Interviewed and Occupied Part 2: Nik Zalesky on Occupy Philly and Labor Tactics (Archive 2011)

Skepoet: So it’s been a few weeks since we talked, but we have seen a seeming organized crack down on Occupy in the States.  The Occupy Seoul has long since died down. I am going to shot-gun a few question at you. What is going on in Occupy Philly?  In a recent conversation, you told me there was tensions between the Unions and the activists in Philly? Has there been scapegoating of anarchists in Philly?

Nik: Occupy Philly, in the vein of many of the other Occupations, has largely split among people who favor more direct action and not yielding an inch, and a group who want to accommodate the city at every turn. Most of the discussion has centered on if we will move from City Hall across the street to Thomas Paine Plaza. There is a federal/state/city infrastructure project that calls for the refurbishing of the space we are Occupying and for an ice skating rink to be built there. There are many issues that cropped up because of this. First, the permit application had no end date. When the permit was returned by the city, it said a TBD date for the renovation project. Second, it’s union work, which I’ll get into more in the second question. Third, the renovations would provide more disabled access to the subway station and plaza where we are camped. We tried to contact the city about the move, but received no response, other than to say they wouldn’t issue another permit until we moved. This brought about concerns of if they will issue it at all. A proposal to move was brought up at the General Assembly and it was soundly defeated. This led to a splinter group calling themselves Reasonable Solutions to declare that the GA wasn’t speaking for the Occupation, and that they were the real Occupiers and they were going to negotiate with the city. I’ll get into what followed in the third question.

The tension between the Unions and the activists is simply jobs. The trade unions want their jobs. The project creates 20 permanent jobs, and over a hundred temporary jobs. The Union leadership asked the activists to move, and promised assistance. The issue there is that the Radical Caucus thinks moving is giving in, and wants concessions from the city and promises of more help besides moving from the Unions. In addition, the trades have a reputation for getting what they want and not delivering.

As far as the scapegoating of anarchists goes, there has been much of it from the beginning. Certain groups, including some of the Reasonable Solutions people, have been circulating the theory that there are anarchists being bused in to sway votes at the GA. Cindy Millstein, an anarchists activist and writer, has been their target. The City Paper did a wonderful job of pointing out that Philadelphia has one of the largest, most diverse, and active anarchists population in the country. The corporate media jumped on board the scapegoating this week. There was an issue where a homeless gentleman spray painted and defecated on the walls underground. The Daily News blamed this on anarchists. They also called the people who wanted to follow the vote of the GA “mostly anarchists.” We have not had many arrests here, but the ones that have come lately have been violent in nature. The media has connected this to anarchy for the most part. Fortunately, in serious incidents, like a rape that was alleged, they didn’t tie that to the anarchists.

One other thing that’s become a problem is the homeless. Not that they’re there or causing problems, because that happens everywhere. The issue is that various groups are speaking for them instead of letting them speak for themselves. Some people who want to stay are saying they should because otherwise it makes the homeless move as well, and a lot of them stayed there before we Occupied. Valid point, perhaps, but not one that a group of young people who have homes to go to should be making. The city is claiming that we are damaging the homeless by providing them with food and protection in the group. They claim that the homeless would be moving into shelters if not for us. Not accurate, and again, speaking for people who may be willing to speak for themselves if asked. The one good thing is we managed to wrangle 4 gyms and another property to use as emergency shelters for them.

Skepoet: Did Philly act in solidarity with OWS in general strike on the 17th?

Nik: Philly did act in solidarity with the call to action. They marched in an event to the Market Street bridge, which the state of PA has said needs to be repaired or replaced, and sat down in the middle of the street and blocked traffic on one of the busiest streets in the city during rush hour. Even this did not come without conflict, as the original organizers of the event would not let people join in on the street who wanted to. The radical caucus was upset by this, because some of them were looking to get arrested.

Skepoet: Can you describe the poilitical orientation of the each faction in more detail?  Have Democrats been more involved?  Are there large groups of libertarians and Ron Paulites in the group?

