George Martinez is a former district organizer, adjunct professor at Pace University and hip-hop artist who is running for U.S. Congress in the Democratic primary of New York’s 7th Congressional District, as a self-proclaimed ‘Occupy Wall Street’ candidate. His participation in the electoral process highlights a debate that has been around since the movement’s inception, concerning whether or not electing candidates to office should be a goal of the Occupy movement.
The Boston Occupier neither endorses nor rejects Mr. Martinez’s viewpoints and tactics. This interview was arranged in order to explore a rarity in the Occupy movement, thus far: the use of electoral politics as a viable tactic.
Dan Schneider: Let’s start back at the very beginning. Describe how you got involved with the Occupy Movement in New York City.
George Martinez: The first time I went to Zucotti Park was the second week of the occupation. That was September 24, or in that zone. We were there investigating just like everyone else was. This is our city, New York. People were just sort of finding each other at that point and learning to see what actually was happening.
I didn’t sleep in the park. I commuted every day, just going and seeing what I could contribute to the conversations taking place, and observing the lifestyle developing organically in the park.
Me and my folks at Global Block, we were content to know that there was something serious enough going on for us to be here, in more than just a cursory role, and that we could bring our experience to the table.
I spoke at my first General Assembly on October 4. Two days later, we recorded a music video called ‘Occupation Freedom‘. It became known as the ‘Occupy Wall Street hip hop anthem’ and was even up on the OWS website. It came from me, as a hip hop ambassador and artist, who wanted to see the building of this solidarity from my own perspective, in a way that the media wasn’t giving it. It was important to try and use the hip-hop language to show this struggle.
I traveled with one of the core, founding members of Occupy the Hood, and one of the first members of InterOccupy, to Detroit, Pittsburgh, and other cities, doing Occupy the Hood and OWS solidarity building. On the OWS two-month anniversary, N17, with 35,000 people there, we were the hip-hop band that played as people marched over the bridge.
After that, I kept socializing and educating in the background, even after Zuccotti got evicted. I come from the perspective of ‘being sick and tired of being sick and tired,’ and think that we have to go beyond petitioning government for redress of grievances.
At some point, we were occupying the SEC, the Department of Education – we were protesting specific policies, and very specific politicians. I’m definitely from a ‘diversity of tactics’ background, but more in the framework that says you tackle concrete pieces of a puzzle that are tangible, and that we have to engage these issues head on.
DS: When did you decide to run office, and why as a Democrat? Why not as a third party candidate? Though you’ve largely worked with Democrats in your career, you’ve given support to third party candidates in the past, like Rosa Clemente.
GM: I wasn’t clear that I’d be a candidate this year, at all. But when you start a movement, ain’t no stone that should be left unturned. To act like our call for autonomous individuals to pursue actions should stop at the electoral process is absurd.
I think everyone gets the point that OWS has already affected the country. But we’ve affected it in this way where every politician has to use Occupy-inspired language, yet they’re still part of these other interests. They don’t have to have our values, but they can still say ‘I stand for the 99%’ and get away with it.
We’re engaging in a strategic electoral direct action. I’m not encouraging that we do things just to be futile and educational. I’m saying that we know for a fact that in Kings County, NY, there’s the highest percentage of registered Democrats in the country.
If we challenge as third parties, we basically say to the major parties: ‘eh, keep doing what you’re doing.’
The Democrats are the ones that I absolutely believe are the biggest cue-giver for people in my community, by and large. The Democrats are more likely to co-opt our language than anyone else.
We’ve been building solidarity with labor all winter. I’ve done shop visits to meet with rank and file of labor unions all winter long, and they’ll be the ones circling the wagons around the Democratic power. Let’s push from where the power comes from, and let’s see a sweep of progressives reclaim this party, and have an unwavering block of progressives moving forward.
DS: So running as a Democrat is just a part of your strategy?
GM: In this primary, we could knock out an incumbent who gets their money from Goldman Sachs, who gets 92% of their money from corporate PACs. Yet, on [the Democrats’] mailings, they say ‘my job, in congress, is to defend the 99%, those who don’t have access to corporate lobbyists.’ Corporate and lobbyist money gives you the ability to lie to people.
Democrats are running around the country, using the template we’ve built over the winter, saying ‘we’re defending the 99%’ while they take money from the 1%. If we’re wondering where the solidarity with our movement is from the larger, broader community, they’re just listening to other people saying what we’re saying, but they’re doing it more, more loudly, and with prettier colors.
Challenging the Democrats on their own turf is critical.
DS: Is this an experiment for Occupy? Other campaigns bearing marks of ‘Occupy’ have come up around the country for various offices, all of which have sputtered out, for various reasons. Why choose to run for Congress?
