From the Camps to the Neighborhoods:
A Conversation on Occupy with Movement Generation
An excerpt of this interview was originally published in Race, Poverty & the Environment. This is the full interview, below, which was conducted in March/April 2012.
Interview By: Ellen Choy, Movement Generation
When Occupy Wall Street (and Occupy Oakland) launched in September 2011, it was soon after I began my staff role at Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project – an organization of four of my closest, most respected movement mentors and colleagues. It was an opportunity to witness and experience the Occupy Movement through the unique role and lens of Movement Generation (MG), who has acted as a critical movement strategy and support organization focused on addressing the ecological crisis through grassroots movement building. As an organization, MG is dedicating staff time, resources and energy to supporting the Occupy Movement.
I conducted in-depth interviews with the MG staff, to hear directly their thoughts on Occupy as a mass movement, strategy for Occupy moving forward this Spring, and how MG relates our work to Occupy as an organization with an ecological lens.
Ellen Choy: As experienced organizers, who’ve been involved and developing within social movements in the U.S. for some years, it must be exciting to see Occupy unfold. In your opinion, what’s been most exciting?
Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan: I was at Occupy Oakland the night that the tents went up, and just sort of walking around and talking to the amazing folks that came together with a real vision of how to organize and manifest a space that could hold children, and elderly people, families, and folks from all different walks of life to really participate together in making decisions about how they were going to best meet their needs. I’m super inspired by the very organic politic that has shown itself through this movement of people really making these incredible connections around both challenging those in power for the problems, the mess that they’re responsible for creating, but also really deeply understanding that the solutions are going to be completely different than the system. It’s not a reform fight anymore. We’re clear that this is about reclaiming land and livelihood – our own work and our own labor power – as well as just life itself.
Mateo Nube: I think everybody was inspired on many fronts. My mom is turning 75 next week, in fact, and she’s been involved in organizing and politics for all of her life. She has a very sober interpretation of where the world is at, and the challenges of social change efforts. She’s still deeply committed, but I think she’s very realistic. And Occupy really inspired her. It really has inspired her. And I think the spark in revolutionary imagination that Occupy has signified came to life to me in part seeing how my mom was inspired. I think one of the really tremendous aspects about the explosion of Occupy around the country and how we experienced it here in the Bay Area and in Oakland specifically, was that it was palpable how folks feel like we will not be confined by what is defined by what is politically feasible. The world we aspire to is the world we aspire to. And we’re out here to make it a reality.
Carla Perez: I agree with most people that it’s hugely important, and wonderful, and magical. It’s like a big cauldron with a stew for revolution brewing. Where it’s very very serious and concrete and material and visionary and at the same time, it’s able to be a ropes course or like a training ground for relearning or, in some cases, completely learning for the first time what it means to be involved in direct participatory decision making. To confront and have to resolve conflicts and differences with people who have a similar vision but imagine a different pathway for getting there, including working through language, race, class, cultural and socioeconomic differences. And that’s the real work. I think people don’t tend to see that as central work in building a cohesive, long-standing movement, and in building towards something truly revolutionary. People are practicing how to cross all those different potential barriers and are able to talk to each other, agree by consensus on how to do things, organize themselves into work groups, that’s all non-hierarchical, where people are not valued more than others because they have one set of skills that’s perceived to be more important, more valuable, than others. The academic who can write something into language is not more important than the person who can organize a work crew to re-construct this home so a family can get housed. It’s like re-calibrating the values in a place where we’re practicing how to be truly resilient.
Ellen: So, MG staff have been participating in Occupy on different levels, but as an organization we’ve collectively committed to it. MG has invested staff time and resources, been attending meetings at night, have discussed Occupy in the context of MG’s 2012 work plan. Not a lot of organizations are doing that. Why is MG committed to the Occupy Movement?