Nik: There are some Democrats involved. MoveOn, Union leadership, and politicians affiliated with the Dems, like Jesse Jackson, have all stopped by to offer support. The good news about the horizontal setup is it’s been impossible to really co-opt because unless they join working groups and show up for a lot of GAs, they’re not making decisions. There are enough different factions, ranging from Paulites to syndicalists, that are wary of everyone. There is a Paulite tent. For the most part, they kind of operate in their own world. I think there are a lot of people tied into the divisiveness that affiliate themselves with those libertarians and Paulites. They built a propane heating room, which didn’t sit well with the city because of the fact that there was basically a bomb sitting on their doorstep. Also, it’s hard to get a handle on the guy who was in charge of the Facebook page and started the splinter group Reasonable Solutions. I’ve had a lot of people say he is “weirdly conservative.” The constant desire to march on the Fed as the solution to all problems is proposed by them constantly, and regularly defeated. As far as the factions, it’s not political lines per se. There are anarchists that are part of the Radical Caucus and ones that pushing for the move. There are union rank and file members who are pushing to stand up to the city, and union leadership that’s pushing to work with the city. The divisiveness has become less about political lines and more along the lines of issues that have cropped up down there.

Skepoet: Has any paranoia sat-in within the movements?

Nik: As far as the paranoia, it’s there. People can feel the inevitable crackdown of the city coming. Living on the streets breeds a specific paranoia in and of itself. People’s lives are there, and their stuff is there, and the fact is that some people view an encampment as an opportunity to take things that don’t belong to people. In addition, the media has been producing divisive articles, so that has caused a lot of people to accuse other people of looking out for themselves. In addition, the lines of division listed above have the daily ability to cause people to think that people who don’t believe what they believe are going to go behind their backs. There actually have been groups that set up secret meetings with the city, and filed for permits elsewhere. Since this movement, has in general, become about holding land in the face of power and not about the original meaning of pointing out what is wrong with the system, it allows paranoia to run rampant because the city does actually want their land back. There are simple ways to fix this, and to make the movement evolve, so we will see if the GA is willing to bring new ideas to the table, or if they are going to descend further into the rabbit hole where a plaza in the middle of the city is the center of the universe.

Skepoet: Do you worry that the focus on the occupation actually leads occupiers to miss the what is at stake or do you think this actually clarifies matters or, perhaps, both in various proportions?  Would you explain the reasons for your answer there as well?

Nik: That’s my biggest concern right now. Holding a piece of land to defy the state may be admirable, but it isn’t effective. In Tahrir Square, they solidified one demand and so were able to keep coming until it was met. We don’t have that in the U.S. On the plus side, it has awakened many people to the idea that we have to do more. Other avenues and ideas are being tossed around to both implement now and bring about after the Occupation ends. I think the issue comes from the fact that there are a lot of utopians who think that this Occupation is run the way things should be- consensus-based horizontal democracy. They think that the whole world should be that way. Anything that suggests taking a step back and evaluating or trying something else is met with claims of not supporting the GA, the Occupation, or the Revolution, depending on who you talk to. Now, as far as the people who view this as more of an opportunity to reach people and awaken them to the struggle that’s going on between the classes, they have realized that they have to go out among the people instead of isolating themselves in a place where the media and the politicians can take pot shots at us. This has lead to a more visible support among other groups and attempts at education. The unions came out in their colors yesterday, and explained more about organizing and what they’re trying to do about class struggles. It’s a pleasant surprise to hear the unions talking about class. More direct action has come about. The march on the bridge, occupying a Wells Fargo bank, and more planned for the future. I feel like these actions speak to a lot of people that the real action is going to take place away from City Hall, and out in the streets. We can have continued events and education to mark the Occupation, but I think a majority realizes now that it’s not about the place; it’s about what’s going on everywhere.

Skepoet: Are you aware of the anarchist essay from a few years ago: “occupy everything and demand nothing?”

Nik: I am not familiar with it.

Skepoet:  Its central thesis is that any demands legitimate the current political system and that “you should demand nothing because everything is already yours.”  I find this fascinating because I think there is truth to it, but I also think it leads to some really inchoate politics when it isn’t articulated directly. Do you think there should be demands?

Nik:  I don’t think there should be any demands in the Occupy movement. The only demand I’d personally support is revolution anyway, and this isn’t that. I also think it would be far easier to co-opt if demands were introduced. If our demand was reducing the economic inequality, the Republicans would proclaim tax cuts were the way to go, and the Dems would say to support Obama’s job bill. This needs to be a movement of action, not of begging and waiting for an answer. Now as far as the “everything is already yours” part of the idea, I suppose that’s a philosophical debate rather than a practical one. The practical matter is one class owns nearly everything, and has the ability to get more, which they are currently using with devastating consequences to the working class. I would say “you should demand nothing, but do everything” would be a far more effective thing to say about Occupy.

