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Strategic Directions for Occupy Wall Street: Foreclosing Banks, Defending Homes, Making History

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Famed sociologist Frances Fox Piven and labor organizer Stephen Lerner discuss how Occupy Wall Street could grow into a major political movement that draws millions into the streets. “I’m absolutely convinced that Occupy is the beginning of another massive protest movement,” Fox Piven says. “Protest movements have a long life—10, 15 years—and they are what we have to rely on to take our country back.” Fox Piven is professor of political science and sociology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, and author of “Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America.” Lerner is a labor organizer who was the architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign and is on the executive board of the Service Employees International Union. He has been working with labor and community groups nationally on how to hold Wall Street accountable. “I think there’s never been a more exciting time in my 30 years of organizing to imagine building the kind of movement that can transform the country, that can really talk about redistributing wealth and power. And there’s never a better time to get involved,” Lerner says. We are also joined by Guardian reporter Ryan Devereaux, who has been reporting on Occupy Wall Street extensively. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guests, Ryan Devereaux with The Guardian, Frances Fox Piven of City University of New York, and Stephen Lerner, labor organizer.

Frances Fox Piven, you were at the Left Forum that ultimately led into this mass march to Zuccotti Park. It’s been six months, September 17th, that people occupied Zuccotti Park, calling it Liberty Plaza or Liberty Square. Assess the movement, where we are at this point.

FRANCES FOX PIVEN: Well, I think the movement is reconnoitering at the—after two months of occupations, which were dramatic, brilliant, imaginative, I think captured something for the American people. I think the American public resonated to the “We are the 99 percent” Occupy Wall Street slogans. After two months, a lot of the occupations were leveled. And I think that what has been happening is that the occupiers and all the people who really responded to their rhetoric, to their dramatic depiction of financial capitalism in control and out of control, what people have been figuring out how to do is to move the protest into the neighborhoods, into the workplaces, into the schools.

I think, in the end, it may turn out that evicting the occupations was the precipitant of expanding the movement, because the movement’s agenda has broadened, and they’re now experimenting with reoccupying foreclosed homes, for example, with ways of rallying to the defense of workers who are locked out or on strike. And with the spring, I think there’s going to be a lot of protest in the universities and the colleges. And young people are very responsive to the appeals of Occupy, to their cultural style. And everybody in the colleges understands that high unemployment, high student debt spells foreclosed opportunities for a life.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Lerner, talk about the focusing on the banks, like Wells Fargo, like Bank of America, and all that has been happening with those protests.

STEPHEN LERNER: One thing I think that Frances started to touch on here was the idea that we talk about Occupy Wall Street, and it’s opened the door to engage directly with all the people who have been devastated by out-of-control corporate and bank and Wall Street power. So in the case of Bank of America and Wells Fargo, there’s millions of people who are underwater, 11 million, in their homes, meaning that their homes are worth less now when they bought them, and they’re drowning in the debt. So there’s a campaign to say, let’s force the banks to write down the principal on those mortgages by $300 billion so that folks can stay in their homes. And that would create a million jobs. It would save people $5,000 on average a year in mortgage payments.

And I think it’s part of how we think about combining the horizontal energy and vision and passion of Occupy with the more vertical traditional community- and labor-based groups. And when the two of them meet, we’ll get the combustion of saying Wall Street is drowning the country, and they’re doing it in neighborhoods and communities all over. And it’s when people both are occupying in New York and Wall Street and resisting in their homes, their workplaces and schools, that we can engage the millions of people we need to do to build the kind of movement we need at this time in history.

AMY GOODMAN: As Frances was just talking about, the building spring momentum, you have the Democratic and Republican conventions in the summer, the Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. The final day when President Obama will address the delegates will take place at Bank of America Stadium. Can you talk about this, Stephen?

STEPHEN LERNER: Well, there’s a shareholder meeting first on April 24th in San Francisco at Wells Fargo, where thousands of people are going to come, and they’re going to say to Wells Fargo, this is where decisions are made that will decide our futures, and we’re going to confront them there. And then in early May, Bank of America will have its meeting in Charlotte. And occupiers and community groups and environmentalists and people from all over the country are going to be coming to Charlotte.

