The Evolution of Occupy Wall Street
By Julia Taylor Kennedy | May 18, 2012
JULIA KENNEDY: Welcome to Just Business. I'm Julia Taylor Kennedy.
Love it or hate it, Occupy Wall Street has re-energized conversations about economic inequality in the United States. The movement has only been around for less than a year, but it has already experienced serious growing pains. And while much of the group's rhetoric deals with income inequality in the United States, activists with a broad array of interests have found a home in Occupy Wall Street.
Over the next half-hour, we will talk to four different activists who have engaged with Occupy Wall Street to hear how they rate the movement's successes and challenges.
Let's start by hearing from two activists who camped out in Zuccotti Park last fall and have met with single-issue working groups over the winter and spring. They both worked on Occupy's Spring Awakening protests on May Day.
You will hear first from Kenyan Karanja Gaçuça. He joined the Occupy movement after being laid off from his job as an analyst on Wall Street.
The second voice you will hear belongs to Bolivian Diego Ibañez, who was a migrant rights advocate before coming to Zuccotti Park.
KARANJA GAÇUÇA: I actually had no idea where Zuccotti Park was, even though I worked a few blocks from there. I kept putting it off and thinking it's going to take time to walk over there from work. So I waited until I was no longer working. And also, for practical reasons, I couldn't very well walk down Wall Street with my badge and placard.
I made three trips there 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."
DIEGO IBAÑEZ: I did some training in Las Vegas with the DREAM Act [Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors] movement and undocumented students. 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."
I went to the airport and took the first flight out to New York with a sleeping bag and jeans on.
KARANJA GAÇUÇA: The issue is, in my opinion, one of fighting for human dignity. It is a very universal fight. I feel very connected to the Indignados movement in Spain, and even the movements in the Arab Spring, because all these movements have been about human dignity. So it is really one fight. People want to fight that from very different angles, but essentially it is one fight.
DIEGO IBAÑEZ: 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."
So I have come to realize that if the process and if the actual structure that we have limited ourselves to is not working for people of color and immigrants, then I see a separate call, something that is not within an Occupy Wall Street working group, something that's in solidarity but that's a parallel call.
KARANJA GAÇUÇA: 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. But in fact we continued with meetings on a weekly basis, just as we did before. In some ways, actually, I do go to more meetings because I joined more groups. So while meetings in some groups might have been reduced, there were more groups coming up.
DIEGO IBAÑEZ: The way I describe 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.
So for me that's very exciting that Occupy Wall Street has already burst. I'm glad it's here. I'm like, "This is wonderful. Let it burst and then let's continue."
KARANJA GAÇUÇA: 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: What I've learned in the past six months, I don't think any university or any formal institution could ever teach me, being in and out every single day, living the sort of lifestyle. This is not just me. A lot of folks work day-in/day-out, like 60 hours a week, and we don't get paid.
I do feel like I have matured. Sometimes I like to look at some videos from my early days of the occupation and compare that to my thinking now. It's like I don't know who that guy is. 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.
JULIA KENNEDY: You just heard from activists Diego Ibañez and Karanja Gaçuça, who have worked tirelessly with Occupy Wall Street since last fall.
But the Occupy movement isn't the only option for leftist activists. The more moderate MoveOn.org is far more conventional as a grassroots organization, but it has also taken up the banner of income inequality and the 99 percent.
Brooklyn activist and small business owner Jamie Kemmerer is passionate about curbing campaign contributions, which he sees as the root of policies that reinforce income inequality. He is working on election finance reform in New York State, both through MoveOn.org and Occupy Wall Street working groups.
JAMIE KEMMERER: You know, 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 take this issue, for example, money and politics. If you look at the polling, roughly 80 percent of America supports getting money out of politics. That's if you're on the left and you're a Democrat, it's on the right and you're a Republican, Tea Party people, everybody. About 80 percent, say, "Hey, we've got to do something about this issue."
This working group had trouble getting the general assembly to endorse some of the efforts that they were making. 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.
JULIA KENNEDY: Since Occupy Wall Street moved out of Zuccotti Park and these working groups started becoming more active outside of the general assembly at the Zuccotti Park camp, now that we are entering spring again, do you think we are going to see that again, or do you think the Occupy Wall Street movement is changing shape entirely?
JAMIE KEMMERER: It seems like the working groups—a lot of them are people who are very, very passionate about whatever issue it is that that particular working group is working on. They self-selected to go into those groups. They have been working steadily through the winter.
I really feel like in many cases, at least the people I've come up against, that they see this as part of their life now and they see this as part of how they want to try to affect or change the system or create a better future for themselves and their families and the country.
