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Occupy San Diego Gains Momentum

October 6, 2011 1:12 p.m.


Toby Benjamin, Web Developer and Community Organizer for Occupy San Diego

Erik Bruvald of the Institute for Policy Research at National University

Murtaza Baxamusa, Middle-class Taxpayers Association of San Diego

Related Story: Occupy Wall Street Comes To San Diego


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Tomorrow at 4:30, San Diego's version of the protests against Wall Street is scheduled to begin. Originally organizers had hoped to attract 100 or so people to the demonstration at the civic center. So far nearly 5,000 people have become followers of the group's Facebook page, and the protest is gaining unexpected momentum.

Joining us are my guests, Toby Benjamin is a web developer and community organizer for occupy San Diego. Toby, welcome to the show.

BENJAMIN: Hi. How you doing?

CAVANAUGH: Just great. Thank you. And Eric Bruvald is with Institute for policy research at national university. Good afternoon, Eric.

BRUVALD: Good afternoon to you Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: We'd really like to hear from our listeners on the topic of occupy San Diego. Do you plan, perhaps to attend the protests? Are you against this demonstration? What do you want to know about it? Give us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Or you can tweet your comment at KPBS mid-day. Let me start with you, Toby, because you've made a major commitment already to this protest movement. You've put your job to take part. Why did you do that?

BENJAMIN: I think that this is the future. I think this is the movement that we need to change the world right now. We're entering a new age of thinking, a new age of understanding, and I think this movement is going to be a big push for the future of communication, the future of unity in the world. This there's a huge class divide beginning to exist in America, and it's upon the people to start coming together and start closing that gap and start supporting each other.

CAVANAUGH: Toby, tell us how the buzz around occupy San Diego has grown in recent days.

BENJAMIN: It started off very small. And it started off very covered up, unfortunately. It began among the web community, a small web community, and people have taken it upon themselves to spread the word and spread the message. And we're coming together on our own. We're all people from all different places who are finding out about this, seeing the good that this can do and coming together and fighting for this.

CAVANAUGH: What kinds of people have been signing up? You had friending you on Facebook and basically commenting about these protests?

BENJAMIN: All kinds of people. I couldn't generalize them as anything but understanding people and people looking to do good in the world.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Mike is on the line from Bonsall. And welcome to the show.

NEW SPEAKER: I know you have a thousand people that would like to air their opinion. I am so supportive of this. This is the new Arab Spring. I think this is going to give young people something they can sink their teeth into. I'm not one of them. I'm 60. But my wife and I both worked our whole lives, played by all the rules, got college education. We lost, like a lot of people, we diversified our investments and they're all down the toilet. We bought a home, put 25% down. It's not even worth half what we paid for it. I mean, you play by all the rules in this country, you pay your taxes and then you find out companies like GE don't pay any tax. You have your previous program talked about compensation panels for CEOs. When the guy who runs the company gets 4,000 times what the line worker makes, no. Way wrong. Tea partiers, they have nothing. I don't understand how anyone who's not a billionaire could possibly consider being a member of the tea party or a Republican or I'm afraid to also say a Democrat because none of -- neither of the two major parties or the new up start, the tea party, is offering anyone anything for any rational thinking member of the American society.

CAVANAUGH: Mike, that's got to be it. I appreciate your phone call. And I appreciate your passion. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Eric, it's the economy, isn't it? It's the economy stupid that is fuelling these protests.

BRUVALD: Sure. And I think your caller hit upon one of the most important things. Clearly, this is the deepest recession that this country has experienced since 1929. It's been focused and particularly concentrated in certain areas of the economy when it comes to education levels. And it's specifically in -- really interestingly, there's a gender difference. Men have born the brunt of this recession much more than women. But the second thing that's going on here, and I think your first caller really hit upon it, is that the current recession has sprung forth a lot of economic insecurity. People's assets have declined in value, most Americans save through their homes, and those have taken a tremendous beating in terms of value. And so it's not just the unemployment and income changes. It's also really a deep feeling of insecurity. And we've seen this fuel populous movements in the past. And I think the tea party is also tapping into a very deep seated and deep rooted American tradition of popular protest against what they see as economic forces that are working against them.

CAVANAUGH: Eric, there's a lot -- a lot of the energy of this protest is focused -- the 99% as opposed to the 1%, the 1% being the wealthiest people in the United States who control many would say, and actually it's been pretty well documented, a large, too large an amount of the wealth in this country. I'm wondering, what that disparity like in San Diego?

