interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
EDITOR’S NOTE: The introduction to the print version of this article states that Occupy San Diego is still holding General Assemblies (GA’s) at the Civic Center Plaza downtown. Will Johnson has since informed us that this is not true; so many Occupiers were arrested and given “stay-away orders” to keep out of Civic Center Plaza as a condition of their release that Occupy is no longer hosting GA’s there, though a city-permitted “Occupy the Arts” is scheduled for the Plaza on Saturday, June 9, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (visit www.womenoccupysandiego.org for more information). The information below as to the location and scheduling of the Occupy San Diego GA’s is correct. Zenger’s regrets the error.
Will Johnson is a bundle of energy. Attend virtually any event sponsored by Occupy San Diego (OSD) and you’ll see him all over the place. Though, as he confesses below, he wasn’t involved in Occupy San Diego during the heady first week — October 7-13, 2011 — once he did get down to San Diego’s Civic Center Plaza (“Freedom Plaza,” as the Occupiers redubbed it), he stayed.
I wanted to interview Will because the corporate media have almost universally reported on the Occupy movement as something that happened — past tense — and is now over. Certainly the mass occupations of big public spaces that gave Occupy its name and its original media exposure are mostly done, shut down by a coordinated campaign of police repression that made it clear that in 21st century America, you have far more freedom of speech if you’re celebrating corporate power and economic inequality than if you’re challenging them.
But there’s still a General Assembly — a “GA,” in Occupier parlance — every Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. at San Diego Children’s Park near the San Diego Convention Center, and another every Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. at the Redwood Circle on the 6th Avenue side of Balboa Park. Occupy San Diego still stages demonstrations, mostly targeting the mega-banks that got the government bailouts and have continued to run socially immoral and fiscally irresponsible operations like JP Morgan Chase’s recent $2 billion-plus loss on its own trading operations in London. OSD also works with other organizations on major events like the four May Day celebrations recently held in San Diego, a sort of morning-to-night floating festival of political and social activism throughout the city. And during May it held at least three soul-searching meetings to plot out its future purposes and plans for action.
What’s more, other Occupy movements have sprung up throughout the San Diego area. Cities in traditionally conservative North County have their Occupy movements going. So do the traditionally Latino Barrio Logan (where it’s called Occupemos el Barrio) and ethnically diverse City Heights neighborhoods of the city of San Diego. If nothing else, Occupy has put the issues of economic inequality and socioeconomic class before the American public in a big way. The phrase “We are the 99 percent” has become part of the language — and has inspired a response from the Right, “We are the 53 percent,” meaning the proportion of the population that pays U.S. income tax, implying that those too poor to do so are freeloaders mooching off the rest of us.
Though Will is clearly more comfortable actually doing activism than talking about it, he and I met for an interview one Sunday afternoon at Activist San Diego’s headquarters in City Heights — where Will actually lives as part of ASD’s five-person progressive residential collective — and he talked about Occupy’s current goals, its often misundertood way of making decisions, and what it’s meant to Will personally to participate in Occupy. For up-to-date information on Occupy San Diego, visit http://www.sandiegooccupy.org/
Zenger’s: First off, we ought to make it clear at the outset that you’re not speaking as an official representative of the Occupy movement. You’re just an individual who’s involved in it. So why don’t you tell me a little about your background, how you got into activism, how you got into Occupy.
Johnson: I really started getting into politics back when I was 14 or 15. I was involved in the Government Club on campus, and I would always debate people. I’d be sort of the “designated moderate,” because I was able to see both sides of any issue, and then be able to vocalize the varied opinions on either side. But I wouldn’t say that I really became an activist. I really started to become active, trying to make a change, when I was 21 at UCSD. This was back in 2010, when the entire Compton Cook-Out thing happened on campus.
Zenger’s: Just for the sake of our readers who might not remember that, could you talk a little about what that was?
Johnson: The Compton Cook-Out was a party that was located off campus. It was started by some fraternity guys, and what they were doing was racist. They encouraged people to dress really low budget and pretend like they were from the ghetto — talk, act, eat watermelon, do all these sorts of stereotypical “Black” things.
So we protested that on March 1 . We took over the Chancellor’s Complex at UCSD with the Black Student Union. That was really my first direct action experience. I was there with a whole bunch of my classmates, talking about the various issues around campus and singing songs. I thought we should sing “We Shall Overcome,” since it was supposed to be a civil-rights demonstration. The people running the Black Students Union were O.K. with that. Only nobody knew the lyrics, except for me. So here I am trying to lead everybody, and everything is off pitch. It was just an odd, fun, funny experience.
