Things I don’t understand about activism, the short list:
• Sleeping in a park if you have an actual bed somewhere to sleep in;
• Willingly being in a place where you increase your risk of being arrested/maced;
• Being uncomfortable in a crowd when you can just, you know, read coverage on blogs;
• How crowds of people with signs change anything, ever.
Amount I’m willing to concede ignorance on matters of activism:
• Oh, a lot;
• I’d go so far as to say "total."
What I decided to do about it:
• Not take an eight-hour bus ride to New York City, that’s what;
• Get someone to explain it to me.
So I called up Sam Brody. He is a guy I went to college with, and the only person in my life who has done activist-type things on the regular. I know this because: he used to talk about these things (I obviously paid so much attention); he used to (and perhaps still does) wear t-shirts with political messages sharpied on them; and one time in 2002, Cary Tennis profiled him for Salon as a young anti-war activist. Sam is currently a PhD. student at the University of Chicago. He is a native New Yorker and was in Zucotti Park last Sunday. We had this conversation.
LOGAN SACHON: So, Sam. I have been watching the coverage for the past couple weeks —
SAM BRODY: Where have you been watching coverage?
LOGAN: I guess by watching, I don’t mean “watching.” I’ve been reading it. Mostly blogs. And what I’ve found is equal parts people saying, “This is awesome,” and people saying, “This is so unorganized, what is the point.” So what I’m interested in is: who is right? And more than that: how do protests work and what is the point of them?
SAM: Your general question — what is the purpose of street-based activism — is a good one.
The most recent thing that most people in our generation got excited about was the Obama campaign, from a liberal perspective. And that was a really clear goal: to elect one dude.
The most idealistic people maybe thought that electing this one dude would take care of a whole bunch of other things they cared about. And there were probably a lot of other people who weren’t that idealistic, but thought, well, electing this one dude won’t mean we won’t have to do all this other work, but it will be one good thing. There were a lot of people who got involved for the first time in politics on that campaign, and I think there were a lot of other folks who had been involved in activism for a long time who were kind of worried that if those people thought that the campaign didn’t deliver everything they wanted, they would just get kind of disillusioned with politics as a whole, and this kind of “plague on both their houses,” apathetic attitude that would emerge from that. That if the resulting Obama administration didn’t fix everything, you’d have people think, not in a political way, but in an attitudinal, existential way, that there’s no way to affect anything. And that you shouldn’t even bother trying.
And I think for a lot of people, that happened. They adopted this sort of very basic stance toward the world of, whoever runs things runs things, and it’s not me, and things are just going to keep being shitty, because some other people who have a lot of power and money are going to be the ones who decide what happens, basically.
LOGAN: Unfortunately, I think I might be the poster child for this.
SAM: And so as a way of concluding a really long rambling answer to this question of “what is the point of street-based activism,” I think one of the main purposes in this case, and really the initial purpose, is to make a space, to open up a space, where people go and talk to other people about what they want to have happen.
Because maybe in your daily life you go to work, if you’re lucky enough to have a job, or maybe you go to a bar or some cultural event with your friends in the evening, and maybe politics is one thing that comes up at that or maybe it doesn’t. And you might have a stray thought here or there throughout the day about something if you happen to read the news, but when there’s a huge group of people that are all assembled in one place to talk about how something is seriously wrong and they want to do something about it, when you go there, that’s what you talk about. And you talk to a lot of different people and you hear a lot of different things, and if you start participating, it gives you sense of having power. And the more people realize that they’ve been missing that, the more people join up and ideally it has a snowball effect that does result in some change taking place, and ideally that’s the result of increased democratic involvement.
LOGAN: So it’s not necessarily the idea that media coverage of this event will make anyone that has any power change anything, but that it will inspire us to change stuff ourselves?
SAM: I mean, partially. Anything like this always has 500 million different goals and other things that it’s going to accomplish without even intending to accomplish them. So for example, one thing that I thought when I saw a reporter ask the President a question about Occupy Wall Street, and he used it as a chance to try to, he tried to say he agreed with the protesters, even though the reporter had framed the question as like, clearly they think you haven’t done enough and are part of the problem, like, just the fact that that interchange took place! Before Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party were the loud people who were in the street doing things and making noise, which set a tone so that when reporters asked the President a question, they would say, “It seems like a lot of people out there think that government is too big and is spending a lot of money and that taxes are too high, what are you going to do about that?” Right? And now the question was from the opposite direction. And so simply having that be a thing that happens is important. And that didn’t even have anything to do with specific demands, which was the criticism that you hear. Like do they want Congress to reinstate Glass-Steagall? Do they want a transaction tax on financial transactions? And people can keep kind of asking these questions, and of course, that’s good, that since there’s a giant protest, they’re asking those questions about those policies and whether they are good ideas. So there are all kinds of possible outcomes.
