Can Occupy Wall Street Trust Its Own Candidate?


George Martinez is on his grind, stalking the corner of Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street in Brooklyn, while intercepting pedestrians, shaking hands, and passing out handbills.

“How are you? George Martinez. I’m running for Congress in the Seventh District. We’ve got a primary coming June 26.”

Martinez, 38, dapper in a brown suit, with a shaved head and rimless glasses, doesn’t have a campaign o≈ce, just a folding table stocked with literature. His scheduled appearance at the senior center on 53rd Street was delayed by a fire drill, and Martinez knows better than to try to hold residents’ attention during lunchtime.

Instead, he has ducked out to the street to work the passersby while he waits for a Telemundo crew scheduled to shoot an interview with him. When they arrive, Martinez gives the interview in Spanish, tailoring his message to the audience, and telling the reporter that his involvement with Occupy Wall Street is part of a campaign of activism, but “I’m interested in protecting my people.”

After the stand-up, the Telemundo crew follows him around for a while as he works the blocks on Fourth Avenue, buttonholing pedestrians and popping into businesses. Outside the New Five-Star Barbershop, he chats up a guy in a nylon smock on break. “‘Sup, what it is?” he says as the camera rolls. “Lemme tell you what’s poppin’!”

Introductions made, the TV crew films Martinez and his family entering the barbershop. Then they come back out, and the Telemundo crew goes inside to get a shot of them coming in again. Finally, the whole entourage is packed into the cramped confines of the already-crowded barbershop, where one of the barbers, Jason Pena, tells the camera he supports Martinez.

“It’s hard to change politics. You’re going up against big money,” Pena says. “But for some reason, I just believe in him.”

A few more visits like this, and the Telemundo crew peels off. Martinez and his team carry on to the next stop, the weekly prayer service at the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge. Martinez slips off his shoes and seeks out the imam, but there has been some miscommunication: The mosque didn’t know he was coming, and the imam tells Martinez there won’t be any time for him to address the congregation today. Undaunted, Martinez sits through the hour-long service. When the loudspeakers blare out the final prayer, the worshippers spill out onto Fifth Avenue, and a mosque attendant circulates among them with a big wooden box, loudly soliciting zakat. Martinez is right next to him, pressing the flesh, as his volunteer field manager and his wife pass out handbills.

This is all the basic stuff of Brooklyn retail politics, the story of an upstart candidate backed by a ragtag crew of idealistic volunteers pulling 18-hour days in a desperate effort to make up with sweat what they’re lacking in money.

What makes Martinez’s candidacy unique is that he’s proudly announcing himself as an Occupy Wall Street candidate—the first one ever to get on a congressional ballot. That makes him an anomaly in the world of electoral politics and a contentious figure inside the movement. Is he committed to this thing called Occupy, or is he piggybacking on it to advance his own political ambitions? Does it even matter if his intentions are pure, if Occupy Wall Street has been clear from the jump that it won’t rely on elected politicians to bring the changes it demands?

Campaigning in Sunset Park, Martinez wants me to meet Moaffaq Askar, a Palestinian restaurant owner he worked with after September 11, 2001, to diffuse anti-Arab tensions in the neighborhood. Askar is taking care of business in the back of the restaurant but motions for us to wait. During the pause, Martinez starts talking.

“It comes down to this,” he says. “I see people who are hurting and struggling, and I just know that I—that we—we could do something about it.” He pauses. “If you know you could do something about that, and you don’t. . . .” Another pause. There’s a hitch in his voice now, and when he continues, the words are strained with emotion. “If you don’t, that’s failure. And I want to encourage us not to fail.”

After another silence, he re-collects himself. “Damn, I got choked up on that,” he says. “I didn’t think that was going to happen. I’m going to have to work on that.” Hearing an aspiring politician brought to tears by his own inspirational generalities, you don’t have to be a cynical journalist to wonder: Is this guy for real?

It’s a question many people inside Occupy Wall Street are asking as well.

Given the movement’s ambivalence (at best; more often, antipathy) toward electoral politics, Martinez is a lightning rod. His campaign exposes ideological and tactical fissures as old as Occupy Wall Street and older.

For some, his candidacy reeks of co-option, representing a textbook example of the ways a corrupt, broken system recuperates and metabolizes every threat into a neutered, defanged format. A movement organized in opposition to a national politics so thoroughly captured by corporate power that the people are voiceless regardless of whom they elect can’t be expected to take seriously someone who proposes running for office as a solution, they say.

Others in the movement are ready and even eager to bring the energy that was born in Zuccotti Park into the halls of power, to harness the dynamism of the streets to a focused drive to reclaim political power, and to show that the people, working together, can still recapture the political process from a flood of corporate money.

