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Nine months ago Occupy Wall Street set up an encampment in New York’s financial district; an action that served as an ‘opening bell’ for a movement that quickly coursed across the United States and beyond.
Since then that encampment and others have been violently uprooted by the authorities. At the same time Occupy has largely disappeared from the regular news cycle; replaced by, among other things, the deadening coverage of the U.S. elections. Yet the massive May Day demonstration in New York — with estimates as high as 30,000 people, the largest of its kind perhaps since the 1930s — made clear the underlying discontent that gave rise to this movement is still highly present.
I wanted to get a better bead on the thinking underlying this movement. So, with my recent interview with David Harvey on his book, Rebel Cities, in hand, I approached the Occupy press team. The result was a conversation with two people who have been with Occupy from its start in September 2011: Peter Rugh, a social justice activist with a focus on environmental issues within the movement, and Sofía Gallisá Muriente, a Puerto Rican woman working on the OWS print publication IndigNación, which aims to reach the Latino community.
Given the leaderless nature of Occupy, neither claimed to speak for the movement as a whole. There was also – as in the wider movement – plenty of debate, disagreement and challenge to their own thinking; on everything from whether Occupy should focus on specific demands, how to handle the matter of those who want to act autonomously on the street, including engaging in violent tactics, and whether or not we can envision another world and what that might look like.
Aaron Leonard: To what degree is the OWS movement anti-capitalist?
Peter Rugh: There are people in this movement who are reformist and there are people who are anti-capitalist. I’m in the anti-capitalist camp and my argument is I’m in this all the way. People who just want to win a reform, that’s fine. For example people who oppose carrying fracked natural gas through New York City, this is a particular [and worthwhile] struggle. Hopefully through such a struggle we can generalize and come up with a movement so that we can build a better world, so we are not just fighting one attack after the next. The people who came out on May Day, we need to turn them into revolutionaries and win them to this project and get them involved in organizing.
Sofía Gallisá Muriente: I agree with some of that, but don’t believe we have to mobilize or radicalize people. The beauty about May Day is that there were all sorts of people mobilized; including those who have been organizing within their communities since before the Occupation began. They too find common cause with us. I do believe that Occupy Wall Street is ultimately anti-capitalist, but not everyone who participates in OWS see themselves as anti-capitalist. In the long run OWS is an umbrella — a network of people and resources. Because this two-month occupation existed and all these people got to collaborate in trying to create a sustainable community in a square in downtown Manhattan, it made a lot of things that used to seem impossible, seem more possible.
AL: How do you see this movement in relation to the rest of the world?
PR: I think we need to be studying the various movements, for example I find it quite interesting and important what is going on in Greece in the struggle against austerity or what is going on in Quebec. I have been reading Chris Harman’s book, The Fire Last Time, in discussing student movements and movements of the unemployed and how hard they are to keep going – because there’s no social base there. Movements like these, students, unemployed, and I think Occupy is a hybrid of this, they flare up very quickly and they die off quickly.
What Sofia described about people organizing in their communities, has been going on long before Occupy. Occupy, the alliances and the roots it builds in communities will actually be the sustaining force if this is going to be a broad movement that can actually challenge power. It is ultimately about taking power.
SGM: Quebec is Chile is Puerto Rico two years ago. I think the reason all these movements have been springing up, borrowing and learning from each other, is because people realize that we live in these post-national times where economies are so tied to one another through globalization. One of the most hopeful things to me is that people throughout the world have been able to understand that it goes beyond their particular borders.
I think there is a pretty broad consensus understanding the futility of the electoral process, those traditional notions of how governments should be organized, or how government is supposed to solve the problems. In the same way OWS has refused to make demands, or the Spanish Indignados have refused to endorse political candidates, there’s also this broad understanding that the only way we will survive the crisis is by creating our own solutions. These different struggles will keep feeding others. Because Quebec is happening there are these conversations happening in New York.
AL: What kind of world do we need, what does it look like?
PR: I don’t think there is any way of saying what it would look like but the hope is that through struggle we can create a world that respects human beings, respects the earth above profit, above the interests of capital. Like Sofia was saying we live under global capitalism and we’re all interconnected in this economy in different ways. I think we’re going to figure out what the world is going to look like in the process — in the revolutionary process – we will be creating the world we want to see.
SGM: I think to a great degree its about personal process. The great value of OWS in the long run is going to be the impact it has had as a laboratory, as a learning experience. I think moving forward it is all about building on that sense of empowerment; re-imagining and reevaluating all sorts of aspects of how we related to one another, what we dedicate our time to. What is political in our life and how do we transform it? I don’t have the solution, I have an inkling of the type of world I would want to live in. The importance for me of something like Occupy is that I can sit in a room with a bunch of people that come form very different places than I do, have very different experiences, are bringing different skills and there’s a lot of borrowing. There’s this constant economy of friendship, as a friend of mine refers to it – building projects and collaborations, facilitating a process of personal transformation, and trying to tackle as best we can the very ambitious and long-term challenge of transforming society – it’s an epic task.
AL: What would you tell the rest of the world?
SGM: We have much more to learn than to teach. The great thing about Quebec is when you see what the changes in legislation would be and the reaction, you see a completely different response [than what you would see in the U.S.] We’re still catching up with basic notions, like that government should be scared of the people, not the people should be scared of the government.
PR: We have more in common with the people our government is bombing in Afghanistan than we do with our elected leaders. The 99 per cent has a commonality throughout this world and we have to learn from each other.
Aaron Leonard is a journalist and writer. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.