My first visit to Zuccotti Park was on October 5th, the day of the demonstration in Foley Square. I hung around, took a lot of pictures, talked to everybody who’d indulge me–and that was everybody, nobody turned away or wanted to get off the record–then joined the march up to the Square. Standing across the street from the demonstration and the speakers was great, better visuals, and the imaginative placards kept increasing as I stood there.
One placard, held placidly by a bearded young man, read: “In a Real Democracy, Bartenders and Billionaires Would Have an Equal Vote.” I took a picture of it, and as I did a guy walked by and said “Fuck that, in a real democracy, there’d be no billionaires!”
I reported this in my first post on OWS, which found its way onto a Ron Paul website as well as HNN because I quoted an information table guy on the social composition and political complexion of the Occupation. But I got the placard wrong, and its bearer let me know about it via email, right away. His name is Justin Cox. He rightly asked how a professional historian could mangle his words so badly, and was more generally cranky about the coverage OWS gets.
I apologized for my lapse, and we fell into a less angry exchange. Eventually I explained myself by reference to the Origins of the Fed book–why I am not a Ron Paul kind of guy–and told Justin I’d give him a copy when I saw him next in Zuccotti Park. Sure enough, I was there the day of the threatened cleanup, and, as a regular, so was he. I handed over the book, we shook hands.
A week later I learned about his real life as a musician, DJ, and philosopher, as Kray La Soul. That’s when the idea of an interview with him took shape. Here’s the result.
So, how and why did you get involved with Occupy Wall Street? What led you here?
When friends of mine would ask me about my dreams or ambitions I would answer that “I want to be pert of a movement to bring democracy to America.” I feel like I’ve been waiting my entire life to see something like this. I was in France when the occupation began. I had gone there for a few weeks on vacation with a friend of mine. A young woman we were staying with told me: “hey, zey are occupying Wall Street? Did you see?” (in a french accent). It was being reported on in the French press. We left that night, when I got off the plane at JFK , I went to the newstands and rifled through all the papers and saw no mention. So I just headed over there to see for myself. Then those girls got pepper-sprayed, & the rest, as they say is (very recent) history.
You’re a bartender and a DJ. Did these occupations prepare you for a life inside OWs? How so? Tell us about the music you play.
I’ll tell you like this: I try not to define myself by any of the things I do, of which there are many. I became a bartender because I was a young kid and I found I could support myself, pay rent, eat, etc. and also have the free time to do the things which brought me pleasure, make music, make art, be with my friends, read, write, talk to girls. My parents were both activists. My father is a well known Human Rights activist. I think I saw the world, & specifically New York City where I grew up, as a highly competitive place that grinds down our capacity to dream and play and I purposefully tried to make a life for myself where I could attempt to be free and happy and self-sufficient. Rather than attempt to change the world like my folks, I tried to carve out my own little place in it, just under the surface.
You know, twice so far, I have been out on a march and had an older white lady suggest that I “get a job”. I told both women: “I have a job. I work nights. Now I volunteer my days to work on Wall Street.” I don’t want a “better” job or more money. I want a better democracy & more justice. I could easily make more money, I have purposefully chosen to arrange my life in a way where I work just enough to get by and have the most possible free time to pursue other interests that have no monetary rewards. The radio show I have been doing, for coming up on three years, pays me no money (although we get gigs to DJ based on the popularity of the show and those pay) & it is quite labor intensive, since we have to be actively searching for lost or ignored records and since we (try to) never play the same song twice, it’s always a hustle to come up with two hours of music each week. Here’s a thing about it: http://zero1magazine.com/2010/12/chances-with-wolves/
But that’s what gets me so furious about the way problems of economic inequality are discussed in our media. Essentially their defense is to say that, in America, anybody has the opportunity to make a million dollars. Don’t get mad at the millionaires just because you haven’t done better. It’s your own fault. This argument is, of course, bullshit. Because it rests on the false assumption that we’re all playing the same game and that some people are just better at the game. But we’re not all playing the same game. Most people are not trying to make a million dollars. Sure, in the abstract sense, people might think having a million dollars would be nice, that they could find some use for it, but they’re not actively trying to do that. Nobody becomes a police, or a fireman, or a school teacher thinking they’re going to make a million dollars. Like: if I’m the BEST fireman, or teach the BEST second grade, I’ll be rewarded with some crazy amount of money. So I argue that most people don’t base their choices, dreams and desires on making the most money possible. Most people just want to live a decent life and be happy. I believe this.
If you want to make a million dollars you go to business school. But if everyone did that, who’d teach second grade? It’d be like if everyone brought potato salad to the pot-luck. Bad picnic.
