Interview with Yotam Marom, a lead organizer of "Bloombergville"
Interview with Yotam Marom, a lead organizer of "Bloombergville"
On June 14, local New York City activists established "Bloombergville" to protest Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to layoff over 6,000 teachers, close 20 firehouses, and impose deep cuts on various services and programs vital to the social health of NYC. Yotam Marom from the Organization for a Free Society (OFS) was one of the lead organizers of the action. Stephen Roblin from the Indypendent Reader asked Yotam about "Bloombergville" and potential future significance.
Q. Can you describe "Bloombergville" -- what was its purpose and what inspired it?
A. Bloombergville was a two-week-long encampment in the financial district of New York City, near Wall St., and even closer to City Hall and the City Council's office building. It takes its name from the Hoovervilles of the 30s, and the Walkerville (Madison) and Cuomoville (Update NY) of only months ago, and we were very deeply inspired by the struggles taking place all over the world - from Madison to Madrid, not to mention all over the Middle East, Greece, the UK, etc. - in which people are attempting to reclaim space as part of a broad struggle against austerity, and injustice altogether. On one hand, Bloombergville served as a base camp - a sort of launch-pad for a continuous struggle against the budget cuts - but at the same time, it was an alternative space where people could come to sleep, eat, teach, learn, radicalize, make friends, and work as we all struggled together. It was a genuine attempt to reclaim space in the process of a political struggle against austerity measures that would truly endanger the lives of working people all across the city.
Also, part of the point was to set up a space that would allow people to keep people plugged in and put us all in the position to react to political realities on the ground quickly and effectively, and that actually came into effect often. For example, when the city council and some union leaders cut a deal late at night on the 24th and attempted to hold a press conference to pass it off as a victory, we managed to get there and hold an emergency demonstration. Bloombergville was meant both to fight back against cuts to pretty much every public sector imaginable (schools, higher education, transportation, housing, aids clinics, hospitals, fire houses, elderly homes, you name it) as well as equip people for a long-term struggle beyond this immediate fight.
Q. According to sociliastworker.org, 15,000 workers from building trades unions marched to City Hall on June 15, halting traffic in downtown Manhattan for half an hour. Was this action part of the "Bloombergville" action?
A. The Building Trades Union marched on its own and that wasn't organized by Bloombergville. They did march right by Bloombergville and express solidarity, and other groups later invited us to speak at their rallies or who led their marches through the camp in solidarity). There were plenty of actions that took place all over the city throughout the months leading up to the vote that were often organized independengly of one another - the May 12th demonstration, the rally organized by DC37, the nurses' union rally, serious campaigns to lobby city councilpeople as well as pressure their donors - all of which together contributed to the feeling in the city that people were really fighting back from a variety of different angles, all united in a common struggle.
Q. You and twelve others were arrested on Tuesday, on Tuesday, June 28. Why were you all arrested?
A. Part of the point all along was to be in the position to sway or stop the vote when it was finally ready to take place, and to really build up power and momentum to be able to do that effectively. The days leading up to the vote were difficult, because we kept getting mixed messages as to when it would actually take place - the city council moved the vote at least three times, probably at least in part to avoid a mass demonstration. In the end, we had mobilized good numbers of people to be out ready to confront the vote, and a smaller number of us who had prepared ahead of time, and realizing that they would keep moving the vote and that we would have a hard time getting in there anyway, 13 of us took over the lobby of 250 Broadway, which is where the City Councilpeople have their offices, and where they were meeting before the vote. We sat down in the lobby, tied ourselves together with zip ties, and the rally swung over to just outside the building. We chanted in unison with the protesters outside until we were arrested and taken out a side exit, where our friends (around 200 people) met us. It was kind of surreal actually, with people running around all over the place, protesters taking over the streets, blocking the vans from taking us away, chasing the cars, being thrown around by the police. Ultimately we were arrested for sitting in and refusing to leave, and the couple hundred people who were outside took over Broadway for some time, and then held a mass assembly.
