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Journalist Arun Gupta and Organizer Marina Sitrin on Occupy’s Anniversary

GRITtv host Laura Flanders talks to journalist Arun Gupta and organizer Marina Sitrin about the movementu2019s impact and future role in American life and politics.

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Occupy Wall Street, September 17, 2012.Occupy Wall Street, September 17, 2012. (Photo: Glenn Halog)

LAURA FLANDERS: Hi, I’m Laura Flanders. A year ago, protestors took over a park in Lower Manhattan and sparked encampments across the States. Out of it came a slogan: “We are the 99 percent,” and a new meaning to the verb “occupy.” But what else? Some say Occupy Wall Street utterly changed their lives. Others say it changed nothing at all. How to assess Occupy Wall Street?

I’m joined by Marina Sitrin, a lawyer and writer who’s been following what she calls “horizontal movements” in Europe and Latin America. In fact, her book Everyday Revolutions about Argentina is just out.

Also with me, Arun Gupta, a long-time journalist who’s been covering the Occupy movement nationwide. Arun is cofounder of the Indypendent newspaper and website and the newspaper that emerged from last year’s protests, The Occupied Wall Street Journal. Welcome to you both.

ARUN GUPTA: Thank you.

LAURA FLANDERS: It’s a year on, without going into tremendous detail, what did you see happening in the streets a year after the protests?

MARINA SITRIN: So just the last few days have been filled with, really it’s festivities. I think the spirit of people is celebratory. But at the same time also very focused. There were a number of different events in different parks throughout New York all weekend. And an action targeting Wall Street specifically and keeping our eyes on that issue and that question. And then ending with a beautiful massive assembly. And there were assemblies throughout the weekend.

LAURA FLANDERS: Arun, I was down there just briefly in the morning on the 17th and saw a whole lot of people milling around, but a whole lot more police. What did you see?

ARUN GUPTA: That’s essentially what I saw as well. The police force has been absolutely massive. And I think that right there says that Occupy is a threat, that the police will turn out thousands of officers literally. They will barricade all of the financial district. But there were all these crisscrossing marches going through the financial district, going around it, police chasing it.

It was just a really wonderful creative energy. I’ve been a little cynical, a little skeptical, but there was this feeling that the spirit was back. There was all sorts of art and music. And it really was the closest thing to the original feeling of Occupy.

LAURA FLANDERS: But I mean, Occupy Wall Street got a drubbing in a lot of the press on the anniversary. You had New York Times talking about a “fad” and, you know, “talk is cheap.” How do you respond to that, Marina?

MARINA SITRIN: Well, I could say a lot of things about shoddy journalism, because it actually really is. That Occupy Wall Street, you know, by November, was no longer focused just in one park or one plaza, whether that’s in New York or cities and towns and villages across the United States. And people are working on campaigns and organizing in their neighborhoods and in their universities and related to work places.

So to find out what Occupy is doing, you’d actually have to dig a little deeper and see that Occupy has kind of re-territorialized itself. And the politics and the ways in which people are organizing is still there, you just have to look for it. But I actually think it’s deeper than where we were at this time last year.

LAURA FLANDERS: Well, you went looking, Arun. You’ve been pretty much all across the United States, I think, since the last time I saw you.


LAURA FLANDERS: What’d you find?

ARUN GUPTA: I’ve been to 40 occupations in 27 states. But I think one thing just about the media is we have to remember this is the media of the 1%. This is the media that got weapons of mass destruction in Iraq wrong. This is the media that got the housing bubble wrong. This is the media that did not see this huge economic crisis—

LAURA FLANDERS: So you mean they got—

ARUN GUPTA: —coming.

LAURA FLANDERS: —a war wrong. They might be getting a revolution wrong?

ARUN GUPTA: I wouldn’t call it a revolution, but it is very— it’s not an easy thing to grasp in our society. We look for these top-down answers, the great man coming in and solving all our problems for us. This is very much a bottom up and a horizontal solution.

LAURA FLANDERS: So what did you see as you were traveling?

ARUN GUPTA: What I saw was really the spaces where people were able to come together. That’s what Occupy really did is it created the public space. It’s something that is completely missing in our society. The only public spaces we have are you go to the sports game, you go shopping, you go to theater, you go to a bar or restaurant. It’s all about consumption.

Occupy put the public space back in society. And it recreated the public so that people could come into these spaces and say, like, “Hey, I’m unemployed and can’t find a job. Person next to me, their home is in foreclosure. This other person, they have this huge student debt. Someone else, they lack health care.” And they see their problems as all the same, because the culprit is all the same, Wall Street.

LAURA FLANDERS: But I expected to see some very public discussion a year on about just what Occupy showed, that the police could literally shut down that public space when they felt like it and how little of it we actually have.

