After 6 months of Occupy, has the movement melted or morphed?
April 5, 2012 1:12 p.m.
David Abramson, a member of Occupy San Diego.
Jonathan Graubart is director of the International Security and Conflict Resolution Program and an associate professor of political science at San Diego State University
Related Story: Occupy San Diego Marks Six Month Anniversary
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Thursday, April 5th. Our top story on Midday Edition, last September, a group of activists took up residence in New York's Zuccotti park to protest Wall Street firms for their part in creating the great recession. The movement started a wave of protests all the way across the country, to normally politically dormant San Diego. Now that the tents are gone from San Diego's downtown concourse, is the occupy movement moving onto more activism or just fading away? Joining me is David Abramson, a member of occupy San Diego. Welcome to the show.
ABRAMSON: Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: And Jonathan Graubart, director of the international security and conflict resolution program, and an associate professor of political science at San Diego state. Thank you for being here.
GRAUBART: It's a pleasure to be here.
CAVANAUGH: How did you get involved in the occupy movement?
ABRAMSON: I got involved, I was watching the live stream from occupy Sacramento during the first police raid there. And I've never been an activist, never been a protester, but something drew me to this movement. And I couldn't really describe it at first. I had seen a lot of things in my own life that -- kind of injustices that had been brought upon the people worldwide, and I felt like it was just time for me to get involved.
CAVANAUGH: Did you occupy the concourse downtown?
ABRAMSON: I did.
CAVANAUGH: How long?
ABRAMSON: I got there on the third day when we had the tent city, and I've been there ever since.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. Now, I want to just clarify, is there an ongoing presence of occupy now in downtown San Diego?
ABRAMSON: Yeah, there is. We're at children's park now. We moved out of the concourse. And we've really moved away from tents and into communities county wide.
CAVANAUGH: Now, this is a movement that for most people I guess in mainstream America seemed to spring out of nowhere. Why do you think it spread across the nation the way it did?
GRAUBART: Well, I think you have to connect the occupy movement request these broader protest movements throughout the globe. We were seeing them certainly in the Middle East, are the Arab Spring. That certainly was a situation where traditional politics wouldn't work. And then in Europe, it was spreading with all this pressure for a recession, so in some sense one can ask why did it take so long for an occupy movement to develop in the United States? So I follow global news, and people are really looking for the heart of the empire in the United States , the most powerful country. If you can really get that type of activism whether you're looking at the heart of political problems, militarism, and stepping outside of electoral politics. So I think it really struck a cord when it happened. In retrospect, it's not surprising given how unappealing electoral politics was.
CAVANAUGH: When you say it drew you to this movement, was the publicity about what was going on in the Middle East and in other parts of the world, was that part of it too?
ABRAMSON: Yeah, I think seeing all the uprisings in the Middle East, and seeing us just come together for the first time on a worldwide level to fight for the same cause, that was really powerful to me, are to see us all working in solidarity, and trying to create a better world for the people who live in it.
CAVANAUGH: Can you talk about some of the protests that that occupy has organized?
ABRAMSON: We had a national bank transfer day. Estimates range from 215,000 to 800,000 people put their money in local credit unions over the course of two weeks am that was a really solution focused protest that we had. And we're trying to create a new world, and it's these small actions that we take with our goals for social and economic justice that really make the movement what it's been.
CAVANAUGH: Now, when occupy really took hold downtown, when it was in its first flush, there was a big parade. And more people than anyone expected gathered in downtown San Diego and took part in that parade. Since that time, have you seen a dwindling in if the numbers of people who are involved in occupy?
ABRAMSON: Definitely it looks like we've dwindled in numbers. But really, we set up this beautiful thing there with all these people, tents, libraries, and nurses stations, and this real sense of a community. We've taken that, and it's become part of every community in San Diego. There's an occupy Oceanside, Vista, Encinitas, they're starting occupy City Heights on the 21st. So really the seeds that we planted in the tent city are now in every community. So I feel like we're even stronger and more united now and everywhere.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Jonathan, when this movement started across the nation, it seemed to energize people who wouldn't normally take part in activists, anybody who's involved in an activist community knows it's kind of the same people who show up all the time. But this was not that. This was new people who actually wanted to get involved. Has occupy lost that kind of energy do you think?
GRAUBART: I don't think occupy has lost that energy. I think it's natural that there's an initial excitement. So this happens with protest movements in the past in the United States and across the globe. To me, what's exciting, it gets to what David was talking about, even if the numbers are people decline, they're bound to decline from the initial excitement. You just have to go back to other aspects of your daily lives. But what occupy San Diego and the movements across the country have done is they've changed the conversation. Now pretty much anyone who follows politics knows about the occupy movement, and they know there's something other than just standard electoral politic, and I think David has put it well in San Diego that you now have this infrastructure of activism. And it's important to keep in mind that occupy is not everything for activism. There's lots of other activist possibilities. But the fact that we have Occupy gives some elements of infrastructure that will help for various protest movements. So I think it's a long-lasting presence, and very encouraging.
CAVANAUGH: Even the president of the United States now refers to the 99%, right? And the 1%? So you've changed in a sense the political conversation.
ABRAMSON: Yeah, part of occupy is occupying the minds of people worldwide, and the possibility that there is a better way. So we've changed the lexicon worldwide.