GM: I think what we saw in those other campaigns was the lack of political literacy at the mechanical level. The actual mechanisms of electoral politics. See, literacy is the ability to read what’s going on, but also being able to write, to affect the outcomes. I think its missing in most people’s toolboxes.
So I think it makes sense that people who wanted to step into the arena from Occupy didn’t work.
There were politicians who wanted to tether their careers to occupy spaces and ideas. Then there’s Nathan Kleinman from Philly. He stepped into politics from Occupy Philly, and ran into the truth: most of us are not familiar with the political process at the mechanical level, at the internal level. So we have a misunderstanding of how money and how power is used to suppress people.
Philly Nate ran into that when he got thrown off the ballot. But I think it was good that he stepped into it. The movement can’t contain autonomous members who are ready to come into that light, wherever they are.
That’s where Bum Rush the Vote came from. If you come from this space of horizontal grassroots building, how could you ever enter this leadered electoral space and maintain credibility? Some folks tell me that this isn’t political movement, its only social and cultural. But once we engage, talk about power, and who has that power (or as we say, who has what, where, and why?’), this is where we end up.
DS: What is, and what is its goal?
GM: At Bum Rush the Vote, we’ve been able to watch people where they failed, and where they’ve succeeded. We decided that Bum Rush the Vote should challenge a few pieces of the puzzle, by building a model of open democracy that’s crowd
What’s specifically tethered to the Occupy value system, is the belief in building a grassroots, deliberative body, organic to residents of an area, that brings about consensus at a neighborhood level, that drives the inventory and distribution network of local resources.
At this point, we’re calling these meetings PAs, Peoples Assemblies. The premise here is that a consensus-building deliberative body within communities, can pull back our reliance on government in the first place.
Bum Rush, while building horizontally, has to engage the [political] apparatus formally. It’s an integrated approach that’s embedded in the values of horizontal, grassroots building, but recognizes our interface with the formal political arena, which shows that we can compete with the corporate control machine.
Instead of fundraising for political trinkets, we fundraise to do work. And then we let the work become the basis of these People’s Assemblies, which is the engine for direct democracy. Our goal is to replicate this across the city, across the state, and nationally.
There’s a group in Milwaukee called Take Back the Hood, an Occupy offshoot. One of their goals is to start training candidates, and they had a person who’s interested in running for office. We’re trying to bring the Bum Rush model and toolbox to them.
We now have the capacity to educate outward. I became the first OWS activist to get on a major party’s primary ballot. We’re challenging, directly, one of the two parties, and got on the Democratic parties’ own primary ballot, which is almost impossible to do, given the resources that we have.
We need to build a people’s machine with certain values and obligations – including bringing literacy and direct actions to bear on solving problems. Either we’ll be the one bringing everything, or we’ll bring the political literacy and direct action, and allow other politicians to capitalize on the work that we did.
DS: How are you guys conducting fundraising, and what is it used for?
GM: Getting money out of politics has been one of the core, central pieces for most occupiers.
Even if we don’t win, we’ve shown that we can do at least this. To date, we’ve raised close to $8000, all small donations. 80% of all of our donations are under $50. We have had some stronger donors, up to $100, but 80% of them are under $50. We’ve fundraised using social media, or small $5 fundraisers, the bigger goal of which has been to recruit and get volunteers.
We successfully got three times as many signatures as was required to get on the ballot, and – at the time – had raised under the amount of money required to file with the FEC, which is $5000.
It’s challenged the premise that big donations are a requirement to be able to compete. They say it costs $1.2 million for a congressional candidate to run here, but we made it on the ballot without that. It’s an amazing proof of concept that people like us can affect these spaces.
We’ve been able to raise a little bit of money and stretch it with the inventive souls that are associated with Occupy. The Democratic establishment in New York is shaking out of their minds because we were able to accomplish these technical feats with no money.
It really challenges the political class of consultants and fundraisers, who have all the keys. But we’ve proved that a decently organized group of young people can have an impact with a tenth of the resources.
DS: Your website has a pretty long list of policy points that, even if a bit general, most folks involved with the Occupy movement probably wouldn’t disagree with. What do you think are the most pressing issues in your district, and what would your biggest goals be, if this all works out?
GM: The singular piece that unifies most Occupiers and most political progressives is getting money out of politics. It’s a critical piece. We’re entertaining a constitutional amendment as a long-term strategy. It’s a critical issue that we can’t let that slip to the side.
All of the other social justice and economic issues flow from the corruption of that space. It has to be on the burner, all day, all week.
