With camps gone, US Occupiers prepare for new fights
* Forging alliances with unions, other groups
* Little involvement with political campaigns
* Feb 29 'Shut Down the Corporations' event
By Nick Carey
CEDAR FALLS, Iowa, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Their encampments are largely gone, but the U.S. Occupy movement is far from dead, with organizers focused on a next wave of protest.
In Iowa, a major farming state, Occupy activists are mobilizing with other groups against agricultural biotechnology firm, Monsanto. In Oklahoma, Occupy plans to target retail giant Walmart for protests. Groups in more than 50 cities are planning a national protest day February 29, targeting numerous corporations.
Occupy groups in Chicago are forging bonds with the teachers and transit unions. In Cincinnati, Occupy is boosting numbers by building coalitions with civic groups and the Green Party.
To an extent, the groups say their message has been validated by President Barack Obama, a Democrat who has focused on income inequality in his election-year calls for tax reform. But for the most part, Occupy groups have yet to align themselves with a presidential campaign or even get involved in state or local elections.
"We need candidates who are about the people. We don't have any right now. To change that we have to start with each and every one of us," said Nancy Bohannon of IndyOWS, an Occupy group in Indianapolis that is trying to help with voter education.
In interviews with Occupy groups in more than a dozen states - on both coasts and across the Midwest - activists described training for nonviolent confrontation, plans for spring rallies at state capitols and preparations for a major presence at the G-8 and NATO summits to be held in Chicago in May.
"We have had to get back to more conventional grassroots organizing methods to get more people involved and engaged," said Chris Schwartz, a member of Iowa's Occupy Cedar Valley. "What we're doing is building out infrastructure for the spring."
"The encampments were fun and cathartic and they served a purpose in bringing all of us together," said Zach Chasnoff, 33, a landscaper who belongs to Occupy St. Louis. "Now we begin the hard work."
Academics who track middle-class populist movements say that Occupy - originally formed to protest Wall Street excess - is at an important juncture. The tent cities that popped up across the country offered strong symbols but had little policy impact.
"The question is whether they can become more effective while keeping a large number of volunteers engaged and excited. This is where a lot of popular movements hit the shoals and founder," said Steven Schier, a politics professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.
Schier said that unlike the Tea Party movement, which focuses on limited government, Occupy's issues range from social and economic justice to environmentalism and human rights.
"If you asked me to describe the Tea Party agenda I could define it pretty well, but the Occupy movement is more amorphous," he said. "As it becomes more specific it may lose people and resources."
Robert Liebman, an associate sociology professor at Portland State University, said he sees the protesters "doing a lot of thinking, networking and training."
"Before you get people out onto the streets en masse, you have to do networking and planning, plus work out what role everyone can play," he said. He said Occupy's activities remind him of the civil rights movement's early days.
Like the conservative Tea Party, the Occupy movement is a loose collection of local groups, without national leaders.
Occupy wants systemic change but, unlike the Tea Party, it has yet to embrace the political process. Most Occupiers interviewed by Reuters said they prefer to stay out of politics, a hallmark of the movement thus far.
Although Occupiers are tracking the upcoming elections, Reuters only encountered one who is seeking political office. Nate Kleinman of Occupy Philadelphia is running against Democratic Representative Allyson Schwartz in Pennsylvania's 13th district.
"I expect others will run for office sooner or later," Kleinman said. "We have to get this country back on track."
Unlike the highly individualistic conservatives in the Tea Party, the Occupy movement has moved quickly to build coalitions, especially in smaller cities.
Kellie Stewart, 46, used the internet to help organize from St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, population around 2,000.
"There aren't enough of us here to do anything," she said. "So I turned to the Internet to help create a statewide group."
Occupy Wisconsin helps groups coordinate statewide, and similar groups are springing up elsewhere, such as Occupy Indiana and Occupy Oklahoma. Occupy the Midwest is planning a March regional conference in St. Louis.
More than 50 groups plan to take part in the February 29 "Shut Down the Corporations" event, focusing on companies in their areas. In New York, the target will be Bank of America.
"This is part of an effort to boost national coordination," said history student Mark Bray, a member of Occupy Wall Street. "But this is not a top-down organization where people have to get approval from a political party or NGO."
"The Occupy groups in Texas and Iowa are not waiting for us to tell them what to do. They're just going out and doing it."
Activists in smaller cities say they needed to shift their focus from encampments to spreading their message more broadly.
"We aim to peeling back the sleeping eyelids of the American people," said IndyOWS' Bohannon. "We're going to wake them up."
Some groups are planning to return in the spring to encampments that led to confrontations with authorities in Washington, D.C., and Oakland, California. In New York, Occupy Wall Street is considering "pop-up Occupations" for a day in a park, plus other forms of public protest.
"Some people feel that re-encamping would serve as a symbol and that it's something we need to do," said John Zarebski, 62, a skilled tradesman and member of Occupy Lansing in Michigan. "Others feel we should devote our resources elsewhere."
"A MOVEMENT OF MOVEMENTS"
Activists like university student Jessica Garraway of Occupy Cedar Valley - a coalition of activists from Cedar Falls, Iowa and nearby Waterloo - say they are in this for the long haul.
"We have our eyes on a prize far beyond just one election," Garraway said. "There is a systemic problem here that has to be addressed."
They argue that enthusiasm will not dissipate just because the tents have come down.
"I've been waiting for years for people to rise up and get more involved," said Justin Jeffre, 38, of Occupy Cincinatti, a singer best known as part of the once-popular boy band '98 Degrees.' "It finally feels like we have a movement of movements."