BRUVALD: Well, let me just kind of take one issue with your question, then I'll get to that question. The main question, in terms of inequality in San Diego, we look pretty much right like the United States. If you look at the metro area like New York, it's more unequal than the national numbers, but San Diego is right at the median. This, though, I really think and I think I take an issue with the folks that are doing protest San Diego, and I think I put a juxtaposition today. This is a long-term trend, and it gets to large forces both in the global economy, and also just kind of the economy that we have in the United States. And I find it kind of ironic. I really do that at the same day we're talking about a protest about the 1%, we're lionizing Steve jobs, who went from a guy in a garage to a net worth at the time of his death last night of $6.2 billion. And it's because of the kind of economy that we have that rewards ideas and rewards innovation that we've created that. And I think that we really need to have a more nuanced discussion and really talk about the kind of -- the reason for that inequality that goes far beyond good viscerally, and probably fun protests about wall street to think about how we reward people and the kind of economy we've created.

CAVANAUGH: Let me get your reaction before we go to the phones. Are we having a nuanced conversation about this? Are people really getting the idea that we need to talk about how we reward people and compensate people in this country?

BENJAMIN: Absolutely. And I think that's what this movement is all about. And this movement is showing a sense of community, a sense that if you come together, if you do your part, whatever that may be, everyone isn't at the same things. Everyone doesn't have necessarily a tangible skill in today's economy. But when people come together, and when they support each other and contribute to a community, they're able to exist peacefully. And I think that's what this movement shows more than anything. Having been up in LA further occupancy, it feels like a city within a city. And it's almost self sustaining. And I think that's the buoyant that we're trying to reach. And I think as that becomes more apparent, more people will be able to see the strength of this movement.

CAVANAUGH: We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Steve is calling from east lake. And hello, Steve, welcome to the program.

NEW SPEAKER: Hello. I'd like to take the other position on this thing. I think the problem that we're having right now is people don't understand what capitalism is, how businesses are constructed, how jobs are made, how profits are made, they somehow -- this my even idea that the government can wave a magic wand and make things all fair. And that isn't how it works. It doesn't work like that at all. I'm in the swimming pool industry, I billed swimming pools, and my business is down dramatically. And it's not capitalism's fault. It's the politicians, it's the bureaucrats. They produce nothing but rules, regulations, and taxes.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for the job, Steve. And Eric, I'd like to get your reaction to what Steve said.

BRUVALD: Well, and I think that's -- it will be interesting to see how the occupy or the occupation movements develop. It is -- I think that there's a divide and sort of a missing component part of the conversation. Clearly there are folks on the right that believe strong he in the free market system, and believe that these movements of sorts and what they see out of Washington in part out of Washington is a challenge to that idea of sort of an American exceptionalism and American individualism when it comes to capitalism. But what's interesting in other times in our history where we've seen popular movements in times of inequality is that they have pointed to crony capitalism or the ways in which upon rules have been structured that really aren't free market rules but which end up letting political power be that on the right or the left or from one group or the other sort of dictate the outcome of the game or outcome of the way in which that it would work. And I think what will be interesting to see in the occupiers is whether we move from this sort of organic and interesting coming together in solidarity to really sort of identify things that they believe need to be changed to create a better economy and a better country and society. And insofar as yet, that's not where the occupiers yet are, and it will be interesting to see if they move in that direction.

CAVANAUGH: I'm going to ask Toby that. But I want to take another call. Jim is calling from Ocean Beach. Welcome to the show.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you for taking my call. I've heard a lot about the tea party, and what I believe, I think what this movement is is really a manifestation of a new political party, a political party that wants a system not based on money but based on love. I named it the love party. And I think the main issue that people are complaining about is the unaffordable housing markets. I believe that this is a result of the housing bubble, which caused many people to lose their homes which caused the stock market to crash, which caused the great recession here in the United States. And the world recession.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Jim -- we have to cut it off there. Thank you very much. I want to get your reaction, Toby. Is this the love party?

BENJAMIN: You know, I got to say, I think that right now we also -- we have to realize that we are working within this system. We still all live in this country. We still are subject to the law. I think in a big way, some of the initial influences this is going to be through politics. It's going to be things like removing large donations from corporations to political candidates. Lobbyists, things like that, where corporations do take control of our government. So directly -- indirectly, yeah, I do believe we will be a political influence.