The Martinez candidacy poses these questions at a delicate time for Occupy Wall Street. Seven months after it was forcibly evicted from Zuccotti Park, the movement has metastasized, carrying on in working groups and circles of mutual trust, pursuing agendas ranging from finance reform to sustainable agriculture to an end to the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy.

But without the park, and in the absence of regular media-friendly spectacles, the profile of the movement has diminished in the popular consciousness, and with it media coverage of the issues it briefly forced to the top of the national agenda: income inequality and corporate control of politics. May Day, heralded all winter as the moment to wait for, the definitive proof that the movement was not just still alive but also growing, has come and gone. Some organizers now concede that pegging such high expectations to a single event was a mistake, and while the turnout for May 1 was substantial—estimated at more than 20,000—it failed to spark the kind of revitalized movement many activists were hoping for. In the hangover of the past six weeks, Occupiers have been turning inward, returning to first principles and asking one another how the movement has to change, what new strategies and tactics it has to adopt to regain the momentum that it held last fall.

Some activists see in the Martinez campaign an avenue for focused action, a wheel to put their shoulders to, a replicable model that could, if successful, overturn the political order and fill legislatures and city councils with candidates responsive to their constituents rather than their campaign donors.

But the Martinez campaign is also running in the shadow of Wisconsin, where the defeat of a recall effort last week cemented Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting agenda and left many on the left wondering if electoral mechanisms can ever be a useful tool when the campaign-finance decks are so thoroughly stacked.

Martinez’s profile—a young, charismatic, urban community organizer with a promise of hope and change—also recalls a sour taste in a lot of mouths of the Occupy movement. Many came to Zuccotti Park precisely because they had put enormous faith in Barack Obama and his promises to build a new kind of politics only to have that faith dashed as Obama assembled a plutocratic economic team, expanded wars and drone killings, failed to close Guantanamo, and negotiated a health-care overhaul that only strengthened an already near-omnipotent insurance industry.

With Obama running for president all over again this summer, the question of how Occupiers should use the backdrop of the campaigns and conventions, and what the movement’s intervention in the cycle should be, is on every activist’s mind.

“It’s a question we’re getting asked a lot,” says Jo Robin, an Occupier who identifies as an anarchist. “There are a lot of conversations about how we should be working in relation to the elections right now.”

Martinez is running in the new Seventh Congressional District, reconfigured this year in the most recent round of redistricting. Once known as the Bullwinkle District, it stretches from Sunset Park up through Red Hook and Cobble Hill, dipping into the Lower East Side, and snaking up through Bushwick into Woodhaven. Its rough shape dates back to 1992, when a previous round of redistricting created a Latino-majority district.

Although there is technically no incumbent in the race, the biggest shadow is cast by Nydia Velázquez, the 20-year-veteran representative displaced by the redistricting from her stronghold in the old 12th District.

There are a lot of reasons to bet on Velázquez in this race. Her new district shares a lot of turf with the one she has had locked down through 10 terms, she’s firmly ensconced in Brooklyn’s Democratic machine politics, and she’s operating with a reported $800,000 war chest.

The strange timing of this year’s congressional primaries further props up Velázquez’s candidacy. For reasons that remain murky, the party decided to hold this year’s primary—for congressional candidates only—in June, far earlier than usual. That gave candidates without a preexisting power base or campaign industry hardly any time to organize, while candidates like Velázquez, confident in a host of endorsements, donors, and longstanding relationships, have a head start.

Understandably, incumbents are playing the primaries as quietly as possible, hoping no one besides their dedicated voting blocs even notices the unseasonable election.

The Velázquez campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment and in other interviews has consistently deflected questions about her opponents and the race while reiterating that voters will make their decision based on their familiarity with Velázquez and her record.

But Velázquez does have challengers. Erik Dilan, an 11-year councilmember, is also running, and has forged a peculiar unofficial alliance with a third candidate, Dan O’Connor. Dilan is considered the strongest threat to Velázquez, or at least he was until he was caught failing to fully disclose the source of more than half of his campaign contributions in April.

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.”

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, 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.

Others, inspired by the massive, if largely uncovered, protests rocking the streets of Quebec right now, see promise in organizing around student debt. Quebecois students have taken to pinning squares of red cloth to their clothing to communicate that rising tuitions put them “squarely in the red.” In recent weeks, red squares have proliferated among American Occupiers as well, and a rolling series of solidarity marches, often accompanied, like those in Quebec, by the hearty banging of pots and pans, have become some of the most visible actions of the movement.

