Mickey Z. is a veteran activist and author of several punchy books about politics, revolution, environmentalism and life in New York City, including Self-Defense for Radicals: A to Z Guide for Subversive Struggle, 50 American Revolutions That You’re Not Supposed to Know, Darker Shade of Green and Personal Trainer Diaries: Making the Affluent Sweat Since the 1980s Vertical Club. He’s been covering the Occupy Wall Street movement at Fair Share of the Common Heritage as well as his own blog. After several failed attempts to run into Mickey at Zuccotti Park (he and I never seemed to be there at the same time, and there’s kind of a big crowd), I gave up and invited him to converse with me online about the protest movement, where it’s going, what hazards it faces, and how it has inspired us both.
Levi: Mickey, I know you’ve participated in a lot of protests and actions in your life. These are always difficult, high-intensity, high-danger events, and they often run into conflict or trouble. Yet Occupy Wall Street seems to be growing at a steady rate, and remains peaceful, focused, well organized and internally harmonious after more than a month in the tents and on the streets. Are we getting better at running protests? It seems that way to me.
Mickey: I’d disagree with your characterization that OWS has “remained peaceful.” It is surrounded by armed enemies – filming everything and everyone and willing to strike without warning. Thus, I’d clarify, protests don’t just “run into conflict or trouble.” They run into State repression.
That said, I do feel that OWS has learned from so many false starts and, as a result, the occupants don’t view this as a finite protest, per se. They are cultivating an alternate model of human culture and it’s fascinating to witness how quickly skeptics are won over once they take time to visit the site and interact.
Levi: Yes, as you say, this alternate model of human culture is a very big part of the Occupy Wall Street experience, and I don’t think it has been described or explained to outside observers at all. The feeling I get as I interact with the regulars and the drop-ins at OWS is that they are busy trying to build a new civilization, with its own simple economy, its own ethics and societal expectations, even its own way of communicating: “on stack”, “wiggle”, “point of process”. The working groups I’ve participated in have been incredibly calm, polite, functional — far more functional than most corporate offices I’ve worked in recently.
But this fact doesn’t get covered in the news reports. If you watch coverage on TV news, you get the idea that hippies are wandering aimlessly around Zuccotti Park. No, they’re working hard — and working together.
So, do you feel encouraged about what’s happening here? You speak of state repression in strong terms — do you think this is going to get worse? What do you think is going to happen next with the movement in NY City, and around the world?
Mickey: I agree with your assessment of both OWS and how it’s been misrepresented by the media. However, thanks to new methods of disseminating information, it seems to me that the true spirit of OWS has become widely known. Every time I’m there, another branch of the activist tree has been respectfully added: disability, animal rights, homeless, etc.
In reply to your question, yeah, it would be easy to be cynical and point to other successful movements (e.g. Black Panthers) and identify how the powers-that-be infiltrated them and ultimately smashed them. That is a real and perpetual threat and there’s no reason to believe the State isn’t hard at work in that direction.
There will be many tests for OWS (cold weather, splinter groups, etc.) but the power of corporate media and State repression is the major obstacle. This will the truest test for all occupants and fellow travelers like us.
Do you foresee the NYPD ramping it up or easing back?
Levi: I worry that the NYPD will escalate, and I wonder what kind of conversations they’re having about this over at police headquarters. But you make a good point that those who feel threatened by the protests will not only try to combat it but will also try to infiltrate. I guess in the 1960s and 70s it was the FBI who infiltrated. We’ve got to figure that they’re doing the same thing now. Of course, we already know that freelance conservative journalists will try to infiltrate — like when it turned out that one of the “protesters” who caused a commotion at the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. was an anti-Occupy provocateur looking to start a riot.
Given that the Occupy movement must be aware of infiltration attempts — we’d be naive if we weren’t paranoid, at this point — it’s great to see how open and friendly the movement remains. I have been coming in and out of working group meetings — I have not put in as much face-time as many other people there — and yet I always feel welcomed when I enter a group circle or approach a stranger. This makes me feel really encouraged. If anybody is there to make trouble, they’ll probably be able to stir some up, but I don’t think they’ll get to pull the act for very long without being figured out.
What would you say has been the most encouraging aspect of the movement for you, so far, and what has been the most discouraging?
Mickey: In a way, your statement of how open and friendly OWS is might answer the “most encouraging” part of your question and I’m also thrilled that OWS sees Obama for what he is (Bush’s third term) and has not been co-opted by Democrats.
But if I had to sum it up my positive feelings about OWS in one word, it’d be: endurance. While this movement is clearly in its very early stages, it still displays remarkable staying power — relative to other recent protests. This is probably what most confuses the corporate media and frustrates the authorities.
As of now, the most discouraging aspect of OWS, for me, has been the nitpicking on the Left. For example, some activists are allowing word usage (“occupation”) to keep them on the sidelines. OWS doesn’t need academic deconstruction; it needs as many allies as possible. Choose process over purity.
How about you, encouraging vs. discouraging?
Levi: I know you and I disagree on whether or not conventional American two-party politics can help fix problems or not. I agree that Obama and the Democrats haven’t done nearly enough and are way too tied in with the extremely powerful Wall Street lobby. I do think the Dodd-Frank finance reform bill was a step in the right direction, and was more than a Republican administration would have done. I do think there is a significant debate going on between the Democratic and Republican parties right now over what lessons should be learned from the crash of 2008. The Democrats want more regulations in the financial marketplace, the Republicans want less regulations. I don’t think the Democrat program has been satisfying at all (I’ll at least agree with you there) but at least I think it points in the right direction. The Republican position, meanwhile, is incomprehensible to me — they blame the government rather than the banks for the crash of 2008, and seem to think that setting the banks free to operate with even less government regulations will somehow make things better!
