Occupying the Ballot Box

By Peter Rugh


Kshama Sawant and a voter in Seattle 

There has been plenty of debate over the impact the Occupy Movement has had on US politics. Pundits have searched for an expression of Occupy at the ballet box, usually pointing to Democrat politicians who are hoping to cash in on the post-bailout rage that activists sleeping-in at Zuccotti Park first articulated. But, as voters go to the polls this Tuesday in Seattle, Washington, and New York City, they will have a chance to elect candidates that embody the zeitgeist of Zuccotti.

Former Occupy camper Christina Gonzalez is young, hates politicians, thinks the Democratic Party is fake, and wants to tear Wall Street down. She gained some local fame in New York City last year when the 30th Precinct posted a picture of her and her partner, Matthew Swaye, on the station house walls.

“BE AWARE THAT THE ABOVE SUBJECTS ARE KNOWN PROFESSIONAL AGITATORS,” read the poster, which bore the insignia of the NYPD's Intelligence Division. “THE ABOVE SUBJECTS' MO IS THAT THEY VIDEO-TAPE OFFICERS PERFORMING ROUTINE STOPS AND POST THE FOOTAGE TO YOUTUBE. . . DO NOT FEED INTO ABOVE SUBJECTS' PROPAGANDA.”

The tattooed and pierced duo caught the attention of the NYPD while conducting “cop watch” patrols in Harlem, stalking squad cars and documenting instances of young people of color being stopped and frisked arbitrarily.

The 27-year-old Green Party candidate for Harlem's 7th District City Council seat has been arrested 11 times in the past two years. Five cases, related to her Occupy and cop-watch activism, are still pending. The charges include disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, trespassing, and obstructing governmental administration.

“I've always looked on authority as this thing we should oppose,” Christina told me over coffee last week. “But up until Occupy, I didn't know what City Council was. They were impacting my life in all kinds of ways and I didn't even know it. That's why education is a central issue of my campaign. Politicians want to keep us ignorant so they can make deals and get away with shit behind our backs.”

After law enforcement evicted activists from park lawns and campuses across the country, numerous candidates attempting to cash in on the Occupy pastiche began appearing on ballots. Some veterans of the encampments put on sports jackets and started kissing babies in an effort to court voters who might be turned-off by the radical politics at the movement's core. Meanwhile, traditional Democrat politicians who had little to do with the actual movement aside from adopting a subterfuge of Occupy rhetoric proclaimed their allegiance—most notably, Bill Di Blasio, who has risen to a 40 percent lead over his Republican mayoral rival by pledging to address the “tale of two cities” that is New York.


Christina Gonzalez at a bodega in New York City.

Christina is different. She refuses to comb out her dreadlocks or water down her politics. On the other hand, her opponent is a suit-and-tie wearing Democrat named Mark Levine. “He bills himself as a teacher, but he's really just a banker,” she said, referencing Mark's two years of teaching high school in the South Bronx in the early 90s and his founding of the Neighborhood Trust Credit Union. Vice Presidents from Goldman Sachs and HSBC sit on the credit union's board of directors. At a moment when gentrification is a hot button issue in Harlem, Mark is among a slew of Democrats who have taken hefty donations from the Real Estate Board of New York through the lobby group's political action committee, Jobs for New York. The average donation each candidate received was $277,400.

Christina has spent about $4,000 on her campaign, with funds coming mainly from her friends, family, and close supporters. Media attention has been scant. “Mainly, I've been standing on corners talking to people in the neighborhood to get the word out,” she said. If she's walking down the streets of Harlem and gets cat called, she whips out her campaign lit. “I tell them, 'Yeah and I'm smart, too.'”

She insists voters who are after affordable housing, against stop-and-frisk, and want less pollution in the air (Harlem is one of the most congested neighborhoods in the country) should elect her. “I'm not a communist. I'm not a capitalist. I'm just someone who thinks we all have the right to a decent place to sleep, something to eat, and clean air.”

On the other end of the country, a former Occupy Seattle organizer and avowed Marxist is giving 16-year incumbent City Councilman, Democrat Richard Conlin a run for his money. While Christina has a rawness to her politics, Kshama Sawant—an economics professor at Seattle Central Community College—is more polished in her approach. But she still echoes Occupy's call for social and economic justice.

“Our goal is to bring about a tangible improvement in working people's lives,” Kshama said to me over the phone on Saturday. The Socialist Alternative candidate hopes to bring this improvement to fruition by taxing incomes above a million dollars and expanding public transport.


Kshama Sawant and a voter in Seattle. 

Seattleites seem to be embracing  Kshama's anti-capitalist politics. There's even a Democrats for Kshama group campaigning on her behalf and both leading mayoral candidates have taken up one of the central demands of her campaign, a $15 an hour minimum wage.

“In fighting this fight,” Kshama said, “I've seen people realize that the system is stacked against them and that they are against the system. I tell people, I won't forget about you when I'm elected, but don't forget about me either. I'm going to need your support to do what you elected me to do. Democrats say they agree with my demands, but we're going to have to go up against the might of the ruling class to achieve them.”

No reliable polling data exists in either race, but both candidates believe they are on their way to victory. Kshama received more than 20,000 votes in her last election bid for the State House in 2012, 29 percent of the total. Her popularity among the electorate has only grown since. She's raised over $100,000 thus far and this weekend multiple rallies were held on her behalf in Seattle.

In New York, Christina's opponent received less than 7,000 votes in the Democratic Primary in September and she hopes that the tens of thousands of Harlemites who didn't cast their ballets in that election will turn out for her. “If you want to vote for a Democrat go ahead,” said Christina. “We vote for Democrats every year expecting they'll change things. But what have we ever gotten from them? Everything stays the same. That's the definition of insanity.”

@JohnReedsTomb

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