Occupy Oakland: An interview with The Coup's Boots Riley

November 1, 2011

Boots Riley says that when the Occupy movement started, he wasn’t sure what to make it.

“There’s no organization,” says Riley, from the hip hop groups The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club, and now, ironically, one of Occupy Oakland’s most visible faces. “There’s just this general thrust, this general direction.”

He played a couple of shows in solidarity but he was wary. And even now, he readily admits he doesn’t know what the Occupy movement will look like after the General Strike called by the Oakland contingent for tomorrow, November 2.

“It’s very different from everything I’d ever seen,” says Riley, a Chicago native who grew up in Oakland and has long been an active voice in community affairs and organizing. In the 90s, Riley and friends put together a collective to stage concerts and organize youth around political issues. He also gave up music for a while, helped found The Young Comrades to organize around community issues and then made his way back to the microphone. By 2003, Vibe magazine had named him one of the ten most influential voices in hip hop.

“You know, no demands, no clear cut leadership,” says Riley. “But as I observed things, I realized it’s precisely this nebulous structure which allows folks to become involved. As opposed to being a set plan and you either do or don’t get on board with it, this way everybody has a chance to focus and sharpen their ideas on their own.”

One of the things that most impressed him was the protestors return to Oscar Grant Plaza, the City Hall-fronted park they renamed for the young unarmed black commuter who was shot dead by an Oakland police officer who got the minimal sentence last year.

“I’ve never seen a meeting like that, in which thousands of people actually got shit done,” Riley says. “I keep saying, people are trying to recreate the 60s. But the reality is that he 60s came out of the civil rights movement which had been around since the 30s, and the labor movement before that, and the anti-war movement after it. The 60s didn’t pop out of nowhere. Things built up to the 60s.

“This is the new form, the new structure for a movement,” he says. “Everybody who’s used to the old form is freaked out but the truth is, it’s working, and it’s growing. No one person is guiding it, and it’s working. Every little thing is decided by consensus, by direct democracy. What this will look like in a year, what its structures and tactics will be, will be different because of that.”

For more from Boots, click here.