Q. Can you describe your experience in jail?
A. I always feel kind of strange talking about being in jail, as if I discovered something new, while there are many activists who have a long career of intentionally going to jail, not to mention the ridiculous masses of oppressed people in this country who are incarcerated systematically on a regular basis. That being said, I did learn a lot and it was a pretty intense experience. The police who arrested us thanked us and expressed their agreement with our cause, as they were cuffing us, which is certainly confusing and reveals a lot about how institutions affect the way people behave. We spent about 7 hours at the precinct and then were taken - chained together - to Central Booking, nicknamed "The Tombs." When you go to the court house in New York, you see a nice lobby, a pristine building, mahogany pews, and everyone is quiet, polite, almost too proper to take seriously. And in reality, all you have to do is open one door from the court-room and you end up in a labyrinth of filthy cells, miserable and angry prisoners, terrible conditions, and so on - basically an underground jail city. That jail is just about the most racist place I've ever been - almost everyone there other than us was a poor person of color, picked up for the pettiest crimes imaginable - things like jumping a turn style or open bottle, things I might have gotten away with or maybe gotten fined for, but certainly not locked up for a day. It's clear that many people in there are regulars, that being harassed by the police and held between 24 and 72 hours is a regular part of their lives, that they can expect the blatant racist and classist treatment they receive. And they know it - people in there knew as much about budget cuts as the best activists in this struggle, they know they are in their to produce profits and satisfy they prison-industrial complex, and they know it all from their actual lived experiences. The people who we did talk politics with were impressed that we went to jail by choice and expressed a very serious solidarity with our cause. It was a pretty educational experience for me, but the horrifying thing is that I basically had to beg to be taken there (ignoring warning after warning from the police, being pleaded with to leave the lobby, and only eventually actually being taken), while so many people spend so much time in there and pay ludicrous fines as part of a system meant to punish, humiliate, intimidate, and dehumanize an entire sector of the population.
Q. On Wednesday, June 29 the City Council passed the final budget. According to the NYC's Indypendent, "The budget averts teacher layoffs and the closing of firehouses but is expected to result in the layoff of 1,000 city workers, larger school class sizes and cuts in funding for city libraries and scholarship money for CUNY students." What are your thoughts on the final budget?
A. Look, on one hand, these cuts were softened by the popular opposition to them - from within the city council, from the non-profits and community groups, from some of the unions, and from Bloombergville. We should take some pride in that and remember that policy is always shaped by the public whether actively or passively, and that if we don't stand up and fight, we don't influence outcomes. I think the fighting people did this year had an effect, and also reflected an escalation in the left in New York City in general.
That being said, we have to be very firm about our rejection of all cuts and all compromises. Sure, 2,600 teachers laid off through attrition is better than that plus 4,100 fired on the spot - objectively you can't argue with that. But a budget with any cuts is simply unacceptable. There is no deficit, not at all. There is enough money saved away in the budget to prevent any and all cuts. And if there was a deficit, it would easily be solved by taxing millionaires and the big banks their fair share (they currently pay a smaller proportion of their weatlh in taxes than the average janitor). There's no such thing as "not enough money." The state spent $15 billion on war in the last year - there's money alright, it's just a question of priorities. And then beyond all that, none of this would even be a question in an economy that was even remotely sane - one that put people's needs over profits, one in which there was an incentive to be solidaristic and equitable as opposed to greedy or exploitative, one that valued education or healthcare over wars against innocent people or militarization in oppressed communities here at home, one in which people actually have a say over what is produced and consumed and how. We can be proud of our fight-back, but we have to realize that any cut is a loss, and that these losses mean real consequences in the lives of actual people. So we have to keep fighting. Always.