Skepoet:  I am going to push you on this, we’re both on the left, but when you say one class owns everything, I am not quite sure you’re right:  Do CEO’s or the bourgeoisie owe everything?  Here’s the crux of the question:  CEO’s are not truly speaking capitalists in the strict sense, they’re labor aristocracy or the managerial class.  Yet many of them are in the 1%, and many petite bourgeoisie are not.  So how do you see this class entanglement actually breaking down?   Furthermore, how do you see this as related to the 99% rhetoric of #Occupy?

Nik: That’s fair. It was a hyperbolic statement. Do I think there needs to be a new way of breaking down class? Yes. Working in finance has shown me that even people who are not capitalists and even those who are not wealthy will work actively to oppress people in other classes. I imagine you do have to step away from the Marxist definition of class as only relating to the means of production. Instead of the Victorian model of the petite bourgeoisie who mimicked the behavior of the capitalist class, today’s labor aristocracy and managers, as well as many workers, try to mimic the values of the capitalist class in terms of greed, patriotism, and the thought process that the capitalists earned everything they had and they deserve it. What the labor aristocracy and management class do possess is capital, therefore the own potential forces of repression and they own people’s excess labor tied up into a social concept that has come to dominate the meaning of life in the U.S. I imagine at this point, the State would be less likely to defend factories from workers than they would banks and financial centers. I do support a redefinition of the classes and the relationship between the classes in general. I’m sure someone has tackled that, but I haven’t come across it yet. Some of the 1%, especially people who don’t own the means of production, may find themselves siding with some of the ideas of Occupy. I think the 99% is crap. I think it lumps people into a mass that has the potential to silence them, because some of us do want to see revolutionary change. Some people want reform. Some people have no idea what they want. It works in today’s media, but as a real concept, it’s ridiculous.

Skepoet:  It was done by Maoist thinkers in China, but eventually led to Third Worldism, and was done by James Burnham in the Trotskyite mold, but he predicted a fascist victory in World War 2 and when that panned out wrong, he became a neo-conservative. So these thinkers haven’t been addressed in the more popular left.    Do you think another part of the problem is that most of the Marxist and, honestly, social
anarchist rhetoric is around factories even though the means of production in most of the world now are far more subtle? There are many people working on this so it’s not entirely new or relegated  marginal parts of the left, but it is an issue.

I suppose my question is that is #Occupy forcing us to deal with these problems and how do you see the increased pressure from the police and from internal factions clarifying things for you personally?

Nik: I personally think that’s a huge problem. Instead of worrying about the means of production, which is still a concern, I don’t think there is enough written about how the movers and holders of capital exploit workers and the unemployed. We talk about how it’s generally unfair, and how the system sucks, but we haven’t been able to connect the dots enough for people to understand.

I don’t think Occupy is forcing the masses to deal with this problem, but it is awakening an awareness of the problem, especially among the radical left. It is pointing out to the radical left that we are not connected with the workers, the unions, and the community-at-large though we should be. I think the police pressure is clarifying that for me, because there are a ton of people who have to deal with that pressure every day, for nothing more than standing there. The repression is a daily activity of the police in some communities, and it’s something we need to address on the left. The factionalization of the Occupy makes it clear to me that all leftists, and especially leftist organizations, have to make it a point to educate themselves on not just theory, but on interpersonal relationships and working with other groups. We may all have our own ideas about what is going to work, but we don’t have the ability that other organizations have about how to work together. It’s a standard practice of businesses to give training in that, and I think the left would be served learning it. It also showed me, again, how many people think that they’re way is the only way, and anyone who doesn’t agree is somehow damaging the movement. Trying to control a mass movement is just a wasted effort. I’ve learned that people should look to participate and help where they can. Especially, as this is a leaderless movement, this isn’t the action to try to impose preconceived notions and standards upon. The media and the capitalist system has done a good job of making people not trust any leaders, which ties into some anarchist groups as well. It’s a problem, because no revolutionary action has taken place without some kind of leadership, even if it’s a council. The GA is an interesting force, but it’s intentionally made to be difficult to pass motions. I don’t have a solution for how to find new leaders who can inspire the masses, or what kind leadership would be the best for a mass movement, but I know that this isn’t it.

