Dec 23, 2011
Al Jazeera English
As presidential candidates and journalists descend upon Iowa once again for the US' first set of caucuses, another group of individuals are hoping to grab attention.
Occupy Iowa Caucus, a splinter group of Occupy Des Moines, has been busy organising activities that they hope will have a greater impact on the rest of the 2012 presidential campaign season.
Similar to the broader Occupy Wall Street movement that began in September 2011, organisers of Occupy Iowa Caucus have been "occupying" streets, parks and financial districts to have their voices heard. This time, however, protesters are targeting presidential candidates at the beginning of their election and re-election campaigns.
Protesters have already begun staging sit-ins at party headquarters in Des Moines. On Monday, eight protesters were arrested at the Democratic Party headquarters after occupying President Barack Obama's re-election headquarters on Saturday. According to local newspapers, protesters said they refused to leave until Obama vetoed the National Defence Authorisation Act, which allows US citizens to be detained without cause, and began prioritising communities over corporations.
More sit-ins are planned at the end of the month to target Republican candidates.
"It doesn't matter if you're liberal or conservative... we are coming after you", chuckled Jessica Reznicek, one of the organisers who also heads Occupy Des Moines, explaining that all candidates, regardless of political affiliation, need to be held accountable.
"Our goal is to reshape the political and social discourse. We demand that they start talking about the things that need to be talked about."
- Jessica Reznicek, organiser of Occupy Des Moines
"Our goal is to reshape the political and social discourse. We demand that they start talking about the things that need to be talked about," Reznicek explained.
For her, these things include a number of issues, including allocating more funds to social programmes and decreasing money to the military and international monetary fund. While Reznicek acknowledged that different issues may take priority for other people, she says what ties protesters together is not the same political ideology but a desire for change.
Impression on caucus-goers
While sit-ins and other activities are ongoing, organisers said their big push would occur the last week of the month - a crucial time for candidates wishing to make a favourable impression on caucus-goers.
Organisers are calling for a "People's Caucus" on December 27, where protesters will break into affinity groups to compile key grievances they want addressed by a particular candidate. The plan is for these groups to then visit and hopefully discuss the petitions with the respective politician's Iowa headquarters for the next several days. If protesters are barred from entering, organisers said they are prepared to stage sit-ins for three days.
"It's a creative spin on the whole caucus process", said Ed Fallon, a former Iowa legislator and gubernatorial candidate, who is heavily involved in Occupy Iowa Caucus and has chaired several caucuses over the years.
The Iowa caucuses, which became the nation's first major step of the presidential nomination process in 1972, serve multiple purposes. Unlike primaries, caucus-goers gather at a set location - usually a church, school, public library or private home - in one of 1,784 precincts where they throw support behind a particular candidate and develop platforms.
The Democrat caucuses involve many more rounds of caucusing and caucus-goers publicly stand in support of a candidate. Candidates must receive at least 15 per cent of support in each precinct or supporters must pledge support for another candidate in subsequent rounds. In the case of too few votes, supporters of less popular candidates must either choose to throw their support behind another candidate or abstain. In some cases, supporters of less popular candidates will choose to throw all their support behind one in hopes that at least one of the candidates survives.
Caucusing - meaning debate over candidates and platforms - occur with both political parties, but Republicans usually opt for silent voting. In both cases, delegates are elected to vote on behalf of the precincts for candidates at a much later date.
But Fallon said that even the caucuses no longer serve the original intended goal.In other words, caucusing in Iowa is a much more community-oriented event than in the case of subsequent primaries.
"The people's voices aren't even being heard at that point", Fallon said.
After decades of being in politics, he said the political system is "salvageable", but requires a grassroots operation to improve government's accountability to the people.
"My goal is that people will make the connection between the corrupt corporate culture and the corrupt political culture in DC", said Fallon.
Although the results are non-binding, the Iowa caucuses are widely seen as an indication of how a certain candidate will fare throughout the rest of the campaign. The first place winners of the Iowa caucuses have only gone on to win their party's nomination about half the time, but can be an excellent opportunity for lesser-known candidates - such as former President Jimmy Carter - to gain some traction.
Many of this year's Republican candidates, especially Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Iowa native Michele Bachmann, have campaigned heavily in the Midwestern state; Rick Perry has also stepped up efforts this month. Others - like Newt Gingrich, who just reopened an office last week after his staff deserted him last summer and Mitt Romney, who quietly opened an office in November after taking an expensive second place in his 2008 presidential bid - have kept a lower profile. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has chosen not to formally campaign in Iowa at all.
Not every resident of Iowa is optimistic that Occupy Iowa Caucus will achieve its mission.
"I think it's going to blow up in their faces", said David Peterson, an associate political science professor at Iowa State. "This is not the kind of thing that most folks find attractive. As a general rule, people aren't going to like people upsetting the electoral process".
Peterson said he also thinks candidates - none who could be reached for this article - will respond negatively to the protesters, using it as a "rally cry" against those involved, and as a chance to "mock and scorn" the movement.
"[Protesters are] not going to be able to convince any potential caucus goers of anything," Peterson said.
Steffen Schmidt, also a political science professor at Iowa State, agreed that caucus-goers are protective of the democratic political process.
"Occupy has made the mistake of being against but having no plan to support anything political. A leaderless movement is doomed", Schmidt told Al Jazeera.
Still, the organisers are hopeful that more people will become involved as well. They insist that no plans are scheduled for January 3. In fact, Fallon said the plan is for protesters not to disrupt the actual caucuses. He said he, as well as many other protesters, will attend the Republican caucuses. He plans to introduce some of the resolutions the People's Caucus discussed and support the least "offensive" Republican candidate.
Scepticism has not deterred Occupiers from other parts of the country from coming to Iowa. Reznicek said protesters from Chicago and New York's Zuccotti Park have confirmed that they will be arriving in the last week of December to show solidarity with Iowan Occupiers. She said numbers could be anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand.
Local business support
Occupy is also likely to have the support of at least a few local businesses, like Des Moines-based Ritual Café, which have supported the ongoing Occupy Des Moines movement.
Ritual Cafe co-owner Denise Diaz has supported the Occupiers by providing coffee since their beginning in Stewart Park in the central part of the capital. The café used to provide coffee every day to the Occupiers, but now only does so twice a week.
"The local, independent businesses definitely are empathetic to the cause", Diaz said, stressing that she thinks that lots of other businesses are afraid to show support as openly as she does. "We are the little people in the big corporate world of businesses."
She said she hadn't thought much about the Occupy Iowa Caucus previously, but that she will support them in her own way if she can't physically attend.
"I plan on being busy. I probably won't be able to occupy, but I certainly plan on serving all those that come to visit", she said.
As for what will happen past January's caucuses, organisers said they aren't sure, but feel a responsibility to do what they can now.
Fallon said that while he would support similar Occupy movements in subsequent primary states, his focus is on Iowa. Reznicek agreed, emphasising the significance the outcomes of these caucuses could have.
"We really feel we're launching and shaping the rest of the way the campaign is going to go."