Interview With an OccupyMN Organizer
By Will Wlizlo
It’s true: We’re covering the Occupy Wall Street movement to death over here (and yes, there’s more to come), perhaps because it was granted so little coverage in the first days of its contentious life. Need a primer-cum-rallying-cry? Read Tom Engelhardt’s essay on the movement’s importance. Pointing to a counter argument by political activist and cartoonist Ted Rall, our editor-in-chief David Schimke asks us to consider if Occupy Wall Street is pushing hard enough. Also, we’re trying keeping you up to date on our Twitter and Tumblr feeds.
Occupy Wall Street is straight up the most vocal, progressively populist demonstration in years–yet from the get-go has suffered from poor media portrayal and position articulation issues. OccupyMN’s April Lukes-Streich, answering via e-mail, tries to clear up a few things before the protest occupies the Minneapolis Government Center Plaza on Friday, October 7, and turns it into the People’s Plaza.
Utne Reader: The participants in the Occupy movement often come from either a background in local activism or a background in Anonymous, the hacktivist group. What is your activism background?
April Lukes-Streich: I’m unaffiliated with any activist group or organization, but have been a longtime political activist and blogger.
UR:What personally draws you to the Occupy movement? What are your personal motivations?
ALS: I was inspired by the recent occupation of the Madison, Wisc., Capitol building, and realized at that point that with the erosion of our voting rights by way of gerrymandering congressional districts, changing electoral college procedures, and voter ID laws–not to mention the corporate and moneyed influence in politics on both sides of the political aisle–that being present together is really the only chance we have to reclaim our voices to ensure meaningful participation in our political and economic system and the democratic process. I am continually personally inspired by a desire to reform our economic system in a way that ensures fairness for all participants. I cannot speak for all participants and know many to disagree with me, as we come from varied political philosophies, but I am strongly critical of the capitalist economic system and wish to see reform.
UR: The media has portrayed the Occupy Wall Street movement as somewhat directionless, lacking a central message. In your words, what is the central message of Occupy Wall Street?
ALS: That our movement is seen as directionless or lacking a central message is something that confuses a lot of participants, and I believe rightly so. As many have noted, if it’s unclear to anyone why we’re protesting, they’re not paying attention. Our economic system is in shambles, people are out of work and deep in debt with no discernible solution in the foreseeable future. The unified message of OccupyMN is “People Before Profits,” and we are continually working on lists of common goals. But because we wish to give voice to the 99 percent of Americans who do not currently have a meaningful voice in politics and economics in America, we are unable to present a list of cohesive demands in the way that many people seem to think we should. Ordinary people of all political persuasions are part of the 99 percent; what we want is not to all agree on policy or legislative issues, but to bring voice to the people to engage in meaningful, constructive debate about these issues without moneyed interests influencing the process and manipulating ordinary citizens.
This is a different kind of movement than any other we’ve seen. The process is new to everyone, participants and observers alike.
UR: Another criticism of the Occupy movement is that it has largely been the pursuit of well-educated, middle-class, white people. Has OccupyMN reached out to groups with cause for concern–minority, unemployed, disabled, etc.–to engage them with the movement/issues?
ALS: OccupyMN is very aware of these issues that are all too often present in activism and of the criticism. We are making every effort to reach out to all minority communities and ensure that folks from privileged backgrounds–namely white, middle-class men–are not dominating the conversation and direction of the movement. Our group is unified in this attempt and we expect to achieve the goal of making sure that everyone has a chance to speak and be a part of the decision-making process through our daily General Assemblies that we will have on the Plaza.
UR: What are some specific reforms that you’d like to see come about as a result of the Occupy movement?
ALS: I can’t speak for the entire group, but I would personally like to see election financing reform, an end to corporate personhood, and an overhaul of our tax system, including fairly taxing capital gains and instituting a nationwide corporate income tax. I would also like to see an honest conversation about the effectiveness and fairness of the capitalist system.
UR: Downtown Minneapolis is home to many corporate headquarters and business campuses of large banks–Wells Fargo, U.S. Bancorp, etc.–as well as a Federal Reserve building. Why is OccupyMN demonstrating in Government Plaza with all of these symbolic institutions around?
ALS: Our group voted during our first public forum at Stevens Square Park to move the occupation from the Federal Reserve to the Government Center Plaza for mainly logistical reasons. While occupying the area surrounding the Federal Reserve would be appropriately symbolic, we do not expect that we would have been allowed to remain there. The Government Center Plaza is public property, does not require a permit, and is in the heart of the financial district. We are not protesting at a bank because, beside being private property that we’d surely be arrested for occupying, rendering the movement effectively worthless, we are not protesting any one bank. We’re protesting the entire system, which leaves us without a meaningful voice. We believe that public, taxpayer-funded property is the most realistic place to achieve this goal.
UR: Is non-violent protesting the only course of action that OccupyMN is taking in the movement, or are there any plans for behind-scenes-work like lobbying and community outreach?
ALS: Many members of our organizational team, as well as countless other participants, are individually involved in lobbying and community outreach, but as a group/movement, we have not yet made plans for behind-the-scenes action. We are compelled to occupy primarily because our exhaustive efforts to lobby and outreach are not working. We need to be heard before we are able to change policies.
UR: What does success–either immediate or long-term–look like for you?
ALS: I will see success when I see meaningful reform to our economic and political structure. How this will happen, we have yet to know. First, we simply demand to be heard. I believe that, because of this widespread movement, we will be.