Features » November 8, 2011
Voices From the Occupations
Why occupy? Four protesters from around the U.S. discuss the nation’s newest movement.
‘A moment like this only comes along every generation or so. The Civil Rights Movement lasted for a decade. If this is going to last a decade, the first step is going to be lasting through the winter.’
The Occupy protesters have been ridiculed by the press, celebrated by the left, and reviled by the right–but rarely allowed to speak for themselves. After the initial New York protest morphed into a national movement in October, reporters struggled to understand the spectacle and pundits stepped in to pontificate and prognosticate. They were right about one thing: United in anger, the mostly young protesters have lost faith in America’s political and economic system–but they don’t always agree on how to repair it.
In late October, In These Times held a conference call with protesters around the country, hoping to illuminate their intentions, ideals and ultimate goals.
Joining the discussion were Caitlin Manning, a filmmaker involved with Occupy Oakland; Jesse Myerson, a member of Occupy Wall Street’s Media and Labor Outreach committees; Sam Jewler, who quit an internship to dedicate his time to Occupy DC; and Natalie Wahlberg, an unemployed college instructor on Occupy Chicago’s Press Committee. They spoke about why they think electoral politics is a waste of time, how winter will impact the movement and what they’ve learned from the homeless.
How do you respond to someone who says Occupy protesters don’t really represent the 99%, that they’re marginal and far more radical than most people?
CAITLIN: I have problems with the 99% rhetoric. On the one hand, it’s true that the 1% who are running the country have a lot of power. On the other hand, among the 99%, there are divisions. It has been said many times that the cops are part of the 99%. But we at Occupy Oakland took a firm stand at the very beginning that cops–as long as they’re cops–are not our friends and are not part of our movement. The Tea Party is part of the 99%, but they’re not part of the movement.
JESSE: I take the opposite view. A sense pervades a lot of the population of Liberty Park in New York that the 99% isn’t the claim that “everyone stands with us,” but the claim that “we stand with everyone.” Austerity budgets, demanded by the Wall Street fat cats who crashed the economy, threaten the jobs and pensions of cops as well. Christian fundamentalists and Tea Party folks would recoil at the genderqueers we have down here with us, but they’re losing their jobs as well. There is a moral beauty and a quiet nobility in standing with people who don’t stand with you. They too are victimized by the same system that incentivizes abuse and exploitation.
SAM: Obviously what the cops did in Oakland is heinous, but I have talked to police at Occupy Cleveland and Occupy DC who have said that they stand with us and if their department told them to kick us out, they would take that day off. They see what’s happening to the country, and they worry about their children’s generation.
How are Occupy committees trying to increase participation to reflect the full range of struggles Americans engage in?
SAM: In D.C., we’re reaching out to students at universities. We have a higher student debt average than any state in the country. The average student here is graduating $30,000 in debt.
JESSE: In addition to labor unions, in New York we’ve been reaching out to the populations most affected by cuts to valuable social services. That includes people living in poverty, the unemployed, and not-for-profit organizations that work on foreclosure resistance. We’re trying to make sure that the people who are left behind most are leading us, and that we’re responding to their needs.
SAM: We’ve got a lot of homeless people in our occupation. They’ve been particularly helpful with teaching us how to survive the colder weather.
CAITLIN: In Occupy Oakland, homeless people have really become very active in the camp. A lot of them have experience in food preparation, like at churches, so they’ve brought a lot of expertise to us. And in Oakland there’s a very long history of black militancy–a lot of those people who are involved now in various grassroots communities have been working with us.
Many Occupy sites are increasingly defined by the struggle for public space, by conflicts with police. How crucial is a stable protest site for building a sense of community and the movement more broadly?
CAITLIN: In Oakland, we did not allow cops on the camp. Every time a police showed, a hundred people would mass up and say, “Go home. Go home. Go home.” So they ended up respecting the perimeter of our camp and not coming in. But when the cops attacked, we defended ourselves.
NATALIE: It is essential to have a permanent place where we can have and grow a community. There’s a lot of press about our interactions with the police, but we choose to use that as a platform to get the Occupy Chicago message out. We’re trying to get the media narrative to focus on our goals, not about the arrests that happened at Grant Park.
SAM: These places are not just “places”; these are our communities that we’ve built. A lot of people are sleeping there every single night, so it’s more than just a base from which we protest.
CAITLIN: Yeah, it’s a model of the new society that we’re all struggling to develop in these encampments. Incredible transformations happen, like one guy was telling me the other day about how he used to be homophobic but because of all the queer people and trans people involved, he totally changed his mind.
NATALIE: That’s what Occupy Chicago is hoping to achieve by establishing a permanent encampment and community–a parallel society that reflects the values of our movement, of our hope for our future.
Why is it important that these protests are structured so horizontally, with various committees rather than clear leaders? What is the downside of the highly egalitarian General Assemblies?
JESSE: The downside in New York is that it becomes inefficient, almost crippling. Which is fine. That’s the thing about democracy–it takes forever and it requires a lot of diligence. If what you wanted was efficiency, you’d turn to totalitarianism.
