Interviews with Occupiers Underscore Movement’s Gains and Challenges

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May 18, 2012; Source: Policy Innovations

It hasn’t even been a full year of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but already observers and insiders are taking stock of the positives OWS achieved and the negatives OWS stumbled into.  A “Just Business” podcast hosted by Julia Taylor Kennedy includes the comments of four activists discussing the movement’s “serious growing pains.” Kennedy interviewed four very different Occupy activists for their personal takes on their Occupy experiences. As they say in “Law and Order,” these are their stories:

Karanja Gaçuça, a former Wall Street analyst

On getting involved in Occupy: “I made three trips there (to Zuccotti Park) before I actually started volunteering. It was only natural, when I went down and heard these people speaking essentially my language, and I felt like, ‘Wow, I found my tribe.’”

On the declining numbers of Occupy participants: “I wouldn’t say that I have seen our numbers swell. There was a good deal more people at our actions during the fall. What happened is that media coverage waned…”

On Occupy’s strategy for translating activism into action: “It’s not so much that banking is evil; it is that the system needs to change. Banking is a necessary industry. It’s the endless push for special treatment and tax cuts that I have a problem with. So Occupy Wall Street, it’s not our job to write legislation. That’s why we like legislators to do their job. We are going to continue doing our job, which is nonviolent direct action.”

Diego Ibañez, a migrant rights activist

On getting involved in Occupy: “When Occupy Wall Street started, I was like every day, ‘This is it!’ I like to pretend I have some sort of intuition, and I was like, ‘Okay, this is what I’ve been waiting for. I’ve got to go help. I’ve got to do my part.’”

On Occupy and race: “The race issue was something that I was very aware about. Within Occupy Wall Street there was a people of color group, and that was a working group. Honestly, a lot of folks will tell you that the purpose of that group was really to empower and train people of color to take over Occupy Wall Street. It didn’t work. So what I found out is that the structure, or the lack thereof, of Occupy Wall Street was not working for people of color and immigrants. But in my head the personal side of me was like, ‘This is Occupy Wall Street. It’s a movement that we’re all one. We should not separate into identity politics.’”

On the emergence of Occupy spin-offs: “It is like a revolutionary bubble that burst, like the housing bubble. Let’s say Occupy Wall Street’s bubble grew and grew and grew and grew and grew, and it got to a point where it burst. Out of that big bubble appeared a bunch of different bubbles. Like Occupy Museums didn’t exist before, Occupy Faith didn’t exist before, Occupy Art. I mean, those groups didn’t exist before. After the bubble burst, these groups now are there and established, and then with the networks and everything they are also growing as smaller bubbles, and they are eventually down the road go to create an even bigger bubble. You have to have that first burst.”

On Occupy’s edgy approach: “Something I’ve seen is how valuable being reckless or being naïve about something, how valuable that can be. This is something that I think the left in a sense has forgotten. We kind of ignite that flame again.”

Jamie Kemmerer, a Brooklyn-based small business person 

On Occupy’s decision-making processes: “At the risk of upsetting or frustrating Occupy people, the people who really identify strongly with that movement, one of the things that I have noticed about people who are in the working groups is that part of the reason that they have filtered out into working groups is because it is very, very difficult to get something through the general assembly—and things that are obvious… You read articles about people reporting that there are people going in and intentionally sabotaging the general assembly. This is a very new approach to decision-making. I’m not sure that we have figured out everything we need to know about getting large groups of people together in an open forum and then reaching unanimous consensus.”

On Occupy’s translation of activism into action: “My concern both with Occupy and other groups that I have done work with is there seems to be this barrier between activism and results. What I mean by that is there is the whole electoral process and there is the whole process of governing. There are the rare elected officials who will listen to activists and give them some time. But I don’t see a real penetration of the views and ideas of activists, many of whom really spend a lot of time and are very well-informed—I don’t see a huge penetration of those ideas into policy, into the positions that elected officials take.”

