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While I am not one to place electing progressive candidates to office above building grassroots movements, I am also very aware that the fate of grassroots movements often depends on those who hold public office, especially those who control the power to suppress such movement through the application of armed force.

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Many of the most important strikes in US History -- the 1877 Railroad Strikes, the Homestead Strike of 1892, the 1894 Pullman Strike, the 1919 Steel Strike -- were defeated when governors and presidents ordered the National Guard or the US Army to take action.

Conversely, the two most important strikes of the Depression Era -- the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934, which turned the Teamsters Union into a powerful national organization, and the Flint Sit Down Strikes of 1936-37, which led to the unionization of General Motors and US Steel -- only succeeded because progressive governors, elected with labor votes, refused to use the National Guard to suppress the strike, and because President Roosevelt refused to send in the Army.

Today’s activists need to keep these examples in mind when deciding how, or if, they should become engaged in local and national elections. No grassroots movements can succeed without taking actions that stretch the boundaries of the law.

How elected officials deal with such instances will be critical to their success. One example of this is the occupation of foreclosed and abandoned properties by Occupy groups and advocates for the homeless. All over the country, housing activists are barricading themselves in houses to prevent foreclosed families from being evicted and placing needy families in abandoned and foreclosed houses and apartment buildings.

In some instances, mayors have ordered police to evict protesters; in other instances, they have let protesters stay. How mayors and city officials decide to act will have a critical effect on the impact of this growing movement, which addresses the failure of the private housing market.

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Similarly, some parents and teachers are occupying schools that have been targeted for closure under federally mandated “turnaround” policies. Local officials thus far have moved to use police to suppress such actions, but if enough such actions start occurring, the occupying parents and teachers may hold out for a negotiated settlement in which the community’s interests are taken into account.

In both of these instances, who is holding public office, and what kind of demands are made upon them during their campaigns, matters enormously.

Occupy groups and allied activists know how devastating it can be when elected officials unite to suppress a movement; they now have to turn their attention to strategies that convert some elected officials into allies. There is no simple formula for doing this, but it is something that has to be done. Elections matter, and influencing public officials is as important to the success of grassroots movements today as it was in the past.

mark naison

Mark Naison
With a Brooklyn Accent

Posted: Sunday, 8 July 2012

Photos from Occupy Schools Facebook page: