CVH & VOCAL: Bridging Community Organizing & Occupy
One significant aspect of the relationship between community organizing and Occupy movement in New York City is the synergy between Occupy Wall Street and several community organizations that have been organizing around revenue issues for the past year. This piece is a dialogue between organizers from two of the organizations – Community Voices Heard and VOCAL New York (formerly known as New York City AIDS Housing Network / NYCAHN) – that have been active in that revenue organizing. This organizing around revenue issues – which included a civil disobedience action at the Capitol on March 1, 2011, a Wisconsin-inspired overnight occupation of the New York State Capitol in late March and the May 12th Mobilization on Wall Street – has put CVH and VOCAL in closer relationship with larger community organizations and labor unions on the one hand and, on the other, with many of the direct action activists who helped to initiate Occupy Wall Street. Since the occupation began in September, VOCAL and CVH have related to it in several different ways. In this interview, CVH and VOCAL organizers reflect on those experiences and discuss their vision for how those relationships should unfold.
SONDRA YOUDELMAN: Sondra is the Executive Director of Community Voices Heard (CVH) in New York State, a membership organization of low-income New Yorkers fighting to influence policy change around issues that affect low-income families. She serves on the Boards of the Pushback Network and Grassroots Global Justice, and she is active in National People’s Action and the Right to the City Alliance.
HENRY SERRANO: Henry is the Lead Organizer of Community Voices Heard (CVH) in New York State. He is also on the Boards of both the North Star Fund and the Progressive Technology Project.
JEREMY SAUNDERS: Jeremy Saunders has been organizing in New York since 2001. He has worked at ACORN, Community Voices Heard and the North West Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition. He is currently the lead organizer for VOCAL New York, formerly the NYC AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN), which organizes low-income New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS, the formerly incarcerated as well as active and former drug users.
CHRIS KEELEY: Chris is the Coordinator of the New Deal for New York Campaign, a collaboration of community organizations across the state of New York that are working collaboratively to lift up the need for new revenue raising and increased investment in job creation and critical social services.
JEREMY: VOCAL got involved in the revenue fight when our flagship AIDS housing bill – which would have ensured that 10,000 low-income New Yorkers who are living with HIV/AIDS would not have to pay more than 30 percent of their income towards rent – was vetoed by Governor Paterson. Paterson had been supportive of the bill, but he said he couldn’t approve it because it would cost too much, and the state couldn’t afford it during a crisis. So then, we found ourselves stuck in these reactive fights to defend AIDS services in New York City. It was clear that these dynamics were only going to get worse – that we were going to end up focusing on defending a smaller and smaller pool of services – unless we fought on revenue issues. So, on March 1st of this year, VOCAL New York and CVH organized a big action in the hallways of the Capitol building to protest the fact that the government was cutting services for poor people at the same time as it was giving tax breaks to New York’s wealthiest. Seventeen people were arrested that day, and it got a lot of attention. Everyone – from the media to the police to elected officials – said that they hadn’t seen anything like it in a long time. That action put us on the map. It was what got us working with these larger community organizations, unions, and direct action activists. It helped to build towards the overnight occupation of the Capitol in late March and the May 12th actions on Wall Street. As we started to plan more and more actions together over time, we’ve built up good working relationships.
SONDRA: Community Voices Heard started getting involved in organizing around revenue and the big banks about a year ago. Recovery funds were dying out very rapidly. Everything that we were demanding was based on a proactive plan that would require more money, but instead we were having to fight against budget cutbacks. We felt like we needed to move into working on revenue issues and to really think about proactive revenue fights and alternative taxation campaigns if we were ever going to be able to win and fund any of the stuff our members wanted. At first, it was this weird wonky set of issues around taxes that seemed too disconnected. It didn’t resonate well with our members. Then, when the recession started to get talked about in the media, and there were tons of stories about inequality, our members began to react. “Recession? It’s a depression! And we’ve been experiencing this for years. But at least people are talking about it now.” The fact that government needed to be forced to invest back in people and communities if we were going to turn things around was pretty clear to our members. And, when government kept saying there was no money, that’s when the need to get it from the institutions and people that have more to give started making sense as something to work on. This recession put us in a moment where everyone needs the safety net, so we have a chance to build broader alliances around safety net fights. However, our members had hesitancy about what it means to build that broader front: will our issues get lost? When we fight for the broader safety net, our constituencies – like African American and Latino workfare workers – are not the main-ticket items that are going to get the press. But we knew we needed to build this broader fight around revenue if our issues were going to have any chance of winning. So we started working on the revenue campaign, which made it clear that we needed to do statewide work, perhaps with some new partners. It was during the May 12th actions that our organizations met some of the people who helped to initiate Occupy Wall Street. There were working relationships across our organizations and the activists, which has made it easier to integrate our work since it all exploded.