CAVANAUGH: Eric, I want to ask you a final question about this happening in San Diego. We don't usually have protests in it San Diego. And there are lots of reasons people give for that. It's too nice, the weather's too nice, and we have too much else to do and so forth. If indeed this protest does man test itself as rather large here and sustaining, what will that tell you?

BRUVALD: It will be interesting to see. I mean, San Diego has had these sorts of things in the past. And I think the question that you ask is will it be self sustaining? Will we see people occupy city center plaza for a week or two weeks or 3 weeks? Will see them organize with an actual agenda and calls for concrete change? We haven't yet seen that emerge yet from New York. We've got the inklings of it, but clearly for there to be change, you have to know what you want. You have to ask for change. And that'll be the interesting thing. And if it's a one day or a weekend protest, I think again that wouldn't be out of the norm for San Diego's past political history. We forget about those things but we have had those in the past.

CAVANAUGH: Let me tell everyone, first of all, I want to thank my guests, Eric and Toby Benjamin. And tell everyone that we continue our discussion on the occupy San Diego protests and continue taking your phone calls on KPBS Midday Edition. It's 12:20, and you are listening to KPBS Midday Edition.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The idea of occupy San Diego, a protest in sympathy with the occupy wall street demonstrations started small. But organizers now say there's a great deal of interest in the rallies, matches, and demonstrations planned to start tomorrow in downtown San Diego. We continue our discussion on this protest movement, and we're welcoming your calls and your opinions at 1-888-895-5727. Or tweet your comment at KPBS mid-day. My guests are Toby Benjamin, welcome back, web developer and community organizer for occupy San Diego. Thanks for sticking with us.

BENJAMIN: Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And a new guest is Murtaza Baxamusa.

BAXAMUSA: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: The wealth and income inequality that's grown in the U.S., it is in fact one of the highest in the world isn't it?

BAXAMUSA: It is one of the highest rates of inequality in the developed world. It is slightly better off in terms of than Mexico. What we got to think about is this moment, it's not conflated because of this, but it's been growing for decades. Think about the 1970s when an average worker and a CEO, there was a good relationship between them. The CEO was getting the fruits of their entrepreneurship and making about 45 times that of an average worker. At that time, inequality was the top 1% was making ten times -- about ten times that of the rest of the population. Now what has happened is the relationship with the work place has changed. So that the average worker is not making enough to make ends meet. They're not getting the gains of the productivity that is increasing. So the CEO, average CEO is making 475 times how much compensation an average worker is getting, and the to be 1% is now making 24%. 1% is making 24%. This is -- this has doubled in the last four decades. CAVANAUGH: So Toby, would you say these protests are against capitalism?

BENJAMIN: No, I don't think I would. I personally am not anticapitalist or anticorporation. That said, I don't think they're the best systems. But ultimately, the issue is greed. The issue is centralization of power. Right now, there's just this upper upper wealthy class. And I know we call it the 1%. But it's probably more like the one% of the 1% who are calling all the shots in the economy and in government. And ultimately, together, there's nothing we the people can do unless we rise together. And unite. And start separating government and making government represent the people again.

CAVANAUGH: We're taking your calls as I told you, welcoming your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Sharida is calling from San Diego. And welcome to the program.

NEW SPEAKER: I totally agree with one of your panelists who is there. My question is what is the problem for big corporate people to give -- pay larger tax? When there's a -- they look for the for them to bail out, and to be afloat. In return, if they really tried to help the population by giving a larger tax, and helping to create the jobs, there's nothing wrong in that. Why these people are so stuck with not trying to say that government needs to be blamed for this? When they are in trouble, they look at the government to all kinds of subsidy and rebate and so on and so forth.

CAVANAUGH: Let me get a comment on what you've been saying. And thank you so much for the call. Murtaza, the idea that things use to be in relative balance as you told us is now things have gotten sort of out of balance in the fact that there is so few people earning a great deal of money, and lots of people would say that's fine. That's the way capitalism works. You've got to deal with the hard part of capitalism if you want the good part of capitalism. Has something actually gone wrong though in your opinion?