MARINA SITRIN: Right, and they can, as far as the central park/plaza, that kind of thing. But then there are so many assemblies that are taking place in neighborhoods, or the power of the 99% as a slogan. But it’s not just a slogan. It’s really empowering for people. So to talk to people, you know, where in the past, to be unemployed, to be in foreclosure was something you kept secret. It was something to be ashamed of. I mean, people have been committing suicide because of the situation.

And the power of Occupy and the slogan is to say, “Well, wait a minute. I’m the 99%. I’m the majority. I can feel empowered. And not only feel empowered, but then in these spaces of, you know, where democracy’s being recreated, where people talk to each other, hear each other, and then say, “Well, neighbor, could you help me?”

And then taking direct actions together with each other, defending each other’s homes, not going so similar also to the politics of Occupy. It’s not going to institutional power or lobbying and saying, “Please don’t evict me.” But saying, “We’re just gonna prevent the evictions.”

LAURA FLANDERS: Part of it was clearly about building relationships. What about some of those institutional relationships we saw early on with labor, for example?

ARUN GUPTA: Well, I mean, that’s kind of the big question. And I understand what you’re getting at, in terms of strategy. And it is one thing I’ve been critical of. What is the strategic direction of Occupy? And so there’s a lot of people, “Well, Occupy should be a political party. Occupy needs to be pushing for various sorts of legislation, you know? Or is Occupy trying to, you know, recreate a different type of economy.”

And there was, in terms of labor, there was a lot of great working relationships, a lot of labor unions came in with material support for Occupy movements across the country. And Occupy has also lifted all organizing boats. So we saw that in New York City, for example, the Occupy movement helped Teamsters win a better contract with Sotheby’s. They helped these fast food workers at Hot and Crusty unionize, which is remarkable that you have fast food workers who unionized.

LAURA FLANDERS: And just to elaborate for people a little bit of how that happened. I mean, there were some really extraordinary scenes around Hot and Crusty, the bakery chain that was in the process of trying to unionize, or Sotheby’s, the art auction house where occupiers stood up in the middle of the proceedings. Because I think if you didn’t see it, you don’t know what you mean exactly.

ARUN GUPTA: Part of the problem, labor has been so hemmed in, corporations have it down to a science, how to game organizing movements. And so at this point labor very rarely even undertakes an organizing campaign. Because corporations will just fire organizers. They bring in these union-busting law firms. Even if they do win, they’ll tie things up in court forever. Now one of the things that has hemmed labor in is you can’t have secondary strikes. But you can bring other people to the picket line. And that’s what Occupy has done. It’s bolstered the picket line by bringing all sorts of other people there.

LAURA FLANDERS: And not just the picket lines, Sotheby’s. There were quite some scenes.

MARINA SITRIN: Well, Sotheby’s and Hot and Crusty. And the way in which that was happening. I think it’s also really important that a lot of these relationships were workers who went to Occupy when it was still in Zuccotti Park or in other cities, actually went to the plazas, met other people, saw the democratic forum and thought, “Huh, this looks good. And can you help us?” So it wasn’t the union going to some kind of institutional Occupy. It was workers going and meeting other people, organizing, and then people from Occupy saying, “Okay, we’ll help—”

LAURA FLANDERS: Let’s go back to some of the criticism. I mean, there is a reason that people are frustrated and that they say, “We’ve got 50 or so days before an election. You have a moment of focus on organizing and what’s wrong in this country. And yet the occupiers don’t seem to be applying themselves to this political process at all.”

MARINA SITRIN: But yet, the process is responding to Occupy. So Occupy doesn’t look towards building a political party to change institutional politics, at that level. But at the same time, the discussion of inequality, class, 99%, not that the Democrats get it right at all, but that it is actually a part of the conversation. And on the question of success, where I agree with you absolutely as far as movements and how long it takes for movements, but to think in one year how the conversation has changed as far as there’s a crisis, who’s to blame?

LAURA FLANDERS: But is talk, as somebody said today, “talk is cheap.” Is simply talking about it enough? What would be so bad about getting co-opted by some party with some power?

ARUN GUPTA: Well, the problem is what they do with that power. We have to remember that Occupy is very much a creature of the Obama years. It came three years into his administration. And here was a guy who was supposed to clean up the mess on Wall Street, who was supposed to change the tone and nature of Washington. And in many ways, it’s basically the third Bush administration, not one Wall Street executive has been prosecuted. Meanwhile, during the Savings and Loan scandal, which is puny compared to what Wall Street did in the last few years, over a thousand executives were convicted of felonies.

LAURA FLANDERS: Well, a lot of people would say that’s an indictment in Occupy, in a sense, in that that was some of the status quo that the movement was intending or hoping to change.

