Monthly Archives: January 2012

Shimaa’s Advice for Occupy

By Ezra Silk

OAKLAND — At a rally on Tuesday in solidarity with the Egyptian Revolution, Shimaa Helmy conducted a teach-in with a few dozen local Occupiers. She was asked what the Egyptian Revolutionaries could learn from Occupy and vice versa. Here is her answer:

I can start with what we should learn from you, is we need to be a little bit organized. We’re not really organized at all. We’re so disorganized. We made a lot of mistakes. I mean, to be honest I have to mention this — spontaneous, like being spontaneous and lacking leadership actually drove us to a lot of mistakes. Sometimes they would make a trap for us — and some informants would come and bring people to an embassy, for example, like the Ministry of Defense, or wherever, and then they would come crack down on us and detain us. Just because we don’t have leaders, people are just like, you know, deciding on the ground at the same time. You could just split and go to wherever you want, and then people are getting killed. So we really need to be much more organized and coordinated.

What I want Occupy to learn from Egypt is how all the cities of the country are connected together. When there’s something happening in Tahrir Square, even if we don’t really have much communication, but we still try to be together and coordinate as much as we can, so it’s like, something happening in Tahrir there should be something happening in Alexandria…Suez, wherever, at the same time. So when people go down on Fridays, everyone should come down…at the other occupations. When I first came here in November, on November 12, and I was telling you about this day of action at Occupy Wall Street on Nov. 17, nobody knew anything. When I came back to New York, and I talked to people about actions I was part of here in Occupy Oakland, nobody knew anything. And you have Internet, you have all of these facilities, you can actually come in a public space and speak about all of this without fearing being tried in front of military courts, but you’re not coordinating well with each other. As far as I know. I don’t know, but this is what I noticed personally, like my personal experience being at Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland and San Francisco. So, yeah, the closer the occupations get, the stronger they are. And it’s really all about the numbers. Nobody’s gonna defeat you if you have numbers. Try to get the 99 percent and bring them here, because they’re not gonna come on their own.


The Lamest Generation

By Ezra Silk

A couple weeks ago, I took Pew’s Rich Morin to task for using the term, “Occupy Generation.”

“I have seen my generation, and it has not yet been Occupied,” I wrote.

As it turns out, there is some data backing up my point. According to a Harvard study completed in early December, 21 percent of so-called “Millenials” support Occupy, while 33 percent do not. Another 46 percent could not decide or declined to answer the question.


The Presidential Race, Occupied

By Ezra Silk

A few months ago, YES! Magazine published a collection of essays on Occupy called “This Changes Everything.”

When I first saw the collection at a bookstore in Portland, I was taken aback by the boldness of the YES! editors’ claim. It seemed a bit premature.

But this position has apparently become quite popular in recent weeks. Perusing the press and the Internet over the past two days, there seems to be a general sentiment that Occupy has altered the course of American history.

When Obama delivered the Teddy Roosevelt address in early December, many commentators noted the obvious thematic parallels between the speech and the message(s) of the Occupy protests.

Now, following the inequality-themed State of the Union, it is abundantly clear that the Obama team has gone all in on an Occupy-lite style re-election campaign.

The lead article in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle, “Obama’s speech echoes Occupy movement themes,” acknowledges as much. On Democracy Now yesterday, Jared Bernstein, Obama’s former economic advisor, said that Occupy “had a lot do with” the tone of Obama’s State of the Union speech:

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jared Bernstein, how much do you think, if at all, the Occupy Wall Street movement had to do with the tone that the President struck last night?

JARED BERNSTEIN: Well, it’s a great question. I think they had a lot to do with it. I mean, I’ve been talking about these issues—I mean, they’re called populist now. Frankly, I think they’re just basic fairness. I don’t know why it’s populist to argue that middle-class people should pay a fair tax rate and one that’s certainly no higher than that paid by millionaires and billionaires, or for that matter, that economic growth should not be a spectator sport for people in the middle class. So, you know, nowadays, that’s populism or even class warfare. No, I’ve been talking about these issues for three decades and haven’t broken through in the way that Occupy Wall Street did in a matter of months. So I give them a ton of credit for doing what it is, by the way, that they will tell you they set out to do, which is to engage the nation in a conversation about these issues.

The Occupy-inspired rhetorical stampede to the left — whether by Obama, Newt Gingrich, or many establishment media outlets — has left Mitt Romney, who has said that economic inequality should only be discussed in “quiet rooms,” looking pathetically out of touch. This has led some commentators to suggest that the collective cultural impact of the protests has potentially crippled Romney.

