SOC 454 – Sociological Perspectives on Earth in Crisis – Winter 2015
California State University Los Angeles For Dr. Talcott
by Ana Orozco, Erik Khachaturyan, and Greg Foisie
SOC 454 – Winter 2015 – Group Final Project – Section #1 – Interview Transcript Final #2
Our CSULA student group sought to interview Occupy Venice, and we were given opportunities to approach three individuals for this purpose. Of the two interviews that actually occurred, we chose the following interview for our class project’s transcription. We would like to thank everyone at Occupy Venice for allowing us to spend time with them, for the chance to participate in some of their activities, and for the thoughtful gifts they provided us.
Occupy Venice Interview Transcript — Interviewing Mike Chamness at Sector 4, Venice, CA on February 15, 2015 while we were all helping prepare food for the potluck by cleaning and cutting up vegetables. Interviewee: Mike. Interviewers: Greg, Ana, and Erick. (This transcript has been revised by the interviewee and interviewers to make it easier to read & access information examples.)
GREG: What is your name and how old are you?
MIKE: My name is Michael Chamness. I’m 44 & a half.
GREG: When did Occupy Venice start?
MIKE: Around September 23, 2011 or thereabouts.
GREG: How long have you been active?
MIKE: Since September 24, 2011 or thereabouts.
GREG: Can you please tell us a little bit about what Occupied Venice is about, what it does, and why does it?
MIKE: Occupy Venice started up when a handful of Venice locals that had been heading downtown every day to Occupy LA basically organized themselves and decided that Windward Circle (in Venice) was a perfect spot to set up for meetings and to maybe organize a few actions. It’s centrally located and very visible and made perfect sense at the time. Some of the core members rallied a couple local artists to make banners and signs and then the crew marched across the street one day and more or less took the circle. Once word got out, people began showing up with tables, chairs, yoga mats, tents and a larger scale public assembly more or less evolved from there, which is something Occupy LA and other Occupy movements had been establishing as a way to make decisions. Code Pink showed up and the press was starting to roll by as well. We adopted the principle statements of OWS as a guide and an orientation for new attendees was set up. Food from local restaurants and coffee shops was making its way over on a daily basis and the support was really incredible. I remember that a huge contingent of the unhoused community joined the circle with a big banner on the second day, which was pretty amazing to see.
Over the first two days it was a bit chaotic, and the police would roll by pretty consistently so liaisons were established to talk with Pacific Division. We broke up into working groups and took on different tasks, from coordinating outreach to food service to facilitating that day’s meeting agenda. Bands rolled by to play and DJs
set up. There was a crew to stay on top of garbage and recycling duties. Assemblies at the circle were scheduled twice a day, and within two or 3 days were growing from a few dozen people to nearly 75-80 some evenings. A lot of organizing was taking place and we had a couple spontaneous marches around Venice to get the blood flowing. Lots of honking horns and raised fists from cars that were cruising by the circle too. Taking public space to hold meetings and connecting face to face with neighbors was pretty unique. Communities just don’t connect that way anymore. It seemed everybody had the same idea at the same time, and now we had the people’s attention. Feel free to check out Marco and Alex Mannone’s “Occupied Venice Journal” on Youtube. It’s a series they created tracking the evolution of OV up to raid night downtown at OLA. It’s a great rundown of the origins of occupy and OV. It’s a wild set of videos. Uprisings can get wacky.
GREG: Can you tell me about the different issues that Occupy Venice tends to raise awareness about? If there was just one issue you would like to see coming to an end, what would it be … the number one thing if you had to choose out of all the different things Occupy Venice advocates for? If there was one thing you liked to see change? What would it be?
MIKE: In my opinion I would say probably the elimination of hunger and poverty to start, because poverty is entirely man-made – it is a direct result of public policies and failed priorities. We could stop it tomorrow. Most of the issues Occupy Venice deals with now are rooted in unhoused and homeless rights, food security and fighting GMOs, fighting the illegal boardwalk curfew, organizing civil rights and activist trainings, exposing the impacts of gentrification and pushing for affordable housing, supporting the adoption of the Homeless Bill of Rights, monitoring the monthly sweeps, and generally combating evil. We’ve coordinated actions and events with Vets for Peace, Code Pink, Occupy Fights Foreclosures, the Venice Justice Committee, LA Community Action Network, and the Black Lives Matter movement and also work closely with Food & Water Watch to expose the evil corporate takeover that is the Trans Pacific Partnership and fight fracking in LA. Frack is wack, by the way.
GREG: Great. Can you tell me whether you consider Occupied Venice to be a protest group in the classic sense of the word “protest?”
MIKE: Protest is one tactic. Depends how one defines it. It’s a broad category. But yeah it’s important to hit the streets when need be. Early on we made a conscious effort to plan actions and create good stories aka make issues newsworthy, and at the same time get people’s asses outside, because revolution is good exercise. Stuff like occupying the Rose Bowl Parade over the last three years has exposed our messages to hundreds of thousands. Rolling our floats in something like that or the King Day March is damn exciting and gets the fists pumping. But we also make a point to focus on education and ongoing community service projects in addition to organizing protests. Long term movements create options for plugging people in and empowering folks to step up in whatever way they choose to. You really need to turn people on before you can turn them out. Actions are good for getting headlines and reaching people, but they work better when combined with ongoing campaigns. OV created about a half dozen ongoing projects early on to accomplish just that; projects that serve a number of needs in terms of education, outreach, service for the community, and creating “resource streams”, to put it bluntly. Those projects include weekly feedings with the People’s Potluck, our ongoing Doccupy community discussion events, monthly Feed the People fundraisers, our food growing plots at the Venice Learning Garden, producing the Occupy Illustrated newsletter, distributing civil rights information, giving out donated goods, helping coordinate the free safe storage program with Venice Community Housing, weekly planning meetings and hosting the Community Sleep Out when we can. There’s a lot to do.
Occupy originally arose from the need to create opportunities for people to educate themselves, make decisions, and act outside of the dysfunctional systems of government. And they were also huge social events and a method for reconnecting with our neighbors on a grand scale, so in many cases what happened was that
public engagement actions on Windward Circle evolved into things like regular outreach events, teach-ins, and feeding people to provide a conduit for things like direct actions, marches, and rallies. One project feeds the other. And the response has been good. For the last two years the Venice Neighborhood Council gave us $2,000 to help us organize the Doccupy Film Series and town hall discussions at Electric Lodge. Those have gotten big. We average about 7-80 or so now. We’ve covered about two dozen topics in the last three years, from civil rights to police surveillance, homeless issues & gentrification to alternative economics, urban farming to fracking. The focus is on solutions, on “What do I do the next day to affect change” and by design include local groups doing good work. Public officials and their staff come by them now. Hopefully they’re paying attention.
GREG: You just answered my next question. I want to get more specific about it … can you explain more about the diversity of issues Occupy Venice represents? You are making connections with so many of them … can you explain the thought process by which you see such diverse issues converging? You are talking about many subjects in terms of poverty being the main concern. How do you go from bank gangsterism to the global financial meltdown, and then to things like fracking and homelessness – all kinds of desperate issues – how do you put them all together?
MIKE: Just by proximity, Venice is at the epicenter of many of the issues we’re talking about, from the increasing criminalization of homelessness to fracking along major fault lines in Baldwin Hills. And of course there are significant housing and police brutality issues that impact people in our community, and those are tied into the forces at work with the hypergentrification we see going on now. Environmental racism and water issues come out of the fracking work, and food security/urban agriculture is rooted in access to resources and channels back into GMOs, climate change, self-reliance, and sustainability. And those issues are directly affected by things like the TPP and rapid erosion of our civil rights in all areas. It’s all interconnected, and it’s critical to address and act on these issues with a systemic analysis of privilege, poverty, race, and economic equity. That’s why we need to look at alternatives to capitalism, fight the rapidly commodification of our natural resources, and reverse the ongoing privatization of the commons that drive these inequalities and are very quickly destroying the planet’s ecosystems. For the first time in our human history the planet has a deadline. The science is in on that. No planet, no economy. No water, no life. Pretty simple.
As for our members, lot of OV people came from different movements and bring some amazing skills and perspectives. We have had a diverse mix over the years – artist activists, labor and immigration rights representatives, public officials, occupy activists from other parts of the country, authors, local business owners, news reporters, urban gardeners, tech experts, professors, attorneys, clowns, etc. People bring to the table whatever they think we need to explore and organize around.
As for addressing social justice issues like civil rights, racism, and police brutality, the protests regarding the Ron Weekley Jr. incident in 2012 and citywide Black Lives Matter actions have been something of a bellwether for OV. Ron is the teenage son of Reverend Ronald Weekley Sr, a pastor of the First Baptist Church on 7th. In 2012 a Metro police unit decided to detain him for skating on the wrong side of the street. They threw Ron Jr onto the sidewalk and brutally beat him and eventually arrested him, leaving him with a series of ongoing head injuries and serious PTSD that he still struggles with. The arrest was caught on video and a coalition arose in the following weeks that held marches in Venice to demand justice for Ron Jr. OV co-hosted public outreach and civil rights workshops at the church with Reverend Weekly Sr as a part of the community response, resulting in a set of demands that were sent to the LAPD. Working alongside the church and Ron Sr changed our group in a lot of significant ways and broadened the focus of Occupy Venice. Our ongoing solidarity actions with the Black Lives Matter movement in LA and the emerging fight against police militarization are critical too. It’s also served as an example of how OV was more than a group fighting income inequality and Wall Street.
GREG: How do you bring it all together? You’re talking about all decisions that are really important. Are they all interconnected?
MIKE: As we mentioned interconnectivity is the truth of it, but intersectionality would be the more appropriate term. It’s viewing issues from a wide angle lens. Like fighting institutionalized oppression power at every turn, but focusing on practical and achievable solutions. Building bridges is both the challenge and opportunity, and we need to know that we have more in common than we’d like to admit. It’s always been a tough issue to crack for the left or progressive populists. Even in light of the obvious nuances and love of different tactics, how do we approach the inevitable rationalization that we’re all in this together? In my opinion, the basic physics of climate change and ongoing resource depletion expose that pretty clearly. But how do you build that coalition?
May Day is a good example. In 2012 OV was part of a huge coalition that co-organized a massive march to downtown LA from four directions throughout the city. Caravans converged from the San Fernando Valley, East LA, South Los Angeles, and the Westside. OV marched from the ocean to Pershing Square with activists from a host of groups like Vets for Peace, March Against Monsanto, the Topanga Peace Alliance, Code Pink, Food & Water Watch, Surfrider Foundation, and POWER, and converged with the massive union and immigration rights marches downtown, creating a day of action that included tens of thousands. It was an absolutely amazing show of solidarity. So many different types of causes coming together simultaneously, and the understanding that while there are tremendous forces at work preserving the spoils of the 1%, at the same time we all need clean air, clean water, food, quality education and basic human rights; needs that are clearly not a priority among the corporate capitalist systems pillaging the planet with the collusion of our government leaders. And that we can act in unison when we want to. We have to. No choice really.
GREG: At CSULA we were exposed to a movie in class called Cowspiracy. This is a movie that essentially points out that while fracking and other factors contribute to global warming, the largest contributor to global warming is the animal agriculture industry – particularly the raising of animals for meat and dairy – the deforestation that accompanies the production of meat and dairy, and those gases from the animals themselves that contribute up to 51% of the greenhouse effect with the burning of fossil fuels being a relatively small number in comparison of 18%. This movie is having a lot of impact right now, and half of the movie is focusing on the Big Green Nonprofit organization. You know: The Sierra Club, the Rainforest Defense Network, etc. Essentially most of those groups are not addressing the issue of industrial animal husbandry’s huge effect on global warming because it is not a popular topic. They have determined from polling indicators that it is not a winner.
MIKE: Are you talking about a specific diet?
GREG: They are essentially looking at different things: the huge demands of the agricultural industry for water and food (used as animal feed) is one subject they go into – that producing minimal amounts of food (meat and dairy) from tons of these resources is not right. And the byproduct of all of this is the overwhelming destructiveness of (deforestation and) all of the greenhouse gas emissions and their effects. Occupy Venice is dealing with the fracking issue, but not this other larger issue connected to greenhouse gases. Why is it that Occupy Venice is not also concentrating on this larger issue?
