Occupy Wall Street VII: Interview with a Vampire Slayer

Herewith an interview with MARK BRAY, a member of the OWS press team who happens to be a third-year graduate student in History at Rutgers, working with Temma Kaplan on modern Spain.  He’s studied philosophy at Wesleyan, taught English in China, and tried organizing retail workers.  He’ll be a speaker at the Teach-Out that Temma and I are coordinating at Rutgers for October 24th, 5:00-8:00 on the Brower Commons steps, College Ave, New Brunswick.  Be there!
So, what brought you to Zuccotti Park?  
Well I came down on the first day, Sept 17, since I heard about it on facebook a few days in advance. I didn’t really think it would all amount to much, but it was something to support. In terms of my motivations, I have been an activist for a little over 10 years and have been involved with issues like labor organizing, anti-war, student and immigrant rights, etc so this appealed to me as the kind of response to financial inequity which I had been hoping for. Moreover I have friends and family members who have suffered as so many people have over the past few years with layoffs, foreclosures and students and medical debt.
How long here?
So after I came down on the first day I would come back now and then for events and marches. Since I had/have a lot of work to do for grad school it wasn’t easy to find the time to come often, and I am a rather fussy sleeper so at first I didn’t really consider sleeping over since I knew it would make me absolutely miserable.
But as the momentum picked up I started to come down more often. Especially after the Brooklyn Bridge march (I was on the pedestrian walkway and wasn’t arrested) I started to devote nearly every day to supporting the movement.
How did the press tables get started/organized?
Although there was a press working group before I really got involved, it was only shortly after I got involved in the press group that having a specific site started. At first we made a sign to have by a table, but now with the re-organization of the park we have a table next to the legal, info, and outreach tables. At first press didn’t know we existed, but now we are a regular fixture for them and when someone isn’t at the table for a moment they really freak out. They have become so reliant on us that they often don’t put in any effort themselves to walk around and speak with people but instead ask us for 2 nurses and a teacher or whatever they want.
What do you think the movement is about, where is it headed?  
Well when I am asked that question by the press I emphasize economic justice and participatory democracy. In terms of immediate goals I think it’s about altering the wider consciousness about the relationship between economics and politics, the nature of the electoral system, and the power we have when we act together outside of traditional political outlets.
I often point out that we are Occupy WALL ST because ultimately if we want to address how our economy is organized and what values and interests it prioritizes we need to look to the power that these financial institutions have on the electoral process and more fundamentally on the limited scope of power that our elected officials really have to transform things. Many times people have told me that we should be in Washington instead. I reply that, first, we are there also (with Occupy DC) and second that our politicians are not nearly as free to do what they please as many like to think they are. That’s the combined impact of the role of corporate money in elections and the more fundamental context of politics in a capitalist global system.
Some have said to me ‘Well there’s really not a whole lot that Obama can do!’ and although I point out how his debt ceiling deal reduced the % of non-defense spending from 3.3% of GDP to 1.7%, the lowest in 50 years, I often surprise them when I go on to agree and say ‘that’s exactly the point, and that’s why we aren’t petitioning the democratic party.’
Moreover, I have found in my interviews that, despite precedents like the civil rights movement etc, journalists really can’t understand the notion of a social movement. So emphasizing the power of people coming together and acting collectively outside of official institutions is important.
Quite apart from “demands,” what do you think the effect of the Occupation will be on traditional politics–on, say, the elections of 2012?  Or is that even relevant at this stage of things?
Well as much as we try to distance ourselves from electoral politics it is always relevant and always the elephant in the room. As far as how we actually impact the election it’s hard to say exactly, but there is already evidence that the democrats are trying to use us as a base of support. A number of prominent current and former democratic politicians from Nancy Pelosi to Al Gore, Bill Clinton and even Obama have had positive things to say about us although they all predictably want our protest to be channeled back into their party. Even recently a white house spokesperson used the phrase “the 99%” in referring those that Obama wanted to help.
So the question is whether this movement will give people an alternative vision of political action. Whether it will allow people to think beyond electoral politics or at least the 2 party system. That remains to be seen.
One of the things we are trying to say is that if the politicians take up our call and take concrete steps to address the kinds of problems we are protesting about, that is their prerogative. But we cannot assume that they will actually do that because in the past when the interests of the corporations and the interests of working people have collided, the corporations essentially continued with business as usual while working Americans (and people around the world) suffered. So their track record should be interpreted pessimistically.
But even if people end up channeling their discontent back into the standard channels I think this will at least have set an important precedent for American social movements that could have ramifications down the road.
Does it surprise you that so many people in the city support you, or that a majority of Americans are behind you?  
YES. and NO. Certainly when I started out with this I never thought it would get as big and important as it has become. And over the years the culture of cynicism and passivity and apathy that reigns over this country had made my very skeptical. So in that sense yes. But now that it’s happened it makes sense that so many people were looking for an outlet to express their anger and frustration with the pain they have suffered over the years. Also this shows how the main parties were not really considered an outlet for that kind of discontent. So in that sense the fact that the movement has become a magnet for those kinds of people with those concerns makes sense.
What is the social composition of the Occupation so far?  Its political complexion?
Initially it was mostly young activist types. The usual suspects of which I could be included. Since then it has gradually expanded and diversified to include older people of the 60s/70s generation, more people of color, more unionists and members of community organizations, unemployed and homeless people, students and so forth. Still it is mainly young and largely white. With groups like ‘Occupy the Hood’ and the POC caucus I hope this is gradually changing. Last night we were endorsed by the NAACP and we are doing more outreach in the boroughs.
Politically it is varied, but I would say most are somewhat disenchanted liberals or progressives. There are, though, a number of right libertarians, socialists, anarchists, and single-issue people involved.
I’ve been asked many times, what can I do, I work full-time, I can’t get there to show my support, so what are my options?
Certainly donations of money or food or supplies are greatly encouraged. Also we want to help spread our good name so you could write a letter to the editor of your newspaper, tell your friends about it, put copies of our paper or materials in cafes or suitable locations nearby.
Also, even if you have little time you could come once in a while to an event or just come to the park to give us numbers.
Long term: is this about a fundamental change in globalized capitalism, in American life, in the emotional atlas of the planet?
Big questions! In part it depends on who you ask. Although some of us are anti-capitalsits we are not an anti-capitalist movement. Nevertheless we all want at least some sort of change in how capitalism is operating. We want to prioritize the needs and interests of working people over those of the upper class.
Certainly I think this is having and will in retrospect be seen has having had some sort of important impact on how Americans think of class and economic justice…but I’m not sure exactly how.
As far as the emotional atlas of the planet I think this can be compared to 1968 to some extent.  Immanuel Wallerstein said:
“The Occupy Wall Street movement – for now it is a movement – is the most important political happening in the United States since the uprisings in 1968, whose direct descendant or continuation it is.”
And frankly I had become so pessimistic that I never thought I would be able to participate in something about which that could be said.

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