Analyzing the Occupy Wall Street Movements with Roberto Lovato and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
- November 29, 2011
By Roberto Lovato & Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
A poll conducted by Time Magazine yesterday finds that the Occupy Wall Street movement is twice as popular than the Tea Party. Fifty four percent think favorably of the growing movement for economic justice, compared to 27% support for the Tea party. The mainstream media has been comparing the two movements, in what many Occupy Wall Street protesters deem is an unfair manner, given the Astroturf nature of the Tea Party. Meanwhile, Occupy protests around the world are gaining momentum from Korea to Portugal. Criticism of banks and financial institutions have been chief among the complaints. In downtown Los Angeles, activists gathered at noon yesterday to march on the Bank of America Plaza. Progressive analysts are examining this new movement in great detail. News commentator and writer Roberto Lovato has analyzed the movement in his article, ‘Our Berlin Wall Is Breaking’: Taking on Wall Streets Dictatorship’ originally published on his blog Of America. Lovato identifies the underlying message of the Occupy Wall Street movement as a dethroning of “Big Corporate Control.” He also predicts that ultimately the two major political parties will try to co-opt the movement for their own political ends as the next election draws near. Activist and academic Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz recently reflected on the link between corporate power and the foundation of this movement saying, “The protestors may not make the connection consciously, but their passionate actions are for the liberation from the market that now enslaves the 99 percent of the world peoples.”
GUESTS: Roberto Lovato is a writer and commentator at New America Media, a strategy consultant and a Co-Founder of Presente.org, the country’s pre-eminent online Latino advocacy organization, with a membership of over 250,000 people. In March 2011, Roberto was awarded a crisis reporting grant from the Pulitzer Center and, a month later, readers of Alternet voted him one of the country’s “Most Influential Progressives” in media. He blogs at www.ofamerica.wordpress.com;
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a long-time activist and author whose books include “Red Dirt: Growing up Okie,” “Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975,” “Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War,” and “Roots of Resistance.” She is professor emeritus in the Department of Ethnic Studies at California State University East Bay in Hayward, California, and her forthcoming book is called “Myth and Empire: Indigenous History of the United States.”
Rough Transcrip oft Edited Interview
Sonali Kolhatkar: Roberto let me begin with you, I’m wondering if you can put into historical context what we are seeing today. Your article was titled, “Our Berlin Wall is Breaking” which already makes historical comparisons and connections. We have seen these kinds of moments before in the progressive history of the US most notably perhaps in the 60’s. Can what’s happening today be compared effectively to what happened in the 60s?
Roberto Lovato: I think it can and I think in some ways it really shouldn’t be compared. First thing I would ask the audience to do is to stop a moment and close your eyes, breathe in and feel what it feels like to live in an age of Occupy Wall Street. If you stop and you do that, what do you feel? You feel openness, an open political space. What you’ve never felt in your lifetime to be able to talk directly, openly, nakedly, confidently, unapologetically, about the failure of capitalism. A lot of the non-profit industrial complex, the 501c3 structures don’t really allow people to speak about these things. So there are things about Occupy Wall Street that are unprecedented in the way that it focuses on the dictatorship of our lives which is finance driven, big capitalism. Because those are the dictators and that’s what I’ve referred to when I say our Berlin Wall is starting to fall. For the first time in some of our lives, especially the young people they are in their twenties they have never seen anything like this direct kind of agitation against capitalism. This doesn’t even compare to the WTO which is the most recent kind of thing on this scale. And you don’t have comic books and tv shows and daily show commentators and nightly news and mainstream media, online media . . . its kind of stunning in a lot of ways and I’m so so pleased. Mission accomplished in terms of just getting anti-capitalism back on the map. I’ll leave it there for the moment.
Sonali: Well, Roxanne, you have been an activist for many years. You yourself have not only witnessed much activism in past decades but been part of it and written about historical movements. How do you place what is happening today within the historical framework of the US?
Roxanne: Yes, I was going to say that I’m a historian so I see it more as a continuum. Everything is unprecedented in that it’s different from what happened before but there’s also a continuum. And I have not felt pessimistic all these years maybe because I was so closely in touch with young people all the time quite multi-national, multi-ethnic young people from teaching in ethnic studies for thirty years so I constantly see all the seeds of what we did at that time and I was prominently involved in the women’s liberation movement and I see these young women today as children, daughters at that time and the young men in particular the difference in behavior. So I think that was one of the stepping stones that made possible the dynamism that we have in the movement. The other thing is that things that were too rhetorical and not grounded in the Sixties were anti-imperialism which I was very involved in and the Vietnam War. A lot of people who opposed the Vietnam War opposed it for various reasons: we weren’t winning, it cost too much, made us look bad, various things but what I like about right now is this looking at a model that’s closer to our own model not some abstract like the Russian Revolution or the Chinese Revolution and just taking the rhetoric from that and idealizing it. And very messy real situations like Chiapas, and the Arab Spring where you see prophecies going on and can learn from them but also develop an anti-imperialism and can link that to ‘that is capitalism’ that is that globalization is inherent in the development of capitalism originally.
