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Amid a Fresh Wave of Protests, an Occupier Reflects on an Earlier Tide of Dissent

VICE News spoke with 'The Occupiers' author Michael Gould-Wartofsky about current and past demonstrations, as well as the common ground shared by the struggles for economic and racial justice.

by Alice Speri
Feb 16 2015, 11:35pm

Photo by Michael Gould-Wartofsky

The protests that followed the killing last August of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, marked the beginning of a wave of street rallies and shutdowns that quickly spread to the rest of the nation. Thousands of people descended on the streets to denounce police impunity but also, more broadly, the wide-ranging social symptoms of the country's racial inequality.

But those protests didn't happen in isolation. Before Ferguson, residents of Albuquerque protested the killing of James Boyd, a homeless man who was gunned out by police while camping. Before them, protesters rallied in Florida and throughout the country over the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin three years ago. And still earlier, others rallied against so-called "stop and frisk" policing practices in New York City.

The roots of the Ferguson movement — whose reach expanded beyond St. Louis and the outrage over Michael Brown's death to become known as the Black Lives Matter movement — also lie in the defiance of the civil rights movement, to which today's activists have paid tribute, as well as earlier expressions of political and social grievance.

In St. Louis, the torch of the civil right struggle is passed to a new guard. Read more here.

(Photo by Michael Gould-Wartofsky)

But there was another precursor: the Occupy movement that expanded from Wall Street to cities across the country to denounce the country's growing inequality, popularizing the phrase, "We are the 99 percent."

This 99 percent was a hugely diverse body whose racial and economic differences contributed to its making but perhaps also to its undoing. Occupy was effectively repressed — its street encampments dismantled and repossessed — but the movement opened a space for protest in this generation that the current movement for racial justice was able to draw lessons from and build upon.

(Photo by Michael Gould-Wartofsky)

Michael Gould-Wartofsky, a writer, photographer and sociologist as well as an early occupier, was there to document the campaign from within its ranks — telling its story in his recently published book The OccupiersVICE News spoke with him about protests then and those today, as well as the common ground shared by the struggles for economic and racial justice.

Michael Gould-Wartofsky, author of The Occupiers, at OWS in 2011. (Photo via Michael Gould-Wartofsky)

VICE News: It seems as though protests have been at the forefront of the national conversation over the last several months. How does Occupy fit into all of this? Is it history? Is it still relevant?

Michael Gould-Wartofsky: In a specific sense you can say that Occupy is history, in the sense that the thing that we call Occupy is no more. The way that we have of conceiving of movements is almost as if they were just flash mobs, as if they were just these blips in the radar of history and then history just keeps going and we forget about them. But I think that Occupy is history in a positive sense. It's history in the sense that we can think about it in its historical context, critically, in relation to other historical movements and to other movements today, in a way that it was kind of hard to think about before when it was happening because you know, there was just so much pepper spray.…

But I don't think that Occupy is history in the way pundits say it's history, I think O'Reilly was the first one, but then liberals, conservatives, everyone wanted to say , 'Ok, it's over, let's move on to the next news cycle.' I don't think it's history in that sense because those people aren't history. They're still very much alive and still very active.

We can now zoom out and look at it from a distance and see that this was a moment in a longer wave of mobilization. It didn't start with Occupy, it didn't end with Occupy, and Occupy was kind of the focal point for a lot of movements to come together, but those movements continue.

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(Photo by Michael Gould-Wartofsky)

During a weekend of action that was called in Ferguson in October, supporters gathered in St. Louis from around the country, including people who had been active during Occupy. Some felt that this influx changed the tone and look of the protests. Do you think Occupy veterans are finding a new space in this new movement?

Dissent comes in many different colors and many different forms, and some of these get more airtime than others. I think that's been a problem for a long time: when you have a white person speaking to a camera or to a microphone, they have a better chance of being heard than someone who is not white and speaking to the same microphone and maybe saying more articulate things, more interesting things.