But also I think the question of the vote is only one way to measure results here. We've got a lot of work to do, and this year's fight against the budget was markedly fiercer, deeper, and more united than in years before, but it's certainly not just about just this year, or just this budget, or even just austerity. I think the real way to measure whether this campaign was successful is to try to figure whether what we did will contribute in any way to the building of a movement. Ultimately, we need a serious mass movement of oppressed people to change the systems underlying these cuts or those housing crises or these wars or what have you, and that's what we need to succeed at. I have a feeling we did a decent job at radicalizing people, and a lot of people were pushed forward in their understanding and skills and analysis and vision - I am one of those people too. But I think we didn't do a good enough job of building a movement of people who are most affected by these cuts, that a lot of the most marginalized people were under-represented, and that some oppressive patterns were also sometimes recreated inside the movement. I'd say we did a fair job trying, but we've got a lot of work to do before we can say with confidence that we're a serious mass movement capable of representing an alternativre and fighting for it, and that's the real measurement. That being said, I do think things are changing and moving - here and all over the world - and that it's hard to tell when you're in a revolutionary moment, or when a movement is growing around you, that that's the stuff that often comes with some perspective and hindsight. So we'll see.
Q.. What is the current status of "Bloombergville" and where does it go from here?
A. Well, Bloombergville is sort of packed up at this point, so it's more or less done with as a physical space for now, ready to be unpacked in other places or at another time if it fits the context and meets the needs of the struggle we're in. We've already had (since the vote), at least three big meetings where we discussed next steps, both as Bloombergville, and as members of New Yorkers Against the Budget Cuts, which was the umbrella coalition that put it together in the beginning. The plan right now is to go back to our boroughs and our communities and join struggles that people are already working on, and just lend a hand. There is a lot of grassroots work (that people are doing and need help with, and also that no one is really doing in some cases) that needs to be done as a precursor to any sort of big, united movement. We've got to hit the streets and work to strengthen those fights, and connect them to each other. We also want to be around to get an earlier start on the state and city budget in the coming year, as well as organize around the Millionaire's tax and the Stock Transfer Tax.
Q. I understand that Bloombergville was organized by a broad coalition of organizations. Do you think the various organizations will continue to work together or will you all go your separate ways, as often happens?
A. Yes, actually I think one of the major successes of Bloombergville was the positive social and political relationships that were formed between a lot of people and also between the organizations that participated. We have our differences, and that's fine, but we also have an enormous amount in common, and a tremendous basis on which to keep working together. I think that will happen as we move forward, and I think that moments of crises will continue to bring us together even more in the future. I have an enormous amount of respect for many of the people and groups that worked together on this, and I feel a lot of solidarity in this struggle, not only here but around the world.
Q. You are a member of Organization for a Free Society (OFS). Can you describe OFS and explain how this action fits into its organizing and revolutionary framework?
A. The Organization for a Free Society is an organization with a holistic analysis that emphasises the need for vision in all realms of social life and organizes to help build and participate in a mass movement of people really capable of taking power, of fighting to replace institutions that exploit and oppress with those that encourage solidarity, equity, self-management, and diversity. We participate in grassroots movements and struggles, to lend our weight to them, to learn from them, and to push them forward.
In this case, we learned a lot - from mistakes and successes alike - and we've spent a lot of time reflecting on that and training ourselves to be even more effective in the future. Part of what we want to do when we're out there is to assert a holistic analysis and understanding, as well as propose and deliberate on vision, and to make sure that we are struggling in a way that is in accordance with the values we want to see in the world. I think we did a decent job in all that, and I also think we have a ton to learn and improve on.
The fight against austerity measures is one that really has to potential to unite people all over the city fighting a wide array of battles, as well as the ability to put us in solidarity with a serious uprising taking place right now all over the world. There is a ton of work to do, and it's going to take a lot of commitment, patience, fearlessness, creativity, passion, analysis, vision, and strategy to do it. We intend very much to be a part of that.
For more information , visit the Bloombergville Now! website.
Stephen Roblin is a Baltimore-based activist and writer. He is a member of the Indypendent Reader collective and the International Organization for a Participation Society (IOPS). He also teaches a bi-weekly writing workshop for Baltimore's new street paper, Word on the Street. Roblin's writing focuses on US foreign policy towards the Horn of Africa. He has written for ZNet, ZMagazine, Truthout, and other publications.