By Russell Berman and Alicia M. Cohn - 10/06/11 12:40 AM EDT
Democratic lawmakers have begun to embrace the Occupy Wall Street protests as they spread to Washington on Thursday, with some likening the movement to a Tea Party of the left.
Several liberal House lawmakers endorsed the protests Wednesday, and the leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus said they had been inspired by demonstrators who have been arrested by the hundreds in New York City.
“We join the calls for corporate accountability and expanded middle-class opportunity.”
The fourth-ranking House Democrat, Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.), released a statement Wednesday saying, “The silent masses aren’t so silent anymore. They are fighting to give voice to the struggles that everyday Americans are going through.”
The statements of support came ahead of a large rally planned for Thursday just blocks from the White House. Organizers say they expect thousands of demonstrators at an event that will champion a bevy of liberal causes, including environmental activism, campaign finance reform, higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy and opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Weeks of protests in New York have drawn national attention, and some leading Democrats have seized on the demonstrations as the liberal response to the Tea Party movement, which built upon grassroots activism to elect dozens of conservative candidates to Congress in 2010.
But even the most left-leaning Washington Democrats might find little appreciation from activists in the street, who say they are protesting a failure by both parties, and the political system as a whole, to respond to the struggles of a vast majority of Americans.
“That’s very detrimental to the movement,” a leading organizer of the Thursday rally, Margaret Flowers, said in response to the statements from prominent liberals. “We don’t want anyone from the top driving this movement.”
She said she wasn’t surprised. “That’s what Democrats do. They pretend to be populists,” Flowers said.
Planned for noon at Freedom Plaza, the Thursday demonstration is expected to combine multiple protest movements. The central event, organized by a group called Stop the Machine, is a long-planned protest of the war in Afghanistan, timed for the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion as well as the beginning of the fiscal year. Its website, october2011.org, compares the movement to the Arab Spring and the union protests in the Midwest.
The event, the website says, “will kick off a powerful and sustained nonviolent resistance to the corporate criminals that dominate our government.”
Joining that protest will be Washington-based offshoots of the Occupy Wall Street movement, known as Occupy DC and Occupy K Street, who have been rallying supporters in recent days on Twitter, Facebook and other websites.
The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations began on Sept. 17 and gained steam last weekend when the New York Police Department arrested more than 700 protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Flowers, 48, is an organizer of the Stop the Machine event, which has been in the works since the summer. She said the movement shares the goals of the Occupy Wall Street protests and its offshoots in Washington. “We’re trying to find ways to come together,” Flowers said. “We have a little bit more structure with our action.”
She said some protesters would stay beyond Thursday. “Some people have left their jobs and are planning to stay for months if they have to,” Flowers said. Others who are unemployed “have nothing left to lose.”
The goal, she said, was to “democratize our institutions.”
The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations have drawn criticism for a lack of organization and clearly defined goals. A post on the website of OccupyDC.org says the group is “not affiliated” with the Stop the Machine movement but will join its rally on Thursday.
“Although there is no clear list of demands yet, we are fed up with how the country is being run by our political leaders and the government,” the post says. “We would like to see a clear separation between politics and corporations, spread the wealth and end the war in the Middle East, investing the taxpayers’ money in the country’s’ infrastructure, healthcare, education, etc., and not use it to fuel violence in the world.”
Smaller Occupy DC events have occurred in recent days in McPherson Square.
Protest organizers in New York have called the rallies a “leaderless resistance movement.” The demonstrators include union workers, college students and groups such as MoveOn.org, which say they are protesting the wealthy “1 percent” represented by Wall Street. A popular sign used by protesters reads, “I’m the 99 percent.”
National leaders from across the ideological spectrum have weighed in on the movement in recent days. The chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, was asked about the protests during his appearance before the Joint Economic Committee on Tuesday.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) have also applauded the movement.
“All of us should join that movement,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a leader in both the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Back Caucus, told a liberal crowd gathered in Washington on Tuesday for the Take Back the American Dream conference.
Sanders told the same crowd: “I applaud those protesters who are out there, who are focusing attention on Wall Street, but what we’ve got to do is put meat on that bone. We’ve got to make demands on Wall Street [and] break those institutions up.”
Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), an outspoken Republican critic of the Federal Reserve, also indicated this week that he sympathized with the protesters.
“If they were demonstrating peacefully, and making a point, and arguing our case, and drawing attention to the Fed — I would say, good!” Paul said following a town-hall meeting in New Hampshire.
Mike Lillis contributed.