No doubt, Occupy Wall Street had a problem putting Black lives first. But groups like Occupy the Hood, Occupy El Barrio and the People of Color Working Group worked hard to change that. And the movement has come a long way since 2011, in terms of connecting the dots between race and class inequality.

What you are seeing today is a convergence of forces on a scale that dwarfs what was possible three years ago. Part of the groundwork for that was laid by the same people who laid the groundwork for Occupy. We have this amnesia in this country about the history of civil disobedience and the history of resistance, and we think that everything comes out of thin air. It's just — "Here it is, here we are, everybody is rising up, they just saw the light!" When in fact if you think about New York City, for example, the Occupy moment wouldn't have been possible without the history of protest against police brutality. You look at Oakland — it didn't start with Occupy Oakland, if you're going to trace it to something it would be the murder of Oscar Grant and the uprising that followed it. In other cities there are longer stories to be told, but we have such short attention spans and with each news cycle we don't really remember the things that made it possible for the next thing to happen, the histories that made it possible for Occupy to happen. Occupy and Black Lives Matter are part of a greater generational movement for racial and economic justice in this country. Black Lives Matter is not part of the Occupy phenomenon, it's its own thing; Occupy is its own thing, but they are both part of this crisis of this generation, this crisis of legitimacy, this crisis of democracy, this crisis of inequality.

(Photo by Michael Gould-Wartofsky)

Occupy's message was bold and ambitious and in many ways unspecific. With the current protests, people were first of all demanding indictments of officers who had killed unarmed black men, and then for police accountability more generally. But some feel the focus on police is narrow, and have called for measures to broadly address racial inequality. What risks do demands that are too broad or too specific pose to such movements?

It's difficult to say that a movement is too broad or to narrow. I don't think it can be too broad. I think it can be too narrow, but I don't think Black Lives Matter is too narrow by any means. You have to start somewhere. The place where Occupy started in in 2011 was income inequality. The physical place was Wall Street, but they weren't talking about Wall Street alone, they were talking about the entire economic and political system under which we lived our entire lives as a generation, having not had any alternatives available to us….

So it started somewhere, and then those longstanding grievances, those longstanding aspirations that people had, could come out in the open and be given space. Similarly, Black Lives Matter started out with one police shooting and then another police killing. None of that was new. It's been part of standard practice for police departments for as long as I've been alive — certainly the whole time that I was growing up in New York City — but that became the basis for a much more expansive opening, in which people could come and bring issues of racial inequality, incarceration. The sort of apartheid we have in this country became the issue; t wasn't just body cams, it wasn't just the courts, it was an entire system of racial domination and racial inequality. Just like Occupy opened up a space to talk about class inequality, Black Lives Matter opened up a space to talk about racial inequality in a way that we hadn't since the election of President Obama, so that we have seen the end of "the end of history" and the end of post-racial America with these two moments.

(Photo by Michael Gould-Wartofsky)

Occupy felt like it wanted such a radical overhaul of… everything. Whereas when it comes to policing there are very specific reforms that can happen to address perhaps not racism, but impunity and abuse of force. How do these movements prioritize between pushing reforms and demanding all-encompassing change?

It often starts with people just doing it, and sometimes it gets turned into policies and sometimes it's turned into the new normal. During Occupy there were many of us that would bring cameras to protests and all we would do is just film the police, photograph the police, ensure that what they were doing was documented. That's now everywhere, and doing nothing. It's now on the policy agenda, but you had someone murdered in broad daylight on videotape and it didn't stop the police from being acquitted. These policy fixes can be very seductive in a way, but they don't solve the underlying problem, which is one of power. Until we really figure out a way to empower the poor and working class communities of color in this city and this country and disempower the forces militating against their rights, I don't think we'll have any fixes any time soon. And I do think it is valuable to have a kind of radical sector of society that radicalizes other people and makes it possible for reforms to happen, because unless you impose it on the powerful it's not going to happen.

