Occupy Wall Street: Interview with Eli Robert and Riley

Amtrak crosses the county carrying overnight passengers, strangers who engage each other as little or as much as they want. I overhear the social analysis of foreigners, business owners, union workers, environmentalists, activists and Amish. Wide seats, scenic cars, and café tables host a unique social atmosphere, literally a meeting in between places with a cross-section of the world.

Last night I returned from New York State via Amtrak, following a weekend of faith-based social justice fellowship with the Word and World mentoring program. I heard three young men relate their weekend experience of Occupy Wall Street in New York City. Computer speakers played Colbert’s speech at the White House Press Dinner. Elderly voices discussed political debates in Iowa, “Those politicians are all liars” … “Well that should not attract votes the way they argue.”

Tim spotted the chance for a window into the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement from its source in New York City. We invited the activists to the café car for an interview. Eli Fender (23), from Seattle joined the camp for two weeks. Robert Smith (20) and Riley O’Neil (20) both originally from Rogers Park in Chicago (small world) both visited the camp over the weekend.

Charletta: Tell us about the movement’s shape. What are some of the tools that are important at OWS?

Eli: There’s the people’s microphone, which a lot of people know about. There’s also working groups such as the facilitation working group who guides the General assembly. In democracy you worry about where power starts welling up. So I joined the facilitation group meeting.

We don’t have leaders and we don’t have one agenda. You look at the civil rights movement and they ended because Martin Luther King got shot. They had no successor. That’s what having a leader can do to you. So if you have a movement where everyone is a leader, there’s no way your cause can be threatened. Because we don’t have an agenda, there’s no way to get us out of there. They can’t just buy us off or act like they solved it.

So the greater agenda is: the first inspiring people to protest Wall Street. You’ve got to get the 99%. The thing about true democracy is that you’ve got to be engaged and informed. So even people who don’t agree are coming down to find out and they get sucked in.

The second thing on the greater agenda is the distribution of wealth. You can’t just have the government and private sector in bed together. The fact that corporations have so much power and can buy thousands of votes means it’s no longer democracy.

Look at people who have 20 billion dollars. Nobody can possibly use that money for their needs. Some of them are in it for the power, but they don’t have compassion

We know that there isn’t a perfect form of government, but we’re trying to explore ways to do better than what we’ve got. OWS has some of the same problems that governments do, like trying to work with money. It’s challenging to approve all expenditures in the general assembly.

It’s social evolution in action. If something doesn’t work, it’s our job to get rid of it before it becomes a problem. As a community.

Some people are talking about adopting a spokes council model, where working groups send a spokesperson to a decision-making circle. The spokesperson would rotate in the working group to spread the power.

Charletta: What most concerns you in how power shows up in the movement and how do you avoid abuses of power?

In decision-making, we use temperature checks, wiggling fingers to indicate support. You can block a decision is if you think something violates the safety of the operation or your ethics. There have been 42 blocks since it started. Only one woman and one person of color blocked. The rest were white men. It seems like an entitlement thing. White men act like a leader all the time and expect to be treated that way. The whole thing is an ego check.

Another way to address power is the progressive stack. People raise hands to ask questions and get in line. But if you are in a marginalized group you get to go first, moving people of color or women or transgendered people into the center.

Tim: What does it mean that proposals are a living document?

Anything we try to establish at a higher level for the movement, which is very important given that we don’t know what we want to do yet.

The Democratic Party was trying to back us for a while. We made a statement saying that we don’t want to be a political party. We are about solidarity. Right now the OWS movement has more support than any government worldwide. We don’t want to be a campaign sticker. We don’t want to be absorbed into a party. Look at how the Republican Party absorbed the Tea Party.

Tim: Have you had experience with protests before this?

Eli: I went to some marches against Bush and against the war, but I didn’t really feel like they made a difference. Since the 70s, apathy has been the norm. There have been some really effective actions, but there’s a lot of apathy. This movement inspired me. It’s different.

