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Occupy Ron Paul

The retiring congressman's revolution wasn't just about the Republican Party.
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Every four years, the Radisson Hotel in Manchester, New Hampshire serves as a hub for national media activity ahead of the state’s presidential primary. On January 8, 2012, journalists milling about the hotel could occasionally be overheard snickering at the strange melange of street protesters that had flooded Manchester’s downtown area: Ron Paul people, Occupy people, and assorted miscreants. These categories were not mutually exclusive.

Across the street from the hotel, at Veterans Park, the loosely-knit Occupy New Hampshire collective had established their encampment–a kind of outdoor public festival. The first person I encountered there was 21 year-old Manchester resident John Cullen, who wore a green armband signaling affiliation with OccupyNH (though of course there was no formal “membership”). Cullen told me he’d recently been pepper-sprayed by police at the Port of Oakland during a nationwide day of demonstrations. “I was actually trying to get out of there at that point,” he said; by coincidence, his family had been visiting members of their church in the Oakland area, and while Cullen supported Occupy, he wasn’t particularly eager to get doused with painful chemicals for the cause.

When I mentioned I’d be attending a Ron Paul campaign event at the University of New Hampshire in Durham later that evening, Cullen smiled and unzipped his jacket to reveal a classic “Ron Paul reEVOLution” T-shirt. In fact, he announced, it was only several hours prior that he’d participated in a group “sign-wave” outside Murphy’s Taproom, a major gathering point for Ron Paul people in the area. “When Ron Paul gets the Occupiers on his side,” he beamed, “Ron Paul is not going to be stopped. You can’t stop him.”

Cullen had wanted to go to the UNH rally but lacked transportation. So I offered to give him a ride. Traffic that night was surprisingly horrendous; we missed the first bit of Paul’s speech, barely making it in time to hear the congressman remark on Iran sanctions and ask the crowd how they would like it if one day Chinese drones started bombing American targets. Afterwards, hundreds of people waited in line for the candidate, who seemed perfectly happy to oblige all those who desired photos. Cullen waited in this queue and later relayed his interaction with Ron Paul. “You’re a beautiful man,” he reported telling him as they posed for the camera. Ron Paul then inquired about the green armband, and Cullen replied that it stood for Occupy New Hampshire. “Thank you for participating in the democratic process,” Paul commented, cheerfully.

On the very first night of the Zuccotti Park occupation in September 2011, when participants had scant conception of what Occupy would soon become, Ron Paul people showed up and argued with Marxists about whether they were entitled to stay. They stayed. One might say Ron Paul people played a more integral role to the inception of Occupy than conventional Democrats or liberals, many of whom scorned the inscrutable demonstration in its first weeks. The journalist Arun Gupta, who co-founded the Occupied Wall Street Journal in New York City and later embarked on a tour of Occupy sites across America, told me he’d see clusters of Ron Paul supporters and various libertarians virtually everywhere he went. Such folks “tended to be better represented and integrated in red states,” Gupta said–Cheyenne, Boise, Tulsa, Little Rock, Louisville, Charleston, etc.–while in “blue states” they typically formed enclaves that were “tolerated” by the wider group.

A fair number of Occupy people in those days either had no opinion of or actively disliked Ron Paul, but the undercurrents of support were nonetheless noticeable, ranging from individuals who would wield official campaign paraphernalia to others who would concede private support only for narrow aspects of Ron Paul’s platform upon intense questioning. One would more reliably come across vocal Ron Paul supporters at Occupy events than vocal Obama supporters. It was not lost on the Zuccotti Park crowd, for instance, that Ron Paul personally expressed a measure of support for the movement earlier than most any other national U.S. politician–aside from Sen. Bernie Sanders or Rep. Dennis Kucinich. (Gary Johnson, then seeking the GOP nomination, made an appearance at Zuccotti Park and had a generally positive impression.)

Signage bearing the Paul-derived “End the Fed” slogan was common around Lower Manhattan during those frenzied weeks. Stories of Paul-Occupy fusion emerged from around the country: in Los Angeles, a Ron Paul activist successfully added an anti-Federal Reserve amendment to OccupyLA’s working manifesto; an ultimately ill-fated “Ron Paul Tent” was established for a time at OccupyPhilly. Ryan Hirsch, one of the lead Occupy New Hampshire organizers I met last January, described himself more-or-less as a disaffected progressive and was unsure if he’d bother voting in the GOP primary. (Hirsch was the individual pictured here who at a November 2011 campaign event in New Hampshire handed Barack Obama a typewritten note. “Mr. President,” it read, “Over 4,000 peaceful protesters have been arrested…”) But Hirsch ultimately did vote, for Ron Paul. Not because he agreed with everything Ron Paul has ever said, but because Paul spoke on so many critical issues that other candidates systematically neglected: civil liberties, drug prohibition, the military-industrial complex, criminal justice/police problems, Wikileaks, internet freedom.