Stephen Said, an Iraqi-American singer/songwriter

On Occupy’s place within progressive movements of the day: “I am certainly calling on sort of a wake-up, a real wake-up call to realize, ‘Hey, people are working on this all over the world and have been for dozens of years, and we have the potential to come together for something much bigger if we ally ourselves in the rubric of a great moral vision of equality again.’”

Said’s comment underscores a sense from all of the interviewees that the Occupy Wall Street participants often had little sense of how much else was being done by so many people throughout the years on building a politically progressive infrastructure for achieving desired policy changes. There’s often a tendency among older activists to dismiss the ideas of their younger colleagues with an all-knowing, weary, “We’ve tried that and it didn’t work.” And there’s often a tendency of new movement joiners to assume that nothing was happening until they showed up on the scene. The Occupy movement helped change the narrative behind some of the issues that progressives have long wanted addressed, particularly the income and wealth inequality issue. Changing the national narrative is an important step toward social change. Now the challenge for the Occupiers will be what will they be able to suggest that is concrete and potentially implementable, and who among the social and political advocacy organizations will be able to take that message to which policymakers.—Rick Cohen

  • chaan

    The Occupy Movement seems to have little direction or cause except to be violent and destroy property. Also a large supporter of this group is Van Jones. People need to understand his politics before they jump on his band wagons.
    There are many things that are not right in our country. But government is not the answer to the problems. Regulation is necessary in some areas but we have gone way to far. Banks have been allowed to get too large and the human side of doing business has been lost. The local banker making the decision on the ability of a person to able to borrow money has been lost.
    It is interesting that the Dems have backed Occupy Wall Street while they run from the fact that Dodd, Waters and Frank were a major cause of the housing distaster in this country. They insisted banks loan to unqualified buyers and then the banks sold these liabilities to other banks….Fannie and Freddie are bankrupt yet their friends running these “companies” walk away with millions in spite of failing. They are quick to criticize private CEO salaries but what about government agencies salaries for people who have failed to do their jobs. Many of the private CEO run successful companies yet the Dems still go after their compensation packages too.

    The answer is not riots in the streets the answer is the voting booth and making the person sent to represent us work for the people not the special interest. The answer is a populations that does not have its hand out but willing to work for the American Dream not to expect to have it handed to them. It is interesting how many of my liberal friends who work in the social service areas are getting frustrated with clients who cry they can’t afford the essentials yet they have flat screen TVs, IPhones.

    We always need to give a person a helping hand, but the hand outs only keep people in poverty. People need a chance but they also need the right attitude to accomplish the American Dream. Not the attitude that someone owes them something and they don’t need to work for it. Occupy Wall Street does nothing to advance this nation it is backed by people who want to keep people in poverty so they can be in control.

  • Tina Tidmore

    One of the problems with the Occupy movement is that they don’t have one clear demand. They say they are trying to change the system, not pass legislation. However, changing the system in the US is done through legislation. Now, in the Arab Spring movements, the people could rally around the issue of demanding democracy, which would bring them power to create other changes. But in the US, can’t get people to rally about a non-violent revolution, when they can vote what they want. Where democracy doesn’t exist, the non-violent revolution is the only way to get what you want.

    If the Occupy people focused on the initial issue, the adultery of government and big business, and insist and demonstrate based on that one legislation they want, they can keep people active in the movement. It would be a first step toward fixing some of the other issues. But without that focus, people lose interest. They don’t see progress because they don’t even see the goal. And if the demonstrators don’t do anything different, then the news media loses interest. The news media was reporting on action, because their message was so complex and varied. So now that they aren’t doing any “new” actions, their isn’t any news to report.

    However, they have done one thing: they have countered the Tea Party movement to show that the other political side has lots of support, are mad and will vote. They came out of the closet, so to speak. So the politicians know that they have constituents who value the issues Occupy discusses.