One person can’t change the world, but you can change hearts. If you get enough people on board, you can change. If 99% of the world doesn’t acknowledge them, leaders lose power.

Tim: How has your experience changed the way you view the world?

Eli: I have been upset by the Democratic-Republican dichotomy. In the age of internet, why don’t people really try to do democracy seriously? General assembly sparked my imagination about how this could be done better. It wasn’t about being trained what to think, but about how to think. I’m becoming open.

Charletta: What about the role of technology?

Eli: In some ways technology is really absent. You’re sleeping outside in tents. You have a cell phone, and nowhere to easily charge it. During working groups people tell me to read the minutes online, but I’m sleeping in a park. You organize online because that’s how you reach the 99%. But you have to be there in person. It’s so interpersonal. You can’t get behind it until you hear what dozens of people have to think.

Tim: Can you say more about the interpersonal aspect?

Eli: I’m motivated to get involved in things I normally wouldn’t. I spent a day at a table petitioning to get the FDA to label food with genetically modified organisms in it. It’s empowering.

Neither of my parents voted in the last election, the one to vote in (regardless of the outcome). There’s so much apathy in the world. It’s not that people don’t want it to be different, but they feel ineffective. I want people to be empowered. Being out there and changing hearts, I feel I can make a difference.

At the same time, it is rough camping. You need breaks. Sometimes I went to Central Park by myself or with friends to climb trees, play, and be carefree for a moment. Being the symbol that it is, you are shouldering the weight of the world.

People can feel ineffective. For example, Paul was in charge of getting Occupy people to the Pete Seeger concert. He was getting frustrated, afraid no one would come. I started calling people, “Come hear one of the most famous singer activists, get your butt over here!” Paul was encouraged, with a big smile on his face. You have to have each other’s backs. As a result, we got to march with 94-year-old Pete Seeger as he sang and walked from 96th Street and Broadway down to Columbus Circle.

Some are scared of police contact and how they might respond. We ask, “Do I have it in me to not retaliate and be nonviolent?” But with community, I know it’s not just me. If I get angry, there are others around me who will help me know how to respond. You need a dedicated community so that there is room to make a mistake and have people back you up.

Tim: How will that sense of community affect you beyond this? How does it interact with individualistic culture?

Eli: [Eli spent some time living in Japan]. Collectivist culture isn’t perfect either. Shame is a hugely powerful emotion in collectivist Japan. It’s still got a lot of problems there. You don’t want to stir the pot; going against the government is harder in a collectivist culture.

I think of OWS as a hybrid, having our individual voices and still being together. Anybody can make a proposal that could forever change the community, but if it doesn’t represent the community, it’s not going to happen. In order for a proposal to be adopted, the whole general assembly has to agree with it.

Tim: How has changing people’s minds affected you?

Eli: I’ve always been outspoken. I don’t really want to lead the class project, but I will if no one else is doing it. I have confidence in the movement and my ability to be a part of it. I know the movement has what it takes as long as everyone gives 100% and more and more people get involved.

Tim: What do you see happening over the coming months as it gets colder?

Eli: There are some really skilled people, like veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They have training for shelter building to survive cold weather. They are training and sharing skills. One guy was talking about building igloos once there is more than a foot of snow.

At this point in the interview, Robert and Riley joined us. The two of them were in high school together and traveled from Chicago to New York for the weekend.

Tim: What brought you to Occupy Wall Street? What inspired you?

Riley: I’m a business student in St. Louis and this directly affects me. I missed five classes and have the worst academic week of my life coming up, but everything I learned and benefitted from this week was so worth it. I hope this movement really does change things.

Robert: I’ve known about corruption, and if you know, it’s your duty to do something about it. I dropped out of college after one year because I wasn’t sure my degree would be worth it. If this is the revolution, then I have to be there.

Tim: Have you been at a protest before?

Robert: This is my first protest. I never thought I’d see something this size. It’s awesome. I have a lot of friends back home who would have loved to make it. I’m going to Occupy Chicago when I get back.