Michelle: For MG we think Occupy’s critical because we believe that mass peoples movements are the vital ingredient to shifting the public debate, and to moving us closer to transforming the economy and the political system. In particular, we’re really clear that this is not just about making demands on the state, but it’s also about reclaiming our right to meet our own needs directly, in community. And to restore our resilience, our ability to support one another, to look after each other, to have the means to do that collectively. I think Occupy is presenting a really important model of how people can work together to set priorities and make decisions about how to best meet each others’ needs in a way that’s responsive and responsible to the place that they live.
Carla: Movement Generation is trying to flesh out, and articulate a concept around an organizing model. This is an organizing model that organizes people around the direct decision making process and physical work in meeting a need at hand. Whether it’s “we need to grow food because of the discriminatory land use processes that haven’t allowed for there to be fresh produce available in our neighborhood, or at least not without highly gentrifying our historically-Black, historically-Latino, historically-working class, diverse community- now we have to meet our own needs.” Or, putting people back in their homes – physically going into homes, changing locks, and putting people up. Repairing and making it accessible. Or it’s the water. Or it’s education. You’re going to close the school? We’re going to build a school. And doing that in a way that forces a right-to-govern question. Where you know there’s some legal or other kind of barrier that you’re going to hit up against. Where they’re going to say, “hey hey hey, you can’t use tax money to do that.” or, “actually, you’re exceeding the amount of food that’s permissible on a lot of this size, in an area that’s zoned in this way.” And that gives us the opportunity to say, “and who are you? to say that we can’t do this. when you have made politically-based decisions that take this essentially need and resources out of our community.” Resilience-based organizing. So that’s what Occupy is doing too. It’s again around the governance – learning how to self-govern and self-manage, bringing people together to get directly involved in that process at multiple levels.
Gopal Dayaneni: And we don’t think that a movement is going to emerge solely out of the long, hard slogging organizing of 501c3 organizations. It’s going to need those sparks, and those pushes of mass momentum – and vice versa, all of those things need to be in relationship to each other. And we do not have time to miss opportunities. It is okay for us to jump onto an opportunity like Occupy to spark a shift, to try and create a psychic break with the system, to create a shift away from the dominant culture. It’s okay for us to jump on and to try that and to be unsuccessful. But it’s not okay for us to miss the boat. Because for us to be committed to the long haul, something has to change very soon, or the long haul will not be pleasant. Communities in Oakland will have a much harder fight if things don’t change really quickly, very soon. It’s going to be a hard road regardless, but we have the opportunity to set up transformations in our relationship to each other and to place that will make it better. And so that for us is another reason why the movement can’t be missed.
Ellen: The reclamation of land and housing has become a pinnacle battleground for Occupy. Interestingly enough, this directly overlaps with MG’s commitment to a strategy where land reclamation is cenrl. How did land & housing become an Occupy fight? And, from an MG lens, why is this critical?
Michelle: From my understanding, it came from a couple directions. One is the obvious plight of many of our families after this bubble burst, in which the financial sector had duped a lot of families of color and working class people into going deeper into debt based on this bubble and then ended up putting folks out on the street. And foreclosing on folks’ family homes. So that’s obviously one side of the way the land reclamation has come to bare – is that people recognize that housing and access to land is a basic human right. No one should be out on the street, at any time. People need shelter, and not only shelter, but a stable and safe place to call home. This is a time when so many millions of people have had their families impacted by this foreclosure crisis. So I think that’s one side of it – it’s a clear call to reclaim what we believe is a basic right.
