Activists from earlier movements weigh in on Occupy
The Occupy movement started in New York City nearly four months ago, but since then has spread nationally, and beyond. This grassroots campaign has shifted global attention to the subjects of inequality and economic injustice.
I was sent out by WBEZ to report on Chicago’s occupiers. And I’ve gotten to know a little bit about their backgrounds, and what they want. However, I wanted to know more.
So, I decided to track down some of Chicago’s well-known veteran activists. I wanted to see if they could help me understand where Occupy fits in the history of movements for change. And also I wondered what advice they might have for these younger protesters.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson is 70 now and president of the Rainbow Push Coalition. He came up in the civil rights movement decades ago and was often at the side of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jackson says this new movement comes out of social and economic frustrations.
“The conditions are the wealth is going upward by a few, jobs are leaving, drugs and guns are coming, education [is] too expensive, health care less accessible, poverty expanding, in those gaps you see something called Occupy,” says Jackson.
“Occupy is a new name for an old struggle for justice. Occupy means take space. It does not have a head you can assassinate. It’s a spirit. That’s why you can’t tear gas it away. It’s a spirit that refuses to be denied."
"I was talking with some business leaders, a few days ago in Washington," Jackson continued. "They were working on a merger, which involved merging two big companies...they had bonuses for the leaders and more job loss for workers, but then they said ‘if we do this, I wonder what Occupy would think about it? What would they do?”
Jackson says that Occupy has changed the conversation, but now the challenge is for more people who support the group to join the movement.
“The idea of Occupy at this stage does not require a leader, it requires participation. Leadership is emerging but this a three-month-old stage of a struggle…It takes time… It took us--from the back of the bus to the right to vote, it was a ten-year struggle. So we do not know how long it is going to last but it will until these gaps close and until these walls come down, until there’s more equity and fairness in the land, in terms of jobs and health care, education, and living conditions.”
A push for fairness is also what drives Bill Ayers, who’s 67 and well known in Chicago for his work on behalf of youth and education. However, Ayers is nationally known for the alliances and acts of his youth. He was part of the Weather Underground, an anti-Vietnam War movement, which planned direct actions like bombings to protest the war.
I’d thought he would have lots of advice for young protesters of today, but Ayers reacted like many of the veteran activists I spoke with: He said it wasn’t his place to give advice. Overall, Ayers is pleased with the progress of today's young Occupy protesters.
He offers a bit of his own story:
“I came out of the very privileged, anesthetized experienced of the suburbs and opened my eyes to a world that was pretty much in flames. There was war everywhere, conflict everywhere, a mighty struggle against white supremacy and racism and I wanted to be a part of it. So I threw myself into it and I dived into it head first and that was the experience of the early days of the anti-war movement.”
“The Occupy movement has been successful beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. It is a very exciting development that opens the public space in a way that nobody could have predicted six months ago, and it has been remarkably successful at changing the public conversation about what’s wrong with this country,” says Ayers.
"You hear scholars, and journalists, and activists, and writers from The Nation, and writers for In These Times, and people commenting on NPR, who will say things like, “Well they’re pretty good but I wished they’d get organized and have a demand.” Or people who say ‘I like them but I don’t like the drum circle.’ And those kind of criticisms, to me are so inane, so kind of…they’re older people nostalgic for their own youth unable to give up their positioning and say, ‘Look, I’m learning from you, I didn’t do so great in the last four decades trying to make social change. Let me learn from these kids’—which I think is the proper stance for anybody over fifty.
"You know, the new left, the left that I was a part of as a youth had a slogan, ‘don’t trust anybody over thirty.’ I’ve always ascribed to that. I still think it’s a good idea. Trust the youth and see where they are taking us."
Well, one of the activists I interviewed did offer some advice for the Occupy movement—or at least a couple things to consider. Carlos Arango is the director of Casa Aztlan in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Arango is now 65. But when he was about 23, he participated in Mexico’s Student Movement. He was in the crowd when Mexican military fired shots and beat protesters on October 10th of 1968.
Arango says that Occupy needs to understand that politics is the way to make change.
"The bottom line is Occupy should be at the table with the elected officals...because it’s with political power that you can make changes.... If you don’t have political power, the movement can change, can create the debate but at the end of the day, the decisions are made in Washington.
And the whole issue in political terms is we have to stop [being]...the victims."
Instead, Arango suggests Occupy protesters become protagonists in order to create change.
"We have to give a different face. A face that we are the change...we are the future. We are the ones who [are] going to take control."
Kathy Kelly describes herself as a peace activist. She’s been in the middle of war zones and has been jailed for her nonviolent protests against war. We spoke on her 59th birthday as she prepared for another trip out of the U.S. She began by sharing one of her mottos. It comes from Voices for Creative Non-violence, an organization she helps lead.
"One of the things that Voices has felt quite strongly is that where you stand determines what you see... And I’ve admired the Occupy movement because they have connected so clearly, so vigorously with people who are facing foreclosures or who've already been evicted, and so I think that solidarity takes on very concrete forms.
"I hope there’s a sense all throughout Chicago that this is an unusual opportunity and that especially as Chicago is shaping up as a place that will be the center for so much of the G8 and NATO activity that will have lots of questions being asked, what is G8? What is NATO? Why are they coming together? Why are they holding joint summits?.... It’s not just happening with a certain group of people in a certain place at a certain time. So I hope that all of the days and weeks ahead will be energized and exciting times for people to get together and learn from the Occupy movement."
Rev. Walter L. Coleman
Rev. Walter L Coleman also offered an interesting point of view on the Occupy movement. Coleman is 68 and pastor of Chicago's Lincoln United Methodist church and Adalberto United Methodist church. He’s known for pushing for better housing and advocating for immigrants' rights, including those of Elvira Arellano, a Mexican immigrant who sought refuge at one of his ministries. In the 1980s, Coleman was a supporter of the late Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor.
As a man who has observed many protests and civic movements, he observes a unique characteristic of Occupy.
"One of the interesting characteristics of this occupy movement is that...it's tactics are not it's objectives. In other words if the media didn’t notice it...it wouldn’t mean anything.
We used to say…we never should have a press conference that depends on the press. In other words, you have an action that’s going to take place that has it's own importance to it...When Ghandi’s movement refuses to buy salt and a million people refuse to but salt, that has a material effect."
Because Coleman worries that without some greater impact the Occupy movement will not be successful, I asked him what will success look like for the Occupy movement?
"For some of the people, [success] will be the election of Barack Obama that is for some of the people involved. For a lot of the young people...that are involved, success is for them to learn what they want to do in this country and what kind of change they really want to make in this country and in the long run that’s probably the most important because when you’re out there especially if you stay out there in the winter, we’ve done that, you really have to think a lot about what you’re doing," replies Coleman.
Virginia Martinez is one of the first two Latina lawyers to practice in Chicago. She was successful in challenging the division of the city's aldermanic wards. She won her case and helped to create more Latino representation. Martinez says the criticism that Occupy has received for not having a leader is not valid. She believes that Occupy can absolutely make a difference without having a leader. "This is not about creating a person or personality. This is about creating change,” she says.
At the end of our interview Martinez confessed that she hadn't visited Occupy yet, but she says she will.
"I am one of these people struggling to find a job and everybody says well ‘you know so many people, you know why are you having such a hard time finding a job?’—because no one has any money--nobody that I know. The nonprofit organizations are struggling, and government is struggling but there’s some people, there’s a few people that run these major corporations that aren’t struggling at all. " says Martinez.
"I need to be out there…because…if I feel this strongly, and I do, about those issues than I need to be physically there too."