CAVANAUGH: We had on another professor talking about the movement, I think just before the end of last year, and he predicted and it turned out to be somewhat rightly so that all of these tent cities would basically evaporate by the end of the winter time. Why?
GRAUBART: Well, the occupy movement is one element. It was a great -- I mean, it was and is a great idea of a protest where you're staying there. Of not the standard protest that brings the familiar people but something where you have a commitment, and I think it's great in San Diego and across the country where they've made connections to homeless people, people with low income, so you've had a coming together of some activists that are more middle class, some who really weren't activists at all, and those just kind of struggling with the ravages of the economy. So those suffering in San Diego and elsewhere. So it's not surprising that the actual numbers have gone down. To me what's really interesting is they've figured out creative ways to keep some type of infrastructure. So I think it's perhaps short-sighted to just look at the fact that raw numbers have come down.
CAVANAUGH: There's another element to this as well. And this has been a factor and a criticism of the Occupy movement since it started. When we invited a representative from occupy San Diego to be interviewed, we were first told there are no leaders in this group, so we're going to have to draw straws or whatever to try to get somebody in here. And that element of a leaderless group, that element of anarchy is something that is part and parcel of the Occupy movement, and it's attracted some people to it and repelled other people, and it's also made it very, very difficult for people not involved in occupy to comprehend it. Why is it so hard for us to get our minds around this?
GRAUBART: Yes, this certainly hits home to me. I've long been both a proponent of anarchism and studied it now for 3 decades. Anarchism, I think it really does speak to what people want from communities. They of the to maximize participation. It's not that they never have leaders. You could have leaders but you don't want sort of a separate class that's always speaking for you. So this idea of thinking about democracy in daily practice, and democracy means that lots of people should be invested. If you think of the opposite, let's think of electoral politics again. It's really unappealing to most people. Most people rightly have very little interest in electoral politics other than voting occasionally because they don't feel connected. I think movements like Occupy, and movements throughout history, movements that have managed to integrate people, I think they actually speak to people a lot more and the reasons people will have discomfort with participatory movements that don't have leaders is because they're so used to a hierarchical brand of politics.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, David, let me ask you. Doesn't it make it hard for occupy to actually move on from one aspect to another, from the tent city to make changing into a more politically organized group if you don't actually have a hierarchical structure of leaders?
ABRAMSON: Yeah, you know when I got there, I was really skeptical of the idea. How can we get anything done without leaders? And occupy San Diego is one of the few occupations that still runs on a 100% consensus model. Which means everyone there has to agree. But in my six months that I've been there, aye seen us make very amazing collective decisions. Of the
CAVANAUGH: Like what?
ABRAMSON: Like the statement of political autonomy, that we were not going to get involved in electoral politic, and to start day to day decisions, planning actions, when we're about as occupy. We all have a general consensus now which is so much more powerful than leaders telling us what we need to do and should do. And what we're really doing is creating a new model of society where we build community and participation in a truly democratic process. Where the voice of everyone matters.
CAVANAUGH: How do you get anything accomplished if you've decided not to get involved in politics?
ABRAMSON: We feel like grass-roots movements are the way to go. At least for us. And we've seen with all these people taking their money out of credit unions, getting the union back into the ports, we're planning a general strike on May 1st that things really can happen in a horizontal democracy.
CAVANAUGH: You've also been really involved in protests about San Onofre; is that right?
ABRAMSON: That's correct.
CAVANAUGH: And what other things are the groups under the broad heading of occupy involved in now?
ABRAMSON: Occupy is a place for anyone that wants social and economic justice. We're really a coalition movement of all people of all walks of life, cross-culturally, cross-generationally, coming together for a common cause.
CAVANAUGH: Would it be fair to say, and this is to both of you, is this more or equally a lifestyle now more than an activist movement?
ABRAMSON: Yeah, it really is. We've created like I said, kind of a new model of society. And in my daily life now, I look for consensus. And I really listen to other people and find out where we have common ground. So personally, yeah, it's changed me a lot and kind of made me more open to different possibilities and perspectives and finding out how much we all have in common and how much we want to change the world.
CAVANAUGH: This is really different from politics in that sense. I don't think a lot of people would identify politics as a lifestyle. But this kind of being involved in different levels of activism, and incorporating that into your life seems to be a hallmark of the occupy movement.
GRAUBART: Very much. As someone who's been reading about anarchism for many years or just participatory movements that don't call themselves anarchism, I want to add some historical perspective. You regularly had movements looking to expand what politics means. So let's just take a simple example of labor movements of the United States. You had intensive struggles in the labor movement, particularly in the end of the 19th, early 20th century. And that was thinking about the work place, are the community. It certainly was diminishing electoral politics and thinking about politics in this horizontal decentralized manner. So we have this politics expanding to a horizontal participatory manner in many instances.
CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you, David, where do you expect to see occupy six months from now? What are you going to be involved in? Do you have any idea?
ABRAMSON: Yeah, I expect to see us everywhere, and really the first step, which is what we're doing right now is getting people awakened and aware to everything that's going on right now. And personally, I believe the next phase will be coming up with solutions to address these problems. And for people that want to get involved, our website is www.SanDiegooccupy.org. And check the calendar for all the events that we're having. Occupy City Heights kick off is on April 21st, and occupy Ocean Beach is soon after that.
CAVANAUGH: They have definitely not faded away.