Take Steve Erickson’s Jan. 23 article for The American Prospect, “Atlas Slugged.” The subtitle states that, “Mitt Romney’s loss in South Carolina betrays a party struggling to defend the 1 percent in the post-Occupy Wall Street era.”

But Romney’s problem isn’t how much money he has. His problem is how he made it, how he’s kept it, and how come he won’t talk about it. If Romney’s campaign for the presidency should collapse, the beginning of its end will not have been January 21, 2012 [the date of Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina], but September 17, 2011. That’s the day when, in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, someone held up a sign that read “WE ARE THE 99%”—the kind of math that’s foreign to those on the other side of the income divide, who reserve such percentages for things more profitable than sociology. In itself, the electorate doesn’t begrudge a president his bank account, but Romney, who is reportedly worth a quarter of a billion dollars, is rich even by the standard of Kennedys. As depicted so vividly in the notorious photo of the candidate as a young man surrounded by fellow sharkettes grinning at the camera with fistfuls of currency, Romney has become the incarnation of those who made their fortunes stripping others of smaller and more vulnerable nest eggs.

In November, when I was driving through the South, I spoke to a college friend who works at a venture capital fund in Manhattan. He told me that his boss, a hardcore conservative, was deeply suspicious of the protests, and believed that Obama had engineered them in order to garner support for his re-election campaign. At the time, this notion struck me as preposterous.

Although this theory still strikes me as deeply paranoid and completely false, the logic of it makes more and more sense. Three months ago, there was great concern that the protesters would generate an ill-fated third party bid and siphon off Democratic votes in the 2012 election, leading to a Republican victory. It was clear that many of the protesters were alienated Obama voters who had lost all faith in the President and the Democratic Party.

But Obama has quite skillfully taken advantage of this cultural moment, making himself once again politically relevant by rhetorically addressing the most resonant concerns of the Occupiers. He is executing an incredibly delicate balancing act between his numerous financial industry backers and his liberal base, many of whom are quite sympathetic to the Wall Street-loathing Occupiers. The appointment of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, progressive hero-of-the-moment and supposed enemy of the banks, to the head of the newly-formed Mortgage Crisis Unit, will test this very fragile coalition.

For the moment, the Occupy protests seem to have boosted Obama.   Continue reading

Potential Problems at J20

By Ezra Silk

SAN FRANCISCO  — On Wednesday, I attended the last meeting of the Occupy Wall Street West Working Group. As far as I can tell, the action is a massive, sprawling effort — if they pull it off, it will be a true feat of grassroots organization. But there are two serious problems:

1. At the meeting, it was revealed that there would likely be an “anti-capitalist march,” meaning that the folks most well-known as the Black Bloc will be on site. The people who committed various acts of property destruction in Oakland after the General Strike in November used Black Bloc tactics. So there could be some very negative headlines coming out of this if these people decide to throw a brick through the Bank of America building.

The Occupy SF General Assembly has apparently released a statement disassociating itself from all violence. The group only approves of property destruction that is consensed upon at the General Assembly — an example being breaking a lock in order to get into a foreclosed home, according to one J20 organizer I spoke with.

At the meeting, the general feeling was that although this was bad news, there was very little the working group could do to prevent these people from smashing windows.

2. It’s supposed to rain all day.

Here’s an unsavory scenario: less-than-satisfactory attendance (the Occupiers declined to give a turnout estimate at the Wednesday press conference) and property destruction. Not good.

The Deacon

The Reverend Vicki Gray.

By Ezra Silk

SAN FRANCISCO — On a warm Sunday in mid-January, I took the 5 downtown to the Rincon Center to catch a meeting of the Occupy San Francisco Long-Term Strategy Working Group. I figured the committee would be convening under the majestic WPA murals — commemorating Lincoln’s assassination, the 1934 West Coast Longshoremen’s Strike and the founding of the UN, among other events — in the historic annex, but the hall was empty. I returned to the cavernous corporate lobby, where a forty-foot column of water cascaded down — past the glass facades of second and third floor offices — into a collecting pool on the ground floor.

In a dark corner of the first floor food court, five occupiers — none looking any younger than forty — were gathered around two circular tables, three months deep into an effort to draft a mission statement for Occupy SF. They hadn’t made much progress, it was clear. The group was bandying about language that called for economic justice and a repeal of corporate personhood. It was made known that their meetings — all open to the public — had been frequently de-railed by first time attendees who had taken issue with the group’s proposals.