But greed is as addictive as cocaine or heroin (ever been inside a casino? You can feel it in the air.). It’s infectious too, and it’s glamorized and mythologized. The most beloved American story is rags to riches. From Horatio Alger to Jay-Z (from Marcy to Madison Square). These myths are powerful, so powerful in fact, that even though I know that the US ranks near the bottom of industrialized countries in terms of social mobility (http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2006/04/b1579981.html), in my heart it’s hard to shake the idea that you can strike it rich in America, that all you need is a dollar and a dream, it’s so ingrained in my emotional understanding of American Capitalism. In reality you have a better chance of being struck by lightning (or winning the lottery (ha!).
How long have you been involved in the Occupation? What were your first impressions? And if it ends tomorrow, what would you take away from the experience?
The night when the call went out that Bloomberg had ordered the park be evacuated for cleaning, I saw you earlier that day, I went to a non-violent direct action workshop and then to dinner with my girlfriend and I was trying to decide if I should go back to the park. I used my cellphone to post a question on Facebook. It said: “Bloomberg has ordered the park evacuated at 7am. If I get arrested at 7am do you think I’ll be out in time to be at work at 8pm?” I was worried that I would leave my co-workers shorthanded. I got a dozen replies of support, people who said that they wanted me to go, that they would cover for me, that I was representing them. So with this feeling of encouragement from my peers I went back to the park and drank lots of coffee. I saw a few other people I knew there and we stood around and talked and waited. At about 5:30 in the morning I remember looking around and thinking there were maybe four hundred people in the park, and maybe we’re all going to get our heads beat in. Then, like magic, starting about a quarter to six, droves of people started coming into the park from all directions, from all the different subways. They had set their alarms. and by 6:30 the park was overflowing with thousands of people. The media trucks started putting up ladders so they could shoot the crowd. And standing there in that crowd i thought: there’s too many people. We win. That was for me the most powerful moment.
I mean, I know these kids down here think they’re going to change the world, which makes them crazy, but standing there with all those different people, in solidarity, backing down our billionaire mayor, it felt not only possible for us change the world, but inevitable that we would.
Have you pitched in at the press tables or elsewhere? What’s that like?
I joined the outreach working group because I want to talk to my fellow new yorkers, my fellow Americans. We’re going to start doing (more) organized canvasing. I want to become a conduit of information. There may be “hippies” hanging out in the park but the people in these working groups are serious, capable, and organized. The whole thing is very impressive. And growing.
What do you make of the press coverage of OWS? Is it surprising that two-thirds of New Yorkers support this occupation?
I’m proud that despite the non-stop propaganda, the slandering, & ridicule in the media, that most New Yorkers still have some sympathy for the movement or at least for our right to protest. But I’ve found a lot of people to be confused & mostly unaware or the reasons for and possibilities of this occupation. We need to engage the public more, get more people involved and expand the conversation in order to combat all the misinformation and slander coming from the media elites. (give us some time. it’s only been five weeks)
What do you think the political effects of the Occupation will be, or could be? Or is that question irrelevant for the time being? Is OWS still “pre-political”?
The answer is: I have no idea.
The history of this country, as I see it, is the story of Americans struggling to make the words of those beautiful founding documents of ours truer and more applicable to more people. And whenever people have come together and organized themselves into large, sustained movements for change they have won every time. We don’t tell these stories enough. These histories of people’s movements and their amazing victories are often ignored. People will often make impassioned arguments for apathy. They say: what is marching around with cardboard signs going to do? And I answer that anything that ever happened in this country that was worth a damn came out of people getting together and demanding it. It never comes top-down, it’s never some benevolent ruler who just decides to be kind to his subjects. It’s the people pushing that makes the change.
How would you characterize the social composition of the Occupation? Its aims? Its origins?
In the beginning it was overwhelmingly young and white but that’s changing. There are discussions going on within OWS about diversity and representation that for the most part are healthy and important. The movement has to continue to become more inclusive, more diverse, while at the same time maintaining its solidarity and emphasizing its common goals. If we start to splinter off too much into sub-groups we risk loosing the collective power this movement potentially has.
I think the aim is to democratize our political system and empower people to take charge of their own communities. It seeks to give people a place to voice their concerns and opinions and to exchange ideas with each other, in person, instead of on the anonymous comment-sections and message boards which have replaced our town squares.
It started with a bunch of young activists, responding to an idea from some Canadian magazine [Adbusters, see OWS Part IV at this blog], who hit on something which, perhaps to their own surprise, exploded and went viral. It was the right time, the right idea, and thanks to the over reaction of the mayor, the NYPD brass, and the corporate media, managed to awaken a popular movement which is just now starting to discover what it may be capable of.
AND any other questions you want to answer . . . .?
I love the way the powerful get so nervous and twitchy whenever they think democracy might break out. It could be an epidemic!