Harry Waisbren answers questions about the mistakes Occupy has made and whether the movement is now officially dead
Several years ago, after Occupy Wall Street was permanently dislodged from Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, many wondered whether the movement was dead. For a while, Occupy seemed to sputter along, but lately, more mainstream liberals appear to have absorbed its message about the wealth gap. Bill de Blasio, the New York City mayor, put inequality at the forefront of his campaign for mayor, and President Barack Obama offered a similar message in his State of the Union address.
That’s a testament to the group’s success, organizers say, adding that today the movement is alive and kicking. It’s like a franchise, a loose collective lending its name to various liberal causes. There’s Occupy Pipeline, which opposes the construction of the Keystone XL, and Occupy Sandy, which helps victims of the hurricane. There’s also Occupy Christie, which is trying to expose corruption in the New Jersey governor’s office. And keeping a watchful eye on it all is the Occupy Network Team, a group of 10 people that functions as the movement’s central nervous system.
The group maintains the official Occupy Wall Street email list, which consists of 17,000 people and sends out newsletters detailing new offshoots, actions and projects. Recently, I spoke to Harry Waisbren, a 28-year-old member of the Occupy Network Team, about the future of the movement and what he thinks about the Tea Party.
At this stage, what is the goal of Occupy?
I’d say Occupy wants to build a better world. We have a common vision that our political structures serve all of us, not only the 1 percent. Unfortunately, our political system functions by shameless bribery—the intertwining of money, politics and campaign donations. It’s a real marring of our democracy—the voices of the 99 percent have a real difficult time being heard.
What would the ideal Occupy world would look like?
Tangibly, there are three things I would love to have happen that I think would have a great impact. One is fair election reforms throughout the country, making it much harder for the 1 percent to just dominate our democracy. I also believe it is integral to have a Robin Hood tax: a tax on financial transactions to limit not only widespread financial speculation—the gambling in the Wall Street casino that puts our global financial system at such risk—but also create a massive amount of revenue to fund those high government services that are so desperately needed by so many members of the 99 percent. Lastly, I believe that we need to have widespread efforts to combat climate change, starting with rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline and coming up with some sort of system to tax carbon emissions and the fossil fuel companies to make those systems nonviable.
Has the movement made mistakes?
Absolutely. It has been a system of trial and error. There never was a real effort to create accountable media structures. It’s been a big mess in terms of who controls which websites, or which Twitter accounts, or which Facebook pages. It turns out it really matters who gets to decide this particular email is going out, or this tweet. And there’s been serious problems dealing with irresponsible behavior in that regard.
What do you think about the Tea Party?
I think the Tea Party is a bought and sold subsidiary of 1 percent titans like the Koch brothers. I feel the individuals caught up in it—it’s unfortunate that their work is going so predominately towards the benefit of the exact kind of corporate titans who have done so much damage to our country and the world. As an organizing model, those who say the left needs the equivalent of the Tea Party are missing the fact that the Tea Party is very little, if not nothing, without the funding of the 1 percent and media outlets like Fox News.
I feel sad for them. I think they live in a very frightening world in which their entire sense of reality is molded by this new form of propaganda that is all-encompassing. But more importantly, these individuals don’t know the damage they’re doing—all their friends, all their communities kind of cloister up. It’s like a cult, and they’re so afraid of anybody puncturing this shared reality that they live in—they don’t see what’s really happening to them. But we’re fighting for these people too, the poor people in the south that get no government services—their Tea Party politicians are fighting to cut off their Medicaid and preventing any sort of economic stimulus from passing. It’s just ludicrous that this has been able to go on for so long, and the individual entities that have funded the movement are going to be looked at, historically, as these absolutely atrocious people that prevented the progress of mankind at a crucial moment in our history.
Why has the Tea Party attracted a different demographic than Occupy?
Unadulterated racism, which for decades has been an explicit strategy by conservatives to misdirect poor white people—to take their anger away from Wall Street banks and the 1 percent and relay it to underserving minorities who they claim are the real ones creating havoc in their lives. It’s shameful, frankly. The people who have been manipulated? They’re so diluted that it’s very difficult to have a constructive conversation with them. We’re living in totally different realities.
Do you think Bill de Blasio’s election to mayor is a byproduct of the Occupy movement?
I’d say absolutely. He was actually asked about his Tale of Two Cities rhetoric and the Occupy movement, and he said obviously there’s a connection. After his inauguration, I had a chance to speak with him, and I thanked him for his stance on Occupy Wall Street, and he responded without missing a beat. He said, “Thank you for all you’ve done for the world.”
What do you say to the allegation that the Occupy movement is dead?
The “Occupy is dead” trope is ridiculous. You can see the impact the movement has had on the political system. I feel like we’re just beginning. The best has yet to come.