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On May Day, the Occupy movement asks: What's next?

By Steve Kastenbaum, CNN Radio
updated 2:00 PM EDT, Tue May 1, 2012
John Steefel, Rick Theis and Mike Korn from Restore Democracy group meet regularly at a public atrium on Wall Street.
John Steefel, Rick Theis and Mike Korn from Restore Democracy group meet regularly at a public atrium on Wall Street.
  • May Day demonstrations are planned across the country
  • "Occupy is more about changing attitudes than agendas," historian says
  • The influence of money on power and politics still at core of message

New York (CNN) -- Don't go to work; don't attend classes; don't buy anything; don't do banking; don't do housework. That's the call from organizers of the Occupy movement for their general strike on May 1, also known as International Workers Day.

It's not clear how many people will take part in the day of action. Numerous Occupy websites point to protests and marches taking place in more than 125 cities in solidarity with labor unions and immigrant groups.

Occupy organizers look at today as an opportunity to reinvigorate the movement and reignite the public's interest in their cause. With this being an election year, those looking to reform the political system hope to engage with politicians running for office in the coming months.

"I think that it's going to be tough to ignore. I do think that we're going to start seeing more people in the streets, especially labor, people from organizations that previously supported Obama like," said Heather Gautney, a Sociology professor at Fordham University in New York. "All of these people are feeling disenfranchised by the system and are getting geared up to engage and pressure campaigns."

Gautney expects to see Occupy's impact on the campaign trail in the coming months.

"The movement has had and continues to have an enormous effect on the political conversation. We're still dealing with problems of inequitable taxation. The President has that as one of his top agenda items," said Gautney. "I think all of the problems this movement has been raising are far from resolved. And now as we enter into the elections, people are going to be asking their politicians to address them."

Until now few politicians have taken up the cause.

"There's been no response of the political system whatsoever to this so far," said Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute and Columbia University in New York.

Sachs doesn't believe Occupy will have a large impact on the race for president. "The political process as a whole is still on a path of contraction of government and contraction of vital programs," said Sachs, a supporter of the movement. "At the same time, the power of Wall Street and other corporate lobbies will only rise this year during the election season because money is the essence of power in the US system right now." He sees Occupy as a long term movement, the impact of which may not be felt for years. "The protest is there for real reason but the political process is not bending to it so far."

That leaves the Occupy movement how to move beyond May 1. Activists involved in the movement are focused on economic justice and ridding politics of corporate money.

"Some of us are anarchists. Some of us are liberals, progressives like me. I want to change things," said John Steefel, a member of Occupy's Restore Democracy working group. They meet regularly in a public atrium on Wall Street in New York.

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Steefel and his group are pushing for a constitutional amendment that would overturn several controversial Supreme Court rulings. Citizens United v. the FEC opened the floodgates to corporate money in political campaigns. In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo that spending money to influence elections is a form of free speech and protected by the Constitution.

While Steefel wants to reform government from within, other protesters are calling for nothing short of a revolution.

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"The core of Occupy is an anti-capitalist movement," said Ann Larson, a member of the Occupy Student Debt group. "Most of the people who I talk to ... we don't believe that capitalism is reformable."

Larson's group is drawing attention to the $1 trillion in student debt held across the U.S. today.

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Activists on dozens of causes have adopted the Occupy brand. There's Occupy Climate Change, Occupy Faith, Doctors for the 99%, Occupy Farms, the Feminist General Assembly and 99 comics for the 99%, to name a few.

Critics see this as a diffused and confusing movement. Occupier Rick Theis believes this approach makes sense: "There are a lot of issues people are working on, but I think that's a good thing, and I don't think the public sees it as being muddy."

Theis, a member of the Restore Democracy working group, said economic injustice and the influence of big business on government are still at the core of the movement. "There are a lot of interests that people have, and there are a lot of changes that need to take place in the country, and people realize that."

While many causes stand beneath the umbrella of Occupy, the movement remains one without a list of demands. Columbia University history professor Eric Foner points out the Populist movement of the 1890's is most similar to Occupy in that they dramatically raised the question of economic inequality. This movement also did not have a list of demands but was successful in changing the way the country dealt with poverty and dreadful work conditions. Ultimately, the job of protesters is to place focus on the issues.

"The job of protesters is to put issues out on the public agenda and change public sentiment. If public sentiment changes, political action will follow, " said Foner, an expert on social movements in the U.S.

Foner says there are other more notable precedents for that in American history.

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"In the 1960s, for example, after the cry of 'Black Power' is raised, and many other groups took up this same slogan: There was Red Power, the Native American movement; there was Chicano Power, the Latino movement," said Foner, an expert on social movements in the U.S. "Similarly, 'liberation.' ... Women's liberation I guess began the use of that phrase and then spawned gay liberation."

Foner believes that as in previous social movements, Occupy is more about changing attitudes than putting forth an agenda and setting goals.

"There's a kind of fragmentation. There are all these different modes of Occupy out there on all sorts of issues."

That could wind up being helpful to the evolution of the Occupy movement, or it could lead to its downfall, according to Foner.

"It's not clear whether this is cumulative or actually centrifugal force and the whole thing spinning off into all sorts of different directions," Foner said.

Among this collage of ideas, two camps seem to have emerged within Occupy. There's Larson's viewpoint: that the system cannot be reformed from within.

"We're not interested in change through the electoral process or anything like that," Larson said. "It makes no sense to us to put ourselves in the position of supplicants, of asking for help. It concedes power."

Theis disagrees. "The framers of the Constitution put together a system that is fairly intelligent and able to change in a positive way, and I think we can make the changes that we need to within the system," Theis said of creating an Occupy voting bloc in Congress.

It's not clear which one of these schools of thought will rise to the top of the Occupy movement or if protesters think it's even necessary. Some believe they can exist side-by-side and act as effective agents of change. Others think the more divergence there is among different groups, the more confusing Occupy is, and the less likely people will want to participate in the movement.