MARINA SITRIN: But I think there’s also a different measure. And it’s not to have a different conversation, but the tens or hundreds of thousands of people who participated in their towns and villages and feel different because of it and feel empowered so that maybe they helped their neighbor stay in their house. But tomorrow what might they do?

That people feel like they actually can be agents and actors and subjects in their life where they couldn’t before. And that’s not so measurable. So it’s hard to have that conversation in the same way you would have a conversation about, you know, how do you measure a political party.

ARUN GUPTA: Well, let me give another example. So okay, President Obama, who came in saying, you know, the oceans were going to stop rising and the planet was gonna start healing. Basically, we are going to address the greatest crisis humanity has known, climate change. If you look at his speech in Charlotte, he was “drill, baby, drill.” We’re opening millions of new acres to oil and gas extraction.

LAURA FLANDERS: So this is an argument for what? I mean, the Republican Party got driven into some of the positions espoused by the Tea Party. It sounds like Occupy hasn’t done anything to—

ARUN GUPTA: Well, what Occupy is doing, though, if you look on the ground, and the media has never really been interested in grassroots organizing. They’ve never been interested in social change. But if you go out there and see what’s happening, there’s all this great organizing against natural gas fracking, which is incredibly destructive. Of course, Obama is endorsing it, when he said, “We’re gonna create 600,000 new jobs in natural gas.” There’s all this organizing against tar sands, oil extraction, and the pipelines. There’s been this great movement in West Virginia and Appalachia against mountaintop coal removal that has really been strengthened and broadened by the Occupy movement.

LAURA FLANDERS: Is it too soon to assess Occupy Wall Street in the sense that there are some initiatives coming out of what happened a year ago that don’t sound all that unlike what you’re describing. They’re just not here yet. Co-ops, bank initiatives, a strike campaign around student debt.

ARUN GUPTA: These movements take a long time. We have to remember there’s nearly ten years between the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington. Labor organizing during the 1930s was going on for about seven or eight years before we saw the wave of sit down strikes really result in mass unionization and the passage of the National Labor Relations Act. So these things do not happen overnight.

LAURA FLANDERS: But the changes that came out of the Civil Rights Movement came from within the system, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. The Occupy movement as you’ve described it, is opposed to working inside the system.

ARUN GUPTA: Well, yeah, I mean, there is this fundamental contradiction. The idea of reform is based on the notion the system is fundamentally sound. And all we do need to do is change these aspects of it and to create a better democracy, to create a better society, and everything is going to be peachy keen.

And there are people who are saying, like, “No, we need an entirely new system.” And that’s not to say, for instance, that “Hey, wouldn’t universal health care be great? Wouldn’t it be great to make labor organizing easier, should we really try to be doing something to mitigate climate change?” But nonetheless, the question is, “Can the system be saved?” And there are a lot of people in Occupy affiliated with it who are saying, “No, we need a fundamentally different type of society.” And a lot of them look to capitalism as the problem, that we need more of a cooperative economy.

LAURA FLANDERS: But the question is how do you get from here to there?

ARUN GUPTA: There no roadmap. If there was, you know, we’d be on it. And I think, also let’s not forget with the Civil Rights Movement is the Civil Rights leadership realized that they only got the pro-forma changes, the political changes. And that what really needed to be addressed was the economic apartheid that Black Americans had lived under for a century after slavery. And we still don’t have that. And we really do live in an apartheid economy in this country. The indices are really devastating for the African American and Latino communities.

LAURA FLANDERS: Well, that goes to the question of is Occupy really only a year old?

MARINA SITRIN: Well, it depends where you want to locate it and how.

Even in the early assemblies we had in August, for example, there were people there from Spain and Greece. And we were learning directly from those experiences, which came before Occupy.

I think in the last few years, you can definitely date it. But then also in Latin America in the last 15 years you could go back to the Zapatistas in 1994 or Argentina in 2001.

In Argentina, you also see something very similar that started in 2001 with an economic crisis and people, you know, with a slogan of “Que Se Vayan Todos!” that they all must go. People formed neighborhood assemblies.

And it’s actually where the word horizontalidad, “horizontalism” emerged, is in Argentina, in that time, people just saying, “We want to relate horizontally. We don’t want someone telling us what to do. We’re gonna talk to each other and figure out how we’re gonna do it. Whether it’s neighborhood assemblies, unemployed neighborhoods, and in the workplaces.” And that’s something that continues in Argentina.

LAURA FLANDERS: You’ve been pretty critical of “horizontalism.” Although you may not have used that word, per se. You’ve asked, “Where are the leaders?”

ARUN GUPTA: Yeah, I think any movement needs leaders. One of the great lessons of the ’60s is the “Tyranny of Structurelessness”. And I’ve seen it plenty in the Occupy movement throughout the country. If you don’t have a structure, basically, you will still have leaders, but they’re unaccountable. And often you’ll have leaders who are engaging in bad behaviors and I don’t think we can ignore it.