MIKE: Because nobody has brought it to our GA (General Assembly) and proposed to do it. Feel free to stop by. Our meetings at Beyond Baroque on Monday nights at 8pm.
MIKE: GA is where we create the projects we develop. All that information I am sure is accurate, but you are
closer to the detail of that issue. I understand the largest contributor C02 is the generation of electricity by coal-fired plants for cities, and then automobiles and vehicles associated with moving food products. That is the connection I think can be made, but the idea here again is that we do not have a lot of large scale factory farms in LA. If we did, and if it was an issue where we could do something about it, I think we would see more direct involvement. But yeah, I totally agree that the animal production side of global warming is impacting the planet in a lot of ways, and the decimation of rain forest to raise cattle for meat is something people have talked about for decades. It also dramatically impacts water stocks and there are animal cruelty issues. And there are labor rights and trade issues regarding global livestock production as well.
GREG: We are talking about that now (in class). We were also shown another film series based on a series of articles in the LA Times. (Richard Marosi and Don Bartletti, “Hardship on Mexico’s farms, a bounty for U.S. tables.” http://graphics.latimes.com/product-of-mexico-camps/) This film series used on-site videos to expose Mexican companies that take advantage of Mexican labor in Mexico to give us cheap tomatoes here (in the USA).
MIKE: Yes, that is the movie “Food Chains”. We screened that at the Venice Learning Garden two weeks ago. It’s a really good documentary exposing the systemic abuse of migrant workers and how they’re organizing resistance actions globally. Highly recommended.
GREG: I was wondering if you can please talk a little bit about activism and democracy. Can you talk a little about the GAs (General Assemblies)? Are they really an example as far as participatory democracy goes with people getting involved to take responsibilities for the group? Can you talk about that in relation to the activism idea being really critical and about your work on that to advance your interests?
MIKE: Activism is what makes democracy work, basically. And in light of the increasingly futile ritual of voting in a two party duopoly and the glacial pace of institutionalized change, new kinds of more direct democratic engagement become necessary. True democracy is citizen engagement and mobilization. And that’s what the General Assembly concept is based on.
The GA model used by Occupy Wall Street and the other occupies was directly inspired by the Indignados town square meeting process in Spain. The global economic crisis hit Spain hard, and their economy bottomed out in 2008 and 2009. Unemployment was 30 to 40%, and communities were gathering in town squares and public spaces to organize in response to austerity policies and creating communal relief programs. Residents would get together en masse in parks to talk and plan. As these meetings grew to thousands of people, they developed a series of facilitation tools and hand signals that allowed them to communicate and make decisions on a much larger scale. Consensus (aspiring to 100% agreement through amendments, etc) was used to determine decisions. People sign up to get on the agenda to introduce topics and use hand signals to ask questions, indicate agreement, change a topic, or express discontent. Instead of having a time-intensive roll call of yea or nay votes, you had everybody indicate their positions with the hand signals. This also gave a visual sense of where people stood among thousands of faces on an issue without tabulating votes and was intended to streamline daily decision making.
We have actually tried few times to hold large GAs in the community with unhoused and occupy activists. There were fairly successful. About two years ago we help facilitate a large scale GA on 3rd with about 50-60 members of the neighborhood while some of the largest police sweeps were taking place and hosted a couple GA and facilitation trainings on the boardwalk. Those involved educating about municipal laws that regulate sleeping on city sidewalks from 9pm-6am (the Jones Settlement) and rules governing the confiscation of property on the street by the city (the Lavan Agreement) and various regs regarding overnight parking districts, heightrequirements for vehicles for people who live in their cars, vans and RVs. We use a modified version of consensus now in our regular weekly GA meetings.
ANA: When did OV start the Sleep Outs?