I was captivated by one of the long term strategists, an older woman dressed in clerical garb, who could have been convincingly played by John Cleese. She was quite eloquent, delivering a passionate call for a return to “progressivity” in the federal tax code, in a short speech that would have made Paul Krugman proud. At one point, the woman mentioned that she had worked for the State Department.

I left the meeting early, hoping I would run into this most articulate clergywoman again.

Ten days later, I found her in front of the hulking Bank of America building on California Street, at a press conference announcing the January 20th mass action. She was one of ten diverse J20 supporters — including a young black student from UCSF, an older woman who had been evicted from her home, a veteran, and the former President of the Pacific Stock Exchange — arrayed in front of the local media.

“My name is Vicki Gray,” she announced to the press. “I’m an Episcopal Deacon, and I’m Occupying Wall Street West with the Interfaith Allies of Occupy. I’m here because I believe in that cry, ‘No justice, no peace.’ It’s a plea not just to the mere absence of violence — the silent, complacent peace of the graveyard — but is rather a call, a call to the peace of shalom, that rests on justice and that insists on the shared well-being of the community. For too long now, that justice and that shared well-being has eluded us. We’ve experienced 40 years of endless war, decades of rampant greed that have produced a Great Recession in America that we hardly recognize anymore. As people of faith, we must now speak truth to power, be it on Wall Street, Lafayette Square, or Nob Hill. As people of faith we must stand in solidarity with those in Occupy who seek a more equitable society. As people of faith, we must help shape solutions consistent with our values of justice, equality, and solidarity, and we must not shy away from politics…and how we relate to one another and how we will shape our societies. And good politics, like good religion, seeks to shape a just society. That’s what I seek by being here. Come join us.”

After the press conference wrapped up, I tracked Gray down in front of a row of newspaper stands on the street corner. I reminded her that we had met at the Rincon Center.

“I was telling Maria, you guys make me feel young again,” she told me. “When I got back from Vietnam in 1965, I joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War and I camped out with Kerry on the Mall, and I marched with Martin Luther King… and when he was killed, my hope was killed. I’ve been sleepwalking the last forty years or so.”

Gray told me that she had participated in the March on Washington in 1963, and two years later had served as an adviser in the Mekong Delta, at the age of 26. During her Vietnam service, Gray ordered a deadly napalm strike — an experience that ultimately radicalized her, she told me.

“What I saw happening there was why I came back opposed to that war,” Gray said. “And there was one incident that still rattles around in my head. I called in an air strike on an island where we were getting some fire, and the napalm exploded in a string down the island, and out of the smoke came this young lady, paddling her sampan toward us, and we called her over, and she reached down, and she held up a black chunk that was still smoking that was her baby. And she just growled, shrieked at us, at the sky, and I still hear that sound.” Continue reading

Occupy the Dream

By Ezra Silk

Members of the African-American faith community have joined forces with Occupy Wall Street to launch a new campaign for economic justice inspired by the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Faithful to its philosophical origin, the “Occupy the Dream” coalition has called for a National Day of Action on Martin Luther King Day – Monday, January 16, 2012 – to focus attention on the gross injustice visited upon the 99% by the financial elite.

There were apparently Occupy the Dream protests in at least 16 major cities across the country today. It was top of the fold on the San Francisco Chronicle, but it doesn’t seem to be getting much national play at the moment, which I find a little surprising. The group is apparently organizing a three day mobilization in DC in early April, as well. As I see it, this could be a very big development.

Revolution, or Grad School?

Shimaa Helmy (Photo:

By Ezra Silk

Last night, I drove south to San Jose to hear Egyptian Revolutionary Shimaa Helmy discuss the fact that American companies, with the help of the State Department, have been supplying tear gas canisters to the Egyptian military. The military is then using this potentially lethal stuf on Helmy’s friends.

Anyway, I found this bit of Helmy’s talk particularly inspiring:

Q: Could you talk a little bit about your personal transformation? Because it’s one thing to talk about externally getting involved with movements and activities organizing, but it’s a very personal journey, and I understand you have a degree, and you have probably personal ambitions, and what are some of your struggles with going into this?

Shimaa Helmy: Actually, before the Revolution started I wasn’t really proud of mentioning that I’m an Egyptian person. I would hide this in my university. My idea was I was just gonna leave this country forever. I would apply to grad school in the UK or the US. That’s why I did biotechnology in university, because I knew that I’m leaving anyways. In December 2010, I applied for an internship at a genomics institute in Cambridge, and I got shortlisted for the first stage and then the revolution happened and I had to drop my application, and I stayed in Egypt. So, I wouldn’t really imagine that I would ever do something like this, but after the revolution–

Noura Khouri: She went down there on the 25th to laugh at the–

Shimaa Helmy: Yeah, I didn’t really know that anything is gonna happen, you know? It was just I have so much [inaudible] and you feel like doing something related to what happened in Tunisia. But I didn’t really think anything was gonna happen. But still, I promoted the event on my Facebook pages, and when I came down I convinced my friends and my brother and my sister and me, and my life changed 180 degrees this day. I was detained by the military, I was in the middle of all of this craziness, I saw people getting shot and killed in front of me. I have never seen something like this in my life. So I left everything behind. I used to teach Arabic and translate. I quit my jobs. And I just invested my time and energy making this happen, because I knew that we are a minority. We are not a lot. We have, you know, the entire society is against us, we are fighting the U.S. government and the Egyptian military, and there are not a lot of people who are doing this. So, I’m still kind of like stuck in between whether I could pursue my education, apply for a grad school in genetic engineering, or just go back to Egypt. I mean, I’m still stuck in this actually.

Noura Khouri: A lot of her classmates didn’t believe her when she told them, for example, she was detained. And it’s hard to speak about these things.

Shimaa Helmy: Yeah. I mean, You don’t really speak in public about it. Most of my family members do not know much about my activity. They don’t really know that I’m here and involved in protests and Occupy and all this kind of stuff. So they don’t really know much about all of this. So, yeah it has been a big transformation on the personal level and it was tremendously overwhelming for me. And I’m just 23 years old, so it’s kind of hard.


Defending the Occupation

Occupy Oakland meets to discuss the planned building occupation on Jan. 28.

By Ezra Silk

OAKLAND — It was late December, and dusk was setting over City Hall. Dozens of people had formed a circle on the concrete lip of the plaza below, in order to sketch out plans to occupy an abandoned building on January 28th. On tonight’s agenda: Defending the Occupation.

A big, inebriated man in a red parka was eagerly offering the occupiers various defense strategies.

“Before you take the building, you should buy pro-gauge steel, line the walls with it, so that its bullet proof, also buy more iron bars, then your barricade…

A weary-looking young woman with a nose piercing, the meeting’s facilitator, tried to intervene.

“Okay, so let me—” she said.

“This is, this is, this is, this is real strategy from a Marine Corps Black Ops operator,” the drunk man continued. “This is real strategy. If you’re gonna do it and you want it to be a defensible building, then you’ve gotta bulletproof it, for one, and you’ve got to make it impenetrable, number two. That is your best line of defense.”

“Cool,” she responded, silencing the man. “Let’s move on to another idea, but that’s on the table if we have the budget for it.”

Another man gave his two cents.

“I was involved in a couple large-scale squat defenses in New York City in the ‘90s, and we were able to prolong how long it took them to evict us, for sure,” he said. “But if they’re intent on evicting us, it’s pretty hard to stop that. So I think our best defense is basically, look at this huge meeting, and like, if we keep building on this, that’s gonna be our best defense — having as many people as we can. I mean, the logistics of holding a building — you can weld yourself inside, you can obviously put barricades outside, that’s sensitive to people — but ultimately if they’re gonna, you know, we don’t really have a movement that’s gonna be able to defend a building long-term if they’re really coming at us militarily. So I would say the best defense is a good offense, and building this huge movement that has thousands of people there.”

“May I say this?” the drunk vet blurted out.

He was shouted down. Someone proposed a “rank-choice” political strategy in response to the expected police eviction.

“If they kick us out, they kick us out of the first place, we’ll move on to the next place,” he said. “So, for example — building, then city hall, then another port shutdown. I mean, you create this level of — basically, list of — our rank choices and if we get eliminated from the first ones, we have the other ones, that creates a certain amount of political will to leave us alone because we’re gonna continue to act, so that we have a plan for re-convergence if we get kicked out. Everybody knows ahead of time.”

Boots Riley, the rapper, suggested that the occupiers make sure to explain that they are seizing the building on behalf of the community, not just themselves.

