Meet Occupy’s Hip-Hop Candidate for Congress

May 24, 2012; Source: DNAinfo

Challenging Rep. Nydia Velazquez in the Democratic primary for the redrawn 7th Congressional District in New York City, George Martinez claims to be the “only Occupy activist on a primary ballot.” Regardless of whether the Pace University adjunct professor can back up that claim, Martinez is challenging Velazquez (and her other primary opponents, including City Councilman Erik Martin Dilan) with some of the elan of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Last week, Martinez released a music video, “Occupy 2.0 All Streets, Bum Rush the Vote,” shot during Occupy Wall Street’s May Day marches and featuring the candidate rapping on subways and during the street demonstrations. Martinez told DNAinfo that he refuses corporate support, though it might be a little unlikely that he would get much. Relying on individual donations from the general public, the Martinez campaign has raised less than $6,000.

In addition to his Occupy persona, Martinez is also the founder and president of the nonprofit Global Block Foundation, which claims a mission to “harness…the spirit of innovation, creativity and activism at the core of the Hip-Hop movement to empower youth and transform communities across the globe.” There are three program buttons on the main page of the Global Block website. The “Cultural Diplomacy” page has stories and videos about Martinez (whose rap name is “Rithm”) touring various locales as something of an ambassador for hip-hop and linking Global Block to the Plural+ international video awards. Martinez identifies himself as having served as an “Arts Envoy” for the U.S. State Department through Global Block. Under the “Social Enterprise” button, Global Block offers the formula, “Talent & Social Capital Investments + Technology & the Global Market Place = Personal Sustainability,” under which the organization is marketing Global Block T-shirts and Global Block eco-tourism trips to Honduras. On the Global Block “News” page, the stories feature Global Block Music’s contribution of “Occupy Freedom,” which it calls the “viral OWS Hip Hop Anthem” on the Occupy Wall Street benefit album.

What is Martinez’s platform in contrast to Velazquez? According to DNAinfo, Martinez has said that a “main tenant of his campaign is a push for more affordable housing, noting that his own recent move from Sunset Park to the Bedford Stuyvesant-Bushwick border was spurred by skyrocketing rents.” To do that, he says, “We absolutely need to take over city-owned land,” calling for a change to the law to allow “neighbors” to take over vacant lots, which he describes as “start(ing) as a direct action (that) can become a formal empowerment.”

His campaign manager, a known Occupy activist, explained the electoral strategy by referencing the ideological “infighting” that occurred at Zuccotti Park last fall. Her realization, explaining the Martinez candidacy, is that “Occupy can be an idea that’s transferable to many plains.”  Therein lies one of the upcoming challenges to the Occupy “idea.” Is Occupy a variety of local protests and campaigns to take over a building here (as in San Francisco during the May Day protests) or prevent a foreclosure there (for example, the Occupy Minneapolis “reoccupation” of a bank-foreclosed home to prevent an eviction)? Is it a cultural movement of art and music along the lines of Rithm’s hip-hop diplomacy around the world? Is it a movement with specific political targets along the lines of the 99% Power’s protests at corporate shareholder meetings? 

Unintentionally, Martinez’s quixotic campaign is somewhat emblematic of the challenge facing the Occupy movement. Exactly what is it now and what can it be? –Rick Cohen