We have some ideas on getting to 0% unemployment and full sustainability, but for us the first piece is to get the ball rolling on student debt relief, which we can do something about right now.
I’ve been in default for student loans myself. I get it. It’s critical. We need to break the chains that are shackling young people.
For many people, it’s been absolutely criminal. We’re advocating for zero interest student loans, and a moratorium on student loan debt. We want to cap the maximum amount of income, like a ten percent cap, that you can be required to pay to pay off your debt after its been renegotiated.
Even though the first step there is a moratorium, I would go a step further and call for a straight bailout. But this is a step-by-step process.
The other major thing is a moratorium on foreclosures, but I want it to take it a step past that, and talk about housing as a right. I think we need to establish that a) we will protect homeowners and b) we’ll protect renters in the U.S.
In my district, we have some of the highest housing construction start-ups in New York City. But we also have the highest amount of displacement in New York City, in places where people are thrown out of their buildings. East New York has some of the highest foreclosure rates, too.
DS: How would you manage some of the ideas that seem radical to many Americans. Not necessarily the ‘everything for everyone’ mentality, but even things like ‘housing is a human right’?
GM: FDR created a second bill of rights, the Economic Bill of Rights. He was beginning to introduce it, but he died, and it didn’t go anywhere. But his wife, Eleanor took it, and it became the basis of the charter of the Declaration of Human Rights for the UN.
The broadest things that we in the US scoff at – like ‘how could we have a right to housing? – started here in America, as a right for Americans. [FDR] felt that a country that cannot protect the economic rights of its citizens is not a first
We still talk about the values, but we don’t practice them at home. We let our neighbors get foreclosed on because we don’t believe people have a right to housing. So we’re using that Bill of Rights as a foundation to make a claim that what we’re talking about isn’t so far out there.
It’s not far out there to say that there’s a right to housing. We’ve been screwed up and controlled by the corporate political reality that they have us believing, that a right to housing is ‘un-American.’ In fact, it was our own country, and our own president, which started that conversation at a governmental level during his tenure.
DS: As Nick Pinto pointed out in his Village Voice article last Tuesday, this seems to touch on the longstanding debate within the Occupy movement since September: reform or revolution? Where do you stand in this?
GM: I tend to reject dichotomous choices. The either/or, all or nothing. What I believe is that a movement needs to hit every angle. The wave of a movement will hit the shore, and no stone will be able to avoid it and be unturned.
I don’t identify with the concept of reform in the sense of ‘go along to get along’. On the other side, I’ve met people who are calling for outright, ‘Stop everything; revolution now.’ I challenge those folks directly because there’s recklessness there.
There is a value set around our idea of electoral politics which is fundamentally radical, which could revolutionize our country. Engaging in the electoral arena is not reformist per se, if you come in with a model set to turn the system on its head.
I don’t want people to give up everything for electoral politics, or saying that we won’t be anything if we don’t get involved in electoral politics. I’m saying, leave no stone unturned; let’s try this.
That’s the beauty of ‘diversity of tactics.’ We can push through the boundaries of either/or for revolution or reform, and have something that’s organically growing.
We can’t just talk about it in a park. We need to be engaging real people with the functional tools to start doing what we want to do. I think [this is] absolutely revolutionary if we can turn the political system on its head, and dominate politics without money.
I had a conversation with a cat from Adbusters. Adbusters called Occupy burnt out, dead. But here’s the difference between what we’re trying to build:
An editor for Adbusters, who helped put out the call for September 17th in the first place, was coming to New York for the first time, around May 15th. He said he’d like to see a critical mass, people taking to the streets and shutting everything down.
What I told him is that we’re focusing on the ability of the community to care for themselves, in case everything really did shut down. Part of our strategy is to be able to reclaim public spaces – like through guerilla farming. If we could take over the city next year, and start bum rushing municipalities, we can use eminent domain laws currently on the books to pull those spaces back into the commons. It means that guerilla gardeners won’t be stomped by the police, and give the communities the ability to feed themselves, and replace the people who give them food. This will give them power.
The guy from Adbusters just diminished the value of what I’m saying. He said, ‘I want revolution, shut everything down!’ I said, ‘That’s reckless! People in my community are hungry today. You want to shut it down without giving people the capacity to care for themselves?’
I said straight up, ‘Fuck you. I’m not down with this in my city, saying we should burn our cities down, when we’re already hurting, and already burning. But you’re not gonna be reckless when we’re thinking of feeding our kids, and you say that doesn’t matter.’
You could take these 300 [Occupy] people to the closest hood, where there are predominantly low
The strength of a movement is in its ability to represent the needs of real people. If we want more people to be involved, we need to give people the ability to express themselves, and give them capacity to survive.