Three days later, on March 4, there was a walkout regarding the student fee increase. That year it was going up 32 percent. We were outraged by this obvious attempt at privatization of the university. So we organized people. We did marches on campus and downtown. It was a very intense and interesting day that would continue to influence my activities later on.
Zenger’s: That was about a year and a half before Occupy started. What did you do in the meantime?
Johnson: I’ve always been very, very passionate about poverty and issues of development. My major at UCSD was international studies, with emphasis on economics and economic development. So it’s something that I do want to work in at some point. So I would read all these articles and find out about all these different things that were going on in the world that were blasted all over my Facebook and, talk to people about the issues, but I wouldn’t really do too much in the way of actively working for change — aside from yelling a lot over the Internet, of course.
But as soon as summer started last year, I got a job working for the USA for UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] downtown. I was part of the first crew that they hired. I was there for two months, but I was let go because I didn’t make the quota. You needed to get two people a day to sign up for monthly donations, and that’s very, very difficult in a city that’s as apathetic as San Diego is. So I lost that job on August 30, 2011, and Occupy Wall Street started September 17.
I was still checking all my news sources, and they started talking about Occupy Wall Street. I got really, really excited about what this could be, considering all the events happening earlier that year in Egypt and Tunisia. Libya was still a really big issue at that time, as well as Syria. Syria, I was and still am heartbroken about. But I got really excited, and when Occupy Wall Street started — and then when Occupy San Diego started — I immediately followed that on Facebook, some of the larger Facebook profiles.
What actually got me down to Civic Center October 14 was I saw a tweet from Keith Olbermann saying that there were mounted patrols on horseback about to attack the Occupation in San Diego. That turned out to be false, but it still got me down there and I spent the entire night there waiting for the cops to come and tear it down. I sat down in a couple of circles, and started listening and then started talking to some people about what was going on. Then I just stayed. I would come back every day I Felt I was needed there.
I missed the entire first week of the encampment. People always talk about Day One: I wasn’t there Day One. I don’t know anything about Day One except for what I’ve seen in some pictures. But from Day Seven onward, I’ve been there.
Zenger’s: A lot of people, particularly in the mainstream media, are talking about Occupy in the past tense: like, “It happened. It’s over.” What would you say to someone who thought this was all over?
Johnson: Just because you don’t see tents doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who are passionate about this, are still going after these issues, still consider themselves part of Occupy and are still doing Occupy events. The entire tactic of occupation has somewhat ended here in San Diego. But the spirit of it is still living on within the movement as it is now.
Zenger’s: So what is Occupy doing now?
Johnson: Here in San Diego, we have been working on several campaigns. Most of these pertain to local issues, like the World Beat Center [an African-American cultural center on Park Boulevard in Balboa Park that was being threatened by a proposal to remodel the park]. We were very, very vocal about trying to save it. They still don’t have the 25-year lease they wanted, but at least it’s not going to be turned into a parking lot.
We also still do protests against banks. We take over bank corners and pass out flyers and informational materials, and we still participate in marches. We also participate in some solidarity actions with other organizations, like the Justice for Janitors movement. They’re part of the SEIU [Service Employees’ International Union]. We’ve been helping them with their events, and they’ve also been helping with ours, bringing people, stories and speakers. May Day was a very, very big action. Labor Solidarity [Occupy’s outreach to organized labor and working people generally] organized quite a bit of the activities that were happening that day. We all put in work. We made the schedule.
Right now we don’t have too many actions planned long-term, but Occupy here in San Diego has been spreading out. There are several different groups. There’s always been the one, the Occupations up in North County, Encinitas, Vista, Escondido. Reclaim UCSD is still up there at UCSD protesting the budget cuts and tuition hikes. Occupy City College is planning its own activities. OSD is right now pretty much flying by the seat of its pants. We’re getting ready for an Occupy the Arts event on June 9, and Occupy City Heights is starting up right now. But they have some major actions that they’re already planning. Also Labor Solidarity is still meeting at 12:30 p.m. at Civic Center Plaza every Saturday. Occupemos El Barrio, they’re everywhere in San Diego. You can find or create your own niche within Occupy.
Zenger’s: I know when Occupy was at its height, one of the main criticisms of it was that it didn’t have a specific set of demands. It has put the words “the 99 percent” and “the 1 percent” in the middle of popular discourse, but it was often criticized for not having any idea of, “O.K., well, so you think the inequality of wealth and income is a bad thing. What, specifically, do you want to do about it?” What specifically do you want to do about it?