When you go and look at some of the working groups, you find a real level of dedication that—I think at least the working groups will be sticking around in those forms. They are making significant contributions in a whole host of areas. They are just not getting the kind of press that you get when you have 1,000 people living in a park.
JULIA KENNEDY: Right. But the optimistic view of that is that maybe this event in the fall awakened certain people who might have been dormant activists or gave them new tools to move forward on whatever issue they were most passionate about.
JAMIE KEMMERER: 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.
I don't have an answer for that, but it is something that the more I do this, the more I observe it, and it's something that I have been trying to think about and eventually hope to have some sort of resolution for that. There are people working really, really hard, but the system is very hard to move.
JULIA KENNEDY: Do you have any ideas of what it might take to break through that?
JAMIE KEMMERER: I always reference the Tea Party. I always point out to people, particularly people in Occupy, because there is also a strong current in Occupy of in some ways disengaging from the electoral process because they see it as being so broken and so flawed that it's almost pointless to engage with it.
Whenever I come up against that, I point out to them that change is possible. All you have to do is look at the Tea Party and the 2010 elections and you can see that if you go out and you aggressively get involved in that process, particularly in primary season, you can change who the candidate is. Once you change who the candidate is, you are changing who eventually is getting into office.
Short of that, it is really hard to know what you can do beyond that to really impact the process. In many ways, when we vote in November, this November or any November, you are voting for whoever it is that is there. The choice has already been made.
JULIA KENNEDY: What form do you think your involvement will take in the future?
JAMIE KEMMERER: I am in this for the long haul for a whole host of reasons. As I said, I have been growing increasingly frustrated. The more I have come to learn, the more I understand about the issues, the more I get frustrated, and the more I realize that it is really about money.
With the Citizens United decision, if we do not do something to reverse that, the system will careen out of control. We need to amend the Constitution. We need to codify in the foundation documents of our nation ways to protect speech of actual citizens and ways to protect the voices of people in the democratic process.
As it stands right now, just to give you one quick little factoid of just how bad it has gotten since Citizens United with the Super PACs [political action committees], now 80 percent of the money that has been donated to the Super PACs in this presidential election has come from about 200 people. To me that is basically disenfranchisement of essentially the entire country. If you look at the amount of money that those 200 people are able to bring into the process, what hope does anyone have of having their voice heard amongst that much money?
JULIA KENNEDY: Well, they are sobering thoughts. I really appreciate your sharing them with me and coming onto Just Business. Jamie Kemmerer, thanks so much.
JAMIE KEMMERER: Thank you. Hopefully, people will check out the Fair Elections because this is a really crucial time for New York and a really important opportunity for us to be able to set the path going forward for the rest of the country.
JULIA KENNEDY: That was Jamie Kemmerer, a small business owner and activist in South Brooklyn. He is working to drum up support for a New York State bill, called the Fair Elections bill, that would establish public funding for campaigns.
Iraqi-American singer-songwriter Stephan Said has actively championed global equity for decades. He has worked with musicians like Rufus Wainwright, Leonard Cohen, and Pete Seeger. With a master's degree in international relations from the New School, he has an interesting take on movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. He is calling for a global spring and a moral framework that unites and drives a spectrum of activist groups.
Said's biggest hit to date was an antiwar viral video in 2002 of his song called "The Bell." He has recently released a multilingual album, called difrent, that is packed with both pop and protest songs.
He started by telling me about his ethnic background, which is a mix of Iraqi, Viennese, and Virginian.
STEPHAN SAID: All my family on my father's side, except for my father, is in Iraq and has been in Iraq. So it has been a massive part of my identity. Growing up here, particularly as a totally all-American Southern boy—I mean I was raised with my stepfather's name as I was growing up. It wasn't until I chose to take my name that I was faced with the shock of just how strong the bigotry and stuff was. It was amazing.
To that point I was the Naval Academy or Yale-bound, Eagle Scout, Southern boy from Richmond. And then to see, "Whoa, now I'm being told I will never be in this major music magazine because of my ethnicity."
So I realized straightaway, "Oh my god. I'm facing a barrier that has nothing to do with my work and that I'm not alone in that." Helping the world, and even this country, to hear voices that they most need to hear right now is not as simple as it may seem.
JULIA KENNEDY: A year after September 11th, you had a video of your antiwar song "The Bell," which went viral. This was early in the era of viral videos. How did that affect the way you approached your career and the way you approached your work?
STEPHAN SAID: It was maybe six months before YouTube was launched. To have a viral video that was hit by hundreds of thousands of people then was quite a feat of engineering.