More formally, there are discussions of a student-debt strike, as students and graduates are asked to sign a pledge to default on their student debt once a million people have signed on to the campaign.

“There’s a lot of talk right now about what Occupy should look like,” says Amin Husain, a longtime Occupier. “There’s a growing consensus that debt is an issue to focus on.”

Asked if elections should play a part in Occupy’s agenda, Husain is dismissive, but respectful, comparing them to another faction that posed headaches for Occupy Wall Street back in Zuccotti:

“It’s the same sort of issue as the drummers back in the park,” he says. “The point is, these people are going to do that. It may or may not be something we think is productive, but we don’t need to use our energy policing it. Occupy is about one no and many yeses.”

For those unfamiliar with Occupy Wall Street, Husain’s dismissal of electoral engagement as a distraction might be perplexing.

When the camp at Zuccotti Park first sprang up nine months ago, the mainstream media’s mantra, once it was dragged kicking and screaming to cover it at all, was, “Yes, but what do they want?” When it became too embarrassing to pretend not to understand the movement’s focus on income inequality, financial reform, and corporate influence spelled out in the Occupation’s declarations and innumerable cardboard signs, the conventional-wisdom dismissal shifted: “OK, maybe we know what they want, but sleeping on the street is not the way to get it.”

If only these kids would get over themselves, get organized, and get some people elected, the sentiment went, they might have a shot at actually getting something accomplished.

But the Occupiers’ spurning of conventional politics was never a failure of organization or maturity. It was a political calculation—born partly of the anarchist ideology woven inextricably into its roots and partly out of a shared appraisal that the political system, especially after the Citizens United decision, is irretrievably corrupted by corporate influence.

This outlook was coded into the movement’s origins and foundational documents.

“[Corporate interests] have passed laws allowing the government to be controlled by the banks (including the fed) and corporate interests, which wrests control from the people,” reads part of the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, accepted by the movement’s General Assembly last September.

Six weeks later, amid growing concern that the Democratic Party was making moves to co-opt the energy of the movement, the General Assembly agreed on a Statement of Autonomy.

“Occupy Wall Street is a people’s movement. It is party-less, leaderless, by the people, and for the people. . . . Occupy Wall Street is not and never has been affiliated with any established political party, candidate, or organization,” the statement reads. “Those seeking to capitalize on this movement or undermine it by appropriating its message or symbols are not a part of Occupy Wall Street.”

For many Occupiers, the disavowal of direct electoral engagement is still important. “The 1 Percent controls the core of both parties,” says Bill Dobbs, who helps handle communications for the movement. “Spending energy on elections is a step backwards. This country desperately needs a resistance movement. If there’s anything we’ve learned from Obama and every other candidate who seduced large numbers of people into working for them, it’s that what matters is who’s around after the election to keep the pressure on, far more than who’s in office.”

Could sympathetic elected officials help Occupy grow and pursue its agenda? Doubtful, says Dobbs, pointing to the example of New York City councilmembers who have been visible allies of Occupy Wall Street. “For all the time that individual city councilmembers have spent with Occupy Wall Street, they haven’t succeeded in backing off the NYPD one millimeter,” he says. “That’s why you need pressure on the entire political apparatus, not a few people who bleed off the steam and energy.”

Wasted energy is a recurrent theme among Occupy’s electoral skeptics.

“What you’re basically saying is ‘I really hate the way the system works, so I’m going to vote for this guy through the system to change the system,'” Jo Robin says. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. How many times do you go around that circle?”

When I took to Twitter to solicit thoughts on politicians running under an Occupy banner and said I was writing about Martinez’s campaign, Malcolm Harris responded simply, “Please don’t do that.”

Harris, who writes for the New Inquiry and who is at the center of a legal battle over whether the NYPD is entitled to view his deleted Tweets in connection with his arrest during the march on the Brooklyn Bridge last fall, argued that even acknowledging Occupy-branded campaigns in an article without expressly framing them as opportunistic is itself part of the co-option process.

“‘Does Occupy support candidates’—even if someone claims to be under the banner—is an absurd frame,” he wrote. “This is how they pose these things first as questions, then as seemingly legit possible answers.” Harris has a point—that adopting the Occupy mantle is earning Martinez press attention he wouldn’t otherwise get—but it’s also true that Martinez has legitimate support from some corners of the Occupy community. His campaign is staffed almost entirely with volunteers who spent months in Zuccotti Park. True, they’re drawn from the most moderate, reformist circles in the movement, but those circles have been part of the loose constellation of philosophies that make up Occupy Wall Street since September.

The radicalism at the heart of Occupy has always been what makes it fresh and compelling against the drab background of an American left made up of cautious unions and the institutional liberal groups whose captivity to the Democratic Party Jane Hamsher famously compared to veal pens.