MIKE: The first solidarity Sleep Out was actually organized by Venice Community Housing four years ago. It was about 50 to 60 people hanging out on the grass at Beyond Baroque in Venice. The 24 hour action was designed to allow the unhoused to enjoy a safe space and an uninterrupted restful sleep without police harassment. Folks showed up with food and sleeping bag donations. Some guy with a bunch of miniature cardboard tents was there giving them out. It was a great idea, and OV organized the second one a year later that brought the Venice unhoused community together with other nonprofits and relief groups and featured free donated food, music, activist trainings, legal clinics, an art auction, health and dental check-ups, speakers, clothing donations, yoga, massage, comedy, and a flick. I think there were about 8-10 local community groups tabling and a few offering on-site services too. We gave out dozens of arrest rights t-shirts and served three meals with the help of restaurants and received big food donations from some grocery stores. Donna Factor made a huge interactive Chutes & Ladders game that replicated the experience of becoming homeless. It was really impressive. A work of art really. Kids and adults alike were fascinated by it. So many people stepped up to volunteer at that one and the most common reactions were “How can I get involved?” and “Can we do this next month?”. It was pretty incredible. That second one attracted 200-300 unhoused people. The third Sleep Out in 2013 was equally large and also attracted about 300 folks.
GREG: Mike, can I ask you a question? I met this homeless woman the other night and basically she had nothing, and I was trying to think of when they bring out the sleeping bags, how can I get her one?
MIKE: We don’t have sleeping bags until people donate them, but we give them out as soon as we get them in. We also help distribute sleeping bags as a part of VCH’s larger distribution effort, where 100 bags are given out every few months. The next sleeping bag distribution is coming up soon.
GREG: She doesn’t want to go to a shelter. Is there anywhere else I could send her to get her inside.
MIKE: VCH has emergency blankets on hand and we give those out at the free safe storage site on the beach. Or send her to OPCC in Santa Monica. They provide services for the homeless, and they’d give her a shower and a meal. Venice has no shelters.
GREG: So Santa Monica OPCC (Ocean Pacific Community Center).
MIKE: It’s over by the 10 Freeway (Olympic @ 7th St. in Santa Monica, CA – https://www.opcc.net. It’s one of the places people can go on the westside to receive referral service. The winter shelter at the armory at the VA is only open 3 months of the year (Dec-Feb), and it’s closed now.
ANA: I’m interested in knowing how do you guys go about getting all the funding and getting other organizations to collaborate with you and help you?
MIKE: Well, we have received donations from a lot of individuals and organizations, including locally owned businesses. We make a point of not partnering or collaborating with, you know, any big nasty multinational conglomerates. We get a lot of great donated stuff from area thrift stores and give that out during our People’s Potluck feedings every Sunday. The VNC has awarded us two grants to support our Doccupy series. Folks kick down for our shirts and toss us money for food every once in a while too. I remember we got a fairly large donation of food from Whole Foods for the Sleep Out in 2012. And that was in large part because the manager was a badass to be quite honest. Very supportive.
GREG: But I mean, that’s a corporation.
MIKE: It is. Basically the employees vote to determine which groups to support through their contributions program. And they chose us that year. They were very generous. We didn’t really accept a corporate cash donation as much as needed food. But that’s about the only big one we’ve received. Because we aren’t a non-profit, we can’t submit formal grants per se, but we do accept what people want to give us. We rely heavily on the generosity of those who step up.
In terms of fundraising, we try as much as possible to focus on trading, barter, and in-kind donations and not so much on cash. We try to avoid the money side of it, and lock into the creative alternative economy philosophy. Alternatives we advocate include time banks, work trades, and community currencies. Mar Vista, Echo Park, and Silver Lake have an active time bank that lists hundreds of residents offering an endless list of services. It’s a straight up hour-for-hour transaction. Many services are available in the community that people are willing to devote an hour for, such as babysitting, landscaping, instruction, whatever. Besides the disconnection from the dollar, the concept builds equity and realigns our notion of economic value. It takes this kind of egalitarian commitment of time and contribution to create healthy, well connected communities.
ANA: So where does the group or the movement do its actual work?
MIKE: Everywhere. We’ve gathered in parks and the boardwalk. Parking lots sometimes. Now we gather weekly at Beyond Baroque. We cook at a local home kitchen. We’ve hosted events at neighborhood venues, local clubs, and in backyards if need be. Early on Occupy Venice held its meetings twice a day at Windward Circle but that got crazy with the cars and a bit unsafe for folks to access. So we found other spots to hold our outdoor meetings for a while, though we’ve had events out there and retaken it for special rallies like our big two day anti-curfew action in Jan 2014.