Tim: You talked about how the progressive stack looks at people who are marginalized. How did you experience the gathering as a space for people on the edges?

Eli: There is so much compassion in that space, whatever color you are. Some people down there don’t speak English. There is so much translation going on. It’s the most international community I’ve ever been a part of.

Tim: You also talked about a sense of entitlement?

Eli: It’s something we’re trained to do without realizing, but now I’m seeing it in myself, and am scared of it. I’m trying to check it. One guy said to us, “There is no person who has no racism in their heart.” If you’re going to facilitate, be as aware of it as you can, and work against it.

Robert: You hit it on it exactly. We’re from Rogers Park where it’s really diverse and it felt like that a little bit. There were signs in Chinese and Arabic.

Eli: There’s an info desk in Spanish. Someone from there is at every meeting.

Riley: There is nothing at OWS that isn’t being used. We just came over Friday, our first time ever in New York City. People gave us a spot, and food. It felt like a comfortable hotel. There, in the middle of the city you feel safer than ever.

Tim: What will you two take with you?

Riley: I was just on the phone, and it’s so hard to explain to someone what it’s like. You really have to see it yourself, do your own research. It is building. There were more people there on Sunday than on Friday. We were peddling on bikes to charge phones and there was a guy planting beans for the winter.

Robert: I’m definitely going out to Occupy Chicago and I’m going to bring friends. I have 1000 pictures and videos on my camera. I don’t know what else I could do but preach.

Eli: You have to share a lot. And one person isn’t enough most of the time. Don’t force anything on anyone.

Tim: What about those that are isolated, or far from a movement? How can they connect?

Eli: Go to the website for meeting minutes; see how it’s moving day to day. Get info from the source. Check out www.occupycafe.org

Riley: Through social media, this is exploding.

Eli: Without any social media, it wouldn’t be so big, but you still have to experience it directly.

Charletta: Tell us about the economics on the ground?

Riley: Where’s the food coming from?

Eli: Did you get hungry? No. Then it’s working!

Robert: When I woke up this morning, I had a box of pizza in my face.

Eli: All you really need is a sleeping bag.

Riley: And open ears.

Eli: Everything is donation-based. There’s someone who collects food donations for those with gluten allergies. It’s a gift economy; people are being thoughtful. And you don’t just give to the carnivores. And I’m doing my part by eating pepperoni!

Riley: We got back to camp at midnight one night. Someone had puked near where we wanted to sleep. An unemployed man has been living at OWS. He cleaned the puke, and didn’t even care. He told us stories about when Mayor Bloomberg was going to kick out OWS because it wasn’t clean enough, and everyone ran out, got buckets, and started scrubbing out the park. The next day it rained, as if nature were helping out.

Things are moving, not going backwards. They may pause, but we work it out in a civilized way.

Eli: The whole world is watching New York. The park is a tiny little park, about 3 train cars wide and 7 train cars long with more than 500 people sleeping there.

Tim: Cleveland had their first arrests over the weekend.

Eli: That’s good, they’ll start to grow. This movement doesn’t have a predecessor because it’s capturing so much attention.

Riley: I can now go to other occupy camps and I can tell them about what I saw at OWS and that will give me some credibility.

Eli: Don’t forget that OWS New York isn’t doing everything right.

Tim: When you have a democratic and egalitarian system, you ask, what is the authority you are drawing on when you speak? Does it matter who has been camping longest? You mentioned progressive stacks as one idea. What are some of the ways you saw this?

Eli: The system is open, but also complex. It means those who have no idea and aren’t invested don’t have as much influence. You still have a voice of course, but you have to learn.

Robert: You have to get involved. They had a $1000 weekly budget for the library. One man blocked the proposal. I thought he seemed like a jerk, but once he explained it I realized he had a point. He proposed that they make proposals of what they need and what they want. It’s clear that it’s more important to have everyone’s voice and everyone involved than to only move forward.