But Occupy has also always relied on more mainstream voices for its numbers. At its height, Zuccotti Park buzzed with as many people who wanted to reform the system as people who wanted to replace it. And for all the movement’s ambivalence toward major unions, it is those unions’ rank and file who have swelled Occupy’s biggest protests to the tens of thousands.

Even among Occupiers who doubt electoral campaigns can accomplish anything, most see the prospect of a politician running under the Occupy banner as a sideshow rather than a mortal threat.

“When people say they’re speaking for the movement, and try to push us towards electoral politics and say that’s what we all need to be doing, that’s toxic,” Occupier José Martín says. “But when politicians do that, especially when they’ve been down in the park and out on the marches, that doesn’t have to hurt the movement. Raising consciousness in a way that makes other things possible down the line, however it’s done, that’s more important than keeping Occupy somehow pure.”

Martinez acknowledges that his campaign rubs a lot of Occupy activists wrong, and says they’re right to be suspicious. But he urges them to take a closer look at how he’s conducting his run. It’s not just that he shows up for marches and that a lot of his staff and volunteers are Occupy people, he says. Although his campaign looks a lot like any other insurgent primary challenge, he says there are some important differences. For one thing, he’s not soliciting donations. Unlike Velázquez, whose top donor last election cycle—when she didn’t even have a challenger—was Goldman Sachs, Martinez isn’t out looking for that kind of support for his campaign.

“With this campaign,” says Tim Logan, Martinez’s field director, “we’re asking: ‘How do we make people power more powerful than corporate campaigns?’ To say we’re not going to approach this electorally, that’s ridiculous. But how are we going to do it? Our ideal for fundraising is you fundraise for direct actions. You expect people to show up with money and gloves on their hands and you use the money you raised to do a neighborhood cleanup.”

Actions like this help build neighborhood institutions and informal councils like the General Assembly, which served as the deliberative body in occupied Zuccotti Park, Martinez argues.

“Once you’ve got those neighborhood deliberative bodies, they can take on a lot of responsibility. Now you’ve got the community making decisions for itself, and because of how it came together, the candidate is accountable to them.”

Erek Tinker, another Occupy-identified Martinez campaigner, says that by elevating the political literacy of constituents, you make it easier to throw you out if you cross them.

“We’re teaching people how to be politically empowered,” he says. “So if George becomes a hack, you can throw him out and do it yourself.”

Most important, say Martinez and his team, is that if the model works, it’s replicable. They’re calling the strategy “Bum Rush the Vote,” and they intend to spread it to races across the city and the country.

Martinez’s deputy campaign manager, Cecily McMillan, is best known as the woman facing felony assault charges for a scuffle with a police officer on March 17, when the NYPD once again forcefully evicted peaceful protesters from the park. McMillan was arrested roughly and went into a seizure while handcuffed on the sidewalk. Video taken on the scene shows McMillan convulsing on the ground, her head repeatedly slamming into the pavement, as police ignore bystanders’ pleas to call an ambulance or at least uncuff her and protect her head.

Despite this episode, McMillan is probably among the least radical people in circulation at Occupy Wall Street. When we sit down to talk, her first political reference is to the founding fathers.

“Jefferson’s idea was that the most important check on the federal system was supposed to be a sort of bicameralism from below,” she says. “The people’s own grassroots politics would hold the government accountable.”

If that sounds wide-eyed and credulous, it’s the same sort of faith in popular organizing that made the General Assemblies of Zuccotti Park remarkable in the first place, she says.

“The way we’re running this campaign, this is the political system saying to Occupy Wall Street: ‘You’ve taught us something. We’re going to see if we can make a difference. People want to see change take place. Let’s try it.'”

And if it doesn’t work? If Martinez loses, does that invalidate arguments that democracy in America isn’t quite broken yet and good people can get elected without selling their souls to corporations?

“Of course not,” McMillan says. “Most campaigns have far more time to prepare and organize than we have. If this doesn’t work, we try again.”

It’s precisely the sort of optimism that would likely make election skeptics like Jo Robin roll their eyes. But she says there’s no choice but to be patient.

“I won’t stand in the way of anyone trying to make this process work,” Robin says. “But I think what we’re going to see is more situations like Wisconsin, where people work very, very hard to use grassroots organizing and campaigning at the ballot box, and it’s not going to work.

“A lot of people need to go through this a couple more times before they see what a failure it is. I’m OK with that—I had to do that, too. But many people involved in OWS know it doesn’t work. And we’ll be here waiting when the others come around, and we’ll keep building these alternative models, so we’re ready when the time comes.”