A few things changed with our capacity after the big raid downtown in Nov 2011. Our meetings got huge, for one. 35-40 people some nights. Three times a week. People came in from Long Beach, East LA, the Valley. It was welcome, but overwhelming. We’d always been blessed with hosting occupiers and activists from other groups that wanted to see what we were up to, but after the CIty Hall raid a lot of those OLA activists rolled over to Occupy Venice to continue organizing. There were posters all over City Hall that week saying “The revolution is moving to the beach”, which it did in a way. Point is we inherited a big crew who were ready to start Occupy 2.0. So we took the larger scale public assembly model at the circle and modified it to function in smaller spaces.
Absurdly large committees were the norm then as well but over the years we’ve made decision-making more efficient and consolidated our topical committees into project focused gatherings where everyone plans and steps up as needed for regular actions like marches and weekly stuff like the feedings. Let’s face it, committees can suck and get buried in process, so we changed it up. We already all attend enough damn meetings in Venice as it is, so it’s important to make it enjoyable as opposed to forcing structure on people. We’ve probably had five different versions of a dozen committees over the years that have basically evolved into what we have now, which is kind of a autonomous collective of folks that work in their own particular areas of interest and let folks serve as lead on different projects. Division of labor type stuff. We trust each other to do good work. It’s like family. And we have cookies.
ANA: When did you guys start feeding the homeless?
MIKE: After our fourth Sleep Out got rained out in Nov 2013 we decided on the fly to pack up a van with donated goods and take the food to the people. The police were coming in and cracking down on food on the boardwalk, and we packed up and hit the streets on Thanksgiving night with hot soup and clothes. From there it evolved into something we called the We Caravan. The excursions were sporadic and, to be honest, pretty expensive, so we only did maybe 3-4 of them in 2013 and 2014. Last August some members of the unhoused boardwalk community mentioned at one of our meetings that food was really becoming scarce, and Give a Penny (another food relief operation) had folded up. We thought of the Peoples Potluck idea pretty much right there. Because we didn’t have a lot of money to pay for food, we decided the potluck aspect would accomplish two important things – 1) feed people who were hungry, and 2) allow the whole community to contribute by bringing their own food. And it meant we didn’t have to buy it all. So we made it our new weekly event and began promoting it along with all the other outreach stuff. Pretty quickly we had calls coming in from people wanting to donate leftover food from weddings, political events, and from film crews who felt obliged to give us their craft services stuff. We got offers from Panera Bread, cafes, and local bakeries. It worked out beautifully. That was August 2014. We haven’t missed a Sunday since. But now it’s all about coordinating with other food relief groups so we don’t overlap. The Share A Meal food truck and local high school kids go out on specific nights so we try to accommodate for that. It’s really in the tradition of Food Not Bombs. Food insecurity is a critical problem.
ANA: So if I was, for example, able to have someone give food, would I be able to call someone or come and drop it off any day of the week?
ANA: Will you be dropping it off to them?
MIKE: We could come by to pick up what you have. It has to be food that is obviously not spoiled and has to be servable. We’ll pick up on the westside.
ANA: Do people come by the feedings?
MIKE: Yeah, there are a lot of people in the homeless community that help and come by to cook, help build floats, and contribute as part of the local activist Venice community. That’s the point, really. So many people with valuable skills and a need to connect. It’s a humanization process too. Just be human. Reach out. Talk. There are always those who are recently made homeless because of evictions, job loss, etc. The housing prices in Venice and the hypergentrification are really taking a toll. So you do what you can to re-engage. In addition to the feedings and clothes we also do what we can to inform them of their rights and hand out legal information. We distribute t-shirts out that list their rights when dealing with police so when police come around they know what to say and not to say. But, yeah, there are a lot of ways people can contribute; it doesn’t matter what your interest is, just that your time is valued and important.
ANA: They can bring their talents.
MIKE: Absolutely. We have projects that anybody can contribute to. Kids even. There are kids that come by with their parents and help serve food for our potluck feedings on 3rd & Rose. How cool is that? This eight year old kid who is the son of a OV member is also a regular at our protests too. He’s been on the news a few times going off on net neutrality and the Trans Pacific Partnership. He basically schools the reporters. He just rocks it. No holding back. It’s pretty inspiring. There are so many ways people can give a shit.
