On Occupy: Roundtable Discussion with Steve Williams, Maria Poblet, and Neeta Bee
Meaghan LaSala: Up next, a round table with three guests from the San Francisco bay area discussing how the movement of the 99% can move forward, toward long term solidarity. Neeta Bee is one of the original participants at Occupy Oakland, and is a member of the People of Color Committee. Maria Poblet is the Executive Director of Causa Justa, Just Cause, a housing rights organization that’s working with the occupy movement to fight foreclosures. And Steve Williams is the co-founder and co-director of POWER also known as people organized to win employment rights. Making Contact production intern Christopher Holmback moderated the discussion.
Christopher Holmback: I’d like to begin by asking you, Maria, what went through your head the first time you heard about OWS.
Maria Poblet: Well my very first thought was, “Yes! Yes. Finally the people of the US have taken issue with the corporations of the US that have done so much harm to our communities inside the US and also in other countries. I remember thinking, maybe not everybody is asleep. Maybe people have noticed what’s been happening over the last 10 yrs, 20 yrs, 30 yrs, maybe now the US people’s movements will actually show their face and show their allegiances, and their allegiances will their corps, but instead with regular everyday people. And it just seemed like such a timely critique. And the fact that it was just out in the streets where nobody could deny it, and where it was control of everyday people, it was inspiring.
Holmback: Do you have the same immediate sense of joy, Steve?
Steve Williams: Well, no. I think I was a little less optimistic and hopeful. I remember actually seeing the call that went out in Adbusters and I remember being like really? These are the people that are going to Occupy Wall Street? As somebody has spent more than a decade organizing in African American, working class and Latino communities, I know that our communities have been deeply impacted by financial institutions and by the system of capitalism. And I didn’t think that it was going to be the readers of Adbusters that were going to take the first step to begin confronting financial institutions in this country.
Holmback: And what about you Neeta?
Neeta Bee: I first got involved because I was watching what was going on Wall Street and really was pleasantly surprised that white middle class America was standing up and kind of being disgruntled as many of And I kept my eye on it because I thought it was very powerful to be putting Wall Street on front and having the slogan of the 99 vs. the 1 percent. That whole slogan, 99 against 1. I think that was really powerful to me. And I kept my eye on it and I was really surprised to watch it spread like wildfire across the US. That got me really interested in like, wow, what’s going on. And really seeing this as an opportunity that people were linking not just on a national level but an international level. And when they did that, that was like the impetus for the entire nation to start social change. And that’s what I saw here which is why I got involved. If it was just an Oakland thing, I probably wouldn’t have gotten involved.
Holmback: …You’ve all mentioned or you’ve all been calling this movement middle class, or middle class and white so it seems like a good time to play a clip for you from a protest in the Bay Area Poor Peoples Decolonization March and Lisa Gray-Garcia, one of the organizers, had some things to say about the occupy movement.
Clip from Lisa Gray-Garcia: “We’re poor people. We’re occupied with things like budget cuts, and whether we’re going to feed our children tomorrow. I think a lot of the occupy movements are more focused on middle class folks. And that’s not a critique. It’s a beautiful thing. That isn’t where we’re coming from. I don’t actually feel part of the 99%. I think that the 99% are part of the people that oppress us. A lot of the movements are actually filled with a lot of racist and classist stereotypes and unfortunately don’t even know how to relate to folks in poverty. And there’s been a lot of racial tension. There is a lot of folks with race and class privilege who take part in the occupy movement. Again this is not to splinter or take down their movements, but to help them understand that they need to get race consciousness. They need to get consciousness about poverty. They need to recognize the connections”
Holmback: What’s your reaction to what Lisa Gray-Garcia says here?
Poblet: I think a lot of us people of POC who’ve interacted with the occupy camps who’ve interacted with the camps can certainly identify with that feeling of the camps not having enough clarity about race and racism and what it does to communities. And gender inequality and poverty and issues of class. I think that critique is right on. I think the challenge before us is: can we lead from a place of unity? What is the unity that you can accomplish? A lot of people want to do something, but the idea that we should work together, choose a target, choose demands, is not an automatic thing. And so those of us who have been doing community organizing have that and can contribute that to the movement if the dynamics are such that there’s space for that.
So then there’s all these sort of political cultures intersecting. There’s the way that Unions do their work, think about their work, communicate their work. The way that community organizations like mine do it, and then this camp that has this own culture that also draws on some anti-hierarchical traditions, anti-authoritarian commitments—and then there’s everything else.
