The Voice of the 99%: Reflections on the politics, culture, and legacy of Occupy Wall Street

Marisa Holmes sat down with FPR editor Matthew J. Santucci after the screening of her film All Day, All Weekat Fordham University to discuss the inception of Occupy Wall Street, its impact on progressive policy, and the sate of American politics in 2016.

First and foremost, I want to thank you for coming here today and for showing us your film. I want to start off by talking about your childhood: what was the political activity in your house like; where was it that you first got involved with politics; and how did that carry over into your collegiate life?

Well, I always went to rallies and protests when I was growing up; it was part of what my family did. I also got involved in the anti-war movement when I was 15, which was really a turning point. After 9/11 happened there was a build up in opposition to the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq; I started my political activity around that. My grandfather is an old peacenik and started this group, Central Highlands for Peace, and so I ended up doing things with him but also with other students and other highs school students at the time.

Then I moved to Chicago for school. I was planning on doing art and being in the studio then I realized that the best art was the art in the street with the other people in the community. I found this coming together of the art I wanted to do with the political work I wanted to do; around video, around independent media making. And I got involved with the IMC (the Independent Media Center), which was one of the vestiges of the global justice movement. And around that time I had a professor who was very enthusiastic and supportive of my political work and encouraged me to be part of SDS (Students For a Democratic Society), which was a revived version of the 60s’ New Left. And, I got involved first in Chicago and then on the national level. I already had some vaguely progressive values and had been doing actions around the war, but I didn’t have a strong ideological foundation and that happened for me; that building of an ideological foundation happened in SDS.

There is a sustained commitment with other people in this organization – we would read things together and plan actions together and that’s really how I became an anarchist, in any serious way, was through that involvement in SDS. I was part of the anarchist scene in Chicago; there were a lot of collective houses and projects that people were involved in. I ended up doing some community organizing later in Pilson, which was a Mexican and Puerto Rican neighborhood. While that was happening, there was an occupation at Republic Windows & Doors in 2008.

I’ll add that I graduated in 2008. I was one of those kids without a future, who couldn’t find work. I was doing whatever odd jobs I could and not sustaining myself and spent all of my time organizing. While that was happening, this Republic Windows & Doors action happened. The factory on Goose Island in Chicago shut down because the management decided that they didn’t have the cash flow – they wanted to save money by pushing jobs over seas – so all of the workers, when they found out that they didn’t have jobs anymore, in December they decided to stay and take over the factory and run it themselves. This was something very unusual for the American labor movement in recent years. I was blown away; there is this possibility to occupy things and to run things. And so I did whatever I could to support that action; a lot of the workers lived in my neighborhood because they were Mexican or Puerto Rican. This was my first encounter with occupation as a tactic in an effective way.

From there, I want to ask you more not only about your own beliefs but also about the beliefs of Occupy [Wall Street] as a collective unit. Did they outright repudiate the democratic system, the financial system, the economic system, the political system we currently have in the United States? So, was it not working within the system itself to transform [the system] but rather focused on developing a whole new system in which everyone could be involved in the democratic process?

Yes. In 2011 there was this wave of uprisings and revolutions that rejected representative democracy and embraced this notion of real democracy that was more direct, more participatory and anti-state. We were taking action in and talking about these ideas, in that context of 2011. Certainly, there was this rejection of representative democracy and experimentation with new forms and those forms were anti-capitalist and anti-state – that was the intention.

Why do you think this resonated so much with the millennial generation? After the 2008 financial crises, so many college graduates were unable to find work and we saw this economic stratification where there was a mass amount of wealth accumulating in the .1% and you had this unmitigated disparity in the income gap; was that the catalyst that made people get out into the streets? I mean, they got a college education and tried to do what [was] right; was it a reaction that was fueled by anger or was it a proactive response to change the system itself?

The 2008 financial crises affected everyone, all over the world. But it affected, of course, the most oppressed people to the greatest degree. Subprime lending, predatory lending, really targeted the black and brown communities; 6 million people lost their homes. It’s not just young recent college grads or white middle class kids who experienced downward mobility, I mean that was happening; I was part of that. But, we were not the primary subjects; or the people who were affected the most.

Do you think that there was any resentment towards President Obama? When he ran, as the then senator from Illinois, he purported to be a progressive and expounded these progressive ideals that he believed in. But, once he was elected we saw – especially in 2012 when he was running against Mitt Romney – that he was more of a neoliberal politician. He became part of that neo-liberal political class and retracted some of his promises and didn’t do was he was supposed to do. For example, he talked about childhood poverty, and under his tenure as president it actually increased; and he hasn’t done much to take on the banks or reprimand them accordingly. So, do you that there was this resentment towards Obama?

Yeah definitely! I was living in Chicago during the Obama campaign and on the south side on Hyde Park. I’d ride the bus and see elderly black men with Obama buttons; the hope and change. I knew at the time that it was a false promise. But, it was really devastating and it showed the limitations of identity and of assimilation into the system. Maybe it was the beginning of the turn away from neo-liberalism. I just saw this IMF report saying that neo-liberalism was over and wasn’t working anymore; a failed policy, there needed to be a different political system. So I think now, in part because of the Obama presidency, there is this assessment by political elites trying to figure out what a new way looks like. Definitely, people who voted for Obama were upset to see the lack of hope and change and to see the limitations of what can happen within the system. We’re looking for an alternative to that system and so it just made sense; it’s very practical for people to engage in direct forms, directly democratic decision making and also other direct methods of action like; feeding each other and clothing each other, et cetera.