Another way to rustle the feathers is the Occupy Rose Bowl Parade, which we’ve done four years in a row, and the 4th of July Parade in Santa Monica. We hit the King Day parade as well. It’s all politically relevant and fun as hell. Street theater is a great. You reach a lot of people. For the first 4th of July parade we posed as fake FBI agents and videotaped the crowd to highlight the NSA surveillance issue. People loved it…strangely enough. Last years 4th of July Parade theme was “May the Fourth Be with You,” so it became the 4th amendment for us. We had the Death Star on top of a float with a bunch of Darth Vader CEO’S and storm troopers getting their ass kicked by the Rebel Alliance. Our banner was Stop Wars. Good fun. It has to be fun – that’s important. But you also get thousands of eyeballs.
GREG: So, this is for … it’s kind of guided by the content of our course – This Changes Everything is a book by Naomi Klein we are reading … and she’s really outspoken against capitalism. She also has a conceptual framework – she believes that capitalism as an economic system is exacerbating and causing global warming. We want to know if you personally or if Occupy Venice thinks that capitalism is completely wrong? If you feel that way, why, and if you don’t feel that way, why?
MIKE: Considering that as the dominant economic system it’s put our planet on the brink of a mass extinction, yeah, I’d agree with her assessment. Maximize profits, externalize costs. Privatize the commons. Create an elite monied class. That’s its MO. And now we’re in the End Game, facing a dying ecosystem, skyrocketing income inequality, an increasingly undemocratic trend towards complete corporate control of global wealth, rapidly accelerating climate change, and massive resource shortages at every level. And the only option our leaders can come up with is to just force feed everyone more of the same neoliberal economic colonialism shit. And let’s remember you can’t buy your way out of this problem. For the greediest of the greedy, purchasing an island and trying to escape isn’t really an option. The earth’s ecosystems and ocean food supplies are collapsing. We’re all in this together. So yes, her viewpoint closely follows ours – that capitalism is completely unsustainable and inherently inequitable.
So what’s the solution? How do we unfuck the world? Well let’s stop doing what we know doesn’t work for everyone. Global trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership will just accelerate the problems as they are designed to gut a nation’s environmental and labor laws while undermining and sovereignty and democracy. They don’t do a damn thing to address the fundamental dilemma – infinite demand and finite resources. What’s the most humane and fair way to ensure people have access to essentials like food, water, and energy while we preserve our collective survival and the planet’s species? To be blunt, it’ll take more than meditation and green business networks. And, admittedly, it’s going to take much more than just feeding people once a week. Or using time banks and community currencies. Or implementing co-ops. Or completely divesting from the oil economy. But those are a start. Radical problems require radical solutions and the timeline for massive systemic change is getting tighter every day. As billions more people populate the planet and the resources dramatically dwindle, we’ll need a global sharing model to guarantee our collective survival. Socialist, collectivist, egalitarian, whatever you want to call it – it’s the only real long term solution.
Robotics and automation is an interesting example. I was listening to some engineer from MIT on the radio last month talking about the rapid advances in automation and the promise of robots for areas beyond manufacturing, like writing articles and retail applications. He said “Automation is going to be phenomenal” because, hey, it reduces work stress and increases efficiencies and provides jobs for engineers and blah blah blah. The interviewer ended the chat with the obvious problem – “So what’s the long term result on us, or on the larger labor force? What’s the alternative to losing jobs to automation and robots?” The engineer mentioned the usual stuff like increasing hourly pay, a basic living wage or more pensions for workers to help “the transition”. Then when pressed he conceded you likely have to create a guaranteed minimum income not tied to work. That’s the only way it makes sense. He didn’t sound like the typical socialist, but here’s an esteemed scientist who feels that’s it’s an inevitability.
