The New Moderate Witnesses the 99% Declaration (Part 1 of 2)
On the Fourth of July, 2012, Philadelphia felt more like Calcutta. Oppressive humidity. Temperature in the upper 90s at three in the afternoon. Blazing, blistering sunlight that caused pedestrians to compete for the few shady spots on Independence Mall, the long green rectangle that stretches from the ultramodern National Constitution Center toward 260-year-old spire-topped Independence Hall .
We were standing almost (but unfortunately, not quite) in the shadow of that beloved brick pile where a flock of noteworthy Dead White Males adopted an equally noteworthy document exactly 236 years before. Even a shadow cast by the nearby Wells Fargo bank building would have offered some welcome relief. But no… shadows were in short supply this afternoon as we waited to hear the 99% Declaration. Only mad dogs, tourists and crazed American patriots would venture out on a day like this.
If you haven’t heard of the 99% Declaration, you’re not alone. The motley campers of Occupy Wall Street have garnered far more publicity, though their goals are nebulous, their leadership questionable and their methods more annoying than effective. The 99% Declaration, on the other hand, had set its sights on drawing up a legitimate, finely-tuned Petition for the Redress of Grievances, in keeping with a little-known clause in the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
I had no idea we could air our grievances directly to the government with the purpose of obtaining redress. Maybe you didn’t, either. Never in our lifetimes has there been a more urgent need to make our grievances known. As the big banks and corporations gain a stranglehold on American life and politics, a petition legally submitted to the three branches of government could prove to be our most vital bulwark against a sweeping plutocratic takeover.
Such a petition could represent American democracy’s last stand against the pervasive power of big money. It’s an issue that should engage concerned citizens from the left, right and center, because it transcends the natural biases of partisan politics. It’s about honesty, transparency, clean government. It’s about restoring a system that represents all the people, not simply those with the deepest pockets.
The 99% Declaration leaders decided to draw up their list of grievances at an assembly of elected delegates (two from each Congressional district plus the U.S. territories and other possessions, for a total of 878). As a bold and fitting gesture that all American history buffs could love, they christened their assembly Continental Congress 2.0. Their goal: to “reboot” American democracy. In Philadelphia, of course. Culminating with a public reading of the grievances on July 4 within sight of Independence Hall. How could anyone with a stake in the American Experiment resist?
In stirring language reminiscent of Jefferson’s indictment of King George III in the Declaration of Independence, the 99% Declaration made its purpose clear:
THE PEOPLE through these non-partisan locally elected Delegates shall gather to condemn and demand redress from the individuals currently in control of the United States government. We denounce the entrenched politicians and lobbyists:
-for engaging in all manner of corrupt practices to remain in office at any cost, attain money and accrue personal power;
-for continuously violating the public’s trust and general welfare of the People of the United States of America by auctioning public policy to the highest bidder;
-for abandoning the precious covenant between those who govern and the People based upon an oath to protect and defend our Constitution;
-for placing petty partisan political interests above all other concerns including the short and long term interests of the People of the United States of America and the very continuation of this planet as a viable ecosystem for our children; and
-for failing to govern with integrity, equity and ethics absent all self-serving conflicts of interest.
This was heady stuff, resoundingly righteous and full of portent. The 99% Declaration website went on to enumerate the proposed grievances that Continental Congress 2.0 would consider, debate and refine — from “Corporations are not people” and “Money is property not speech” to “Protecting consumers from predatory practices on Wall Street and Main Street,” “Ending perpetual war for profit” and the more mundane but ever-relevant “Term limits.”
Campaign finance reform, tax reform, protection of the environment, fiscal responsibility, immigration reform, veterans’ benefits and student loan relief all loomed large on the list. This was responsible radicalism, grounded in respect for traditional American values but concerned, as so many of us are, that something has gone seriously awry in the republic.
So why the scanty press coverage for Continental Congress 2.0? Even the Philadelphia Inquirer didn’t bother to send a reporter to the public reading of grievances on the Fourth of July.
Chalk it up to inadequate publicity, poor funding, an unfortunate falling-out with the Occupy Wall Street crowd or perhaps the group’s odd penchant for privacy. Their sessions excluded the public, and even independent bloggers (like me, for instance) were turned away at the door.
I found it ironic that a populist group would limit press attendance to credentialed members of the elite corporate media. But I did manage to grab the attention of Robert Manning, head of the group’s steering committee. A soft-spoken but persuasive gray-haired gentleman in shorts, he apologized for the restrictive admission policy and filled me in on the proceedings.
Manning lamented that a rift that had grown between his group and Occupy Wall Street. It’s a long story: the 99% Declaration was the brainchild of a lawyer named Michael Pollok who worked with a small group of OWS protesters in New York. The Huffington Post promptly published the Declaration, citing it as an official OWS document. The OWS leadership took umbrage, blamed the 99% Declaration people and effectively banished them from the “Occupy” movement. Since then, the two groups have made overtures toward repairing the rift.
But Manning told me about a recent radio interview in which he and an OWS representative were made to sound like carping adversaries, egged on by a sly interviewer who wanted to spark an on-air feud (presumably for the sensationalism and the ratings). Manning admitted that his group was struggling for funding, and that he had contributed a few thousand dollars of his own money to rent the hall at the Convention Center. Contributions to the group aren’t considered tax-deductible because of its classification as a 501(c)(4) — a special nonprofit status reserved for political activist organizations.
Worst of all, the public call for delegates met with a muted response: instead of the maximum head count of 878, less than a tenth of that number actually showed up in Philadelphia for Continental Congress 2.0. Cold reality, as it too often does, had bumped up against the impossible dream.
(In Part 2: The New Moderate attends the rally at Independence Mall on the Fourth of July and witnesses the public reading of the Grievances.)