Do you feel or do you know anyone in the movement who coalesced around Bernie Sanders’ platform? It was an insurgent campaign; he was one of the most progressive candidates we’ve seen on the national level, in our lifetime. He had more small, individual contributions, than any other candidate, smashing all records. And I think you can make the case that he brought progressive politics to the forefront of collective consciousness. Conversely, one can also make the case that by losing to Sec. Clinton [in the primary election] and supporting her, those progressive ideas are not going to be reflected in the general election and consequently won’t be realized after the election. So, did people from the Occupy movement go towards the Sanders campaign and what would be the next step after Nov. 8?

The Occupy Wall Street, and the occupy movement more broadly, created the political conditions for someone like Sanders to run. But, there is not a direct line between OWS, the people who engaged it, the politics they had, and the Sanders campaign. There’s been a lot of conflation by the Sanders campaign in the attempt to win people over from the OWS networks and to build their base. But, they’re not the same people, or the same politics.

So is activism, political activism, a unilateral approach? Or, what would be the best for young people, old people, the marginalized, the poor, to come together and actually affect change within our current system; because we could have all of these movements and be politically active, which we should [be] and encourage others to be, but how do we actually have that translate to actual results?

Well, I think you can have reform movements that try to affect change within the system, but its becoming harder and harder to even win those reforms because the political decision makers are politicians and policy analysts; everyone is part of the current political machinery. They have become so completely removed from people’s interests, I mean, they always were; it’s not a recent a crises. Representative democracy is always a problem, it’s always in crises, but there is a greater separation now. So, they don’t care – Obama doesn’t care, Hillary doesn’t care, Sanders doesn’t even care. If we go and we protest and have placards and say the right thing, it doesn’t actually mean that they are going to affect the change that we want; its not real pressure, its not real leverage. So, to even have reform change, you have to take more direct actions.

Ultimately, if you’re going to build, if the goal is to build a totally different way of doing politics in society, you can’t do that in the existing structures, you have to build new ones. And how those get built? I still do not know how those get built. It’s dangerous to even impose a set model because everything has to be questioned; it’s always going to be an experiment; its always going to be a process.

Do you think the Occupy movement inspired the fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter; do you think these are important cultural expressions for all of us to partake in, even if it doesn’t affect us personally?

I guess I’d say again that there’s not a direct line. There were other movements before Occupy, so I think people had shared experiences and connected and the capacity was greater after occupy in some ways for movements to happen, but they’re not a result, they’re not a direct result, and they’re not evolutions of Occupy Wall Street; they have their own trajectories.

We see a general level of apathy on college campuses, that is, students not being informed – really, it’s an unmitigated disaster. Many students are not involved in the process; there’s a lot of indifference. Although, we saw at Columbia last year that a group of students did occupy the President’s office because they wanted the university to divest from fossil fuels. So, going off of your experience, what would be the best way to inculcate this message and to have it proliferate; to have people come onboard and say yes, this is a cogent plan that we have, and we’re going to take this small group of people and inspire everyone else to come with us?

I think there’s a lot happening on college campuses now compared to, like, when I was a student, when I was an undergrad 10 years ago. A lot has changed. When I, as in SDS – we talked a lot about doing occupations of universities and doing different kinds of actions, it was very rare that we could carry anything off. It was more inspirational; I think a lot of the things we were dreaming about ended up happening. I think the context is pretty good as far as that goes. But how do you affect change with a small number of people? I guess by being direct and uncompromising and encouraging people to join, not just to follow; to participate in their own way. That’s a great lesson from Occupy, that when you crate space for people to participate and realize their own capacity, their own possibilities as human beings, people will come. People want that space to exist and they will participate; it’s possible to change things with a few people.

And that’s the horizontalism you talked about in the film? That was the structure you adapted to organize, and to make sure that everyone’s voice was accounted for, to ensure the logistical running of the movement? Did that ever present any problems for you, in terms of all the different groups that came together; did the interests ever clash? Did that pose to threaten the structure that you built up?

The challenges we faced, the ones that were the greatest and threatened our ability to function, were challenges form the existing society. So, internalized depression, hierarchies, systems of domination, and concentrations of political power and money. These were the things most damaging, most challenging.

For my last question, five years after the fact what are you doing now? In terms of political activism, are you planning on making another film soon? Or, are you involved with other groups that have similar aims?

I’ve always been active; I was active before Occupy, I’ve been active after and my whole life as far as I’m concerned. As long as I’m alive, even if I’m in prison, I’ll continue to do this work. That might look like an occupation on Wall Street, it might look like community organizing, and it might look like building a rank and file labor movement. Regardless, I’ll find some way to confront the State and build more liberating alternatives.

Essentially then, you’re going to eschew voting in the 2016 election; but would you encourage others to vote?

I don’t vote because I don’t want to participate in a system that doesn’t represent me; in which I have no say. I vote in the streets so to speak; I would encourage people to, regardless of whether or not they vote in a voting booth, to continue to be in the streets; to do the organizing work, the political work.