Is there an effort to change it? Sure. There is an approach called “Green Capitalism,” which is using capitalist instruments to steer markets in a more ‘sustainable’ direction and redirect manufacturing, building, and investment to reduce some of the negative impacts on the planet and our health, but it’s not enough. We all want large scale solar power and a full transition to a non-petroleum based economy, but the rate we need to make that transition will never happen under an “emerging” green economy, much less the current corporatist, neoliberal model we see running amok and destroying the planet today. We have maybe a few decades according to leading climate scientists before the earth begins to pass major thresholds that trigger more massive extinction level events and die-outs. We’ve actually passed quite a few already. The ocean is acidifying at an alarming rate. Dead zones are spreading. The time is fucking nigh. Green capitalism just ain’t going to cut it. It’s just a slower death. We need a full scale overhaul of our global economic system. You have to fundamentally restructure the model and flip it upside down. It doesn’t mean you don’t spend money, it doesn’t mean you can’t allocate resources, it just means that profit over planet and profit over people isn’t the dominant model. Initially it’s a matter of changing the incentives, but long term it’s going to take more common sense thinking on a wider scale. The closest and most relevant approximation of that new approach would be a new form of democratic socialism, which is what communities like Mondragón (in Spain) utilize within a cooperative model.
GREG: What’s Mondragón? Isn’t it essentially accepting the concept of anarchy or anarchism?
MIKE: The community of Mondragón, Spain is one of the better global examples of a successful, large scale self-organizing economy. There have been a few films made about it. It basically operates as a citywide worker’s co-op. It functions as a deeply democratic, entirely egalitarian system that empowers residents to have a voice in the direction of the city’s economy and guarantees a job for everyone in some capacity to prevent unemployment. And it’s been around for over 30 years. It’s a quite bit different from the traditional misinterpretation that usually pops up when people think of the word “anarchy”. Anarchy as an organizing theory is usually applied to social movements and rejects any kind of hierarchy. Mondragón is organized around an economic model that is driven and controlled by the folks doing the work. It’s a good hybrid that includes levels of graduated worker roles and collective organizing to achieve broader, societal success. That’s probably the best example of what we would aspire to as an interim transition to a post-capitalist society. Mondragón isn’t perfect and like any democratically-controlled economic system it has its problems, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the fast track to destruction that our current neoliberal models offer. Mondragón isn’t an absolute solution, but it’s a step.
GREG: You mentioned poverty being a central issue. Could you mention anymore, like maybe your top 5 concerns? Like Occupy Venice – what are these issues and how is the group attempting to address them?
MIKE: Five top priorities for Occupy Venice? Considering what we do, I’d offer: 1) stop the criminalization of the unhoused and homeless, 2) protect what’s left of our civil rights, 3) fight the hypergentrification we see in Venice and dramatically expand affordable housing, 4) feed the people and promote food security, and 5) train activists and fight evil at every turn. The actual list is obviously much longer. In keeping with the core values of the occupy movement, I’d say defending equal rights, supporting a ban on fracking, challenging the power of the big banks, kicking the oil habit, healthcare for everyone, stopping police brutality, exposing and defeating racism, reclaiming the economy to serve the needs of the people, and creating new self-governing systems that respect the planet over predatory profit-seeking. Reinforce values that eliminate the need for war. Promote peace.
Like I’ve mentioned before, the increasing criminalization of the unhoused and homeless drives our projects quite a bit and includes so many other issues – the illegal beach curfew, pushing for more basic services, the erosion of civil rights, creating more housing, etc. There’s money to support affordable housing, there just isn’t much political will. Cap & Trade funds will funnel 100’s of millions into affordable housing over the next decade across the state. Yet we spend $100 million in the city dealing with homelessness, and most of that is for LAPD. It’s insane. And the NIMBYism is maddening. Cities in Utah and Wisconsin and places like Portland, OR have made big strides in giving the homeless a home as opposed to an arrest record. Small scale communities on underutilized city-owned land makes sense. With community buy-in, a transitional housing community of smaller, easy-to-build mini homes can exist as a neighborhood that houses homeless people. And its serves a critical humanizing role too. And now there’s a new effort by the City Attorney to try to make it illegal to sleep in your car again. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned LA’s car sleeping ban last year, citing it as blatantly unconstitutional. It never ends. People need to step up. Fuck it. Let’s have a revolution.
GREG: You’ve been really informative, thank you so much.
ANA: Thank you so much!
Photos by Mike Chamness