The unions might actually have a political campaign in the works demanding something like a tax on financial transactions. If they did, they could use the protest to try to get that passed as legislation. But since it’s still inherently leaderless and not being run by the Democratic Party and not being run by any kind of union or activist group, it’s not going to go away just because some legislation gets passed either, which I think is another advantage of it. Because sometimes you have protests about single issues, like, we want to abolish the death penalty in this state, and if you win, well, then that’s great and you go home. But this is about something that is a much deeper problem and is very very complicated and has roots in all these different sectors of our political life, so it’s unlikely that it’s just going to go away anytime soon, and I think that’s really good.
LOGAN: So you were there for a day last week?
SAM: Yes, I went down this Sunday, actually.
LOGAN: My impression of you is that you grew up with activism, is that right?
SAM: I went to high school in New York City, which, you know, not too many conservatives at my school. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to do activist stuff. You can just have a bunch of liberals around who are just complaining about things. But it was the Giuliani years, and when they shot Amadou Diallo, he became a kind of representative figure. There was a lot of police brutality and instances of unarmed people getting killed by police back then, and there was a lot of high school presence at protests around that issue. And at the beginning of the year I was in Madison when they were occupying the Capitol in Madison, so I can compare Occupy Wall Street to that.
LOGAN: I’ve actually never been to a protest at all.
SAM: Oh really? [I think it would not be exaggerating to say that he said this with some shock.] Is it because you think they’re corny or you don’t get the point?
LOGAN: I think I’ve always felt like, that that is some people’s thing and I’m more subtle, or something. Like, some people protest, and I don’t do that.
SAM: When you say more subtle, is that like going to a protest makes you declare a stance that is possibly too absolute and maybe doesn’t accept nuances and stuff?
LOGAN: Not necessarily. I guess I mean, it’s more my style to have discussions with a few people rather than making a sign and going out there. I’ve just never done it. And part of it also is that I’ve always cared about what people think of me. And I’ve always felt, well, you really have to know your stuff to hit the streets. Like, yes. I’m decidedly pro-choice. But if you put a microphone in my face, I’m probably not going to be able to tell you why. You’ve got to give me a pen and paper and some time for me to craft that argument.
SAM: One thing that’s different about Occupy Wall Street, is that, oftentimes, a typical protest, if there’s such a thing, takes the form of a march or a rally. So the group organization calls the protest for a certain time and place on a particular day, and if it’s a march, they tell you where they start and where you end up and they get a permit from the police and they walk and carry their signs from where they start to where they end up. And if a lot of people show up it’ll get media attention (or if it’s the Tea Party, ten of them will show up and it will get media attention), and the goal of it is to publicly manifest a particular view or dissatisfaction about something and have that enter into people’s conversations. If it’s a rally, the whole thing will take place in one place, and there will be a stage or platform that everybody looks at, and somebody will make speeches, and maybe someone will come in between and play some music and sing a song. And that’s a very typical format, and there have always been people who are dissatisfied with that, because it can leave you in the end with a certain sense of, what was that for? Although everyone knows really famous instances like, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But the March on Washington was just one event in a multi-decade-long movement of which everyone who was present had some experience organizing on the ground back wherever they came from, on a day-to-day basis, everyday. They didn’t all just say, "Let’s all have the March on Washington where Martin Luther King will say, I have a dream, and then black people will be equal!" It was just one part. It was a manifestation of the power of something that was already happening.
What was different about this was that it wasn’t a march and it wasn’t a rally, although they are having those things associated with it, but it’s an occupation, which really does seem to just be about creating a space. A lot of people I know who went, before they had been reading all these stories about the bailouts or income inequality or how much many more times a CEO makes than an average worker in the U.S. compared to other industrial countries or other things that they’d be complaining about, they might say, “Where is the outrage? Why aren’t people in the streets yelling?” And then when people do go in the streets, they’re like, “What are they doing there? What do they think is going to happen?”