In October 2011, Paul told journalist Brian Doherty that he viewed the nascent Occupy Wall Street movement as a “tremendous opportunity,” while adding that “it is not necessarily advantageous to overemphasize alliance with people the conservative voters don’t really want to talk about.” Indeed, at the time Occupy was the subject of much derision in right-wing media, with outlets such as Breitbart.com and the Daily Caller propagating endless incendiary anti-Occupy memes, often involving sexual exploitation or human excrement. These were widely circulated on the web and picked up by the talk-radio/Fox News nexus. Republican presidential candidates eagerly piled on: Mitt Romney declared the movement “dangerous,” while Newt Gingrich sneered–to the biggest applause of the night at a Frank Luntz presidential forum–that Occupiers ought to “Go get a job, right after you take a bath.” Ron Paul indicated he was put off by that remark. “I’m not likely to be the one to say, well, ‘Why don’t you get a bath and go get a job and quit crybabying.’ No, I don’t like that at all.”

Paul was probably correct insofar as public outreach to Occupy at the time would have been disadvantageous if his aim was to court registered Iowa Republicans. But Ron Paul’s “affinity” with the movement, as he described it, manifested from the outset. In September 2011 we spoke after a campaign event at a New Hampshire old folks’ home. Some supporters of his, I mentioned, had shown up to Zuccotti Park and were spreading the message of liberty, so to say. “If they were demonstrating peacefully,” Paul reacted, “and making a point, and arguing our case, and drawing attention to the Fed–I would say, good!” Paul drew out his inflection on the word “good,” as if to add–“and it’s about darn time!” In subsequent weeks, he’d go on to speak favorably about Occupy in a variety of venues: rebutting Herman Cain’s criticism during televised debates, extolling the principle of civil disobedience at the National Press Club and elsewhere. As the 2012 campaign dwindled, he started invoking the problem of “police violence” more regularly–of intimate concern to Occupiers–and emphasizing his commitment to “non-coercion,” which is a central tenet of Occupy’s operational ethos.

That a candidate who routinely inveighed against the military-industrial complex, “corporate fascism,” civil liberties infringements, and the George W. Bush administration’s lies about Iraq while championing Wikileaks, Bradley Manning, and the Occupy movement wound up attracting support from elements of the American left is not terribly surprising. But idiosyncratic right-wing elements of the Ron Paul coalition were often quite exercised about those same subjects. What this crossover dynamic suggests about the modern American political landscape remains largely unexplored.

All of these unorthodox elements may be forsaken in coming months, however, as the “Liberty Movement” orients itself to an existence without Ron Paul as its congressional standard-bearer. He retires from office on January 3. Those within the Ron Paul apparatus who insist on merging into the Republican Party infrastructure risk abandoning the legions of young people whose political consciousnesses were enlivened by Ron Paul but who refuse to countenance the machinations and deceptions associated with party politicking. They may have once been willing to work with Republicans to help Ron Paul, but those volunteers were always more “in” the GOP as a matter of practical necessity than “of” it.

During his farewell address to Congress last month, Paul asked, “Why did the big banks, the large corporations, and foreign banks and foreign central banks get bailed out in 2008, and the middle class lost their jobs and their homes?” He then cited the “gross discrepancy in wealth distribution going from the middle class to the rich” as among “the greatest dangers that the American people face today and impede the goal of a free society,” echoing one of Occupy’s central themes–income equality.

Ever the adept politician, Ron Paul understands where public opinion is heading, and he knows how to tailor an argument. He thus wisely plans to continue focusing on youth outreach in post-congressional life. Perhaps the preponderance of eccentric characters in Ron Paul’s own flock made him more inclined to show the maligned Occupy movement a modicum of respect, back when doing so was not an especially advisable tactic. This may not have thrilled members of his campaign operation, but long-term, the goodwill Ron Paul engendered among some unlikely constituencies may prove worth the price.

Michael Tracey is a writer based in New York. His work has appeared in The Nation, Reason, Mother Jones, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter.