Tea Party And 'Occupy': Can't They All Get Along?

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The Occupy Wall Street movement is continuing to spread around the U.S., and political observers are picking up on comparisons with the conservative Tea Party movement. Richard Harwood, of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, recently penned an article calling on the two groups to explore their common ground. Host Michel Martin speaks with Harwood, as well as Shelby Blakely of the Tea Party Patriots, and Kyle Christopher, an Occupy Wall Street participant.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We have our Friday features for you. Later in Faith Matters, we note that this is an election where people are already talking about religion and race. There are not one, but two African-American candidates in the mix, and not one, but two candidates who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Mormon Church. We caught up with a married couple who are black and Mormon to hear how they are sorting things out. And guess what? Even they don't agree.

We'll hear more of what they have to say in just a few minutes. But first, in our political chat, we want to talk about not one, but two grassroots movements that seem to be having an influence on American politics right now. We're about a month into protests by a group known as Occupy Wall Street, and the demonstrations have spread far from New York to Boston, to Oakland, California to Nashville and Atlanta, not to mention overseas. And as that movement have grown, some have begun to compare that effort to the Tea Party.

That's the conservative grassroots effort that's become a powerful force in the Republican Party. For example, many observers attribute the GOP takeover of the House in the midterm elections to the energy and organizational skill of people associated with the Tea Party. And because both groups say they are frustrated by the status quo and want to change it, some people are asking: Why don't they get together?

That's a question that Rich Harwood asked this week on his blog. He's the founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. That's a nonpartisan organization that says it works to identify and support people it calls public innovators who will then work to create hope, change and progress in their communities. Harwood recently wrote on his website about the shared beliefs he sees between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, and he said that the country might benefit if those common values were explored.

So, we decided to do just that by bringing together Rich Harwood with two guests who've been on the program before from both of those movements. Shelby Blakely is a citizen journalist and coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots. Also with us is Kyle Christopher. He is a freelance photojournalist and a participant in Occupy Wall Street. I welcome everybody to the program. Thank you for joining us.

RICH HARWOOD: Thank you for having me.

SHELBY BLAKELY: Thank you.

KYLE CHRISTOPHER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, as I mentioned, each of you has actually been a guest on the program separately. So for people who didn't hear those conversations, Shelby, I'll start with you and just ask you: What attracted you to the Tea Party movement to begin with?

BLAKELY: Well, the Tea Party movement has three core values of fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited governments and free markets. And I like the idea of dictating actions based on principle, as opposed to circumstances.

MARTIN: Okay. So, do you see - do you think you have anything in common with Occupy Wall Street?

BLAKELY: I believe that we are looking at the same problem, but from two vastly different angles. Occupy Wall Street is looking at the government money in the corporate world and assessing the need to punish the corporate world for having that money, while the Tea Party is looking at the government that's actually handing out that money, and we want to turn off the faucet of money flowing to Wall Street. That way, we don't have to worry about which banks or which corporations are getting the money, because it's simply not being offered.

MARTIN: Okay. Kyle what about you? What attracted you to the Occupy Wall Street movement to begin with, and do you think you have anything in common with the Tea Party folks?

CHRISTOPHER: You know, I was probably attracted to it more just to begin with just from, you know, a standpoint of the ability for - and so many different people to have so many different viewpoints on so many different things. And I like the ability for each person to basically be able to branch off in whatever way that they choose. As far as having something involved with the Tea Party, I think that Occupy Wall Street does have a similar mindset in the way that it may have started out the same way, but not, I guess, ended up the same way.

I would say that maybe there was a bit of co-opting that happened with the Tea Party movement and I find that, you know, Occupy Wall Street so far hasn't had that problem, and hopefully will not in the future.

MARTIN: Rich, let's turn to you. Why do you think the two movements have something in common, and what do you think it's important for them to talk about together?

HARWOOD: Well, you know, it's interesting, Michel. I don't know if - well, there are certain principles that both have in common. They're both grassroots efforts. They both believe that ordinary citizens ought to have more of a voice. They both believe that government ought to be accessible to people. But, you know, beyond that, what I would say is it's less about what these two movements have in common than when you strip away the slogans and the banners and the positioning. My experience has been in engaging people across the board politically, that they share common aspirations about their communities.

They share common aspirations about wanting to make progress to improve people's lives. And if we can suspend - I'm not saying that the - there will always be differences between groups in our society. The question is if we want to make progress at the community level, I think there are lots of opportunities to demonstrate that we can rebuild trust, that people can get together and do things, and that, frankly, we can restore our faith that we have the ability to get things done.

MARTIN: So your argument - your idea here is really not so much that this would be a national conversation - I mean, for example, the four of us are in four different cities, right, as we're speaking. Is it your idea that this would be more of a community-level, neighborhood kind of conversation?

HARWOOD: Well, I think that - you know, I've been going around the country engaging Americans in probably 10 communities recently on these issues. And what I find is, at the community level, those who support the Tea Party, those who support Occupy Wall Street, when they actually start talking about their communities, they actually do find common ground. For instance, they both believe that we need to improve our education for kids. They both want to work on issues around vulnerable children.

They both want to come back into the public square and reclaim some of the power from government who they see across the board as, in some cases, intruding too much. So, yeah, I think there's an opportunity here, and I think at the national level, we have to figure out what are those places where we can agree to start to make progress and know that we're going to keep arguing for sometime (technical difficulties) an impasse in the country.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

HARWOOD: It's going to take us a while to get through that at a national level.

MARTIN: Our guests are Rich Harwood of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, Shelby Blakely - she's a coordinator for Tea Party Patriots - and Kyle Christopher, a freelance photojournalist and a participant in Occupy Wall Street. We're exploring an idea that Rich raised on his blog this week of whether or not the Tea Party Patriots and Occupy Wall Street protestors have more in common than perhaps they might first think.

And so, Shelby, I'll go to you. What about Rich's point? I mean, you said - well, the Tea Party Patriots, for example, has a message on their website this week really rejecting the idea that they have anything in common with Occupy Wall Street, who they accuse of wanting less of what made America great and more of what is damaging to America. And you're explicitly - you've talked several times on this program about your core goal here is an end to crony capitalism, but really smaller government, you know, overall. Do you see any common ground there?

BLAKELY: Well, the problem is that the Occupy Wall Street movement, their solution is to increase the power given to government to be able to confiscate the wealth of the quote "top 1 percent." Our goal and our principle dictates that less government should be in place, but that big corporations who should have failed because they mismanaged their funds, they should have failed, and new banks and new companies could have come along and picked off their assets and created things with less corruption and less crony capitalism.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

BLAKELY: Because if you cut off the spigot, if you cut off the money, the taxpayer money that flows to these corporations, if that money is truly keeping the corporation afloat - as was in the case of Solyndra - that would have failed without my children's money and my grandchildren's money, because we are currently spending 40 percent more than we take in.

MARTIN: Kyle, what about Shelby's point? Her argument is that Occupy Wall Street is mainly preoccupied with redistributing, you know, the wealth, and that the real solution here is just to make government smaller. What's your take on that?

CHRISTOPHER: As far as that respect is concerned, I would say that we probably have more in common than, I think, that Shelby let's onto. I mean, look it's not - we are not here from - at least from my perspective - for more government. And I think that that's almost a little funny to me coming from that angle, because in my experience being down here on the ground, that is not what I've found is that we want in any way, like, more government intervention, especially in terms of, like, a corporate finance situation. I think that, as far as capitalist, you know, expenditures and stuff like that is concerned, our major point of contenture(ph) is that we want more corporate responsibility.

That doesn't necessary have to be regulated by the government. And I feel like, unfortunately, that's kind of the spin that's been taken on this entire thing, and it's not true.

MARTIN: What is it that your group wants? One of the criticisms of Occupy Wall Street is that people aren't really sure what it is that they do want, whereas Tea Party Patriots - or the Tea Party group in general, and there are many Tea Party groups, it has to be said - do have a central organizing theme, which is smaller government.

CHRISTOPHER: I mean, honestly, great. Let them, you know, take their time - or not take their time, excuse me, to get to their point. I mean, you know, let's say we're a month old in our small movement that we've started so far. To really try and, like, put a point of, you know - point a process down and say, well, what is your demand so far? You guys don't seem to have any demands yet. You know, I think that that's a little unfortunate to just kind of like rush us ahead and just be like, so, guys, what's your point? Why are you here so far? I think that that's not exactly the reason that we came down here, and that we, as a movement - and again, I can't speak for a movement. I can speak for me. We are our demands, and I think that that's really important to note.

And I think that all this, like, rushing for people to say, you know, you need to get to the point, it's just - it's not fair to kind of push that ahead. And I think that that's a real media spin that people have just been, like, begging for us to do, because they don't what other angle to push anymore.

BLAKELY: I think that's actually a very interesting comparison and highlight differences between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. When the Tea Party was a month old, we did have a cohesive demand, and that demand was stop spending money. That was it.

MARTIN: Rich, I want to give you a final thought before we take a short break. We're going to come back with all of our guests in a minute. But Rich, you have about a minute. Where do you think we should take the conversation next?