BENJAMIN: I think the key issue here is let's get the ideology out of this. Let's focus on fairness. Whether there is a government or whether there is rules within -- institutional rules within an organization. The way in which our system has worked to the detriment of employees and workers today is manifested by the fact that workers do not see a commensurate increase in their wages, in their paycheck as a productivity increases. At the same time that they are seeing their corporate CEOs make a lot more. We just saw that in the recent years when just recently despite of a recession, bringing the economy down the hill, corporate CEOs continue to reward themselves with what people would consider lush bonuses in this economy when worker wages are stagnated.

CAVANAUGH: Toby, you are a community organizer for occupy San Diego, and for many people it takes something, it takes a tip think point to get involved in a social or political movement. What would you say your tipping point was?

BENJAMIN: You know, I don't think it was so much a tipping point as finally seeing a cause that was more than just a debatable issue. I think there's a lot of opinions out there. And I have opinions of my own. But ultimately, none of our opinions are being heard right now. There are protest groups for everything under the sun. At the end of the day, corporations will do what's best for profits and not what's best for the general population. I think what this is, this is the first thing I've really believed in that's going to change the world. I think that this is going to bring a new age of thinking.

CAVANAUGH: And Murtaza, do you see perhaps a collective tipping point of one kind or another.

BAXAMUSA: Yes, I do. San Diego has -- you're seeing a historic leap in poverty rate. One in six San Diegans are now in poverty. We were always buffered from the rest of the nation in terms of extreme federal poverty. But this is the first time we're seeing the face of poverty. Now, it is important to understand, it's not just these one in six, but that really translates into 1 and 3 households and economic hardship. Heme get to the core issue. The biggest contact impact is being felt by young people. People between the ages of 18 to 24. People who are just graduating. Peep who are just graduating but not able to find a job, they're living with their parents and doubling up, they're living on their parents' health insurance. In fact, if you -- nationally if you see just the poverty rate between the ages of 25 and 34, the poverty rate nationally is 45% if you don't include the parents' income. So you can see the young people are the hardest hit in this recession.

CAVANAUGH: We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Ellen has been on the phone waiting from Chula Vista. Hi Ellen, thank you for the calm.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. Thank you. I want to say how important this is that you guys talk about this over the radio. I think one of the main concerns for me with occupy San Diego and the whole movement is that I'd like to see a separation between business and state. I don't think we need lobbies. I think things can get out of hand. And people controlling certain money have the power to lobby in law to benefit them. And the American voice is no longer heard. And unfortunately, people are going to the streets now because we're not getting the truth from the news media.


NEW SPEAKER: Covering things. And they're not letting people talk. And we have to go out and see it for ourselves now. And we're making history ourselves.

CAVANAUGH: I have to stop you from talking Ellen. You made me feel bad about it, but there are a lot of people who want to get in on the conversation. Thank you so much for your call. Toby, do you see the occupy protests as a political movement? A lot of people have been comparing this to the tea party. And you know, there are various ideas as to whether the tea party has been a significant political movement in the United States , but do you see it as potentially a political movement?

BENJAMIN: You know, I think in some way, yeah. I do think it will be a political influence. I think ultimately we're not really sure what our end goal is. What we see for society. And I think that's what really we're coming together to talk about. For the time knowing, we do work in this system, we do still live in America, and we do still exist within our government. And I think ultimately, politically, we're going to need to do things like eliminate the ability for corporations to donate huge amounts of money to political candidates. We're going to try to get rid of lobbyists, that corporate influence that allows the government to skew rules not in favor of the people but in favor of business.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Again, our number, 1-888-895-5727. And if you'd like to tweet your comment, please do at KPBS mid-day. Steve is calling from Chula Vista.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you for taking my call. As a senior executive that has seen everything we've discussed in here from inside out, a completely supportive people and their frustration. I think their think is done in this country, and when I look back, and I see there is no opportunity for people. The opportunities that existed for me 20 years ago when I came to this country, it doesn't exist. And last but not least, if the people think that the rich people or the people that are getting paid or the people with a lot of money they're creating jobs, they're absolutely wrong. They better look at the registration of the properties and the businesses that is outside the United States , and also jobs is created if there is a demand. And the demand just comes from the middle class and the requests for the service of the product.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Steve. Thanks so much for calling. I'm wondering, Toby, do you have any fears about this movement, and what it might look like to people and what the ultimately mate reaction might be to mainstream America?

