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Meet Professor Occupy

Lisa Fithian is the streetwise radical who's teaching kids who want to be badass to be smart.

A new problem arose in November when a spate of graffiti and window smashing at a march in Oakland, California, fueled notions that the movement's tent cities were full of thugs. Some Occupy protesters supported the mayhem, citing the need for "diversity of tactics." But Fithian countered in an open letter that "diversity of tactics becomes a code for 'anything goes,' and makes it impossible for our movements to hold anyone accountable for their actions." Stephen Lerner, an SEIU executive board member who has worked with her for 18 years, believes Fithian's widely read statement helped cement the movement's nonviolent culture: "When she says it, I think it has a different kind of credibility because of her own history."

As Occupy marches on, perhaps its greatest internal tension is between the reformers—pragmatists with concrete goals—and the revolutionaries.

Even criticism from Fithian's peers is tempered with admiration. "She has a reputation for taking things over by accusing other people of taking things over," one prominent occupier told me, but "I think she has stuck with it and is a smart person and has done great work building bridges."

As Occupy marches on, perhaps its greatest internal tension is between the reformers—pragmatists with concrete goals—and the revolutionaries, idealists who feel that asking anything of a corrupt system only marginalizes the movement. "This isn't a protest movement, because protest movements are to address issues that the power structure could conceivably be willing to give up," a black-clad occupier named Max Bean told Fithian over lunch in early December. "We are asking to dissolve the power structure. And you can't ask for that. You can't protest for it. All you can do is grow until we are so big that we are everything."

Fithian weighed her response carefully. "Movements build because people have some sense of hope and victory and accomplishment," she replied, setting aside her plate of steamed kale. "We might win on the millionaires' tax in the next six months. That's gonna be fucking huge." She smiled as Max gave her "twinkle fingers," the Occupy hand signal for approval. "So it's the balance between reforming and revolutionary things. And that's why this movement is so beautiful, because it holds both."

The SEIU sent Fithian to Washington three days later to coordinate Take Back the Capitol, an Occupy-style assault on corporate lobbyists. Bona fide occupiers were flown in to help union members blockade K Street and take over congressional offices—part of a labor strategy to forge alliances with Occupy—but some occupiers chafed at the union's unwillingness to risk more than a few symbolic arrests. Fresh out of jail and gumming a wad of Copenhagen, Joe Carriveau of Occupy Milwaukee told me he was "done with this Democratic coalition crap. We are supposed to be down here for some radical action."

The following day, in a tent on the Mall, Fithian helped run a session aimed at easing tension between the two factions. She let almost everyone else speak before taking the floor. "One of the problems is when people are doing different shit, we are starting to disrespect each other because we are thinking that your way is not as rad as our way," Fithian said. "We are bringing in all these judgments, and it's very destructive. We have to accept what each movement's gifts are, and where we can be in alignment."

Union members and occupiers can work together to "interrupt the space between corporate America and democracy," she went on, to murmurs of assent. "It's not about getting our elected officials to do something. Shit. They ain't gonna do shit."

She spoke faster and faster, running her words together, before stopping abruptly 90 seconds later. "Sorry, I talked a lot," she said sheepishly. But no one seemed to mind. For once, the crowd abandoned its twinkle fingers for applause.

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