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Occupy and Local Pols: An Uncertain Alliance
The Riverdale Press
Adam Wisnieski

October 26, 2011
View the Original Article

To the undiscerning eye, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition’s annual meeting at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church on Saturday afternoon was just like previous gatherings hosted by the non-profit organization: elected officials and community members came together to talk about living wage legislation and problems confronting the public school system.

But days before the event, NWBCCC announced that Occupy the Bronx — a borough chapter in the larger Occupy Wall Street movement that has been rallying for greater economic equality for more than a month now — had joined the meeting. As what is better described as a rally ended, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz said he was not aware Occupy the Bronx was present and Councilman Oliver Koppell said he did not know what Occupy the Bronx was. Though organizers chanted many of the same slogans as at gatherings near Wall Street, nobody used the Occupy the Bronx title when addressing the crowd.

An NWBCCC spokesperson said the marriage was organic since many of its members also participate in Occupy the Bronx, which began on Facebook and has hosted rallies in the borough on the last three Saturdays. And so NWBCCC, known or its ability to energize residents on local issues, had slyly united protesters and politicians.

Pundits, bloggers and even a recent group of Riverdalians who are members of Northwest Bronx for Change have wondered aloud whether the Occupy movement will lead to legislation. At least here in the Bronx, the six-week old protest, which is spreading across the country and the world, is not sitting and waiting. It’s attaching itself to the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, co-sponsored by Mr. Koppell and Councilwoman Anabella Palma, which would require developers receiving taxpayer subsidies of more than $1 million to pay a living wage — defined as $10 per hour with benefits or $11.50 without.

Those that have compared Occupy Wall Street to the more right-wing Tea Party movement that began in 2009 have mulled whether Democrats would attach to (or co-opt depending on their perspectives) the Occupy movement the way Republicans have the Tea Party.

It remains to be seen if Democrats will do any more than offer semi-supportive platitudes to the occupiers, but in the case of Occupy the Bronx, the occupiers seem more than happy to pick up Democratic legislation that is in line with their goal of greater class equity, and that, in turn, could lead to greater support for the pols.

Though he was not asked beforehand, Mr. Koppell said he welcomes the support of the living wage legislation. He was cautious to get behind the entire movement because of the diversity of positions protestors have adopted (he said he is not in favor of destroying the country’s entire financial system but does support greater regulation) but agreed that the imbalance of wealth in this country needs to be addressed and that the living wage legislation is a small part of that. “The living wage is not the total answer by any means, but it is a partial answer,” he said in a recent interview.

At the NWBCCC’s rally on Saturday, Mr. Koppell’s rhetoric echoed that of the Occupy movement, even using the “99 percent” phrase that’s become the most popular slogan of the protests.

“We have thousands of people, not only down on Wall Street, but around this country and around the world, talking about the unfairness of a system that allows a few to control a bulk of the wealth while 99 percent of the people need assistance. It’s an unfair system,” he said to the crowd.

Since the Occupy protests seem to be all-inviting, will other local politicians now try to use it to gain support for legislation?

The answer seems to be yes.

When asked what local laws protesters might address, Mr. Koppell, Mr. Dinowitz and state Sen. Gustavo Rivera each brought up keeping the so-called Millionaire’s Tax as an issue the movement could get behind. The state tax on couples earning more than $300,000 and singles earning more than $200,000 is set to expire at the end of the year and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has supported letting it expire.

“I believe the state needs to be, as far as taxation is concerned, a more progressive state,” Mr. Rivera, who has visited Zuccotti Park a few times and attended the massive march a few weeks ago when many unions joined the movement, said. Mr. Dinowitz said he thinks the movement is benefiting from getting more specific. “Real issues are being raised and that’s why they are getting a lot of support now,” he said.

State Sen. Adriano Espaillat is hosting a “massive march,” from Washington Heights to Zuccotti Park in support of the Occupy movement, on Monday, Nov. 7, at 10:30 a.m. A flyer for the event, sponsored by the union 32BJ SEIU and the Working Families Party, asks Upper Manhattanites to “join the Occupy Wall Street protest in solidarity.”

Though none of the politicians interviewed said they would “use the movement” for their own legislation, they said it could energize people around Democratic values. Mr. Engel said he hoped it would and called it “the modern-day version of the civil rights movement.”

After protesting in front of Chase on Saturday afternoon, a small group from NWBCCC traveled down to the home of the Occupy protests at Zuccotti Park. At the birthplace of the Occupy movement, they chanted about living wages and invited the protesters to a living wage rally at Riverside Church on Riverside Drive between West 121st and West 122nd streets on Mon., Nov. 21.

That’s the night before the second city council hearing on Mr. Koppell’s Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act. Living wage rallies last year were packed and rowdy but the legislation stalled and was never brought to the city council floor for a vote. Now, it remains to be seen whether occupiers in the mix will help push the legislation forward.