Breaking the Banks
Our conversation with Corey Ogilvie, director of Occupy, on the social movement that may define our generation.
The size and intensity of the Occupy movement took the world by surprise. But do we understand it any better now than we did when the first protests broke out? OpenCanada talked to the director of Occupy, Corey Ogilvie, about what sparked the campaign against the “one per cent”, the factors behind the movement’s explosive growth, and the sacrifices it demanded from its participants.
At the outset of you film, you link Occupy and the protests in Tunisia and Greece. How did protests in Europe and the Middle East influence activism in the United States?
In the film, Kalle Lasn (Adbusters Chief Editor and Occupy founder) says that the Arab spring and European movements inspired him and his team to try it out on Wall Street. It was actually more like an accident. As a cultural organization, Adbusters throws ideas out there all the time, and very few stick, but their ‘Occupy’ idea coalesced with other factors that made a movement possible. It was a lucky combination of circumstances, including the Arab spring, that triggered Occupy’s tipping point into the mainstream. Many people don’t know this, but there were already tons of anti-Wall Street grassroots movements in New York before Occupy. These include some significant actions like Bloombergville, which had its first General Assembly on June 16 2011, four months before occupy began, on September 17 2011. Adbusters Occupy centerfold, with the ballerina riding the Wall Street Bull, lit the match.
What were the most important factors driving the globalization of the Occupy?
Occupy is a toolkit. It is built to be viral. A key characteristic of Occupy movements all over the globe was that they had no leaders – this anarchic element underpins Occupy. There are pros and cons to this, of course: the pros are that more people will want to join a movement if they feel they can have more of a say. This is the lure of Occupy – your input matters. The cons are that without leaders, decisions can take too long to make, if they are made at all. This was, by many accounts, the failure of Occupy – they never focused on a handful of achievable demands and instead remained vague and inward looking. There are also pros and cons to social movements that have leaders: they have hierarchy; they are exclusionary; they become political and bureaucratic.
Occupy was limited to urban centres, so was it truly of global significance?
I think so. Most macro-economic decisions and policies are made in a handful of cities, in fact, a handful of buildings. Political-economic corruption is found in the city and so that is where you’ll find the economic protester. Not that rural movements aren’t possible, but I think a movement against banks has to be an urban movement. Occupy is by most measures the most creative urban social movement in American history; maybe not the most effective, but definitely the most creative. They did everything from sit-ins to marches, musicals, and news channels – you name it, they’ve done it.
You explore the role of citizen journalism as a tool of popular protest, and as an alternative to traditional media. During Occupy, when and where was this method most effective?
For Occupy, citizen journalism was most effective in livestreaming. In the film we meet Tim Pool, the most viewed livestreamer who followed Occupy for up to 16 hours a day. Vlad Teichberg calls Tim and other livestreamers weapons in the propaganda war, ones that the Chicago Police tried to silence a couple of weeks after we did Tim’s interview. He recorded livestream footage of the police holding him at gunpoint, handcuffing him, and reportedly destroying his hard drives and recording equipment. Livestreaming is Occupy’s response to the decaying state of the mass media in the United States. It has become so trivialized and unwilling to investigate, Occupy had no other choice but to do it themselves.
You look at the differences between reformists and revolutionaries within the movement – the Black Bloc versus the less violent Occupy protestors. What lessons can nascent political movements learn from the fragmentation of groups like these?
Social movements with violent and non-violent components should be ready for a constant debate, but they should also always be ready to compromise. In the film we see how the Black Bloc in New York made a commitment to not do any damage, while in Seattle on the same day, a different Black Bloc group did tons of damage and effectively terrorized the downtown core. The New York chapter compromised, and it ended being a much more effective day in New York. In the film, we see how Black Bloc peacefully draws the police away from another protest in Manhattan, and that protest was able to take all of Fifth Avenue as a result.
You feature journalist Chris Hedges, who says that “politicians are essentially corporate employees.” After making this film, do you share that view? More broadly, how did your personal positions evolve over the course of filming?
Well, the funny thing is that most U.S. congressman and senators BECOME corporate employees when they finish their time in government. And in the case of the U.S. Treasury, it has been headed by a former bank CEO for the majority of the last 20 years. It is no secret that there is a revolving door between government and business – it is out in plain sight. Chris Dodd, a long time serving Democratic senator, took a seven figure position as a lobbyist for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). You may recall the during the online SOPA protests when Wikipedia blacked out, he was put in his place by protesters. So in the long view, yes, politicians are corporate employees. I used to think politicians, after serving in the government, lived in a cottage somewhere, went fishing, and lived off a modest pension, ensuring they didn’t engage in any conflicts of interest. I was oblivious.
You chose to focus on the personal sacrifices individuals make so that they can be part of this movement, which is an element that doesn’t often get attention. Why?
In the film we see two very different personal stories of Occupy; one happy, and one sad. Social movements take a lot of work with very little reward, and some people have to make real sacrifices to make a difference. The agonizing dilemma for activist parents is that the long hours of activism spent trying to make a better world for their kids takes them away from their kids. These kind of personal paradoxes interest me, because we all go through them in some way or another. I do believe if there is one thing worth compromising family for, it is to make their world a better place. Gandhi was not a good father, but he changed the world for generations to come.
What role do you envision the documentary playing in social action campaigns like Occupy?
I hope that documentaries help the spread of social movements. I know that with Occupy, there are multiple filmmakers who chronicled the events as they happened. Protest movements come and go with context. They respond to new circumstances. I think this film will be more relevant to people who are facing macro-economic uncertainty at the hands of a few dozen bankers and politicians. Cyprus is the most recent example, Greece before that, Spain, Portugal, and of course, the United States. The American economy is currently propped up by the printing of more money by the Fed, it can’t go on forever, there will likely be another correction.
How have people connected with your film so far? Does the message of Occupy carry across age groups and economic backgrounds?
People have connected to different parts of the film in different ways. I think it is a well-balanced film, and so people will get different things from it. Society as a whole has a strange, suspicious attitude towards Occupy, so I hope this film can break down some of those barriers. By having no narrator and a sometimes critical stance on Occupy, the film is balanced enough that I think most people – right and left – will enjoy it. In many ways Occupy is a pro-capitalist, libertarian movement. They despise how banks have become a socialist institution requiring government bailouts and deposit insurance, while not offering everyday people the help they need during the recession. We can all agree this is absurd and unjust.
Check out Occupy at Hot Docs: April 29 at 8:45pm Toronto Bell Lightbox and April 30 at 2:00pm at Hart House