occupation of Zuccotti Park, considered the origin of the Occupy movement, while attending the City University of New York School of Law. At CUNY, he successfully petitioned for a class on campaign finance reform. The first half of the class was dedicated to study of laws and cases. The second half was all action, under the supervision of a professor, the class (with some help from additional Occupy members) wrote a version of a bill. Edge and members of the Occupy Democracy Project working group will eventually present the legislation, the Clean Elections Now bill, to New York lawmakers in the hope that it will become state law.
The Student Lawyer described some of the nuts and bolts of the legislation in this year’s September issue: “. . . the Occupy bill allows public financing for candidates who collect a certain number of small donations; typically $5, and matching funds if they are wildly outspent by opponents who are not accepting public funds.” It attempts to level the election playing field for candidates that do not have large sums of capital, creating publicly funded candidates who don’t need to rely on private donations.
Other already established legislation, such as Arizona’s Clean Elections law (passed in 1998), has not been entirely successful. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling said that the Arizona law was unconstitutional, a decision that Edge found disturbing. He is also critical of the New York version of the Clean Elections bill, but more content with the federal version, Fair Elections Now. “I have an eye towards 2014,” said Edge. “We have a chance to get a Congress that really supports campaign finance reform.”
In Albany, reaching that goal means informing the voters about which candidates publicly support campaign finance reform. “After ‘occupying’ the highways with our five state MOP banner drop, the MOP working group will now begin to ‘occupy’ Capital District and mid-Hudson neighborhoods to build our MOP voter bloc and get out the vote for progressive candidates who support campaign finance reform,” said MacBryde.
The “voter bloc” refers to groups of people who pledge to support candidates who are in favor of a specific issue.
“After literally knocking on thousands of doors, this is what I’ve found,” said Edge: “About 30 to 40 percent don’t have time or don’t want to talk to strangers, but of the people who take the time to hear why we are there, about 90 percent end up joining.”
He recalled canvassing the district in Long Island where Tony Avella unseated the incumbent state senator, Frank Padavan. “We spent all summer long, going door-to-door in the voting bloc. Avella ending up winning by around 500 votes.”
One area the MOP group will focus on for November’s election is the new 19th congressional district (formerly the 20th district), currently represented by GOP Rep. Chris Gibson, whom Edge and MacBryde say does not support campaign finance reform. (Gibson was unavailable for comment.) “We are not explicitly endorsing or negating a candidate, just informing on this specific issue,” said MacBryde.
That’s not all Occupy Albany has up its sleeve for this fall. The MOP group is planning a large-scale banner drop at an undisclosed location here in Albany in the very near future, which will signify the launch of another leg of Occupy’s campaign to change the political status quo.
They have learned a lot from their first year of organizing and are ready to use that knowledge. After Occupy attempted to lobby for campaign finance reform in Albany this past year, Edge said that they were routinely dismissed by elected officials. “We won’t go to another politician before we have to power to unseat them,” he said. Apparently, the group has learned some valuable lessons.