But for some people, just seeing it there, it’s like, there it is, I can go there, and people there will share something with me, even if I don’t know what it is or I can’t put my finger on it. The longer the occupation lasts, the more people from different backgrounds and different perspectives will be able to come and share those views with the people there. The basically hardcore group who are actually occupying becomes this opening for all these other people, people who have jobs, people who can’t live in the street, people who are interested in pursuing political channels for their problems to go and interface and connect with the broad possible spectrum of people that are interested in achieving the same kinds of things that they are.
LOGAN: So when you were there, did it feel good?
SAM: Well, I am a hyper-critical personality, so in that way I’m sort of like a typical media person. When I go down there, my eyes are drawn to the most extreme crackpot or hippie looking people. So there was some dude standing there with a sign, and he was like “NAZI BANKERS,” and I was like, oh, g-d. And his sign was the biggest, it was bigger than his entire body and he was holding it with his arms stretched out. And you knew that guy was going to be in every picture, and some people had gone up and talked to him and he was apparently impervious to people saying, like, “Dude, Nazi comparisons make you lose.” But in the past, it would have been like, I don’t want to stand in any group of people that that guy is in, but you literally can’t control it. It’s a public space literally being taken over for chaotic public discussion, so you can’t say, only people that can pass through all my filters of aesthetic and political criteria can be there.
So once you get over that fear of being associated with people that don’t take baths or people that say Hitler all the time, you just sort of find the people that you do need to be talking to.
LOGAN: So when you went to Madison, where did you sleep?
SAM: I only slept in the Capitol a couple of the nights, and the rest of the time I crashed with this guy Trevor who was generous enough to offer me a spot at his place. But almost everyone I met offered to let me crash at their place. The second I walked in there, everyone was like, oh wow, you came here from Chicago? Oh wow, thanks for coming, do you need somewhere to stay? So I had my pick of places to stay. But in the Capitol I just kind of slept on the floor in the hallway.
But the Wall Street one, too, they have a meal section, there’s a central table with all this food on it, and people are constantly coming and dropping off food, and that’s what I did. I dropped off food because I didn’t want to feel like I was just a protest tourist, so I brought and dropped off some food so at least I would feel like I had done something. But then behind the food table you have all these people washing dishes in tubs of soapy water and then to the right of that there is a table with all this medicine and first aid stuff on them. And there are people who put red tape on themselves, and they’re medics. Like, how do you know they’re medics? You don’t have the opportunity to interview these people and find out what makes them medics, but you just trust that if you get pepper sprayed or something, they will know what they’re doing. And then there’s a really long thing that’s like a People’s Library, and it was just a bunch of books. Take one! Bring one! So there’s all these things that just kind of spring up, and no one tells anyone that they have to do these things, they just kind of know and do it. And that energy is what makes it feel like an alternate place. People are in charge of their own shit here. And that greatly contributes to the sense of empowerment.
LOGAN: Was it hard for you to leave? Do you find yourself wishing you were there?
SAM: My friend Tasha had that feeling. She says she felt like everyday when she left there she was going to a worse place, that she was going to a mean place where people were not open and not understanding and judgmental. And so she’s actually been going back everyday. And I kind of wish I was there, but I’m in Chicago doing what I’m doing. But now they’ve started one in Chicago, so I’m probably going to go down there one day this week and see what’s going on.
LOGAN: Have you looked at the we are the 99 percent Tumblr?
SAM: Yeah, it’s depressing isn’t it?
LOGAN: It’s totally depressing. It gives me chest pains.
SAM: I know some people who are like, I don’t know what the people on Wall Street are about, but that Tumblr is killer. And well, that is what it’s about. I guess, nobody really has a concrete notion of how any particular action could address all of those people’s problems. So, everyone understands someone's individual story of hardship and suffering, but to connect that up to the systematic reasons that are the same reasons that caused someone else’s story of hardship and suffering is more difficult.
But a lot of people are perfectly capable of hearing those stories and blaming them on something completely different. Like people with conservative politics, for example, might read that blog and think, this is because the government spends too much money and doesn’t allow job creators to create jobs and that’s why these people have no jobs. And I think that’s ridiculous and stupid, but you don’t have to be irrational to believe that. I think it’s good that there is a loud and visible presence that doesn’t think that’s the explanation, because when it was only the Tea Party, I think we were in real trouble.