Skepoet:   Well, consensus decision making is not true or particularly radical. It’s commonly tried in new moments, but consensus organizations are easily taken over oddly.    Do you think the square one element of everything is obfuscating that?  Which groups have been better able to use to the census elements of the GA in Philly?


Nik:  Sorry, I took a local reporter to task for his coverage of Occupy Philly, and I’ve been going back and forth with him about his characterization of all who don’t agree with the “Reasonable Solutions” group that is trying to invalidate the GA. He claims that we need liberal capitalists like them, and everyone who doesn’t agree with them are anarchists and socialists, so we’ll see what happens.

I hate consensus. It confuses enough people to allow anyone to slip in and take charge, especially when one group controls what comes to the vote. I think certain utopian groups think consensus is some kind of miracle way of governing and pushed it in the various GAs. Various groups have been able to use the elements. Depending on who you talk to, there are claims that people stack the vote during issues that concern them, or that it’s fine. I’d have to say the Radical Caucus and the Direct Action working group have used consensus well, but the thing is that every GA is livestreamed, and those votes and propositions on the chat there are taken into consideration, if not actually counted, and all the GAs are announced, so anyone can use it.

Skepoet: What, in your opinion, is a more realistic organizational method?

Nik: Man, I don’t know. I’m trying to learn about more effective organizations, but I don’t have the time right now. I wish I knew a way to keep from becoming bureaucratic and still be effective. If we could figure that out, I think the left would be able to make great gains.

Skepoet: Let’s talk about a few more things on the ground:  Do how do you see Occupy Philly fairing in the winter? What preparations are being made?

Nik: Well, with hints from police sources and the behavior of the press and the city lately, I think there will be a crackdown long before winter starts. Latest hint is tomorrow the police have been ordered to remove us from downtown. Preparations are asking for more warm donations, planning more actions because marching in the cold is better than sitting, and many of us discussing different tactics such as occupying buildings or sending people home and holding weekly rallies instead.

Skepoet: Wasn’t there a move to roll yourselves back just before this happened in preparation for winter (or the Democratic Elections)?

Nik: Some of us were talking about it, but it never went further than that. I imagine the dialogue will continue, but the actions of the mayor and the police have lowered it as a priority.

Skepoet:  Honestly, there is an argument that police actions are actually keeping Occupy relevant and improves its public image. How do you react to this argument?

Nik:   It keeps it in the forefront of sensationalistic media. Independent media sources are reporting on it whether there is police suppression or not. It does improve its public image, among the people who can afford the news. Sadly, that’s not a lot of people that I’m trying to reach. I’ve lived in the largest open-air drug market in the country. People there rarely get their news from anything besides the free Metro or the 6 o’clock news on the local networks. There isn’t much positive coverage there no matter what happens, because those broadcasters need access to the mayor and the police commissioner. To me, we have to reach people in the communities independent of the media who are reporting on the crackdowns. I’m not opposed to them doing it, and sharing disturbing images that reach some people all over the country, but it’s just not enough for me. I wanted to be a journalist, and most of the reporting on #Occupy by major outlets has just been poor.

Skepoet:  Why do you think it has been so poor?

Nik:     Well, since Occupy, though an old tactic hasn’t been used in modern media’s time, they have no idea how to cover something ongoing that doesn’t fit into their box. I’ve taken enough journalism classes, and written for enough school papers, to know that modern journalists aren’t taught to think on their feet. Since it can’t be wrapped up into headline, soundbite, and a good guy vs. bad guy narrative, they are floundering. It has shown how the better commentary and investigative journalism has moved into new media instead of the classic forms, but, unfortunately for the left and #Occupy, the classic forms still reach the most people.

Skepoet: Well, I think we may be talking about this again in the future, but could you talk about the possibility of #Occupy reviving the labor movement in closing? I’ve enjoyed our discussion.

Nik:  I think #Occupy showed an example of what labor should have been doing. It’s a movement where people aren’t backing down due to politics. At least here, we’ve marched in support of labor concerns, and labor has turned around and done some self-examination. It has made both the leaders and rank and file more politically involved, and caused them to realize that workers are still exploited, and they need to do something about it. In addition, it provided a link from labor to the younger generation. Everyone I’ve known knows someone in a union. What this did was make sure everyone was friends with and worked side by side with someone in a union, and it also made the unions realize that they have to stand up for workers that aren’t able to be in a union. I do have higher hopes for a more educational and politically-involved labor movement, at least in my city.


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