I know you don’t believe in the possibility of honest capitalism in America, that you think this entire debate is a sham. But it’s the debate that most American voters are currently engaged in, and I think it’s an important debate for this reason alone.
I think you’re correct that OWS has not been co-opted by the Democratic party, and that’s a good thing. But I do think some Democratic politicians get it, like Alan Grayson, who expresses some important things in this video from the Bill Maher show. I’m glad people like Alan Grayson are in the Democratic party, even though Grayson lost his Congress seat in the last election.
As for encouraged/discouraged, I am totally encouraged. When I first heard about plans to occupy Wall Street in September, my first thought was “what the hell took this so long?” The sense of purpose and sense of unity on the street is really inspiring. I have never once been at the protest site without feeling extremely uplifted, and impressed by the intelligence, hard work and dedication of everyone there.
I can’t think of anything at all that I’ve found discouraging, except for the thought that this positive momentum may end, that the group mind of Occupy may lose its focus or its sense of unity before it acheives its goals. Like you say, endurance is the key. What do you think will happen when winter comes? I know the occupiers have been building up a lot of logistical support — apartments, supplies, equipment. But New York City has pretty harsh winters. I’m worried about this.
Mickey: I’m gonna try to avoid the dead-end, two-party (sic) debate, Levi. To me, the only difference between the two corporate parties is that they tell different lies to get elected but what’s more important is that OWS shuns both parties like the plague. Sure, it could be fun to have tens of millions voting for a progressive “third party” candidate in 2012 (say, Leonard Peltier, running from prison?) … just to send a message that the status quo is doomed. But otherwise, this movement goes well beyond just picking another figurehead for the empire.
As for the upcoming winter, I have extreme confidence that the occupants will endure the weather (with lots of help from the rest of us). Again, what really concerns me is the police, etc. No state gives up without a major fight and without resorting to previously unimagined tactics. If OWS weathers that storm, I feel confident we will see some folks currently in law enforcement and the military “switching sides,” so to speak.
But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Right now, the pace and the methods OWS has chosen are both revolutionary and heartening. It feels, in some ways, like a modern-day Underground Railroad with the number of allies (even those opting to remain silent about their involvement) growing by the day.
I truly feel it’s crucial to remind those who will read this exchange how important it is to support your local occupation. Bring your gifts to the movement.
Levi: Well, that raises a good question. How, in your opinion, can outsiders help? (By outsiders, I mean people who want to support the movement but whose physical locations or schedules make it impossible to get to Wall Street or any other Occupy happening).
I see this question as a specific one and a general one: first, what can people donate that is truly helpful, and how can they donate anything in such a way as to believe it will really help?
And, more generally, how can outsiders become a part of the movement — contribute not only donations but their energy, their enthusiasm, their great ideas, and their time? We were discussing this at a “think tank” at Zuccotti Park this weekend. One person brought up the importance of starting an organized boycott of the banks — take your money out of Chase and Citibank and Bank of America, and put your deposits and your investments into institutions that don’t engage in practices that are destructive to the economy, the environment and the world (a local credit union, for example, though research is always necessary). I spoke up and said I liked this idea, not only because it could be really effective, but because I think it gives every person in the USA a chance to join in an activity that supports the goals of the Occupy movement. I think there are people all over the country who want to join in but don’t know how, or who can’t easily get to a protest site. Do you agree that this kind of wider participation is a good idea? Can you think of other ways that people who can’t make it down to New York City or any other large city can truly help and become a part of this?
Mickey: I couldn’t offer more than general donation suggestions (food, clothes, etc.) but those on the ground at each occupation in each city can supply that info in person or via the Web. So, that’s step one.
In terms of solidarity support, lifestyle changes are a start. Switching banks, as you mention. The holidays are coming so why not pledge to NOT shop? This is the ideal time to end the consume-and-dispose cycle – forever. Speaking of cycles, switch from four wheels (cars) to two (bikes). Again, all of these are good initial steps to begin the slow dismantling of a destructive system.
In a more abstract sense, it’s key that supporters make bigger connections. OWS is much more than just seeking economic reform. Consider the trampled rights of indigenous peoples, prisoners, the disabled, those who identify as LGBT (etc.), women, and people of color. OWS supporters must recognize all such institutional discrimination … and that most definitely extends to the plight of other species: non-human animals and our literal ecosystem. Thus, another essential lifestyle change: go vegan.
Of course, do not remain silent. Talk about OWS, voice your support widely. We can create a new “normal,” one in which Americans actually talk about the roots of problems and to provoke immediate change.
Lastly, I hope everyone who reads this feels grateful to be around at such a time. There’s never been a better time to be an activist. When else in all of human history has there been a time when we were in better position to shape the future? Ecosystems are screaming for mercy and our land base is practically an endangered species. What we do (or don’t do) in the next few years could quite possibly tilt us all toward either the point of no return or a far more sane form of society. Each and every one of us can take part – right now – in creating the most important social changes ever imagined.
This isn’t about skin color, gender, or what parcel of geography you happen to have been born on. I’m not talking about party affiliations, incremental reform or what sky god you’ve chosen to worship. It’s all about recognizing a crisis and taking the appropriate measures.
We’re on the brink of economic, social and environmental collapse. What an extraordinary time to be alive. How lucky are we? We’ve been trusted with the most vital mission of all time: survival.
I have a friend who teaches yoga and conflict resolution to kids and she asked if I could get info about her doing a class at Occupy Wall Street. I talked to some folks in the outreach/info area and their basic reply was this: “Sounds great. All she’s gotta do is pick a day, show up, find a space – she should get here early – make an announcement, and start the class. That’s how it works around here. There are no official steps she has to follow.”
What’s not to love?