Gopal: This idea that we need to fundamentally change the tenure relationship to land and housing in this country, to take soil out of the market and to find ways to do that – to restore the commons – all of these ideas share a common history. What’s interesting for us right now, is there is an opportunity to take the tactic of claiming space and connecting it with real political projects that can transform people’s relationship to place. One of the ways we think about the ongoing and ever-escalating food crisis in the City of Oakland is the idea of “what are the big huge plots of land we can take to do urban agriculture.” And that’s important. But, from our perspective, it’s almost more important to have small lots that a half a dozen or a dozen families around that neighborhood who can share control of, and grow food on together. Not because it will meet all of their needs, but it changes their relationship to the community, to the place. And that’s where the transformative work happens. And that idea that people actually laboring in their own interests, as a form of organizing, is what’s transformative. Instead of door-knocking to convince people that they should work together to take a plot of land, or that you’re going to take a plot of land and that they can have a community garden there – the idea of actually the action as an organizing opportunity in and of itself, that people model it, that people come and join in, and that people then can have control. And ultimately that butts up against the rules. The rules of the City or the rules of the developer. And as we all know, the rules are made by the rulers. And until we’re the rulers, the rules don’t serve us, the rules serve the rulers. So, the idea of us actually doing the work and using the actions to organize people is an exciting possibility.
Mateo: The part, as Movement Generation, that excites us and that connects to our interpretation of both our societal crisis and the solution to it, is that our profit-based economy, our pollution-based economy, sees land as a commodity. And therefore, the next step to seeing land as a commodity is to disrespect land and to disrespect everything that depends on that land – people and all species and plants and ecosystems. That’s a mismanagement of home. We, and by we, many members of our species have forgotten what it means to take good care of home and what it means to take good care of each other. So then, land reclamation becomes an expression of saying, “we, the people who live in this neighborhood,” to take a place, “we who’ve been here for a long time, we are the best keepers of this place. and we need to re-learn what being keepers of this place is, and we need to have ownership over that keeping.” So land reclamation, I think is a really logical, healthy, pro-active, generative way of calling the question. Will big corporations, will capitalists, determine how we manage where we live? Or will those of us who live there, or who deserve to live there, or have historically lived there, be the ones to manage that space and make the decisions.
Ellen: That’s interesting. The ecological perspective on Occupy hasn’t been put out in the popular narrative as much. How do you see Occupy addressing the ecological crisis?
Michelle: Addressing the ecological crisis is going to require a massive transformation from this globalized, industrial, extractive economy to one that’s about restoring our relationships with each other and with the places that we live. So I think that the work of Occupy is putting us on that path. I think in particular the politics of, that we are people that have means other than just our job title or our paycheck or our relationship to this economy, but actually we have relationships to each other that are more valuable than gold, or a paycheck. And that’s what we need to be cultivating in order to create a new way forward. That’s the foundation of the transformation that’s required, is for us to be able to re-learn how to cooperate. And just look around us and look at the people around us as critical to our own survival. And not just the people, but the place itself. And what that means in terms of understanding where our water comes from, and where our food comes from, and how we can directly impact those systems to ensure that they stay viable and that we are not just extracting, extracting, extracting.
Carla: We believe that so much of Movement Generation’s work is building a practice – a reclamation, a resurgence of things that we have lost connection to, or ability to carry out, by force or by “choice” – such as, the land reclamation and earth skills work that we do. It’s not just about catching water, it’s not just about growing food, in the sense of , “now I’ve got 200 gallons of water in barrels in my yard.” Even if 5 of your neighbors have the same thing. That’s not necessarily the answer to the freshwater crisis – even if you’ve broken down fences between houses and you’ve got a fat garden producing vegetables, and you’ve got fruit trees, and you’re gleaning with your neighbors – so people have produce that’s healthy and safe. That’s great. That’s an immediate need that’s being met. But it’s not just about a few houses worth of people, or even a small neighborhood, having produce. It’s about the practice of people reconnecting to the basic resources we need to live. Who can just say, the average person, how much rainfall we get, how much water we use, what a water budget looks like. We don’t do that because East Bay Mud does that, or SF PUC does that – we don’t know how to do that anymore. So it’s about people re-engaging with management of their own resources. Because either by choice or by force, we’re looking at a future in which we may not have, or we may not want, the government and government agencies to be doing that for us. And so we need to prep – we need to get on it. We better get back with it. Occupy is doing that on the governance tip. It’s addressing: what do we do when we don’t want to or we don’t have a government to facilitate all the different bureaucracies. Think about all of the decisions that get lost in bureaucracy that we don’t even know they’re happening.