The Occupy Movement is trying to show that our country’s democracy is a façade, behind which there’s this ugly plutocracy where the wealthy control the government. Setting up this alternative, radical democracy draws a stark contrast to the type of democracy offered by the 1%.
CAITLIN: In Oakland the GA process has been evolving. There have been moments of clusterfuck, but a facilitation committee meets everyday and says, “OK, this didn’t work. We have to modify our process.”
NATALIE: Even though our democracy is painful and slow, people want to be involved. I think that just speaks to the empowerment they feel of being part of a movement that actually listens to them–part of a society that they have a stake in.
JESSE: The openness is critical, too, because transparency is a guardian against infiltration. When [right-wing provocateur] James O’Keefe came down to Occupy Wall Street, the biggest thing that he was able to expose was that there are freaks and weirdos. Which everybody knows, right? Of course there are crazies–it’s a park in New York City.
How coordinated are your respective protests right now, and how important is it to become more coordinated in the future?
CAITLIN: We’re not super-connected in terms of strategy or ideas. And that’s OK, for the moment. It’s a local struggle with broad agreement with other Occupy sites. It’s helpful to see what is and isn’t working in other places. I’m hearing things from you guys that I really didn’t know, so this is awesome to have this connection.
SAM: There’s informal communication between people at different occupations. We’re only three weeks old. For the moment, we’re trying to build ourselves up before we start communicating across the country.
JESSE: There is an appeal for conservatives in this model because it really is an organic kind of federalism, where groups are not controlled by a centralized government but have a shared ideology and, at the same time, get to suit their own protest to their local concerns. We can trade best practices, but there’s no unifying doctrine that we all have to stick to.
NATALIE: At the core, all the Occupy protests stand for the same thing. But the way we practice is different.
How will winter impact this movement?
JESSE: Terribly, probably. If we can rely on the many people supporting us to help sustain us through the winter by donating cold weather things and by providing places to go and warm up–an explosion of enthusiasm in the spring will propel this thing forward, at least through the election season, and probably for a decade.
A moment like this only comes along every generation or so. The Civil Rights Movement lasted for about a decade. If this is going to last a decade, the first step is going to be lasting through the winter.
NATALIE: At Occupy Chicago, it’s supposed to be the harshest winter in 10 years coming up. We have plans to secure a space–one of the foreclosed buildings in the Loop sitting empty–that we could practice our direct democracy and build our community in.
CAITLIN: And if the city doesn’t give us the buildings, we can occupy them.
SAM: In D.C., we have a weatherization committee that’s starting to work on this. Surviving this winter is crucial. It’s a tough question: Do you get reduced numbers being outside but still look determined, or do you go inside and hibernate and continue to do actions and keep your numbers high?
JESSE: Or both.
How do you each imagine yourself connecting to the major political parties? Could or should this movement try to shift the Democratic Party left?
NATALIE: The Democratic Party has shown itself to be broken and that’s one of the reasons the Occupy Movement started. We have no voice; we have no representation. At Occupy Chicago, we do not support any political candidates. They are of course welcome to speak at our GAs (General Assemblies), but they get two minutes just like anyone else.
JESSE: Same in New York.
SAM: We had Dennis Kucinich come through last week during our GA. We just went on, no one interrupted it for him. We made it clear to him that we are not going to be co-opted by him or any other left-wing politician.
JESSE: One practical effect of this might be that the Democrats start to run on campaign finance reform or financial regulation or whatever thing they think will appease us. And on balance, that’s probably a good thing. In general, there’s no way to make power respond to the will of the people without showing that we’re independent of it. We can’t be held hostage by this lesser-of-two-evils way of thinking about elections, because then our votes can be taken for granted.
CAITLIN: If the politicians want to come and help us, fine. Beyond that, this is about creating a new society from the ground up.
Is there any legislation you would like to see passed?
JESSE: I’d like to see a Robin Hood tax passed and I’d like to see a complete rollback of Citizens United. But that’s me, not the movement. I would be incredibly surprised if any legislative endorsement came out of Occupy Wall Street. I would find that disheartening. Tons of people are working on the legislative initiatives and none of them are going to be successful until we can extricate our democratic politics from the control of wealth.
SAM: More important than anything legislative is consciousness. Politics can only change after consciousness changes.
CAITLIN: I would say that consciousness changes in the process of doing politics as well.
NATALIE: Exactly. At Occupy Chicago, people speak about Glass-Steagall and Citizens United and everyone understands what they are. Before this movement, no one had a clue. Now we can start looking for ways to build and improve our society overall.
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Jeremy Gantz is a contributing editor at the magazine. He is the editor of The Age of Inequality: Corporate America's War on Working People (2017, Verso), and was the Web/Associate Editor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, he worked as a reporter for The Cambodia Daily in 2007. After graduating from Carleton College in 2004, he lived in Sri Lanka on a Fulbright scholarship, studying the intersection of ethnic politics and public education. His articles have also appeared in Chicago-area newspapers, Alternet and the Onion’s A.V. Club.