And in a way, I think we can think about it as the first convention. It’s going to be the convention of regular people, of the 99 percent, who are going to be saying to Bank of America, “It’s wrong that you’re stealing our homes. It’s wrong that you’re funding coal power—that you’re funding coal. It’s wrong that you’re ripping off students on student debt.” And I think we can really capture the imagination of the country by being at the Southern Wall Street—Charlotte—and demonstrating both inside the meetings with people who have proxies, who have bought shares, and outside, that the real decisions are made in corporate boardrooms, not in Washington, and that’s the place we have to be in the weeks and months ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you recommending people buy stock?

STEPHEN LERNER: Well, there’s a lot—you know, Bank of America shares were recently down to $5, so a lot of people have bought stock and are planning to go to that meeting and try to be citizen shareholder—taxpayer shareholders, and have a say. There’s a window. You have to buy it, I think, 60 days before the shareholder meeting to be eligible. So I’m not sure if the window’s shut. But lots of people have bought stock, and lots of people are going to go to Charlotte.

And I think the issue about—we’re calling it “confront corporate power,” is these meetings have the illusion of democracy. They say, “Oh, we’re going to have a vote of shareholders on corporate policies.” We want to lift up all the issues about how out-of-control Wall Street and corporate power are dragging the country down. And so, I think it’s going to be an opportunity to make the point again and again that unless regular people can have a say in how corporations run, that we’re not going to be able to fix the economy, we’re not going to be able to regain power in this country. So I urge everybody to think about coming to Charlotte—we don’t have the exact day of the meeting; it’s normally around a May 9th—and folks to come to San Francisco on April 24th, and directly confront the folks who have dragged the country down and get richer and richer at all of our expenses.

AMY GOODMAN: Frances Fox Piven, there is so much being made of the economy is improving, and Occupy movement in this country has gone away. The police have broken down the encampments. What is your assessment of that and—

FRANCES FOX PIVEN: Well, no, it’s not gone away. I don’t think it’s gone away at all. Everywhere I look, I hear about Occupy East Harlem, Occupy the South Bronx. I think Occupy has spread out. And this kind of mobilization, this kind of building outrage, confronts a financial steering mechanism in the American economy, which is very vulnerable. It’s very vulnerable to the indignation and outrage of the millions and millions of ordinary people who are losing their nest egg. They’re losing their home, everything they put into their hopes for a stable future. They’re losing their pensions. They are graduating from the college they worked so hard to get into and to stay in; they’re graduating with massive debts.

Well, in the background of this, there is, I think, the basic relationship between these lenders and these debtors. They have made so many Americans into debtors. Well, you know, it isn’t true, necessarily, that debtors are powerless and lenders have all the power, because the lenders depend on those debtors accepting their debts and putting their shoulder to the wheel and taking the extra job and working very hard until they pay the massive debts that have been piled on their heads. So I think financial America is—the financial corporations are also vulnerable at this point in time, if we can mobilize the indignation, the outrage of the people who have been screwed.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Piven, a number of your books have dealt with the Great Depression, also the social movements of the 1960s. Can you put Occupy in historical context?

FRANCES FOX PIVEN: Yes. I think that not only in the 1960s and in the Great Depression, but from the beginning of the American Republic, it has been these periodic risings of ordinary people that have humanized American society. And sometimes the reforms that were implemented in response to the outrage, the indignation and the defiance, sometimes they did not last. But something lasted. Something lasted of the Revolutionary-era mobs who demanded radical democracy. Something lasted of the struggle of abolitionists for the freeing of the slaves. And something lasted of the Populist movement. Something lasted of the labor uprisings of the 1930s. And of course a lot lasted of the victories of the civil rights movement.

But without these movements, what happens is that the big corporations of America really flood, overflow democratic processes with propaganda and with their lobbying and with their campaign contributions. Democracy doesn’t work in the absence of protest movements. Protest movements are what give us that part of democracy that we have achieved. And I’m absolutely convinced that Occupy is the beginning of another massive protest movement. Protest movements have a long life—10, 15 years—and they are what we have to rely on to take our country back.

AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Devereaux, you’ve been following the protesters on the ground. How are people organizing? Are they coming together? Are they splitting apart? Is there national organizing going on?

RYAN DEVEREAUX: There’s certainly national organizing going on, and, you know, there always has been communication between the different Occupy groups throughout the country. Here in New York City, they’ve taken it upon themselves to start sort of a spring training program. So every Friday they have people, supporters, meeting together to go over different ways to handle situations, you know, at public demonstrations, situations with police, how to work—

AMY GOODMAN: News has come out around Occupy being infiltrated by police, monitored by police, Occupy protesters being surveilled.

RYAN DEVEREAUX: Yeah. Well, tomorrow—well, tomorrow there’s going to be a rally. There’s going to be a press conference discussing the NYPD’s handling of Occupy Wall Street. There are going to be—Occupy Wall Street protesters are going to be calling on communities that have been affected by the police department, particularly heavily in recent months. We have the Muslim community that is citing these AP reports that indicate that the police have been monitoring the community for years, gathering intelligence and keeping them in some sort of—keeping that intelligence on record, even when there is no indication of wrongdoing. There are these massive numbers of stop-and-frisks that—stop-and-frisks, police stop-and-frisks in low-income communities, communities of color, throughout New York City that have been rising every year, that, many protesters point out, often lead to the sort of violent confrontations police have with citizens that you see at the protests, but they happen every day, you know, away from the cameras in communities that don’t get any attention, and they happen to, you know, young men, young men of color, generally. This is something that’s important to Occupy Wall Street protesters. They see an intersection between the concentration of wealth and power and the way that, you know, the police handle the public. So tomorrow there’s going to be—you know, they’re going to be having a press conference Saturday. They’re going to be calling on all these affected communities to come out for a day of action.

In the longer term, Occupy Wall Street is looking at targeting Bank of America with monthly actions, GE, Wells Fargo. There are a lot of things in the works. You know, what Occupy is really focusing on is having different sort of individual groups working together on—you know, they work on their projects, but these projects all have a purpose. And they work together in individual groups when they’re on the street and in larger campaigns.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Stephen Lerner, there was a very powerful moment a month into the Occupy Wall Street movement, after September 17th, when union presidents and union organizers, members of unions came out, tens of thousands of them, to Foley Square in New York City. They held a rally in support of Occupy, and then they marched to Occupy Wall Street. The issue of co-opting was raised even there, even by the union leaders, saying, “We’re not doing this to lead the movement, but to support the movement.” But what about now, the issue of where Occupy stands with unions, that you traditionally work with, with church organizations, with human rights and social justice groups? Do you see some kind of larger integration?

STEPHEN LERNER: You know, I think that’s the moment we’re in that’s so exciting. In California yesterday, a community group, ACCE, and the longshoremen reoccupied the home of a longshoreman that had been evicted from his home. I think we’re at that sweet spot where we don’t need to worry about co-opt—well, we should always worry about co-option—where the issue isn’t co-option, labor or Occupy or community groups. It’s the moment where we can come together and put millions of people in the street. It’s a moment where we can come together and talk about shutting down shareholder meetings where people don’t have a voice. I think there’s never been a more exciting time in my 30 years of organizing to imagine building the kind of movement that can transform the country, that can really talk about redistributing wealth and power. And there’s never a better time to get involved. I think the key thing we have to do is—there’s not one tactic, there’s not one thing folks should do; it’s the combination of many threads of work that will build this up to be the kind of movement that Frances talks about that changes this country for—changes this country in a historic and wonderful way.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us, Stephen Lerner, labor organizer, speaking to us from Washington, D.C.; Frances Fox Piven, City University of New York, author of numerous books; and Ryan Devereaux with The Guardian, following the protesters on the ground.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the contraceptive controversy continues to swirl and build. What about women’s right to choose how they will give birth and the corporate takeover of that? We’ll be joined by pioneering midwife, Ina May Gaskin. Stay with us.

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