Williams: …it is also important to acknowledge that in different encampments across the country, those political cultures are coming together and sort of innovating new models. In New York, and also in San Francisco, one of the things that the general assemblies have established are these action committees, where existing community organizations, trade unions, other affinity groups, are able to select a representative to come to a weekly meeting to then talk about how it is that those existing memberships can engage with the general assembly process and more broadly with the “we are the 99%” movement. I think that it is important to acknowledge that each of the particular encampments are just struggling to innovate new models that both ensure direct democracy but also connect with existing organizing efforts in the communities.
Poblet: Some people have a critique of community organizing, or non profits or other forms of organization and that’s where they’re coming from and I think that’s a useful political dialogue to engage in. It’s not all about doing it the way we’ve been doing it so far because if everything we’ve been doing so far was perfect, we would have had this movement a long time ago, right? Community organizations and unions and the sort of more institutionalized progressive movement hasn’t been as nimble, or militant, or creative or committed to movement building as we’ve needed to be and we’re one of the organizations committed to changing that and that means taking risk and trying things you haven’t done before.
Holmback: So Neeta do you think that the model that Steve told about that is in New York and other places, could work in Oakland?
Bee: I think that kind of model can definitely work in Oakland… that move is definitely being made where organizations that have been in the trenches and doing the work for decades are coming together, and linking it to, to just this concept of the 99%. My thing is like, if you’re going to be talking about 99%, let’s really break that down, let’s make a pie chart and figure out what that really means. (Laughter) Who’s really the 99%? How this political and economic fiasco affects the different sectors in the 99% is very different. And I think that’s related to the class and the race analysis. When we start looking at each other’s experiences here, that broadens the potential of what we can be fighting for. So that everyone walks away from this winning.
Holmback: Steve Williams, you have long experience organizing poor people and people of color. What’s your reaction to these problems?
Williams: Well, I think the challenges that Anita and Maria are pointing to are exactly right. I mean, they’re at play in encampments all over the country. But it’s also a predictable challenge that the movement has to face. In a country with the history of white supremacy, colonialism, genocide, slavery, we know that we’re going to encounter some particular challenges around racial consciousness, around the leadership of women, around the role of young people. But what the “we are the 99%” movement has created is an opportunity for us to actually engage in those struggles from a progressive standpoint. And the movement is still very new, so the language is all coming together, but in my mind this movement is a movement of the 99%. The occupations are a particular tactic of that movement. So there are a lot of people participating in the movement to confront financial institutions and capitalism that aren’t sleeping out at the various parks across the country. And its critical for us to figure out ways for people to engage constructively because our organizations, organizations that are rooted in working class, communities of color has been doing the organizing around a particular strata of the 99%. It is important to acknowledge that the petty bourgeois and technocratic professionals who are now disaffected by the way that capitalism is operating– it’s important to acknowledge that those people should be mad. But we also have to then figure out the programs and solutions and demands that we are all going to fight for that doesn’t throw sections of the 99% under the bus.
Poblet: On the national scale now white, working class communities who’ve been impacted by these measures of austerity and by this corporate takeover, they have a choice between the Tea Party and Occupy. And I want all of them to choose Occupy. It’s very needed in this country for people to have a choice that takes them to the left in the face of corporate domination, instead of basically everybody joining the Tea Party and moving to the right and blaming immigrants, blaming People of Color. And while these racial dynamics get handled in the camps, that’s where and how we’ll see if the movement will be able to proceed in a way that actually builds the capacity of the movement to build more unity and move towards a progressive outcome, actually. An outcome that benefits all communities.
Holmback: Since we’re leading up to the next presidential campaign, how should occupy movement engage with electoral politics? Steve.
Williams: Well I think the critical thing is that the “we are the 99%” movement has to develop a vision of what our alternative is. The exciting innovation with the camps is that different groupings of people who have been disaffected and disenfranchised by this economic system have had a space to come together. So folks who have had their homes foreclosed upon, folks who are in debt and can’t find a job after graduating from elite universities are coming together with homeless people and are coming together with other folks who have just seen public services cut and attacked over the last few years. And I think what’s happening with that is that people are beginning to develop more and more of a systematic analysis of what is wrong. But ultimately that means that we have to do more, way more, than elect a sympathetic person into elected office.