LAURA FLANDERS: So better to have accountable leadership that you know who they are

ARUN GUPTA: Accountable, transparent and from the bottom up, instead of the top down. But I think there does need to be leaders, because there are leaders.

MARINA SITRIN: I think there are leaders. I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive. Structure, absolutely, to have horizontal social relationships and spaces, you absolutely have to have structure. And I think there are leaders. And I think there needs to be accountability. And how do we have that conversation? I think it’s not from the bottom up. The Zapatistas talk about “from below and to the left,” where the heart resides. And so kind of it’s that horizontal image, but with structure and organization.

There’s 350 workplaces, for example, in Argentina that workers run, horizontally. And some of them are massive workplaces. And there’s incredible structure. But they’re run with assemblies. And they use the language of “horizontal organizing and direct democracy.” So they’re not mutually exclusive.

LAURA FLANDERS: Concretely, how might it have changed things? I mean, one of the criticisms of Occupy was this huge variety of tactics. And everybody’s allowed to do basically whatever they want. I mean, carry whatever slogan they want I mean, in Oakland, one of the criticisms from people within the movement was that this sort of anarchy allowed certain people to really alienate the movement’s relationship from its neighbors, from the people in that community.

ARUN GUPTA: I think that’s a legitimate criticism. I think it’s called “the diversity of tactics.” And there are people who advocate for the ability to, as one person called it “smashy-smashy.” To break property like windows. And they’re very clear, “We’re never gonna commit violence against another person.” But I think it’s juvenile. And it’s problematic, because you’re saying that this is democracy. But you’re going against the will of everybody else.

So it’s fundamentally undemocratic, if you’re just, like, this small group who is not accountable is going to do whatever it wants to do. And so the movement really needs to grapple with that.

LAURA FLANDERS: Should Occupy have had the oomph to exclude people from Zuccotti Park, to expel people after they’ve done certain sorts of things?

MARINA SITRIN: Well, I was a part of the legal team from the beginning in Zuccotti. And from the legal team, we broke into a mediation team. And we were creating alternative kinds of adjudicational forms. So what we were hoping to do beyond mediation was actually look to a form of circle justice that would possibly go there, if it needed to. So yeah, absolutely, that if we don’t take seriously protecting ourselves and each other and have rules and accountability to each other than we’re really not creating that new society that we’re talking about. And so those conversations were taking place, the eviction happened within a few months. We didn’t actually fully develop that alternative adjudication, but people were seriously working on it. Yeah.

ARUN GUPTA: Yeah, I mean look, I’ve been an advocate of that. I think there were individuals who were very disruptive and really damaged the movement. And the thing is you can’t have a community unless you define who’s outside of that community. That’s why we have “We are the 99%,” that is the legitimate people. The 1% is the illegitimate people.

Now these things can, you know, there’s a double-edged sword. Because once you start to exclude people, then, you know, you can lead to purges, right? So it’s a difficult question, but it does have to deal with these decisions. We saw this across the country. Some Occupy movements did end up coming to, creating these enforcement mechanisms to ban people. So I think that is a necessary thing.

LAURA FLANDERS: So where do we go from here? I mean, it’s a cliché in election years to say, “Are we better off than we were a year ago?” In terms of Occupy, are we better off as people hoping for progress in this country than we were a year and a month ago before, in August of ’11, Marina?

MARINA SITRIN: Absolutely. In August, were people talking about the 1% or talking about whether you want to call it class, whatever you want to call it, power? But who made this crisis was not a part of the conversation. That people organized could change things was no longer a part of the conversation. Democracy is now a question. “What does that mean?”

Yes, we can’t allow the right to come in. But is it actually democracy if Obama’s in power and does whatever he wants anyway and ignores what people say? So that that’s a question and that people are organizing around it and continue to organize in their neighborhoods and schools I think is phenomenal. It’s a huge difference.

LAURA FLANDERS: Arun, are you expecting something dramatic in the next year, year and a half?

ARUN GUPTA: Occupy, part of the reason it succeeded was there were no expectations whatsoever. And we live in an era where we have these surprising social outbursts. No one expected the Arab Spring. No one expected what happened in Wisconsin in February 2011. No one expected Occupy to succeed the way it did succeed.

So I don’t think we can predict what is going to happen. I think there’s certain paths it needs to take. And labor is absolutely fundamental, because that’s who’s been decimated. That’s who has real power. It is still the workers who have real power. And Occupy has to figure out how it can create some real cross-organizing and strength in labor movements, especially independent labor movements that aren’t part of the sold-out union bureaucracy that’s in the pocket of the Democratic Party.

LAURA FLANDERS: Marina Sitrin, Arun Gupta, thanks so much for joining us.

ARUN GUPTA: Thank you.

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