Johnson: When 40 percent of all the wealth in the United States is owned by the top 1 percent, and 50 percent of the United States are just one paycheck away from poverty, what I think needs to happen is a Keynesian-like spending program that can create a lot of middle-class jobs. Whether they’re in the public or private sector doesn’t really matter too much, as long as we’re able to create some jobs in the long term for the American populace that will pay them a living wage.
Zenger’s: Of course, the arguments that are dominating the political discourse right now are, if anything, just the opposite: that we have to really severely cut back government spending. We have to do more of what in Europe is called an austerity program. We have to stop the growth of the government debt. We have to cut taxes on the rich so that they’ll have more money to invest because, according to this line of thinking, the line of thinking of the Right and the Tea Party, the only way we’re ever going to have a recovery is if we give scads of money to the private sector, and they will create the jobs, because the public sector doesn’t actually create anything. It just takes money away from the private sector, and we need, according to them, to stop doing that.
How would you respond to that, and how do you think groups like Occupy can fight an ideological battle against that particular point of view, which has a lot of popularity in this country and is being pushed very heavily by the corporate media?
Johnson: I was listening to an interview with [economist and New York Times columnist] Paul Krugman earlier this morning, and he said that these sorts of austerity measures they’re trying to implement here in the United States, cutting taxes and spending across the board, don’t stimulate the economy. What stimulates the economy is spending. You’ve got to keep the cycle moving. You’ve got to keep transferring wealth to and from each other. You’ve got to create actual products. You’ve got to create capital.
When you free up money for the richest people, that doesn’t do too much for the economy because their tendency is to sit on it, not spend it. Whereas if you give money to the 99 percent, like the middle class, the lower class, the impoverished, they will spend that money. That will cycle back into the economy, because they’re spending money on products that they actually buy. Their money will go into a company, which will pay people to make things, and their workers will then buy something else. That’s how you grow an economy. When you put on the brakes of spending, the economy stops growing.
Zenger’s: One of the interesting things that’s happened lately is we’ve seen voters in Europe, particularly in France and Greece, rebelling against the austerity programs: that they have a sense that their economy is not working. And you’ve got parties that were historically on the extreme Left and parties historically on the extreme Right both running against the center-Left and center-Right parties, saying, “Enough with the austerity already.”
In this country we don’t seem to have any Right-wingers who dare question the austerity gospel. The only alternative voters in this country are going to have to President Obama and the status quo is Mitt Romney, who I think is a charter member of the 0.001 percent, and is saying even more tax breaks for the rich, more cuts in government spending, more austerity, more of what you’re saying hasn’t worked.
Johnson: The Republican economic program is total nonsense. But unfortunately, at least for the American public, the Republicans in Congress understand the concept of solidarity. They know that their policies are messed up. They know that they don’t work. And they’re in the pockets of Wall Street. But because they stick together, they’re able to maintain this sort of narrative and convince people their policies are valid.
Zenger’s: Ralph Nader said in his 2000 campaign that the United States doesn’t have two political parties. It has one political party with two Right wings. Similarly, I think that America has essentially two corporate media parties, the center-Right and the far Right. And one of the points Thomas Frank made in his book Pity the Billionaire is that Americans see that what we have now is not working, but when they look for something to replace it, they’re going to go farther to the Right because that’s all they’re hearing.
You have this enormous Right-wing media machine — talk radio and Fox News— just repeating this over and over again: “Too much government spending. Not enough capital for rich people because the government is taking it all away. So we’ve got to get government off the backs of the rich,” and, as they like to say, “unleash the private sector.” They used to call it “trickle-down economics.” Then they called it “supply-side economics.” Now they call it “unleashing the private sector.” And Thomas Frank is predicting people are going to vote for that simply because it’s the only alternative they’re being presented. A lot of people had hopes, when the Occupy movement started, that it might put a more progressive alternative on the table.
Johnson: We sort of hoped it would, too, quite frankly. And we do think that our voice has been getting heard somewhat. I’ve heard talk of “the 99 percent” and “the 1 percent” on the radio hundreds of times now. And these questions about wealth and equality didn’t seem to be too present before. So I think our ideas are penetrating through this machine.
Zenger’s: What do you think has to happen to get the message of Occupy more into the broader American consciousness, and get it into the political system so it isn’t just a choice between Obama talking a good game and delivering for Wall Street, and Mitt Romney talking Wall Street’s game and delivering for Wall Street?
Johnson: I think that people need to begin to understand what impact everything that they do has on their lives and on the community. As an Occupier, I’m constantly thinking about what I’m doing, where I have got these things from, what went into making this product, what am I putting into my body, where did my food come from, and how I fit into — as a cog in the American economy, and in our entire social structure.