What we did to create that viral success has now been formalized. You make the video, you get people to write the letters to promote it, blah, blah, blah.
JULIA KENNEDY: Where did you post it then?
STEPHAN SAID: I posted it to my website. You have to understand that at the time that it came out, except for one not even very blatantly antiwar statement that was made by Susan Sontag not long before she died in The New York Times in an op-ed she wrote, not even one statement questioning the move to war had been published in a mainstream publication at all in the United States of America at that point.
The groundswell of people saying, "Wait a second. How come this is happening and we can't stop it?" was massive. Because of my actual work not as a true organizer, I had connections and I made the video.
Pete Seeger sang on it, a member of the big hip-hop group Spearhead was on it, a member of a big rock group Dean Ween was on it, DJ Spooky did a remix. It had all the elements. It was multi-generational, it was multi-genre, it was hip-hop, rock, folk. Howard Zinn wrote liner notes for it. It had all the things that now you see Kony basically replicated in an era when it had been so proven that of course you could get tons of money for it now.
STEPHAN SAID: Yes. Even "Yes We Can" at that point was already a formula. It was just whether or not you had the access to raise the money and pull it off and get it out.
But at the point that "The Bell" came out, it was completely innovation out of necessity. And it worked, because nothing had gotten out there. So it just got picked up. I think, over 1,000 websites within a week had voluntarily, that we didn't even know, taken it and posted it.
JULIA KENNEDY: Wow.
STEPHAN SAID: Every peace organization in the world just picked it up and ran with it and said, "Listen to this." It was amazing. I was blacklisted. After "The Bell" came out, big article in The New York Times on September 12th, the day after September 11th, because that's the day we launched it.
JULIA KENNEDY: Right, September 12, 2002, right?
STEPHAN SAID: 2002. At that time, Springstein was coming out with The Rising and Paul McCartney was coming out with a song. There were all these things that facially appeared to be pro-American dominance. They had all the language, whether or not that was their intention—their whole marketing schematic was about that. They weren't functioning to give rise to dissent in any way.
So more to the timing of it, but it proved to me the potential for organizing music as an agent for social change directly through civil society. That potential is what is behind difrent, my new album. After a whole career in which I pioneered singles before it had become popular for social causes, I had realized, "Hey, with my next album I want it to actually do more than another single for another initiative."
It's great to have the biggest concert in the world, like I hear is being planned in Central Park to end poverty. It's wonderfully positive. But the fact of the matter is the world, and youth around the world today, already know that we don't even need the old distribution mechanisms to change the world. They already know that. So that cannot be removed from the imagination of youth all over the world.
The Arab Spring that lit the whole world, not one song from it yet, mine included, has been on major radio. Even Time magazine, even The Economist, run year-end issues proclaiming the Person of the Year the protester. But the music industry hasn't even responded with a single song. The Grammies went by. It should give people pause to think just how the old way of doing things in the music realm is completely out of step with time.
JULIA KENNEDY: You have your guitar here. Why don't we hear something off of difrent, if you want to play "Another World Is Possible," which seems to me to speak very directly to this idea of a global spring.
JULIA KENNEDY: Great! Oh, what a wonderful treat. Thank you.
There is one line from the lyric that I wanted to pull out for folks and ask you about, which is, "Since Jesus walked the earth we're still playing the same game/Everybody's waiting to move on." That's a pretty drastic statement, thinking from an international relations perspective. So if you can explain what's behind that lyric?
STEPHAN SAID: The whole world has known for thousands of years that the true political economy of peace—and children know this—is sharing equally, just so sure as my daughter, when she was four years old, said, "Daddy, how come, when there's so much food, some people aren't getting food, and why do some people take more than others?" It's that simple.
All the hogwash of people talking about policies is just a bunch of baloney, to be honest with you. Christ knew that and that's what he called people out on.
Mohammed also knew it. Every major religious revolution, despite any political things, the reason it was marketable was because it capitalized socially upon a widespread social feeling or cultural acknowledgement that the last reigning ideology had failed, or at least was not implemented the way those who had promised had said. That is the reason why Christ said, "You guys didn't make good on the Jubilee," and the reason maybe is because nobody just put their foot down and said, "This is simple, this is not a complicated thing."
I could sit down with everybody at the G8 or NATO conference, but it basically comes down to one thing. That is also true for the environment. If we live equally—it's that simple—with it and have that concept where everything has equal value, then we will respect it. That's what that statement is founded in.
It's also founded in the personal experience of being somebody who is Iraqi, Christian. I was raised by a Jesuit priest who left the order while I was teaching at a Jewish day camp in Appalachia, in the hills in Virginia, as a youth; with a Muslim father and a sister who's a Buddhist monk; and had family who were first-generation homesteaders, never voted anything but Republican, conservative farmers in North Dakota; at the same time as I was living in a squat in the Lower East Side with anarchists, so to speak.