Poblet: In the more institutional progressive sector, there’s the idea that you elect somebody who’s a democrat and then you look the other way and cross your fingers. And that has never worked for us. It’s never worked for people of color to do that. In fact in any time where people of color have won great demands in this country its by actually challenging the democratic party to represent its interests by all kinds of different tactics, including threatening to start another party, starting another party and it always has to go back to this platform, this list of what we want, this vision of where we’re headed and then we say to any elected official, get in or get out. Right? And this is where we’re headed. Come with us or don’t.
Holmback: Neeta, from being inside Occupy Oakland and working with the people there, do you think the time is right now for the occupy movement to move foreword and build a political platform together? And start making a list of demands?
Bee: I think one, It’s essential if this is going to move forward…Our focus can transition into something, into broadening the movement and its demographics. And to actually developing a platform and developing some demands. There are some demands. But they’re very broad and they’re not really asking for things. It’s very much we are against this. But it’s not saying what we want. If we’re against this, what do we want?
Williams: The only way that any movement is able to defend its principled demands is to have clarity about what direction it’s moving in. So one of the things that we clearly saw for example in the south African anti-apartheid movement was that time and time again, the apartheid regime tried to figure out measures to be able to give concessions to some section of the community and at the same time sell out the larger majority of the population. it was only through the freedom charter and the clarity of the anti-apartheid movement in south Africa to a vision of what a truly democratic society would look like that they were able to hold on to that vision, fight for it through all the twists and turns and then ultimately able to establish at least politically a democratic system in that country. Now, I think that the challenge for us in the United States is that for too long we’ve been told that capitalism is the only way to operate an economy. And I think that that its one of the things that is important right now is for us to take lessons from the mass mobilizations that have been taking place around the globe, from Cairo, to Barcelona to Athens, to the successful movements in Latin American, Cochabamba, and other places, and so I think that in being able to sort of the lessons, insights, of those movements we, here, in the United states can begin developing a notion of a transformative vision and a new liberatory economy.
Holmback: How can we use this movement and moment to build long term solidarity and political education? Maria?
Poblet: In addition to demands which we’ve talked about a fair amount here, I think we need to get clear about the role of the US in the international arena. Our government is the 1% to the rest of the world. I’ve had the opportunity to be part of the world social forum process and the US Social forum process. And there’s strengths and weaknesses to that that can be compared to Occupy movement, and existing organizations and that relationship because its space of convergence. And actually convergence is the first step to joint action which is what we need actually. Because then we can actually move towards something that would be much bigger like, what if the 99% in the US called for no war, no warming, build the economy for people and the planet. What if we did that? What would that look like? What would the details of that look like? That would then say, instead of there is no alternative, there is one… and we’re building it right here, right now, because another world is possible, but also it’s absolutely necessary. And in order for another world to be possible, another US has to come into being. and this occupy movement and the convergence between that and previous generations and community organizing and other sectors of progressives, that convergence is actually going to make that other world possible.
Bee: here on a local level what we should be thinking about is doing some kind of educational campaign both for our own communities that don’t connect the dots between our lives here and Wall Street… I think there’s a disconnect. Wall Street is something over there that rich people play with. It’s not something that actually trickles down. You talk about these trickle down economy. And it definitely trickles down. Not the money, but the problems. And I think that we on one level an educational campaign which is also like outreach into our own communities and helping connecting those dots. And I think within the existing occupy Oakland movement, and educational campaign around race and class and immigrant status so that we’re starting to kind of break these ideas that people have. That we’re not all this monolithic 99%.
Williams: I think one thing that we’ve absolutely got to concentrate on is defending the encampments. Folks have created a space for various sections of society to come together and engage in a level of conversation dialogue and conspiring that hasn’t been possible because of the disenfranchisement and alienation that our society has promoted. And so I think that defending either the encampments or other spaces that allow all of these folks to come together is absolutely critical. I think that it’s important for us to understand that these movement moments happen at a time where things feel very fast. But things are actually happening at sort of different time periods. So in some ways like talking about New York as only having six weeks more than occupy San Francisco or occupy Oakland just shatters my mind… I mean it feels like they’ve been at it for two or three years… the lessons that we’ve been able to learn over the series of just a couple months are equivalent to what it is that we’ve learned over two or three decades previously. I think it’s critical for us to understand that at this particular moment because of the changing demographics, the changing economic system, the changing politics in the United States that this movement didn’t come out of nowhere. That we’re really building on a level of organizing, a level of mobilization that really puts us in a position to actually be able to begin transforming what it is that we’ve previously thought of as a liberation movement in this country
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