“I haven’t been involved in any sort of action like this, but obviously community support is what’s gonna get people out there to defend us, and part of what’s gonna make the community support it or not, is whether we promote it as just a place for Occupy Oakland to be, as people see it as just a few people, or we promote it as also a community center, and therefore list the things that we’re gonna do,” Riley said. “Even though we don’t know what, what, what neighborhood its gonna be, we should be telling people what we’re gonna be providing for the neighborhood and for the community. That way, people don’t just see it as just Occupy Oakland that they’re defending, but something that is good for the community. And maybe that’s already been talked about, but I think that’s the way that we get folks to support it.”

“I agree with what Boots is saying,” another person added. “That’s a really good idea. I also think that we could do a lot to make people feel more comfortable with being down there, by like heavily encouraging people to bring things that would defend them against weapons that police typically use, such as like encouraging people to bring masks, encouraging everyone to bring vinegar and goggles, we could like get groups of people together to build shields and stuff, I don’t know. I think that we could do a lot to encourage people to actually feel as though they could physically defend a building against the police. Continue reading

Occupy Nigeria

From the "Occupy Nigeria" Facebook page.

A Challenge to the Bay Area Academe

Boots Riley emcees the Oakland Port Shutdown Rally on Dec. 12.

By Ezra Silk

On his well-read Facebook page, Communist Rapper Boots Riley has issued a broadside against ivory tower academics who criticize the Occupy movement without participating in it themselves. His critique appears to include all academics, not just fair-weather lefties who emotionally identify with Occupy. Riley is a big deal at Occupy Oakland, as you can see from the 120 comments, 173 shares, and 628 likes on the following post:

Ok. This may piss off some friends.

I think that if you’re an academic writing published critiques of modern day mass movements, the only way to be honest and scientific in your critique is to be involved, on a day-to-day basis, in organizing some kind of mass movement.

Otherwise- even if you are a “left” academic, the only thing you are doing is telling people why they shouldn’t be involved in… a movement while showing that the best thing to do is to simply remain an academic. Yes, you may point to the way other movements in the past did it better. Those movements faced critiques from academics who refused to be involved in movements as well. Soon, you will be teaching classes about the OWS movement. Will you be able to tell your students that you were involved? I hope so, otherwise they’d learn the wrong lesson.

Not being involved in a movement saves you from having to be self-critical as well as critical. It skews ones analysis. You can talk about what the better path is without actually being willing to take it (unless that path is one that doesn’t take actually engaging the community with a political program- because then we could all just present papers about the best way to defeat imperialism) and therefore without ever knowing whether that path would work better. Kind of like Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show, the old men who sit up in the balcony and critique the show. Don’t do that. Get on the stage.

Separately, if you are involved in a mass movement and have a critique of it- please don’t use language that separates yourself from that movement in the critique. It is not sincere to include yourself when praising a movement (i.e. “Yay! We shut down the port today!”) and then separate yourself when critiquing it (i.e. “Those Occupy Oakland folks need to get their shit together. What’s wrong with them?”). Some of this may come from the actual process of the GAs themselves. People feel able to be involved, yet people that they strongly disagree with are involved as well. How this is articulated is important in order to not fracture it into groups of 10-20 ineffective groupings made up of folks who all agree with each other.

This is a movement which changes depending on who is and isn’t involved on a day-to-day basis. That fluctuates a lot. If you are there, you are the movement. The key to solving some of the valid critiques starts with us all realizing that. At that point we can develop processes to deal with the problems that we have amongst ourselves.

The second-to-last paragraph makes sense to me. Being a fair-weather Occupier is sort of lame.

But the rest of this is sort of silly, and I daresay, a bit totalitarian. Riley’s basic premise seems to be that, if you are a professor, you have to be currently participating in a modern day mass movement in order to critique Occupy. As far as I can tell, Occupy is pretty much the only game in town right now. So, according to Riley, you have to participate in Occupy in order to critique it. This is a bizarre, and slightly creepy mentality. I’ll let Alexandra Kostoulas, who commented on Riley’s post, take it away.

@Boots Riley. I agree with some of your points on this post, but I disagree with a few the way I read them: I will try to explain and organize my thoughts : 1) I don’t understand your argument that people necessarily have to be part of a movement to critique it. Isn’t that like saying you have to be a Nazi to critique Hitler? Obviously Occupy resembles the Nazis not at all (maybe that’s more like the Tea Party), but the argument, I feel still stands. You can be outside of a movement to critique it and still do important work. Continue reading