Interviewed and Occupied: Nik Zalesky on Occupy Philly and Pan-Leftism (archive 2011)

ik Zalesky is a fine fellow I met through the glory of the internet when I was beginning to study various left groups like the Socialist Party of America.   Nik was one of the initial organizers for Occupy Philadelphia.  Note some critical things are said about Anonymous, but we acknowledge that no experience with anyone who is part of Anonymous speaks for the whole.   We talk about Occupy Philly, pan-leftism, and hope for the left that has felt lost and disillusioned for a long time.

Skepoet: How did you get involved with Occupy Philly?

Nik Zalesky: After hearing from my comrade up at Occupy Wall Street, I realized that this movement had a chance to spread in major cities. The reason I thought Philly would be great was because we house the oldest stock market in the United States, so where better to start another event against the capitalist system? I knew that social media was how Tahir Square and OWS both grew, so I did a Facebook search for Occupy Philadelphia. I found a page had been started with about 32 people liking it. I liked it and started conversing with people. I realized that the first thing to do was contact any groups who could be interested. I started finding contact info for various political, academic, social, and environmental activist groups to tell them about Occupy Philadelphia. I spent most nights up till 3-4 a.m. just finding groups, people, blogs, and anything else I can think of and letting them know about Occupy Philadelphia.
Skepoet: How would you compare to some of the other Occupy protests that youbmay know people involved with?

Nik Zalesky:  Occupy Philadelphia became a lot less organic than the other Occupations very quickly. Though the Occupation inspired a lot of first-time activists, who fortunately kept it from being completely overtaken. Unfortunately, Philadelphia has a lot of established activists, who quickly tried to organize it how they were used to. A lot of people tried to fit Occupy Philadelphia into a mold, instead of adapting their tactics to the movement. The biggest difference; however, was the immediate cooperation with the city. Despite a vote already taken not to get a permit, the organizers on the ground decided we needed a permit. They pushed this, including threats that there was a counter-protest who could claim right to City Hall if we didn’t get a permit. The mayor came to the Occupation. Since then, we’ve run all of our plans by the city. We’ve marched, but practiced no real civil disobedience. Instead of focusing on the banks, Wall Street, and corporate money in politics, we’ve had marches against Trader Joe’s and photo-ops with the commissioner of police. Also, the people who have been involved since day 1 have been excluded. The people on the ground have said we use consensus, which is originally a Philadelphia Quaker technique of discussion and problem-solving, but instead have used direct democracy, and even some representative democracy. It is still a growing event, but a lot of people are concerned and withdrawing their support with the way things are going.

Skepoet:  Was there a formal move from consensus to direct democracy at the assemblies?

Nik Zalesky: No, we started with the framework of consensus, but just ran it as direct democracy. Real consensus continues till it’s unanimous. This only required an eye test for an overwhelming majority. Once that was achieved, the decision was made…until someone wanted to reintroduce the votes.

Skepoet:  Do you know anything about the Occupy Philly “blackout” that was pushed around the internet briefly?

Nik Zalesky: No.

Skepoet : Are you still supporting Occupy Philly?

Nik Zalesky: I know Anonymous has rejected Occupy Philadelphia. I was told that they told Occupy Together and the FBI about issues happening there, but I can’t verify that and it’s not like you can go to them to get a direct answer. I’m still supporting Occupy Philly where I can, but it involves a lot less time and energy that I put in before. I changed my focus to building our new SPUSA local and organizing another solidarity event, but I still keep in touch with people who are there, and I help out where I can.

Skepoet : Why would the FBI be involved?

Nik Zalesky: Our local members of Anonymous seem to be under the impression that the local anarchists are domestic terrorists. They are also surprisingly into the Fed conspiracy stuff and Zeitgeist to a lesser extent.

Skepoet: That’s an odd stance coming from Anonymous who happen to be the only group in OWS who has been attributed with a threat. Would you like to go into more about your work with broad left coalition and SPUSA?

Nik Zalesky:  Anonymous really is just an immature cyberactivist group. The only reason they seem threatening is because countries have instituted excessive punishment for computer-related crimes. If they did what they did in the real world, they’d get citations and move on, for the most part. As far as the SPUSA goes, I wound up there by accident. I’ve considered myself a socialist since high school. I’ve been registered to vote Socialist since the day I turned 18. As I aged, I mellowed a lot. I wanted to find a party, but navigating through the various leftist ideologies without anyone who is more familiar with the various organizations is nearly impossible. I decided working in the Democratic party would be the way to go when Obama ran for president. By the time 2011 dawned, I realized that was a mistake. I followed the DSA because I knew they had a local and kept an ear out for what groups were doing around Philadelphia. Somehow, I was invited to the Greater Philadelphia Socialist Organizing committee which was attempting to organize a local for the SPUSA. That led me to research the SPUSA more in depth, and I realized that they, if anyone, carried on the legacy of Debs. I saved up for two weeks so I could pay my dues and joined.

That’s what led to the idea of the broad left coalition. Since navigating my way through the parties had me so confused, I realized the best way to get things done and increase membership for all the left parties was to work together. From talking to locals, I realized that the religious disputes between parties mostly led to people not even reaching out to everyone. I vowed that when our local was formed, I wouldn’t let disagreements keep me from supporting the work of my comrades, no matter what party they belonged to. I signed up for and followed all the local leftist groups that I could find. I participated in conversations, met people who were interested, and contributed where I could. Occupy Philly gave me the perfect opportunity to bring people together. Usually, if we wanted groups to come together here, we’d have to wait for a neutral, single-issue activist group to organize an event, then each party would come out and stick to their own corner, cordial but cold for the most part. The Occupy movement, since it was leaderless, allowed everyone to show up, speak, and work together. I have had the luck to talk to people from most of the major leftist groups in Philadelphia since it started, and most of them were grateful for the work I did getting it together and in reaching out to them to involve them. I’m hoping this continues as I’m pushing for teach-ins at the Occupy movement, and I’m getting invited to events from all the parties around here. If nothing else, I’ll just show up and listen. The biggest things I’ve noticed about groups on the left is they very rarely listen, but they want to talk often. My job, in coalition building, is listening and seeing where we can help each other. 