Eli: The highest moral authority is process. The only time you’re really wrong is if you violate process.

Riley: Everyone is very patient.

Eli: Process becomes really important if you want true democracy. Because if you get off track you’ll never get anything done.

Eli: Go down and find out yourself! Go anywhere and tell anyone you can.

Comments (8)

  1. Sam

    I thought this was a really interesting article, thanks for sharing the interview.

    Just for the record, the civil rights movement did not end once Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, nor was he the formal leader of the movement, it was also a collective and collaborative effort. That one example just struck me as a really off base claim from a historical perspective.

  2. TimN

    Thanks, Sam for your more nuanced recounting. It struck me as an interesting example of how younger activists sometime lack detailed historical understandings of previous movements. It’s interesting to see how strongly this no leaders/everyone is a leader piece runs in the Occupy movement. While the civil rights movement was much more collective and collaborative than Eli grasps, they did still have much more of a tolerance for leaders than the Occupy movement does. At least right now.

  3. Amy Yoder McGloughlin

    Thanks Tim and Charletta. Way to seize the moment on the train to have a great conversation. This movement keeps sending me back to the book of Acts. I love the egalitarian nature of the movement and the early church.

  4. TimN

    Amy, have you had a chance to visit Occupy Philadelphia yet? Cara Curtis, a friend of mine in Philadelphia who wrote some reflection on her faith in relation to her experience there: Occupy Together: Living Humanly

  5. Heidi

    Thanks for sharing this interview. I think that cities around the country are starting to see that this movement is really gaining stream (much to their surprise) and are starting to work with people instead of kicking out and arresting them.

  6. Amy Yoder McGloughlin

    I haven’t yet been able to get out there, but I’m sending supplies down as I can. I’m hoping to get out there on Friday. Several of the folks from Germantown Mennonite have gotten down there, and have inspiring reports.

    I did put the Occupy Wall Street movement into a theological context in a recent sermon, if anyone is nerdy likes me and enjoys reading sermons. :)


  7. TimN


    Thanks for sharing your sermon here. I agree with your conclusion here:

    Which brings me back to occupy Philadelphia. These folks–who come from all walks of life, are doing the work of God. They are feeding each other, making sure everyone is warm and clothed, and providing medical care for everyone. They are doing what the early church did.

    It calls to mind a point made by Nathan Schneider in a round table discussion entitled God Dissolves into the Occupy Movement. He says:

    Of course, in the rupture of the ordinary that characterized that period, everything felt in some sense religious. The trappings of ordinary religion (rituals, structured prayers, etc.) felt pretty unnecessary, since every moment seemed already so charged with a secret extremity and transcendence–secret, because the rest of the world hadn’t yet become aware of what powerful stuff was happening down there.

    He’s talking about the early days of Occupy Wall Street, but he could just as easily be talking about the energy of the early church or the early Anabaptists. In their case it took years or even decades for the world to catch on. In the case of OWS it’s happened much faster.

    Thanks for connecting the dots for your congregation. It’s a connection that is making some Mennonites quite angry, but I don’t think can’t ignore it.

  8. Amy Yoder McGloughlin

    Finally got to Occupy Philadelphia today, while on break from jury duty. The occupation is very organized. Tents are broken down into streets of sorts. I witnessed folks bartering for food and cigarettes, a well organized food tent where people were getting lots of vegetables, and a good representation of people of faith. There is an interfaith working group down there that is meeting twice a week, organizing worship services and speakers.

    People have complained (and by people I mean the city papers) about the smell of urine and the filthy living conditions. But, I didn’t see any of that. It was very clean, they are recycling, and there are signs around that say “don’t pee where you sleep” (that made me chuckle).

    The city is being very tolerant of the movement–Philly is a union town, and the “birthplace of freedom”, and the city takes those things very seriously. I really hope that tolerance will last–it doesn’t seem like Occupy Philadelphia is going anywhere.

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