On May 1st, Occupy Wall Street is planning what protesters hope will be a galvanizing «General Strike,» with demonstrations and marches happening throughout the city. The May Day actions have been planned for months, and could bring a new burst of momentum to the movement—at the very least, you can expect plenty of arrests and a big turnout in Union Square, where Tom Morello, Das Racist, Dan Deacon and others are scheduled to perform.
We recently spoke with one of the members of the Occupy Wall Street media team, Justin Wedes, whom you may recall from Stephen Colbert’s hilarious interview in a hotel suite overlooking Zuccotti Park. Wedes, who know works with the recently-launched website Occupy.com, talked at length about the where the movement’s headed.
Are you concerned about the Occupy Wall Street story becoming more about clashing with police and less about the bigger ideas that drew people in the first place? No. I’m not because I know why people occupy Wall Street and I know that they understand that the police are not the ultimate target. The police are standing in the way. The police are protecting the one percent, protecting the money interests that we protest. And, ultimately, they are not the source or the target of our efforts.
That said, the brutality of the police that we’ve experienced in the past six months has brought us closer to communities that have experienced similar struggles for decades. And that solidarity, that unity in struggle, helps us grow and becomes, in and of itself, a cause. Fighting police repression, fighting racist policing and policies like «Stop and Frisk,» mass incarceration, the school’s prison pipeline, those issues—although they weren’t originally the core issues that brought us to Wall Street—have become critical issues in our struggle because they affect so many millions of the 99 percent.
What is your personal opinion about Occupy actions that break the law, like when the subway gates were opened? Is there a risk of some of them bringing negative attention? Actions that break existing laws are, historically, a crucial element of civil disobedience, of peaceful, nonviolent civil disobedience. That’s why it’s called disobedience. When a law is wrong, when it hurts rather than helps people because the people that make laws are human, just like us and they can make mistakes and they can be short-sighted or they can be narrow minded, right? It’s not just important to break those laws, it’s essential to violate those laws, but to do it in a way that makes it completely clear why the laws are being violated and how the laws are being violated, so the public sees what our intent is—that our intent isn’t just to break laws for the sake of breaking laws, or to cause chaos or to hurt regular people, but to get at the heart of how the one percent, how the elite in this country enforce their unpopular policies and it’s through these laws.
For example, the fare strike was an example where, in order to show that one in every five dollars that strapholders pay goes towards debt servicing from Wall Street firms, to Wall Street firms, while Albany is defunding our public transit system. So that we have to go to these firms to pay for the cost of what should be public transit run by public interests, right? We had to violate these laws to show what complying with them does and to make completely clear what our demands are for change.
There were three very simple demands that were expressed with that action and the statement that was put out by the made it evidently clear why those laws were being violated. And they were done in a way that wasn’t destructive to property, wasn’t a hindrance to people, and I believe that that form of civil disobedience is completely in the spirit of peaceful civil disobedience. And it’s happening all over the world, these types of fare strikes and economic noncompliance.
What do you say when people criticize Occupy Wall Street for not having any clearly defined demands, objectives, from their point of view? The claim that we don’t have specific demands has been the criticism since the very beginning of Occupy Wall Street, and it’s come especially from the mainstream media. And, look where we’ve come in just six months, as a burgeoning movement without any specific demands. Occupy Wall Street is an idea. It’s a toolkit for activists, it’s a toolkit for non-activists, for the 99 percent, that says we can empower ourselves through organizing, through mobilizing, through education to come together to begin to find solutions to the problems that we face. We’re not going to get those solutions through some narrow agenda of demands made to Wall Street or made to Washington. The problems are much more complicated than that.
When did you personally get involved with Occupy Wall Street and how did that happen? I have been advocating for teachers and students and parents for a long time as an education activist.
Are you from New York City? I am originally from Detroit area, but I came to New York City to teach and I saw school’s budgets being stripped, teachers losing rights, parents losing access and resources to help empower their teachers and their schools and their students. And all of these things led me to activism and to say «enough is enough» we can’t to educate students to the needs of the 21st century, many of them from low-income, poor neighborhoods, whose only opportunities, whose only opportunity lies in education. We can’t continue to do this if you keep tearing these resources from us. So that teachers have to pay out of pocket for classroom resources. It’s insane.
And so, when a group of people got together after Bloombergville said «We’re going to do this again, but we’re going to do it bigger,» I said, «count me in, absolutely,» and we began to meet in the parks and create the New York City General Assembly which has now, in many ways, it’s sort of mushroomed so big that it cannot even contain itself. Like a plant, it’s sort of like, branched off into all of these different general assemblies. That’s exciting.
Occupy Wall Street grew to such a degree that it’s gotten big donations from corporations like Ben and Jerry’s. How did you feel about that flood of money? Are you worried it compromises the movement in any way? There was always the concern that a big influx of money, especially from an individual, will lead to the movement being co-opted. And, in many ways, it’s similar to practices that we’re opposing in super PACs and money in Washington. So, we have to be very careful that we’re not recreating the failed policies that we’re protesting. And, so, there’s been an immense amount of scrutiny on our accounting, and rightfully so. People are very closely watching how projects in Occupy Wall Street get funded, not just how much they get funded or by whom they get funded, but how they get funded, how the resources are distributed.
And I think that that sort of collective pressure on groups, both working groups within the structure and affinity groups independent of the structure of the general assembly, is important. It’s the only safeguard to make sure that the movement doesn’t just recreate these problems. In the end, though, social movements need resources to move forward and people need to be able to live with dignity while they’re active in these demonstrations, and so we struggle every day to find ways to better take care of each other… Occupy.com is another example of this. We’re trying to make a new kind of company, a new kind of media company that is more horizontal, that’s more democratic and fairly run and it’s a struggle, absolutely, because the corporate culture is so hierarchical, so top-down, and many people with talents in media are used to working in that culture.
And how has that worked for you, personally, are you now employed by occupy.com? You obviously do a lot of work for the Occupy movement, but do you also have a job to make money? I do, I freelance, which I have been doing for years. I do web design and social media consulting and, with regards to occupy.com, employment isn’t the right term. What Occupy.com strives to do is to give people the stipends that they need to be able to sustain themselves in a minimal way so that they can continue to do this work when they don’t have other resources coming to them. In a way, it’s sort of like consulting, but eventually the idea would be to create these self-sustaining worker collectives, worker-owned companies that can be independent of any kind of general fund or centralized money source.
Is there any talk of Occupy Wall Street endorsing a candidate in the general election, or at least participating somehow within the two party political structure in any way? Occupy Wall Street has had an impact in the political system from outside of the system already. We see that in the millionaire’s tax in New York State, in related efforts such as the Keystone pipeline, although, who knows what our president will do with that now? And other issues that have been big issues in the forefront of political dialogue and process. But, in terms of endorsing particular candidates, or running our own candidates, that’s not our intention. And it violates our statement of autonomy, which states that Occupy Wall Street is an autonomous body. Nobody speaks for Occupy Wall Street, we don’t endorse political candidates, we are non-partisan, we’re not part of any particular political party.
So, no, I don’t see us taking that kind of role in the election, although, a recent survey of Wall Street executives—I think it was last week by the Wall Street Journal—said that something like 71 percent of those who work on Wall Street predicted that Occupy Wall Street will live past the election. So, I don’t see the election being either an end-all-be-all for the movement or even a particularly important milestone. This is a longer struggle than November 2012.