Skepoet: Are you finding a lot of reception to this idea?

Nik Zalesky:  So far, yes. That could be do to the feel-good nature of the Occupy event though. Actually, everyone of the leftist local groups saw this as a chance to work together and spread an anti-capitalist message whenever we could. They also saw we’d have to work together to get that done. Thanks to this being a leaderless movement, every one of us realized that if we tried to take over, it would drive some people away who had potential to be radicalized. Unfortunately for us, this did happen to an extent (as evidenced by the almost daily anarchist education by one particular group), and we did lose people. The people on the left, though, continue to support the event and build networks. I’m lucky to be in a unique situation. Major city founded by Quakers, so we still have a left legacy that involves working together. Tons of colleges all over, and of a lot of different variations. The birthplace of “freedom.” I don’t know how it would work in other cities.

Skepoet: What issues to you see Occupy as getting into the media?

Nik Zalesky:  The media is interesting. A lot of people simply say we are our own media, thanks to social media and new independent sources. Unfortunately, that is not always the case, as we don’t control social media, and for every friendly, fair source of independent media, there are those who will misrepresent or use false information to discredit the movement. The local media has split among pretty much normal lines for now. The networks are mostly favorably, notably NBC which is owned by Comcast which is headquartered here. We haven’t marched on them, so I think they’ll hold off on being harsh due to the fact that they like to stay under the radar. Fox’s local affiliate has spent most of their time reporting things that people find negative, i.e. cost of police overtime, people urinating on the streets (which wasn’t any Occupiers, but instead the local homeless population who were feeding and sheltering.), and trash on the ground. The print media has been mostly positive, except for a few business articles talking about the money spent. Even the moderate reporters have been generally positive, though slightly condescending. The local NPR has been positive, the local conservative talk radio has been inflammatory.

Skepoet: And do you see your part in a worldwide movement, sometimes I think
all the locals forget that this is happening in Europe, Asia, and parts of the Middle East too?

Nik Zalesky:  We who ran the social media aspect of the Occupation never forgot we were part of a world-wide movement. The people on the ground pretty much considered themselves the center of the universe as soon as they got there. They think of OWS and the cities when police crackdowns occur, but they forget to look around at what else is happening, not only in the world, but in politics and economics in general. They also tend to forget that people outside the Occupation are still scared, angry, and hurting.

Skepoet:  What do you think of the idea of a general strike and boycott coming out of this? Likely? Unlikely? 

Nik Zalesky:  I’ve brought up a general strike every single chance I get. The support isn’t there, even among labor. Boycotts are possible, but, at least in Philly, people keep trying to boycott the extremely large corporations for human rights abuses. That muddles the message. Now as far as smaller strikes go, I think labor feels empowered with this movement. In Philadelphia alone, we’ve had 4 unions strike in the last 3 months. That’s amazing for us. I’m on the labor commission in our Occupation, and labor is energized, and it’s the rank-and-file, not the leadership, which is amazing. The only way I could see a general strike happening is if Occupy Wall Street starts it. Most people will follow what they do, and as they have had numbers in the 6 figures there, that would probably spur a domino effect.

Skepoet: Why do you think the message gets muddled so much?

Nik Zalesky:  As it is a “leaderless” movement, the people who took the ball and ran with it initially are given deference. If the message crystallized, they would lose some of their influence, so it’s better to keep the message from gaining singular focus. I know that’s a cynical way to look at it, but that’s what I experienced here. The Occupation became about the occupation instead of about change.

Skepoet: I don’t want to sound cynical myself but isn’t that kind of a pattern with left-wing activism?

Nik Zalesky:  I think it’s a pattern of political activism in general. I talked to a lot of people who were with the original pre-Koch brothers Tea Party, and they explained how a small, well-funded group took over all the meetings. It’s especially vulnerable in a movement like this because the two parties need to co-opt it before it becomes dangerous.

Skepoet: You’re going to laugh but my involvement with paleo-conservatives and the anti-state libertarians led me to same conclusion.   Many of those guys left early when Koch family and Palin got on board. But many of them were also Birch Society and ignored Koch money in that, so I suppose one doesn’t have to be consistent.   Still it seems like there is a higher degree of fractionation in the left. You seem to have hope that Occupy may have made that somewhat irrelevant. Am I reading you correctly?

Nik Zalesky:  The only real hope I have for Occupy is that it can cause a generational shift where people don’t look for a solution in the two party system. I think most people who truly read economic theory can see where Marx was right, so I’m hoping it gets people reading. I’m hoping it makes people think about why 3rd parties don’t have access. I think Occupy will burn itself out at some point, and when nothing’s changed, people will start to look for solutions, and socialism is the solution I see. That’s why I tried to get as many people involved as possible, whether I agreed with their politics, tactics, or analysis of theory. I do think the factional divides in this movement become irrelevant during the Occupations, but afterwards, I want people to know that the Socialists were out there in the streets, and we offer the sense of activism and camaraderie every day of every year, not just during the occupation, and that we can build a mass movement like this, and have it set towards goals such as a general strike.

Skepoet: Any final thoughts?

Nik Zalesky:  I’m still really excited about this and glad I am part of it. Major leftist issues can still be brought to light via this movement.


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