BENJAMIN: It's not so much a fear. I think people are having a hard time understanding what we're trying to do here. I myself have a little bit of a problem with the world protest because I think it's bigger than that. It's an organization, it's a communication. It's a committee. It's so much bigger than what it's being made out to be. And I think like I said before, more than anything, it's bringing in this new age of thinking. And we're trying to help people understand and help people understand how they're being taken advantage of by this system. So we can all open up dialogue and figure out how we can form a better world.

CAVANAUGH: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I've been trying to think, the United States isn't really used to a mass movement based on economic issues is it?

BAXAMUSA: This is, well, Toby, what this is is really a revival of true entrepreneurship. The true spirit that created, for example, the Boston tea party. That was really economics and the opportunity driving us toward our freedom. And in this case, this freedom is being constrained because lack of opportunity in this country. And that translates into a political movement. So yes, to answer the question, it's not just economics, but it's also political freedom.

CAVANAUGH: What do these protests, Murtaza, have to do in your opinion in order to really make any kind of change?

BAXAMUSA: The structure of the work place has to change in order for people that are unemployed to get into better paying jobs, and those that are at a lower wage jobs to rise up to middle class and beyond. If there isn't -- if the rungs in the ladder are too far apart, which is what happened in inequality increases, so there is no magic wand in terms of how much inequality is a good one, it comes down -- is it possible for somebody who's unemployed to actually enter into the middle class and live a lifestyle and retire in a way that they're comfortable with?

CAVANAUGH: David is calling from San Diego. And good afternoon, David. Welcome to the show.

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, my comment revolves around becoming -- defense people who criticize these uprisings or any criticism of wall street, the common come back is that this is anticapitalistic, when in fact the actions of these corporations are themselves anticapitalistic because they're 'ing all of this taxpayer bail-out money. And I think what you're seeing from the people is a frustration that the system is rigged kind of against the common taxpayers. The corporations are getting these extravagant bailouts, while we're still having to deal with everyday life.

CAVANAUGH: So David, you don't see this as essentially sort of of a left wing kind of a movement?

NEW SPEAKER: NO, no. Not at all. I see this as kind of a populist movement, but not necessarily a left ring or right wing. I think it's more just -- you know, a frustration with the way that the system is tilted toward these big corporations and wall street in general.

CAVANAUGH: Let me get in another caller. Jesse is calling, thank you, David, for the call. Jesse is second calling from Spring Valley. Hi, Jesse.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you for taking my call. I've been hearing a lot of discussions with factors that affect the economy and jobs. I myself am a college student, get a chance to see how they respond to it, and I think instead of taking time to occupy wall street, we should kind of take a step back and maybe occupy classrooms. Because I think that's fundamentally one of the things that makes the world turn. And most of them may agree with this movement but quite frankly don't do anything to themselves make a different impact.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call, Jesse. I appreciate it. Toby, let me get that to the essential, these protests that are happening tomorrow. Let me just say, occupy San Diego that's happening tomorrow here in San Diego. Where and when and how many people are you expect.

BENJAMIN: We will be meeting at children's park tomorrow at 3:00. We'll be marching out at about 4:30. At this time, the marching location is undisclosed. We are working on that. We have a marching committee who will be organizing everything. Right now, the preparation, the committees we're having upwards of 150 people. As far as how many people show up on the first day, I have no idea. I have been part of Los Angeles's initial preparation committee. They started at about 50, they had 3,000 people show up on their first day. And about 200 plus camping out on the sidewalk with them over night.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, do you have any plans, any logistics as to how long this might go on?

BENJAMIN: There really are no set plans as far as an end date. Myself and a lot of people feel like we'll go home when we're ready, when we get what we want out of it.

CAVANAUGH: We had a question from twitter, Toby, where can a physically challenged person go on Friday if they can't walk the whole march?

BENJAMIN: That's a very good question. I would say meet at the civic center.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right. And one final question about the specifics of all San Diego, what are people going to see there? What are you going to be doing?

BENJAMIN: You know what? It's going to be a lot of discussion. Having been in LA again, it's a lot of discussion, talking about problems and talking about oppression and talking about where we've each come from, and how we've each been victims of this system. And in doing that, we're coming to understand things with each other, and coming to this enlighten. If you will, and I think that's what this really is all about. And that's what really this is going to give to the world is a new sense of enlighten.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Toby Benjamin, a community organizer for occupy San Diego. And Murtaza Baxamusa, I want to thank you both thank you very much

BAXAMUSA: Thank you Maureen

BENJAMIN: Thank you very much for having me.