Can Occupy Wall Street Trust Its Own Candidate?

Running for Congress, George Martinez calls himself the Occupiers' candidate. The rest of the movement isn't so sure.

Even with this development, it's fair to characterize Martinez's campaign as a long shot. Although his biography might be suspiciously heavy with politics to many Occupy protesters, his political credentials are sparse compared with some of his opponents.

Born in the district to Puerto Rican parents who divorced when he was three, Martinez went to public school in Carroll Gardens and Park Slope before moving on to Brooklyn Tech, Brooklyn College, and a doctoral fellowship at CUNY.

Martinez, 38, came of age with hip-hop, and his sister Suzette recalls he spent much of his childhood in his room with recording equipment, rapping. Throughout college, Martinez followed a dual track, organizing and studying politics while he continued in the underground hip-hop scene, at one point mentioned in The Source as "unsigned hype."

Running in the Democratic primary for New York’s Seventh Congressional District, George Martinez campaigns in Carroll Gardens with his deputy campaign manager, Cecily McMillan, herself a veteran Occupy Wall Street activist. Martinez says he’s the first Occupy Wall Street candidate 
to run for Congress.
Mark Hewko
Running in the Democratic primary for New York’s Seventh Congressional District, George Martinez campaigns in Carroll Gardens with his deputy campaign manager, Cecily McMillan, herself a veteran Occupy Wall Street activist. Martinez says he’s the first Occupy Wall Street candidate to run for Congress.
The media have focused on Occupy Wall Street’s street protests and the dramatic police response. But for many participants, the real strength of Occupy lies not in flashy street battles but in the community and structures for mutual aid—outside of conventional politics—that the movement nurtures.
C.S. Muncy
The media have focused on Occupy Wall Street’s street protests and the dramatic police response. But for many participants, the real strength of Occupy lies not in flashy street battles but in the community and structures for mutual aid—outside of conventional politics—that the movement nurtures.

After his graduate degree, Martinez joined Hunter as an adjunct professor, teaching political literacy, something he now does at Pace. In 2001, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for City Council in Red Hook, but in 2002, he was elected district leader in Brooklyn's 51st Assembly District, which overlaps in part with the congressional district he's running in now. After that came a stint with the New York Attorney General's office, working as an assistant director advocating for Latino issues.

He kept the rap thing going throughout, too, founding a pair of nonprofits that used hip-hop as a form of youth empowerment, which led to the State Department naming him a "hip-hop ambassador," bringing a model of rap as youth outreach to Latin America and Asia.

It was returning from this work in Colombia that Martinez first visited Zuccotti Park last fall, an experience he describes as a revelation.

"I got emotional at my first General Assembly," he says. "I'd never seen my country work like this. When I got to the park, I was skeptical as shit. But you see it working. You realize that you may not always like the outcomes, but you see that the process itself is building something for the future. Anyone who went down to Zuccotti had this feeling that community matters again."

Martinez became, if not a constant Occupier, a familiar face around the park and on marches. He cut a rap video about the Occupation and used the park as a backdrop. Martinez's flow is competent if unremarkable ("I take money from the rich and invest it in the poor/Been a long time comin', time we settled the score"). But his wife, Clara, also contributes a few bars that anticipate exactly the debate Martinez's campaign has kicked up in the movement:

"My suggestion is you heed the call," she rhymes. "Occupy government, ain't no either or/We are the ones we've been waiting for."

The day after Martinez was working the blocks in Sunset Park, Occupy Wall Street protesters were posting on a different sidewalk, on 42nd Street just west of Times Square, outside the New Amsterdam Theater, where Barack Obama was about to begin the last in a day's worth of campaign-fundraising events.

The action, put on by a coalition of Occupy Wall Street's Foreclose the Banks campaign and the Campaign for a Fair Settlement (itself a coalition of more established liberal organizations like CREDO and moveon.org), was intended to pressure Obama to aggressively pursue investigations into the mortgage fraud that helped precipitate the current financial crisis.

Alexis Goldstein, a former finance-industry employee herself and one of the most public faces of Occupy's drive for accountability for financial crimes, hollered into the air and condensed a complicated accounting of the absence of fraud investigation into clauses short enough for her comrades to repeat.

While Obama was raising millions from wealthy donors in New York, she said, the Mortgage Fraud Task Force, led in part by New York's Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, was being denied even the paltry allotment it was promised to conduct investigations into banks' financial crimes.

"The Mortgage Fraud Task Force does not have the promised $55 million!" she shouted, echoed by the rest of the crowd. "The Mortgage Fraud Task Force does not have operators on their phones who even know what the task force is! Where is the Mortgage Fraud Task Force? Where is the investigation? Where are the indictments? After the greatest crisis since the Great Depression, President Obama promised that this task force would bring the banks to justice! We've seen zero bankers go to jail!"

While Goldstein ably boiled complicated regulatory arguments into mic-checkable slogans, two kids on the fringe of the crowd tried to get support for their own, slightly less sophisticated message, a twist on a common Occupy chant format: "One! Fuck Obama! Two! Fuck Obama! Three! Fuck Mitt Rom-ney, too-oo!"

A renewed focus on the housing crisis is one of the strategies being seriously discussed as a way forward for Occupy. From East New York to Minneapolis to Los Angeles, Occupy groups have realized that foreclosure defense—using volunteer bodies to prevent banks from evicting people from their homes—makes for compelling media spectacle at the same time that it makes plain the human cost of such difficult abstractions as CDOs and robo-signing.

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