HENRY: There has also been a realignment of some of the other political forces that we’ve been working with: labor and some of the other community organizing alliances. Some of those broader forces have been humbled over the last several years, and – at the same time – we’ve been growing, so we’re more powerful than we were in the past. That doesn’t at all mean we have more people than they do, not even close. But there’s a perception that we have power. What was happening with some of those broader forces? The former ACORN forces have been in a period of transition because they were attacked organizationally and shut down; they have been rebuilding. The unions were humbled through the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) fight. They tried to pass EFCA proactively and instead they had their collective bargaining rights shot down across the country. Even Wisconsin – which is an important part of the inspirational narrative over the last year – was a reactive fight to defend collective bargaining. Labor has had to reconsider what they have been doing. At this point, union members have had to fight to defend basic quality of life issues, so it’s still a “self-interest” fight. But what’s changing is that it can’t just be a fight for a narrow self-interest. Even a fight around self-interest has to engage broader issues because of the crisis.
At the same time, things started shifting internally. Our members’ sentiments started changing after Egypt. We started to get calls from our leaders around these kinds of actions. I’ve been organizing at CVH for ten years, and this was the first time that our members started talking openly about being willing to take arrests. During a statewide strategy meeting, we talked about this spectrum of actions that went all the way out to more militant actions including civil disobedience. When we got to the point in the spectrum that talked about civil disobedience, at first everyone was silent. And then one woman stood up and said, “We just need to go Egypt on their ass.” I saw a real change in the sentiment in the leadership during that meeting. They had been going through these long, slow struggles, and now they were ready to get more aggressive. That was around the same time that we connected with VOCAL to start this statewide work around revenue.
SONDRA: So our work was shifting externally around our issues and we were shifting internally in terms of tactics. And there was a realignment of the groups that we were working with. All of that positioned us to be players at a state level in a way that we weren’t before. And then the Occupy moment happened, which opened a whole new amount of space. We were on this trajectory of building statewide power, and then suddenly there’s this massive shift in public consciousness that we could take advantage of.
HENRY: We have been working on issues related to revenue and the big banks for about a year now. In that work, we have been working on parallel tracks with the activists who initiated Occupy Wall Street, and our work intersects. About six weeks ago, we started planning a week of action around the banks that was largely driven by labor, and then Occupy Wall Street pops up. We’ve continued to work with them, and what they have been adding is scale and media attention. For example, we had been planning this “Millionaires Tour,” and we expected to have about 150 people participate. We got 700 people. And, for the first time that I’ve ever seen, our action became a joke on Saturday Night Live: this guy who was playing Bloomberg started giving addresses to other rich peoples’ houses so they’d leave him alone. That kind of attention impacts our members. Our membership has always felt isolated in their fights. They feel solid in directing the actions and doing some incredible work, but they have always felt isolated and like no one pays attention to them. And now suddenly the media is paying attention to us. We have gotten more media hits than we’ve ever gotten. That came under the banner of “Occupy Wall Street” but – when that banner comes together with our organizing – it can have a more tangible policy impact. Occupy Wall Street…they aren’t trying to have a concrete policy impact, and I think that’s fine. They bring general frustration about the bigger issues. I wouldn’t actually want them to put more structure on that or develop more concrete demands. I would discourage them from taking on a specific issue or a structure. What they bring is a different level of scale and media attention to a wide range of issues.
JEREMY: We had the same experience. VOCAL went down to Occupy Wall Street with five members, and they had turned that into 300 people within 48 hours. Our five members worked with a handful of Wall Street organizers to organize somewhere between 300 and 500 people to march to the District Attorney’s office and then to march on Cuomo. We went down there that day because we had this leader from VOCAL who had participated in the OWS actions when they were trying to evict them. He got the shit knocked out of him by a cop, and his attack became one of the most prominent attacks by the cops because of how blatant and, probably more importantly, because it was widely captured on video. So we organized a march to the DA’s office calling for the investigation of all OWS attacks, an end to all police attacks and to demand the NYPD stop listing our leader, Felix, as wanted. Here was this low-income person living with AIDS who’s homeless and who is a highly marginalized person at the protest that day. Just yesterday, we found out the charges have been dropped. After the DA action we mic-checked to the crowd that Gov 1%, Cuomo was going to get a “Gamechanger” award from HuffPo across town, so we led about 200 to 300 people across town to protest Cuomo as well. There is just a huge shift in the kind of scale and an energy that you can mobilize quickly right now.
HENRY: That may start to change now that OWS doesn’t just want to be a “mob for hire.” They don’t just want to show up to action to be there. They may start organizing their own stuff and stop showing up at ours. We’ll see.
SONDRA: That’s their strength, not ours. Our strength is not in having thousands of people in the streets or holding one big march. It’s consistent action around the public debate – whether that’s through media or hitting a target strongly or creatively enough to get attention. You don’t actually need thousands of people to do that.
HENRY: We should take the relationship between our work and theirs as far as it goes. We shouldn’t try to decide what they’re going to do. It’s a different constituency with different class issues and different racial issues. I’m not big on critiquing Occupy Wall Street for being a bunch of white people. White people should do these kinds of things. They have specific issues. They’re 63% of this country. Yes, they are entitled in a way that we will never have among our membership. But that kind of entitlement isn’t bad. We could use more of it. They are more entitled in their demands and in their approach to confrontation. Right now, white people are the majority while we’ve always represent