LOGAN: Yes, and I feel that most of my life, at least the part when I’ve been aware of politics, it’s been very much that the vocal conservatives are out there making a fuss, and the liberals are at home, watching the Daily Show and rolling their eyes.
SAM: I think that there’s also, a certain cultural pessimism or cynicism even that goes with the cultural cachet that irony has among a certain class of liberal people, and I say that because it’s certainly not universal to all races and classes of liberal people, but there’s a certain attitude among the people that I know, that, when you talk about the sixties and you talk about hippies and stuff, you sort of laugh, because they were so earnest and they just talked about loving everybody, and seriously? Were they kidding or what. And I think at a certain point, that attitude becomes debilitating. You can express an ironic or critical comment that you think is in line with what other people you’re talking to are saying, but if you say something that is super sincere and also not something that is immediately obvious, you expect some kind of backlash. The sincerity of people who really believe that they can change things is just like, too much. Because like everyone who knows anything knows that you can’t really. And that’s part of the reason that movements like Occupy Wall Street get started by anarchists, and not by smart well-educated liberals who come out of college and go into non-profit organizing. I mean, you have to be really sincere and really zealous, and not basically complacent or comfortable, to think that going and setting up camp in some park near Wall Street is going to affect what anyone thinks about anything. And you can’t be worried that it might not be cool to believe in something.
LOGAN: So, should we all be heading down to the park?
SAM: Yeah. But if you have a job, obviously, you have to go to your job, because that’s what’s important, and you have to be able to get money, especially if you have a family. But if you don’t have a job, or you’re kind of flexible like me because you’re a student, that’s why students always run these things. It’s not just because they’re young and idealistic; it’s because they’re able. They literally have the time.
So that’s why the model seems to be, you have some people who are always there, and you have special days that get called for mass protests and rallies which happen either after work hours or on weekends so that everyone else can come. And eventually you can have things like strikes, and people can walk out of work in order to show solidarity with something. And a strike is something that has real power to stop the ordinary operation of society. In terms of non-violent social change, a strike on the part of the union is one of the only proven things that can achieve powerful change. A general strike is the most powerful non-violent tool of social change that exists, but we can’t even have a general strike, because we don’t have a enough workers in unions and general strikes are illegal.
LOGAN: What does a general strike mean?
SAM: So typically, a strike happens if a union is negotiating with management about wages or benefits or whatever they are negotiating about, they have the option to strike in support of their position. And management can hire non-union workers to try to take their place in the meantime, but if people are not willing to break the strike by getting hired, then management can be forced to capitulate to the strike. There are industry-wide strikes, which is if one airline pilot union is negotiating with their airline then the rest of the airline pilots can go on strike with them, because it helps all the airline pilots for one airline’s pilots to get paid more. A general strike is across industries. So if the railway workers were striking 100 years ago, the dock workers would go strike, too, even though they had nothing to do with the railways. So when the labor movement was at its strongest, something like that could just stop the economy, and management would be much more likely to do what the unions wanted. And the reason organized labor is so weak now is because conscious policies were put in place that made it impossible to have general strikes and made it harder for individual workers at different workplaces to join unions. So the more that stuff like this is able to happen, it’s possible that it could help or contribute to the growth of organized labor, which could contribute to the increase of more tactics for putting extreme pressure on quote unquote, the one percent, or whatever.
LOGAN: How do you think this might play out?
SAM: That’s a really good question. Anything, literally anything, anything can happen. There’s a chance that some moderate reforms might get passed, but right now Congress seems to be completely unable or unwilling to do anything, literally anything. It is a non-functioning institution, practically. And so it’s difficult to imagine change along those lines until after the next election, maybe.
But once something seizes the public imagination, stuff can happen way faster than you would expect or completely unanticipated things can change everybody’s perception of the situation. So I think what it has the functionality to be is a catalyst for changes we can’t even imagine right now. And that’s another reason that I’m glad that they aren’t simply making a list of demands for the people in power, like hey, do this for us. Because then everything would just dissolve into a debate of whether or not those particular things should happen. And what it is instead of that is a very broad and wide-ranging conversation about the organization of our society, what our priorities are, how we operate in very deep and fundamental ways. And that is basically an increase of democratization, and I think the more democratic with a small “d” our public discourse gets, the more unpredictable what’s going to happen is, and I think that’s good.
Photograph from Occupy Wall Street by K. Kendall.