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"How Do We Build A Mass Movement to Reverse Runaway Inequality?" with Les Leopold, author of "Runaway Inequality: An Activist's Guide to Economic Justice,"May 22, 2016, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York, 860 11th Ave. (Between 58th and 59th), New York City. Between The Lines' Scott Harris and Richard Hill moderated this workshop. Listen to the audio/slideshows and more from this workshop.
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Posted Oct. 12, 2011
Interview with Medea Benjamin, Code Pink and Global Exchange co-founder, conducted by Scott Harris
The exponential growth of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement across the U.S. was a surprise to both organizers and activists, now gratified that their message targeting Wall Street greed and America’s corrupt political system has struck a chord among so many Americans. Now in its fourth week, the occupation model that launched the movement in New York City’s Zuccotti Park has now spread to dozens of cities and towns from coast to coast, with new organizing committees forming every day.
While instances of police violence and the mass arrests of hundreds of occupation activists in New York City, Boston, Des Moines and other cities have captured headlines, the attempt to crack down on the protest movement has done little to deter larger numbers of Americans from being drawn to participate. In Washington, D.C. the occupiers of Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue, were surprised when U.S. Park Police extended a permit for activists to stay up to four more months.
Conservative commentators and Republican politicians feeling growing concern that this new movement could have a profound effect on national politics have been quick to heap scorn on the Occupy activists. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has labeled the movement as a “dangerous” expression of “class warfare,” while candidate Herman Cain has called the protesters “anti-American.” Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with long-time activist Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink Women for Peace and Global Exchange who has helped organize the occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C. Here she talks about why the occupation protest actions have had so much resonance with the American people – and the future direction of this new populist movement.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: We are on Pennsylvania Avenue. I want your listeners to just think about it. We are camped out on Pennsylvania Avenue, in the heart of this nation's capital. The fact that today, the park police, who were ready to throw us out last night because we had a four-day permit that expired, met with us today and, without us even asking – we were not going to ask for permit, we were going to stay here unpermitted, willing to go to jail. And they came and said, well, without you even asking, we have extended your permit for four months. A pretty extraordinary development. We will be on the Square now for quite a long time and building a community in an area that is not known for this kind of thing. This is the center of dog-eat-dog power. This is the center of hypocrisy. While Wall Street is the center of corruption, we've got not only corruption here, but we've got the great hypocrites who pretend to represent the people, and instead represent the Wall Street and the other titans of industry.
So, to be camped out right on Pennsylvania Avenue with police saying we could be here for another four months, Scott, we have a great food tent, and I just went up to get some food and they said, "We have ice cream for dessert." And I said, "Who donated that?" They said, the police did. So, we're seeing magic happen here as it's happened all throughout North Africa, and is happening in New York every single day. The magic is coming to the nation's capital.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Medea, what do you think the timing of all this is? A lot of activists were frustrated that there wasn't more action in the streets after this huge economic collapse in late 2007, early 2008. And why do you think the time was right now for the actions to take off at such a fever pitch all across the country? Dozens and dozens of cities jumping on board. What about the timing here is right, do you think?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: I think there is a tremendous frustration that has been growing; it really needed the right moment to ignite it and the right symbolism, and I think Wall Street is the right symbolism for it. I think the fact that we are starting to get into another round of elections that people are really disgusted about. It took time for many people who were Obama supporters to start realizing that being quiet was not helping, that it was important to mobilize separate from the Democratic party that as we go into election season. We can't be co-opted by the sucking sound of people dropping everything, all of their issues to get another Democrat elected to either the presidency or to take over the House, that this has to be independent.
So I think there's a number of factors that came together to make the right timing. But part of it is that it had to sink in for people that Obama is not going either end the wars, save the environment, provide workers with the kind of rights that they need, etc. etc. and that if we rely on Democratic party-affiliated organizations, they're just going to take us in the wrong direction.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Medea, here's another question. As someone who's got vast experience in organizing on political and social issues, what are the key elements in your mind to developing a long term strategy and to avoid the pitfalls of other movements in the past that have fizzled. What's your advice to the young people, especially who are organizing something this momentous for the first time?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: I would say, don't get corrupted by electoral politics. They're the movement that is independent of the Democratic party – well, certainly, of course the Republican party. But even third parties. We need a voice does not get reflected by people in office, but pushes everybody that is in office. We need movements that cross issues that nobody should say any more, "The most important issues is "X." Because it's not. You know, we're tired of people saying the important issue is: "Democratizing the media." The most important issue is: "Getting money out of politics." The most important issue is "Ending the war." There is no one issue that as progressives we have to recognize that all our issues are all related to each other, and right now, we have the opportunity to make the connections that we've been talking for and yearning for so many years. So I would say: Don't lose this moment, keep the momentum building. And keep that idea that we can build coalitions with lots of overlapping issues without giving up the issue that is most near and dear to our hearts. It is absolutely true that we are greater than the sum of our parts when we come together in that spirit of collaboration.
For more information on Code Pink Women for Peace, visit CodePink.org and for more information on Global Exchange, visit GlobalExchange.org. For more information on Occupy Together, the hub for all Occupy events, visit OccupyTogether.org