Sonali: Well, I want to follow up on what you’re asking but I want to turn back to Roberto on that issue as well. Roberto Lovato from what Roxanne was saying do you think that this movement which is still in its very very early stages, do you think there is a political maturity that is coming? Or is this a sophisticated movement that has sort of the potential to grasp the various intersecting issues that Roxanne was raising?
Roberto: First thing we have to do is define what a movement is. You don’t really have a movement until you have some victories. I saw this in El Salvador during the war there. And with my work at presente.org that’s kind of what we look at in immigrant rights —- how can we win something? We’re not winning a lot in immigrant rights right now. It actually has a lot to do with what they‘re talking about in Occupy Wall Street right now. So I believe that its too soon to tell. I think the focus on anti-capitalism and on Wall Street is something to really ponder deeply. You have a lot of different groups, different interests, gathering around. That does really represent, more than the political arm of capitalism which is the Congress and the Presidency. You have a focus on the core of the problem, the root of the matter. You have groups right now like the high idea progressivism whatever that means, groups that get funded to be progressive, are scrambling to figure out how they relate to this. When they initially were denouncing it. You know someone like Sally Kohn works for an organization like the Center for Community Change which was very critical of Occupy Wall Street and from an organizing perspective said it would be a failure. You’ve got a lot of veterans of organizing saying that it was going to be a failure. Well, that’s great but what do you know about organizing in the digital era is the question. And that’s what we need to look at, What’s new about this? There are patterns and there is a continuum no doubt, where we should all take credit as teachers, as organizers, as lovers of justice, we should all take credit for what’s happening because it does bring a lot of our issues to the foreground. This is our moment so to speak. So its not just a bunch of young white kids camping out its much broader than that. You know Occupy Wall Street has managed to transcend that initial start that I saw in New York on those first days and has now managed to pierce the mainstream media censorship which is a critical accomplishment. Which I think speaks to the intelligence and the capabilities of some of the people involved, the collective intelligence that’s been put to work on this. We have the ability to right now because of social media and because of the traditional kind of approach to organizing, and some of the things that are going on in the streets, you have the ability to collectively share our knowledge and our wisdom to our benefit and push an agenda forward. What that agenda is, you know they have a statement, people should read the statement and contribute and start building on it.
Sonali: Well, Roberto, what you were saying about breaking through the media barrier is one of perhaps the accomplishments that the Occupy Wall Street Movement can take credit for. Bringing to the forefront conversations about income and equality. Just this
Time Magazine survey that I’d mentioned brings up this issue in addition to understanding that the Occupy Wall Street Movement is twice as popular as the Tea Party protests. The Time Magazine survey actually asked the question and I’m actually looking at the actual questions, the gap between the rich and the poor in the United States, has grown too large, do you agree or disagree with that position was the question. 79 percent of respondents agreed with it, 17 percent disagreed and 3 percent said they didn’t know. I want to ask both of you how much influence you think this movement is having or has the potential to have on politics which is of course the ultimate goal right? To influence policy created in Congress that enriches corporations at the expense of ordinary people, that enriches the one percent at the expense of the ninety nine percent. Roberto Lovato are you seeing any indications that this movement is actually influencing Congress? Because Congress technically doesn’t need us. In fact the fewer people that vote in elections the more it benefits generally conservative policies and they need corporate money to carry out their campaigns not necessarily the ninety nine percent of Americans.
Roberto: I think one of the gorgeous things about Occupy Wall Street is precisely the redefinition of, not redefinition but reminding us that politics extends beyond electoral politics. We’ve been living in an age and in a country where people mainly define politics by elections. And so you have a big segment of the Left, kind of just waning and woeing and hemming and hawing because of the failure from my point of view of the Obama Project, the success from the corporate big finance perspective and so people don’t know what to do. Occupy Wall Street really reminds us that politics is beyond the electoral. It’s a huge problem right now for Democrats and their allies. Just look for example, at how when this really started hitting groups like the American Dream Van Jones, are trying to frame this as some sort of American Autumn in line with the Arab Spring. I just sat there and watched because I know these groups. The American Dream majority is like the American Dream itself, devoid of political meaning as far as I’m concerned and I’ve seen the platform its kind of nice on labor but is really all about bringing the Left in line with the Democratic Party and the Obama reelection effort. Just notice for example how Van Jones will not criticize Barack Obama who threw him under the truck and then put him at the back of the bus when the truck started rolling again. So the question is, how do we portray it? They were scrambling, they started framing Occupy Wall Street in a different way immediately and a lot of the young people were upset and said thank you but ‘F off’ this is not about the Democratic Party. You don’t own us. We are independent of you don’t try to co-opt us because that’s the big threat right now the co-optation of the movement not by the Republicans because they’re not going to co-opt it but by the Democratic Party and their allies. What you’re seeing throughout the Progressive movement right now where there’s the environment, the African American community, Latino, you have groups, National Council of La Raza that does the dirty work of the Democratic Party to define the issues in a way that ultimately leads to support for Democrats and Obama and so this is a problem for them and that’s a big problem to have.
Sonali: My guests have been Roberto Lovato writer and commentator at New America Media a strategy consultant and co-founder of presente.org. You can read his blog at ofamerica.wordpress.com. Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz professor emerita in the Department of Ethnic Studies at Cal State University East Bay in Hayward California whose forthcoming book is called “Myth and Empire, Indigenous History of the United States”.