On Saturday afternoon, Occupy Miami — the local offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, a New York-based mass protest (primarily) against the corruption of the U.S. political system by corporations — will convene downtown for the third time in as many weeks to demonstrate and talk strategy. This may be the last gathering before the would-be movement actually occupies an area of Miami, which, according to word on the street, will likely be Government Center.
Taking Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Boston as harbingers — both have featured police violence and mass arrests — Occupy Miami may end up being a protracted and contentious stand-off between protesters and local authorities. In other words, our city may be in for an autumn heat wave.
With Miami thus on the verge — some would say of revolution, others upheaval, others mere tantrum — I figured it was a good time to try to find out more about Occupy Miami, whose first gathering, at Bayfront Park on Oct. 1, left me equal parts skeptical and hopeful. Toward that end, I recently talked to Muhammed Malik, one of OM’s unofficial organizers (unofficial because the Occupy participants generally spurn centralized leadership).
A seasoned anti-war activist who spent time in the ACLU’s civil rights division, Malik, 29, is quick to point out that he is not running the show. Still he is certainly one of Occupy Miami’s main hustlers, helping in various ways to coordinate its imminent occupation. As such, he’s as much an authority as anyone to answer the questions many bystanders, antagonists, and even sympathizers have about Occupy Miami, starting with …
What is Occupy Miami?
MM: Occupy Miami is a social, political, and economic movement of Miami residents that are fed up with corporate-dominated agendas, both in political parties and by other factions in our society. It’s a space for people to rise up and achieve justice together.
The Occupy movement writ large has been characterized as lacking leadership and focus. How do you respond?
MM: We’re used to on a daily basis having clearly defined goals. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, and I think that when people walk into Occupy Miami with those expectations they’re naturally going to be confused. But if you put this into the context of the historical moment, and you understand how spontaneous this is, you begin to realize that there’s a reason why everyone is coming out and it’s all tied to corporations and the fact that there’s economic, political, and social inequality. So the leadership is informal but also organically forming. Sure, we’re making missteps, but along the way we’re voicing solidarity with each other and supporting each other as we move forward.
We have a formal leadership structure … the U.S. Congress, where there are very clearly defined roles. The problem is that they’ve been wrangling around trying to quote-unquote deal with issues and they haven’t been able to find solutions to problems facing our country. So I find it highly ironic and hypocritical for criticism to harp upon the lack of leadership [in the Occupy movement].
Also, what do you expect to emerge in one or two weeks? What do you reasonably expect to happen. I think what’s more important is for people who are skeptical and supportive to come and figure out these issues together. What I’ve found is that some of the people who first came to Occupy Miami skeptical are the people who have helped guide things … and gained legitimacy for their ways of weaving together various perspectives to find common ground … What we’re thinking about doing is trying to solve massive problems, and I think that will require us to think outside the box on many different levels.
Video from the first Occupy Miami gathering, which was at Bayfront Park on Oct. 1
I was at the first gathering and there was a point when individuals got to stand up and address the crowd about why they were there. Their grievances were very wide-ranging —
MM: Yeah, but there was a common thread that ran though all of it, that banks and corporations have such a dominant role in our lives and they are unregulated in society. Whether it’s a mother talking about how she doesn’t want her kids to have student debt; whether it has to deal with, as one guy mentioned, Bank of America and a $5 (transaction) charge; another person talked about the wars. The common thread that runs through all of that, I think, is this fundamental lack of accountability and this feeling among the masses in the U.S. that they don’t have control of their lives anymore. The idea that you can just work hard and make it is really being exposed more and more as a myth. People are starting to realize that we live in a plutocracy, not a democracy.
So it may seem like all separate issues, but these are all symptoms … of our system and the way that it’s dominated by special interests, particularly corporate interests.
What do you think about the way mainstream media outlets have covered the Occupy movement?
MM: It’s funny because let me tell you the two things that I’ve heard in the media. One is “Hurry up.” The other one is “Slow down — what are you about?” So if the movement responded 100 percent to the media in general it would have conflicting messages.
The fact is that the vast majority of people who are coming out have never participated in a protest, have never participated in an activism campaign. So one of the early responses to the Occupy Wall Street movement was, “This is not going to accomplish anything. This is just some adolescent, spasmodic moment.” I think we can recognize that it’s now well-beyond that characterization.
Let me ask you two questions: When was the last time that you saw 200 people, many of them young, standing out in the rain, getting soaked, talking about political and social and economic issues? [Malik is referring to the second meeting of Occupy Miami, which was on Saturday, Oct. 8, at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus.] That goes far beyond the characterization of the movement as “adolescent”.
The other question I would ask is, when was the last time you saw Haitians, African-Americans, where you saw whites, older folks, younger folks — when was the last time you saw all those folks come together to discuss issues and see where their ideas overlap? You know, Miami is oftentimes characterized as this place that’s steeped in racial segregation … economically and socially and politically. [But in Occupy Miami] you have socialists and anarchists, and then you have mostly people who aren’t affiliated with anything, and then you have a smattering of Haitians, you have a smattering of Latinos, you have Cuban Republican Libertarians … You have these fresh conversations. Where in the hell are you going to find those conversations anywhere else?
By virtue of those two questions, you can’t really characterize it as an “adolescent, spasmodic moment” nor can we write it off as a bunch of disorganized people who are just emotional. If it were simply emotional, how would there be a medical team forming? How would the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild be coming together … on how to put together a legal team?
If you want to counterbalance the notion of the movement as immature, young idiots, I think the fact that people slowed down … and there’s a phase of building infrastructure gives some indication of how this movement is taking on better shape, though I wouldn’t say what kind of shape.
The third gathering is this Saturday. What is on the agenda?
MM: It’s a protest rally so that folks can get their voices out there and get to know each other that will lead into a third assembly, where we’ll discuss the action and find out where we’re at.
When will you make a final decision on where and when to start the occupation?
MM: It will come out of this group, some sort of conclusion will come out of this group. I mean you’re asking someone who is not a leader, so what do you expect? I’m going to march it in that direction, but people have to come together.
The third Occupy Miami gathering is scheduled to start at 1:30 on Saturday at Bayfront Park (RSVP on Facebook). We will be filing live updates on beachedmiami.com from the gathering throughout the day.