Iowa: The People’s Caucus

As caucus craziness reached its peak in Iowa, the Occupy Movement was not left out. The Des Moines Register reported in a notably favorable front-page story: “About 250 protesters from at least 11 states turned out Tuesday night for the first event of Occupy Iowa’s most aggressive attempt to influence the presidential campaign. The protesters ramped up for demonstrations at the candidates’ local headquarters and the offices of the Republican and Democratic parties. They were prepared to be arrested en masse, and they were fired up.”


Des Moines happens to be my hometown so I’ve watched Occupy DSM for months. The impressive strength and resilience of local activists there is one of the things that first convinced me that this could be a movement with truly national reach. From its start, Occupy DSM has had a hostile relationship with Republican Governor Terry Branstad, known to Iowans, not altogether happily, as “governor for life,” as he has lorded over the state from 1983 to 1999. Branstad added a fifth act to his reign when he won reelection as part of the Republicans’ state-level surge in the 2010 midterms. He swiftly evicted the Occupy DSM protesters from the State Capitol grounds when they set up camp in early October 2011. That event produced some of the movement’s first arrests outside of New York City.


However, Mayor Frank Cownie offered Occupy DSM a new space, which has since hosted a tent city that has persevered into the Iowa winter. Occupy DSM has also maintained a good working relationship with the city police force. One of the interesting and impressive things about the local movement is how, even as its new occupation continues, it has moved beyond a sole focus on the encampment.


With the “People’s Caucus,” activists took advantage of the national spotlight by hosting a week of teach-ins and nonviolent direct actions focused on Occupy issues, most prominently the need to get corporate money out of politics. In addition to scoring many press hits in the local media, Occupy DSM’s actions made the national nightly news and the New York Times.


The Tuesday night opening event for the People’s Caucus was designed to mirror the experience of attending one of the actual caucuses. After some welcoming speakers, participants were given a chance to offer resolutions to the assembly. Unlike in the Democratic or Republican caucuses, these resolutions were not voted up or down for possible inclusion in a state party platform. But the process gave a wide range of speakers—including Occupy representatives from Iowa City, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Seattle—a chance to speak out in favor of things like nullifying the Citizens United ruling, reversing the National Defense Appropriations Act’s violations of civil liberties, “dismantling the U.S. military empire,” and ending Bush-era tax cuts.


While mainstream caucus participants ordinarily form “preference groups” to represent their pick of a candidate at the state party convention, in the People’s Caucus, participants instead formed “dispreference groups,” choosing candidates they’d most like to protest.


Another action was carried out by the anti-Mitt Romney group who attempted to occupy Romney’s campaign headquarters. Office staffers (who sheepishly removed the Romney banner from their front window during the action) locked out the crowd of approximately 60 protesters. Seven people were arrested at the office door, while others worked on building a cardboard pipeline to Wells Fargo, a bank that has pumped a steady stream of money into Romney’s campaign. Police arrested three additional protesters as they entered the Wells Fargo branch.


When activists first announced that they would “Occupy the Caucuses,” Branstad helped stoke fears that dissidents would interrupt the democratic process. However, People’s Caucus delegates emphasized that they would instead be targeting campaign offices, demanding that the candidates be transparent in disclosing their big business contributions.


Aaron Jorgensen-Briggs gave the opening welcome for the People’s Caucus on Tuesday night, saying: “We have gathered here tonight because the political system in the United States no longer represents the values of the American public…. We are here tonight to overthrow money-power with people power. We are here tonight as citizens and patriots to preserve our democracy from the corrupting influence of Wall Street and big corporations. We are here tonight to raise our voices in defense of the American dream. We are here tonight to restore the American political system and American society, to make it human-centered, not profit-centered….


“Now is the time for us to lead, for the people of the United States, the 99 percent, to rise up, and restore America, to recreate it, truly, as a nation of opportunity, equality, and justice. Honored guests, members of the 99 percent, we are here tonight because of you. ‘Join Us!’ we cried, and you have answered. And for that, we thank you and we bid you welcome to the first-in-the-nation People’s Caucus.” 


Mark Engler is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia and a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus, a network of foreign policy experts. He is author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books). This article first appeared in Dissent Magazine.