HARWOOD: Well, if we track this conversation since we began, much of it has been about drawing distinctions, pushing different groups into a corner to declare their demands. You know, when I talk to people in the country, they see both these groups as positive elements, because we've lost trust in government and we - and there's some outrage and anger in the country.

But what I also hear across the political spectrum is: What happens after the outrage? And what people want is to come back into their community and rebuild trust. They believe it has to happen at the local level first, because that's where the country is. And there are lots of things - let's just take Shelby's point about smaller government - there are lots of things around education and vulnerable children that people believe are community responsibilities, not necessarily the education system. And we find that across the entire political spectrum.

MARTIN: Well, why don't we ask some of those questions when we come back? Rich, why don't you think of a question that you might like to ask both Shelby and Kyle when we come back? And Shelby and Kyle, if you have a question you want to ask each other, why don't we do that after we take our break? Does that sound good?

HARWOOD: Sounds great.

CHRISTOPHER: Thank you.

MARTIN: Okay. We're exploring the possible similarities between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements. It's our political chat today. Our guests are Rich Harwood of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, Kyle Christopher with Occupy Wall Street and Shelby Blakely of Tea Party Patriots.

We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we'll have more with all of our guests in a moment. This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. In a few minutes, our listeners will talk back to us. They'll tell us more about how they feel about the stories we cover this week.

But first, we want to continue this conversation on the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. We're talking about what these two groups may or may not have in common. Still with us, Rich Harwood, president and founder of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. He raised this question in his blog this week. Also with us, Shelby Blakely, citizen journalist and coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, and Kyle Christopher, an Occupy Wall Street participant and freelance photojournalist.

Okay, Rich. What's your question for both of our guests?

HARWOOD: Well, first, let me ask this, it's two parts: One is for Shelby and Kyle both. Where do you make your home?

BLAKELY: As in where do I live?

HARWOOD: Yeah.

BLAKELY: I'm from the Atlanta area, but I recently moved from Washington State.

HARWOOD: Okay. And Kyle, how about you?

CHRISTOPHER: I came from Rust Belt, Buffalo, New York, straight up down here to Brooklyn, New York.

MARTIN: And Rich, I have to tell you we don't have a lot of time, so you kind of...

HARWOOD: Okay.

MARTIN: I hate to - I know Kyle's critical of the idea of getting to the point, but we do have to get to the point for today. Okay?

HARWOOD: But here's the question: When you think about living in Atlanta or in Buffalo, what are your aspirations for those communities?

BLAKELY: Kyle, you want to go first?

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, sure, fine. I would say, as far as Buffalo, New York's concerned, I want to see it stop becoming a Rust Belt city that's just dropping tons of its money out of the Buffalo system and getting it siphoned out to, you know, little programs like National Fuel's Conservation Incentive Program, or, you know, just basically being siphoned out into the New York City area. Those are things that I'd like to stop. I'd like to see it progress, as opposed to just be, you know, Rust Belt.

HARWOOD: And Shelby?

BLAKELY: I'd like to see the people of Atlanta - and, honestly, in Washington, where I moved from and spent most of my life - I'd like to see the people in those communities be free from overly burdensome federal regulation, free to explore workable options for their local industries, their local education through consumer choice instead of state-run monopolies like we have in education.

MARTIN: Okay. Rich, so, where do you want to go?

HARWOOD: If we had more time, Michel, I'd probably probe some more about the communities themselves and what kind of community they want those communities could become. And then what are some of our common challenges in actually achieving those aspirations in those communities? And what we've found across the country, as you reframe the discussion to that and we put aside, just for a moment, what organization we run, what group we run, what we do, what we find is, in every community I've been in, there is an emergence of at least some common ground that we can begin to work on, notwithstanding our real differences.

MARTIN: Okay. So politics does take place, though, on both a national and a local level. I mean, that is kind of how it works. I'd be interested in thoughts about how that gets translated. But I did offer each of you the opportunity to speak to each other and ask each other a question. I'd like to extend that now.

So Shelby, do you want to go first?

BLAKELY: Sure. Kyle, I noticed earlier, you mentioned that you would like to see more corporate responsibility. My question to you is: How would you achieve that corporate responsibility? Would you rather see the free market and consumer choice dictate who succeeds and who fails, thereby administering corporate responsibility through success and failure? Or would you rather have additional government regulation, where the government decides who follows what law and who gets punished and who gets off scot free?

CHRISTOPHER: There's two different ways to answer that question. The first is that government regulation would work only into and the fact of if the legislative - like, if the lobbyists that are all above it with lots of money that are lobbying for change aren't paying the government to make those decisions for them.