What I see from sort of growing up in the suburbs, living a very consumerist lifestyle, I’ve seen that people totally ignore these little questions, and assume that things are going right, or that people are doing right. People know about sweatshops, but they’re finally starting to understand Foxconn [the controversial Chinese assembly plant where many of Apple’s products are made]. We need to be more aware of what these corporations do, and how they manipulate you into thinking that what they’re doing is positive.
Chevron will have you buy their gas, and then they’ll plaster their ads all over the TV claiming how they’re creating these alternative energy solutions — which really amount to little or nothing, because their money is still in oil, and it will be in oil for quite some time. People see these lies, and they digest it as truth. I call it sort of sheep-like behavior: following, and then pretty much just ignoring problems that are quite apparent.
Zenger’s: So what you’re saying, then, is in a somewhat different way than the feminists meant it in the 1970’s, people need to see that the personal is political: that every time you buy something, you’re voting with your money for a whole host of things corporations do that you may not like. And that may ultimately be hurting you and your ability to make a living and function in this economy, but you do them anyway.
I know, for example, I’ve somewhat startled some of my friends when I say, with a tone of righteous indignation in my voice, “I have never set foot inside a Wal-Mart, and I never will.” They just look at me and wonder, “Mark, why are you making such a big deal out of it? What’s wrong with getting a bunch of cheap stuff?”
Johnson: Well, the main problem is that you’re feeding your money to these people who essentially do bad things. The problem with going to Wal-Mart is their prices aren’t particularly cheaper, they have horrible labor practices, they pay most of their employees minimum wage. It’s just a money funnel. All the money from the 99 percent gets extracted from them through these massive corporations that they are brainwashed into thinking are the best places to shop. And it all just gets funneled into the 1 percent.
Zenger’s: So what you’re saying is, rather than think they’re going to change things at the ballot box, people should be more aware of where they’re spending their money and what sorts of corporate practices they’re encouraging by how they spend their money.
Johnson: Yes. The ballot box isn’t the only place where change can be instituted. I mean, you get Election Day one day every two years. You shop almost every day.
Zenger’s: One thing that’s confused a lot of people about Occupy is the way it’s governed. All the talk about “horizontal decision-making” and “a leaderless organization” really baffles a lot of people. Just before Occupy started, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker about the Arab Spring, and he said that if you’re going to take on a hierarchy you need to be a hierarchy yourselves. The labor movement in the 1930’s was run hierarchically. The civil-rights movement in the 1960’s was run hierarchically.
A lot of people think one of the reasons the Left has fallen from influence in this country is it’s hamstrung itself with “consensus decision-making” a.k.a. “non-hierarchical decision-making” a.k.a. “horizontal decision-making” that has, in their analysis, led to organizational confusion and paralysis. What, in your experience, is Occupy’s decision-making method, and what’s good about it?
Johnson: Occupy’s decision-making method runs on consensus. For the longest time it was the 100 percent model, but we’ve just recently dropped it down to a 90 percent consensus model. That that if there’s no real opposition to any sort of proposal, then you go through with it. Then you’re essentially all in agreement. It’s a way of making formal agreements between a group of people, similar to the idea of voting.
Consensus does take time, because it’s important to get people’s opinions out there and get a diversity of opinions out there. So people need to be patient. They need to be able to listen, to comprehend perhaps abstract topics or thoughts that they may never have had before, or ways of thinking that they may not have had before. But consensus essentially works the way that you want it to. You can talk to the group. It’s essentially just trying to convince the people around you to do something.
Zenger’s: One of the objections to consensus decision-making has often been that because it takes time, because it requires patience, it’s difficult to deal with an emergency situation, especially when the other side attacks. You have a long history of consensus organizations, from the Paris Commune of 1870 to the Occupations, suddenly shut down because all this consensus and all this process and all this coming to agreement and whatnot left them absolutely paralyzed when the bad guys attacked.
Johnson: As I said before, time isn’t necessarily on the side of the consensus model. But it really just takes one clear head to create a motion, create a plan, tell people about it and get them involved in doing it. Consensus tends to work slower, depending on whatever topic or situation, but with a little bit of focus and some just getting down to business, you can make some very, very good decisions rather fast.
Zenger’s: So what do you think is the future of the Occupy movement, and also how do you see your own future, both as a part of it and with the rest of your life?
Johnson: It’s really hard for me to say. As far as the future of Occupy, we’re still going to be active, and fighting back against the banks and the corporate 1 percent, probably for the foreseeable future. Whether or not it is Occupy is still up in the air, but the people and the sentiment are still going to be there. The idea will live on, I guess.
As far as what I’m doing, I really don’t know. I can’t see past Thursday!