I've always found that I'm able to sit down and agree with all of these people because all of them love and believe in the idea of "do unto others," of equality. We are being divided and segregated in such a way right now as to prevent us from being able to unite to do that which everybody knows in their heart needs to happen. That is what that line is about.
JULIA KENNEDY: You've been very active with the Occupy Wall Street movement, which makes a lot of sense for you. How do you see it fitting into this bigger picture that you've drawn?
STEPHAN SAID: This is an opportunity for us to help build that greater global movement for a more equitable society.
Yes, of course, I engaged with Occupy from the very beginning, because there I was, I was on Talk of the Nation the week it started, because I already had an album talking about this. It was only additional or coincident that I happened to support Occupy.
What I would say is that, at the same time I always had reservations with the term, with the framing, because "occupy" to me is a very violent word. I think people know that. It has been discussed at large in the movement. It has become a brand in many ways, just because of its popularity, so people have latched onto it. This is a very American thing. This didn't happen with the Arab Spring. It has become latched onto in such a way that it's actually detrimental for its being able to make its next steps of growth.
Most great social movements begin, let's say, with a boycott-type phase, because there is a necessity for that type of a reactionary burst of anger or rage against any injustice. But in order to become sustainable, and also to empower not just everyday nonviolence but actually on the level of a Satyagraha kind of truly empowering dignity that is irrepressible, movements have to graduate to a point at which they are defined not by what they are against but by what they are for.
We don't just need it. You've had everybody from Jeff Sachs, you can sit down and talk to Amartya Sen or Mohammad Yunus, or any number of them. No matter what, they are going to agree that we actually need a paradigmatic shift, and it has to be to create a more equitable way of living together on the earth, both with each other and with the planet. We can get there right now, but we have to frame it in a way that is positive.
JULIA KENNEDY: From the interviews it seems that there is a movement towards more issue-oriented working groups that seem to have a little more traction than the big Occupy movement.
STEPHAN SAID: Right.
JULIA KENNEDY: One of the potential benefits of that has been you have people that are gathering around a single issue within that group.
STEPHAN SAID: Sure.
JULIA KENNEDY: But then the downside is there are lots of little groups springing up. So what's your take on that?
STEPHAN SAID: In all movements, I myself, all of us, we are all learning every step of the way. How can you have tiers to their manifestation? The most important thing that everybody is looking for—I'm approached by think tanks all over the place and I'm working on a big project initiative specifically to help answer this question—is that it has to be a moral vision, above and beyond. That's "do unto others."
It has always been equality actually. Look at every major social movement. The reason that nobody could deny the Salt March was because it was in the name of the inalienable right to equality. That was what it was about.
The civil rights movement, with all of its numerous micro-campaigns against segregated buses, segregated movie theaters, segregated schools, what are today's SOPA [Stop Online Piracy Act], PIPA [Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act], Citizens United, self-governance in any country in the world, women's rights, gender rights, access to water—all of these things, we have to be working on all of them. But they cannot gain power if they are not contextualized by a moral vision that makes them irrepressible.
In standing for that moral vision, everyone's dignity is empowered so that they can sustain the struggle necessary for a long enough period of time.
So I see it as we need both. I truly believe that, although some folks—because I'm so close to them within Occupy and these other movements—I'm not disparaging the movement, but 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."
Then we can succeed with Citizens United, because people are going to go, "Yeah, of course, it's all about equality." What is Mitt Romney going to say when you frame it in terms of Christ—you know, vision of "do unto others"? What are they going to say? They're going to be "whadip, whadip, whadip" [tongue-tied]. You know what I mean? No. Ideally, they are going to be like "Actually, yeah, I believe in it too."
JULIA KENNEDY: With that sort of hope outlined, that wonderful optimistic vision, let's end with another song. I'd love to hear some of "Take a Stand," which was the first single off of difrent, a rallying cry for activists around the world.
Before you play us out, I just want to thank you, Stephan Said, for joining me on Just Business.
STEPHAN SAID: Thank you for having me. It has been a wonderful conversation and it has filled me with hope.
JULIA KENNEDY: That was Stephan Said, the Iraqi-American singer, songwriter, and activist.
That wraps up this week's look at The Evolution of Occupy Wall Street.
I'm Julia Taylor Kennedy. Thanks to Terence Hurley for his great contributions to this week's podcast.
And thanks to you, our listeners, for joining us. We are happy to hear from you. Please do send questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
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