Ellen: Let’s talk about the framing of Occupy targeting the %. How does that play out in Oakland?
Gopal: Occupy Wall Street as a frame, as an idea, is fundamentally different than Occupy Oakland, Occupy Boston , Occupy San Francisco, Occupy any other place name. And the reason is because Wall Street means the 1%, and Oakland doesn’t mean the 1%. And so one of the challenges I think for us in Oakland has been: how do we maintain the coherence of the unified frame, the common frame of Occupy, but actually have it make meaning. One of the challenges we’ve gotten into is we’re now in a cat and mouse game with the City of Oakland when the City of Oakland is not actually the 1%. I’m much more interested in going after the developers, the banks, the banks to whom the City of Oakland is paying debt rather than funding schools. The developers who would rather sit on blighted vacant lots than turn them over to community use so they can make money in the future. To me, getting back our focus on the 1`% is the key to having this movement grow and expand. So that’s one of the things, for us, that is inspiring about Occupy the Hood – is it’s folks from Oakland, folks organizing in the communities, in the neighborhoods of Oakland who are getting together and looking at, what are the impacts of the 1% in the communities and what are the solutions that we offer that we can build together towards addressing that.
Ellen: So… is this a moment or a movement?
Gopal: I think one of the things that is really required for it to stay on a movement trajectory is to be strategic. If it degrades into just episodic and epileptic fits of direct action every month or every couple weeks, without any convergence around a coherent strategy, or if it loses its focus on the tyranny of the 1% over the 99% over every aspect of the governance of our daily lives from the economy to the food we eat – then we’ll lose. Then we’ll start losing mass, losing people.
Michelle: I think it’s a little of both. I think it’s definitely a moment and I think what makes it a movement is if we can build long-term, sustained structures and ways for people to develop and stay connected and get connected. [We need] the kind of infrastructure that people’s movements had in the sixties in this country, that were built in the fifties and into the sixties, but I think really allow people to really participate and engage on a regular basis and that enable us to, as different sectors of the movement, to really unite around a shared platform and agenda. So coming together across groups, and people that might normally work on education issues to work on shutting down the prisons, I think is an exciting and important development as a movement, for example.
Mateo: If somebody has given you a definitive answer to that, I’d be tempted to question why they feel so confident. Occupy has been something long in coming, I think that many many people in this country and almost more important, many many people around the world, if we’re talking about Occupy in the US context, have beenyearning for folks in the US to finally call the question on the system. And say, this system is dysfunctional, it’s not healthy for people and the planet. And the fact that people not in dozens, not in hundreds, but in over a thousand localities in the US created Occupy encampments is tremendous. We’re in the belly of the beast. And that speaks to the level intuitive understanding that this system isn’t serving us well. I was questioning whether you should say movement or moment.. that in and of itself I think many factors are in place to make this a movement. In a way that we haven’t seen in the US for a long time. So maybe it’s about, can we seize it to make it the movement that it needs to be? I think that’s the exciting question that hopefully we’ll answer affirmatively over time.
Ellen: On the topic of how we’ll build towards a movement – what’s coming for Occupy in the Spring? And in your opinions, what will be strategic direction for Occupy?
