Iowa: The People’s Caucus

Iowa: The People’s Caucus

Mark Engler: Iowa – The People’s Caucus

As caucus craziness reaches its peak here in Iowa, the Occupy movement has not been left out. As the Des Moines Register reported Wednesday in a notably favorable top-of-the-front-page story:

About 250 protesters from at least 11 states turned out Tuesday night for the first event of Occupy Iowa?s most aggressive attempt to influence the presidential campaign.

The protesters ramped up for demonstrations at the candidates? local headquarters and the offices of the Republican and Democratic parties. They were prepared to be arrested en masse, and they were fired up.

Des Moines happens to be my hometown, and so I?ve watched OccupyDSM for months. The impressive strength and resilience of local activists there is one of the things that first convinced me that this could be a movement with truly national reach.

From its start, OccupyDSM has had a hostile relationship with Republican Governor Terry Branstad?who was known to Iowans, not altogether happily, as ?governor for life? when he lorded over the state from 1983 to 1999, and who added a fifth act to his undying reign when he won reelection as part of the Republicans? state-level surge in the 2010 midterms. Branstad swiftly evicted the OccupyDSM protesters from the State Capitol grounds when they set up camp in early October. That event produced some of the movement?s first arrests outside of New York.

However, Mayor Frank Cownie offered OccupyDSM a new space for an occupation on city property, which has since hosted a tent city that has persevered into the Iowa winter. OccupyDSM has also maintained a good working relationship with the city police force.

One of the interesting and impressive things about the local movement is how, even as its new occupation continues to stand, it has moved beyond a sole focus on the encampment. With the ?People?s Caucus,? activists are taking advantage of the intense national spotlight shined on the state once every four years, hosting a week of teach-ins and nonviolent direct actions focused on Occupy issues, most prominently the need to get corporate money out of politics. In addition to scoring a plethora of press hits in the local media, the actions have made the national nightly news coverage and have produced multiple stories in outlets such as the New York Times.

The Tuesday night opening event for the People?s Caucus was designed to mirror the experience of attending one of the actual caucuses in Iowa. After some welcoming speakers, participants were given a chance to offer resolutions to the assembly. Unlike in the Democratic or Republican caucuses, these resolutions were not voted up or down for possible inclusion in a state party platform. But the process gave a wide range of speakers?including Occupy representatives from Iowa City, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Seattle?a chance to speak out in favor of things like nullifying the Citizens United ruling, reversing the National Defense Appropriations Act?s violations of civil liberties, ?dismantling the U.S. military empire,? ending Bush-era tax cuts, and instating public financing of campaigns.

Next, caucus participants would ordinarily form ?preference groups? for specific candidates, trying to get together enough support to win a delegate to represent their pick at the state party convention. In the Peoples’ Caucus, participants instead formed ?dispreference groups,? choosing candidates they?d most like to protest.

On Wednesday, I went with the anti-Mitt Romney group to occupy Romney?s Des Moines campaign headquarters. Office staffers (who sheepishly removed the Romney banner from their front window while the action was taking place) locked out the crowd of approximately sixty protesters. Seven people were ultimately arrested at the office door, while others worked on building a cardboard pipeline to Wells Fargo, a bank (conveniently located a few doors down) that has pumped a steady stream of money into Romney?s campaign. Police arrested three additional protesters who entered the Wells Fargo branch.

When activists first announced that they would ?Occupy the Caucuses,? Branstad helped stoke fears that dissidents would be interrupting the democratic process itself. However, People?s Caucus delegates emphasized that they would instead be targeting campaign offices, demanding that the candidates be transparent in disclosing the big business contributions that are fueling their efforts. As my younger brother Paul, director of the Los Angeles-based Center for the Working Poor and active OccupyLA participant, stated as part of the People’s Caucus?s opening panel: ?We are not here to disrupt the caucus. We are here to make the caucuses a true representation of democracy…The real disruption is how much money Wall Street has put into our political system.?

A good friend of mine, Aaron Jorgensen-Briggs, gave the opening welcome for the People?s Caucus on Tuesday night. The following was his statement (as seen on C-Span):

Friends, neighbors, members of the press, visiting Occupy delegates, honored guests, welcome. I?d like to begin with some words from a great American leader of the past. He wrote:

I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money-power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.

These words of President Abraham Lincoln, in 1864, resonate loud and clear tonight, in Des Moines, Iowa, in 2011.

We have gathered here tonight because the political system in the United States no longer represents the values of the American public. Just as President Lincoln predicted, the money-power of the country now resides in the hands of a tiny portion of the population, the 1 percent.

We are here tonight to overthrow money-power with people power. We are here tonight as citizens and patriots to preserve our democracy from the corrupting influence of Wall Street and big corporations. We are here tonight to raise our voices in defense of the American dream. We are here tonight to restore the American political system and American society, to make it human-centered, not profit-centered. We are here tonight to follow through on the vision of our founders and the vision of the great American social movements of the past, the movements that ended slavery, gave women the right to vote, ended racial segregation in our communities, established safe working conditions and good wages for hard-working Americans and their families. We are here tonight because our political leaders are no longer able to lead us.

Now is the time for us to lead, for the people of the United States, the 99 percent, to rise up, and restore America, to recreate it, truly, as a nation of opportunity, equality, and justice. Honored guests, members of the 99 percent, we are here tonight because of you. ?Join Us!? we cried, and you have answered. And for that, we thank you, and we bid you welcome to the first-in-the-nation People?s Caucus!