So I guess you could say that you'd like to - I would like to achieve that in some way of having regulation be that, you know, our local governments be that, you know, different regulative branches of, you know, different subsidiaries, etc., that would take care of those things. I can't be the one to say exactly who would enforce those regulations, but I know that outside of this country, it really doesn't matter when you get to some place like the Congo and they're just, like, mining things with their bare hands, and that's our fault because we want an iPad.

MARTIN: Kyle, what's your question for Shelby?

CHRISTOPHER: I'd like to ask - how did you think that this was going to work when you say that you don't want to spend so much more money, but you guys drank the Kool-Aid anyway when you got in bed with, like, you know, MoveOn.org or any of the other institutions that just dumped money on the Tea Party? I mean, Sarah Palin.

BLAKELY: I'm familiar with - well, A, Sarah Palin is not Tea Party leader. I believe you cannot speak for those who you do not speak to. And Sarah Palin does not communicate with Tea Party Patriots. I have never seen any sort of money or funding from MoveOn.org. In fact, I've never seen major funding from anything like Americans for Prosperity headed by the Koch brothers, FreedomWorks or MoveOn.org. I have never seen large funding come through from any of those organizations, so I simply have no idea what you're talking about.

MARTIN: Well, you know, I have a question for each of you. I wonder whether - and I just want to mention that we wanted to give this conversation more time, because we did want to give you guys a chance to sort of talk more to each other. So we're going to put our Back Talk conversation on the Web this week, and people can find it there.

But do you think that, in part, maybe your differences are a function of kind of who you are, you know, where you live, where you grew up? Do you think that that's part of it, or do you think it's strictly kind of philosophical and political? Kyle, I'll ask you that. What do you think?

CHRISTOPHER: I mean, like I said, I come from Rust Belt city, so I mean, I'm from Buffalo, New York. There's not a lot there. You know what I mean? It's a great place. Just great food and art scene, and that's awesome and I'd say that, yes, it definitely shaped my personality by coming from a place that doesn't have a lot or just doesn't have a lot in a different way.

Philosophically, I'd say that there's parts of the Tea Party that I really like and I could get behind. I think that it would be really sweet if, you know, both sides could just put aside those differences. But again, there's so much money that's in the Tea Party. I think that that's the major point of contention, and I think that, unfortunately, because there's so much money, it makes a lot of people from Occupy Wall Street scared of that, or not - I wouldn't want to use the word scared. I would say it raises concerns as to how can you achieve something where you want to spend less money, you want to make so many more cutbacks, you want to have, you know, a deregulation industry and you also want the market to kind of become its own animal.

How can all of those things succeed when you're just injecting it with money? I mean, that's - I don't mean to cut you off, but that's just the way that things seem to be going.

MARTIN: I understand. Shelby, I've got to give you a chance to respond. And it is interesting, too, because when we met you last year, you had been unemployed for a period of time, too. So you're not without challenges in your own life. And so in the minute that we have left, you know, what do you - how do you think your upbringing and all of your experiences have made you who you are?

BLAKELY: Well, for starters, I grew up in an extremely impoverished home that had its fair share of violence, and I understand what happens when authority is not checked. I have a deep and abiding understanding of that. That being said, I also believe in personal responsibility. And right now, the government does not exercise - it is not holding itself to the same standard it holds everyone else to. That's where we get Crony capitalism.

So, ideologically, I am all for personal responsibility. And if the government fails to do that, by all means, we will control the government for them if they cannot control themselves.

That being said, I have to disagree with the idea that there's all of this money floating around the Tea Party. Occupy Atlanta - I'm sorry - Occupy Richmond has been able to occupy the park that they're in for weeks on end without any charge from the local government, when the Tea Party was charged $10,000 for insurance, for police and for crowd control and porta-potties at events.

So where the money is coming and going and where we're injecting all this money - that money was raised, you know, dollars and cents at a time by passing the hat at meetings. So I'm not understanding where this idea that the Tea Party is swimming in bucket loads of cash is coming from.

MARTIN: I don't know that we got very far, but I do appreciate the fact that we made an effort and we are at least starting our conversation together. And Rich, we appreciate you for the idea. Rich Harwood is the founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. We caught up with him in Denver. Shelby Blakely is a citizen journalist and coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots. She was with us from our member station, WABE in Atlanta. And Kyle Christopher is also a journalist. He's a freelance photojournalist and Occupy Wall Street participant. He was with us from our bureau in New York.

I thank you all so much for starting the conversation.

HARWOOD: Thanks so much, Michel.

BLAKELY: Thanks so much.

CHRISTOPHER: Thank you, Rich.

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