Gopal: I’m very inspired that folks across the country are picking up a call – Take Back the Land has put out a call, Occupy Our Homes has put out call – lots of folks have been putting calls for a Spring of Actions around land and housing and work to kind of re-spark Occupy. For Occupy Oakland, what we’re inspiring to work towards is coordinated actions by broad sectors of the Occupy Movement, and folks who’ve been working on issues of housing, land and food for a long time, to come together around actions that can both claim space and put folks back in homes, and develop the platform to offer a way forward that we can hold that space over, not just as a direct action, but as an actual changing of the relationship. One thing we’re thinking about – is what does it look like to take vacant lots and homes – underutilized homes and underutilized land – in a narrow area, essentially within the several block radius, so that you can strengthen existing neighborhoods and communities by giving people an opportunity to govern new space. To control land together. And actually that’s another thing that Occupy has really raised up. You don’t simply organize for an action, but action is an organizing opportunity. More people have joined the movement through Occupy, than the through the door-knocking that we’ve been doing for a decade. And it’s because it’s inspiring. And because people want to be where the action is. It’s been an interesting moment.
Michelle: I’m excited about all of the social movement – both long-time organized sectors of our movements and newer sectors, in particular, folks who’ve been most engaged in leading Occupy – working together around, for example, this 99 Spring, or the land reclamation campaigns and work that folks are doing all around the country to take back their land. I think there’s a lot of really exciting potential in people seeing that this isn’t just a moment, but something that large numbers of people can get down with, and plug into, and see a stake in it.
I think one of the critical things is that the Occupy Movement is moving from the camps to the neighborhoods, and yet there’s still clearly a role for a lot of folks to be putting pressure on the 1%. So it’s both the how do you challenge and confront the system itself and those responsible for the crisis and at the same time how do you reclaim and create the world that we believe is possible and that we know we have to win. And so I think the Spring is going to be about both of those things.
Ellen: Any last thoughts?
Gopal: Personally, I stepped to the Occupy movement with a huge amount of humility. Some of us have been doing this kind of work for a really long time – I’ve been involved in mass mobilizations, and uprisings of a number of sorts over the course of my political work – and I wasn’t a part of launching Occupy and sparking Occupy. The people who took up the call to move Occupy were a lot of new folks. And folks should recognize that there’s something new here. And those of us who have been doing work for a long time should be humble about that, and recognize that. And it’s important I think for the movement to recognize that it is something different and at the same time, it’s important for the Occupy Movement that there are lessons to be learned in the experiences of previous social movement work, prior social movement work building up to this point. The balance there is very important – if we tip too far to the side of “oh this is entirely new and it’s going to transform the world simply by its existence,” or if we move too far towards the “this is nothing new” cynicism, we lose the opportunity. So how do we do both, how do get the lessons from both. And constantly innovate. Constantly transform. This movement will die if it gets rigid – if it gets stuck on the GA, the general assembly model, or this thing or that thing, or the holding of encampments – if we get stuck on any one element too long, we’ll lose the moment.
Mateo: A really beautiful, beautiful, poignant experience for me was the day of the General Strike. Which was amazing, incredible. One of the highlights of my life as a political being, really. I was there with, amongst other folks, my 7-year-old daughter. There was a family march, there was a kids march, from the library down to pment, where the encampment was. And we got there around 5pm. And as a family, that was going to be the end for us – “Okay, folks are not marching to the Port, it’s going to be night. We’ll march a few blocks, and then we’re going to take the kids home.” But the kids parade, the children’s contingent, was all jazzed up, and they were excited, and they were chanting, and my daughter was really swept up by the effusive nature of it, and my partner had gone to get the car and then, suddenly I’m texting her and calling her saying, “hey, we’re halfway there to the Port, and there’s no way I’m going to get my daughter to turn around – all her friends are still here, there are thousands of people.” And then, suddenly, we’re on the on ramp on to the Port, and tens of thousands of people and the kids.. that was historic. My 7-year-old daughter not only witnessed, but participated in the shutting down of an international port, and there were tens of thousands of people there. And that, as a father, and being able to participate in something like that with my daughter, and seeing her empowered to vent in a proactive way with her friends who are, at different levels, cognizant of the crises in their public school and seeing how their classroom sizes are getting larger. That was a gift that Occupy gave me. And gave my family. And I’m very hopeful that that’s something that’s going to mark my daughter in a way that will remind her of the power of collective action.