Confronting ‘co-optportunities’

Anyone who wants accurate news saturated with humor, irony and “truthiness” tunes in to the Colbert Report each night. This past week, I witnessed yet again the genius of Colbert tackling a relevant topic while mocking all sides of the political spectrum. Colbert’s latest self-serving campaign to co-opt the Occupy Wall Street movement was a brilliant co-optation statement of the Tea Party that also exposed the strengths and weaknesses of Occupy Wall Street.

But let’s step back a minute. What does it mean to co-opt a movement? Here’s a simple example relayed to me by a former U.S. civil rights movement activist:

During the civil rights movement, a demonstration concerning one aspect of the fight for racial equality was mounted in front of the Kennedy White House. In those days before massive security systems would make such a thing impossible, the demonstrators walked the pavement with picket signs. After some time had passed as the sidewalk picketers maintained their discipline, President John F. Kennedy asked the White House Mess to send out coffee and doughnuts to the protesters, which they did. As everyone enjoyed the coffee and doughnuts, the demonstration promptly dissipated, and everyone went home.

Now escalate that example to levels of providing foreign assistance, or interest group patronage, or individual endowments and large donations, and what you have is the opportunity for co-optation, or Stephen Colbert’s cleverly-termed “co-optportunities.”

Many comparisons have been made in the past weeks between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. Are they both really grassroots movements? Are they, or have they been hijacked by self-interested groups and individuals?

While there is debate surrounding the grassroots authenticity of the Tea Party, it cannot be denied that what may have begun as a grassroots movement has attracted corporate and conservative political party interest. While conservative pundits continue to mock Occupy Wall Street, calling members “bums and communists” while criticizing the protesters’ “lack of a demand,” their own cable news debates have exposed the main difference between both groups – one has shown a willingness to be co-opted, and the other, so far, has not. A 2010 feature by New York Times columnist Frank Rich was a sobering tale of the heavy hitters that bankrolled the Tea Party.

Meanwhile, Justin Wedes, the Occupy Wall Street representative shown on this week’s the Colbert Report, responded to Colbert’s offer to help the “disorganization” with cash: “It’s not about money, it’s about the thing we’re trying to build here.”

But does any of this matter, particularly beyond the United States? Do the uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen face the same co-optation challenges? “Absolutely!” said women activists and exile community leaders from those countries during a salon-style gathering that I attended last night.

Before Bahrain’s recent uprising, The Kingdom of Bahrain was seen as a peaceful island country floating in the Persian Gulf. When Tunisia and Egypt exploded with citizen action and resistance, Bahrain rose up as well. After the victorious revolutions in both Tunisia and Egypt, other countries are eyeing the region, out of fear, admiration or opportunity.

“All of a sudden, everyone is watching tiny Bahrain,” the Bahraini activist explained. “You have big powers and outside forces, like the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, that want to maintain or apply influence. And our movement has to be very careful who it becomes affiliated with and from whom it accepts help.”

The women from Egypt and Syria nodded in agreement. There was general agreement that assistance in the form of civil society educational exchanges, or trainings and gatherings that offer information, particularly about movement building and post-revolution democratic consolidation, is reasonable and helpful. Other assistance comes in the form of in-kind support is often offered by Western governments through its development, democracy, human rights and anti-corruption program mechanisms. But when does a movement cross the slippery slope of being co-opted by a foreign entity for their own political and national interests? How does a movement know what’s too much help, and what is enough?

There are no hard and fast rules, we agreed. It is a matter of core movement leadership being aware of the risks, and that any risk calculations include the movement’s potential to be directed by outsiders or prevented from maintaining absolute independence. Foresight is required as well—thinking beyond the movement in its present state and weighing the challenges of the moment against the challenges of the future, particularly potential accusations of being co-opted by outside forces and subsequent loss of popular trust and support.

The Colbert Report’s “Co-optportunities” episodes this week were a funny yet sobering reminder of the scrutiny that movements undergo not only by their opponents and constituents, but also by the watchful eyes of the rest of the world.

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