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Democrats adopt rhetoric of ‘Occupy’ movement

Street protests provide fuel for some lawmakers

‘Ninety- nine percent of the people are 100 percent fed up,’ Edward J. Markey said last month.Getty

WASHINGTON - When US Representative Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts sought to illustrate the divide between average citizens and the oil industry recently, his words echoed from the ragtag protests on Wall Street.

“These companies aren’t just the 1 percent of America, they are the 1 percent plus, making billions off the backs of Americans,’’ Markey declared in a news release.

Harry Reid also adopted the words of the Occupy Wall Street movement, when he railed on the Senate floor against “millionaires and billionaires’’ who get richer while the rest of America stagnates. “This 1 percent now makes more than the other 99 percent combined,’’ said Reid, the Senate majority leader, while promoting a White House jobs bill.


The increasingly frequent eruption of Occupy Wall Street rhetoric in the Capitol is some of the clearest evidence yet that the angry protests from Boston to the West Coast are beginning to resonate in the halls of power. Just as the Tea Party’s white-hot anger strengthened the hand of conservatives in Washington in 2010, the street protests against the excesses of corporate America appear to be giving backbone to some Democrats in Congress.

With recent police crackdowns in Oakland and Manhattan, it’s unclear whether the movement will be able to transform its frustration into a sustained political force. In addition to pressure from police, the protesters may have trouble maintaining a presence in the streets once the snow flies.

The Occupy demonstrators - or 99 percenters, as many call themselves - also lack the sort of billionaire backing the Tea Party enjoys.

Still, some liberal members of Congress are latching on to the slogans that carry the left’s frustration.

When Markey criticized plans to spend $700 billion on new nuclear weapons systems, he accused lawmakers of turning their backs on medical research and health programs. “Ninety-nine percent of the people are 100 percent fed up,’’ he proclaimed last month.


Representative George Miller of California, during a Nov. 2 floor speech, invoked that theme while railing about an $86 million “golden parachute’’ for a West Virginia coal mine executive who resigned after 29 miners were killed in an accident. “If you wonder why people are talking about the 1 percent and the 99 percent, the 99 percent in the mine had their lives put in danger every day they went to work,’’ Miller said.

“You can usually tell where politicians are looking for your support - that’s when they begin using your arguments,’’ said Marshall Ganz, a senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “ ‘We’re the 99 percent’ is a brilliant articulation of their position of what the movement is about.’’

Ganz, who took part in the civil rights movement and helped organize farm workers in California, recalled the deep symbolism when officials in Washington began invoking the same mantras used in their marches. When President Lyndon Johnson infused his speeches with civil rights anthems, such as “We shall overcome,’’ it invigorated the movement.

Republicans have cast the Occupy movement and the tax debate as class warfare. House majority leader Eric Cantor called the movement a mob before backing off the strong language.

As unrest has flared between the protesters and police, and the movement begins to sharpen its tactics, some Democrats have become hesitant to publicly embrace it. Both Markey’s and Reid’s offices, however, said the lawmakers stand by their statements.


The refrains of “us vs. them’’ echoing out of the urban canyons of Wall Street have served as convenient backdrops for the debates unfolding on Capitol Hill, particularly as lawmakers wrangle over how to untangle the country’s fiscal morass. The divide over new revenues - Democrats want more taxes on the super rich while Republicans insist on deeper spending cuts - ended up being too wide for the bipartisan supercommittee, which on Monday ended its attempt to trim the growth of the US deficit.

Yesterday, several dozen protesters from Manhattan completed their Occupy the Highway trip of 230 miles to the National Mall in Washington. Their lingo plays well with the Democratic base, which some say is crucial to the party’s push to retake the House, retain the Senate, and reelect President Obama. In particular, labor union officials have been wielding the same language of the haves vs. the have-nots, whether they are joining the dispossessed on the streets or lobbying powerful lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

In a letter to Senator John F. Kerry, a member of the debt supercommittee, the Greater Boston Labor Council, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, addressed “fundamental inequities’’ that “give a free pass for the financial elites and the Wall Street crowd.’’

Co-opting the lingo of a populist movement is a bipartisan exercise. Christen Varley, president of the Greater Boston Tea Party, applauded the GOP for finding its voice by adopting the Tea Party’s vernacular of fiscal responsibility and smaller government.


At some point, though, the message of Occupy Wall Street could get lost amid police crackdowns and what Varley described as bad marketing. “It’s not such a good word - who wants to be occupied?’’ she said.

The next step, said US Representative Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who co-wrote legislation that stiffened Wall Street rules, is to transform frustration into votes. “I don’t have a problem with their slogans,’’ Frank said. “It’s what you do with the message. They are not translating it to political action.’’

Bobby Caina Calvan can be reached at bobby.calvan@globe.com. Follow him on twitter @GlobeCalvan.