Occupy came back to New York briefly with Flood Wall Street last fall. For those who aren't participating, visible manifestations are important, because it's not happening if they can't see it. So what's happening with Occupy, and what's next?

I think what's happening now is that people are building relations of solidarity and relations of trust and working on relationships that are going to empower activists to do more than they have been able to do before. I think there's a coming together of the scattered forces of these movements. Concretely, you're seeing a lot of the people who came out of the OWS People of Color Working Group who went to Ferguson, came back from Ferguson, and built with people in Ferguson and with people in NYC during the Eric Garner protests; they were part of building the online and offline infrastructure that enabled all those courageous acts of disobedience. A lot of that came out of these relationships that people have been building. You can't pinpoint and say, "It's this group, it's that group," but you can talk about the relationships that are being born and the alliances that are being formed. There might be a contraction in terms of how many people are in the streets, but there's an expansion in the universe of possibilities.

(Photo by Michael Gould-Wartofsky)

Police have also been regrouping and reorganizing. In a way, they seemed to have been taken by surprise by Occupy. What have they learned in the years since then? How have they adapted and changed?

For a while it seemed that the police had learned more than the protesters had. After Occupy and before Black Lives Matter, there was this period in which every protest was met with a kind of overwhelming force that didn't necessarily allow itself to be put on camera. There were different kinds of strategies and tactics. When you have smaller groups of protesters and a very large mass of riot police, you can easily isolate, manage, marginalize. You can have snatch squads, you can infiltrate meetings, you can surveil social media. They had all these tactics available to them and they got better and better at using them. But then there came this point around the Mike Brown and Eric Garner verdicts when the movement caught up to them and came out in front again. There was kind of this period of innovation for the policing of protest and they got as far as they could with just force, but then at a certain point, once you had the mass movement emerge again, they were unable to contain that the way they could before. It was bodies in the street and bodies in communication with each other, moving together and with the common end, "We are going to shut down major thoroughfares in the largest city in the country."

While Occupy was mostly a camp, the latest protests have shut down highways and bridges, and paralyzed traffic in Manhattan.

You saw some shutdowns during Occupy. You saw it on the Brooklyn Bridge, in Times Square, and during the 'general strikes' in New York and Oakland — but none of those actually shut down the entire city. I think that was just about the balance of forces. At that time, the ratio of protesters to police was kind of skewed. There was only so much you could do. Once you had the rest of the city come out, as it did here after the Eric Garner verdict and Ferguson before it, a lot of other things became possible. The police realized that at a certain point, and just gave up for a while... It is a different time. De Blasio is not Michael Bloomberg. But Bill Bratton is Bill Bratton.

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(Photo by Michael Gould-Wartofsky)

Occupy unfolded in the heart of New York's financial district, whereas the Ferguson protests happened in suburbs located in the middle of the country. What do you make of this shift?

Occupy drew a lot of its power — not its influence, but its power — from the margins of society: people coming out from the boroughs, from all over New York City. You can't just say that it started in the Financial District. It started in the communities and grew from there. But it's even a greater testament to the people of Ferguson that they were able to do itfromFerguson, and that they were able to make this a national issue and an international issue despite their marginalization and despite the fact that they had been systematically ignored by everyone. That speaks to just how much anger and discontent there is in America, that just a single suburb can light a fuse and activate all these people in all these places.

Much has been said about the role of social media in the latest protests. I don't really remember whether social media played such a role in 2011. How is social media helping these movements, or limiting them?

I think people have made it out to be a bigger deal than it was. You can't make a movement out of a cloud or a hashtag. A movement doesn't emerge out of the ether, it emerges out of real interactions with real people, some of which take place online, and some of which take place face to face. There's no point in fetishizing the form, what matters are the actual connections people make. For a time the internet has facilitated that and it might continue to, if we're lucky, for some time to come. But the money is on the other side, and they've gotten a lot better at using it to their own ends. A tool is a tool; it's not an end to itself and it can be used for all kinds of ends. Sometimes they empower the people. Sometimes they make the powerful more powerful.

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi