WASHINGTON — Demoralized liberals are trying to get their mojo back. Frustrated with Congress, outmaneuvered by the tea party and all but silent as the GOP swept the 2010 elections, liberals say they've had enough.
On Monday, 2,000 progressive activists who represented more than 200 groups came to Washington to chart a new course for recapturing the 2008 electoral magic that put Barack Obama in office and gave Democrats control of both houses of Congress.
Monday's opening of the three-day "Take Back the American Dream" conference took place as small but vocal bands of protesters demonstrated in various cities nationwide to support the ongoing "Occupy Wall Street" protests in New York.
The American Dream conference, which includes a jobs rally Wednesday on Capitol Hill, is sponsored by the liberal Campaign for America's Future and by Rebuild the Dream, an organization founded by Van Jones, former green jobs adviser for the Obama White House.
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The event will try to stir a passionate grass-roots movement of disenchanted liberals who will organize and hit the streets to protest what they see as a hard right turn in American politics after the Great Recession and the 2010 elections.
After fielding nearly 26,000 online ideas from more than 131,000 Americans, the fledgling movement has drafted a "Contract for the American Dream," which calls for more investment in infrastructure and public education, more green jobs, saving Social Security and Medicare, higher taxes for the wealthy, a financial transaction fee for Wall Street and an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jones, who resigned his White House job in 2009 after several political squabbles with Republicans, said the nascent movement would build on the protests that liberals mounted against the Iraq War during the George W. Bush years, which helped turn public opinion against the war.
"After the Iraq War, before Obama, it was the people who protested in the streets," Jones told the crowd at the Capitol Hilton Hotel. "This is your movement that you built with your own hands."
Jones chided liberal leaders for falling asleep at the wheel after Obama became president, arguing, "We went from 'Yes, we can,' to 'Yes, he can.' "
Hoping to strike a strong activist tone, Monday's conference began with a live video feed of protesters at New York's Occupy Wall Street demonstration. After nearly 30 days and the arrest of 700 protesters Sunday, the Wall Street protest is garnering national media attention and is spawning similar demonstrations nationwide.
Late Monday afternoon, the websites of The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe featured stories about similar homegrown protests.
Occupy Charlotte, one of the loosely organized groups that support the Wall Street protests, criticizes a range of conservative interests: from banks for the subprime mortgage meltdown to health insurers for denying claims to oil and nuclear companies for what the group calls environmental neglect.
On Saturday, the group will host a "general assembly" to plan more demonstrations in the North Carolina city, which has become an international banking center. Charlotte resident Grey Revell, 37, plans to attend.
"I want to show my solidarity with the people in New York," said Revell, a musician who lived in New York for six years.
"I think what's happening is very important," Revell said. "You have a lot of unarticulated anger, and an overall feeling among citizenry that they're not being heard, they're not being appreciated."
In Chicago, Monday marked Day 11 of a round-the-clock demonstration outside the city's Federal Reserve Bank. As a few protesters drummed on buckets, others held signs and cheered when cars and taxis honked in support. The protesters, who by midday numbered a few dozen, cited various grievances, most commonly corporate influence on Washington but also joblessness, homelessness, and the costs of education and health care.
Taking a break from his drumming, lifelong Chicago resident Darell Willis said it saddened him to see so many homeless people in a city with many foreclosed homes and abandoned properties.
"If I have to stay out here 24/7 for the next few months, it doesn't matter," he said. "We want to be heard."
Despite low attendance so far, organizers hope the protests will touch a nerve, much like the Wisconsin labor protests that followed the state's move to strip state workers of their collective bargaining rights last year.
"The Wisconsin struggle was contagious," said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, founder and executive director of Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant workers' rights group in Milwaukee that was active in the Wisconsin protests.
Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., told attendees at the Washington conference that they must work together and avoid "food fights" with each other and Obama if they hope to have electoral success in 2012. She promised that progressive concerns would be heard in all election contests next year.
"There's not a single congressional district that will go untouched," Edwards said, charging that Republicans care more about the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans than the 98 percent of working-class citizens.
"We aren't going to go silently while the top 2 percent walk away with the American dream," Edwards said.
(The Charlotte Observer's Celeste Smith in Charlotte and McClatchy special correspondent Adam Sege in Chicago contributed to this report.)
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