Green Left Weekly’s Chris Peterson spoke to Melanie Sluyter, an environmental activist from the United States who took part in Occupy Wall Street and is visiting Melbourne.
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How did you get involved in the Occupy movement?
I got involved in environmental issues here about a year ago after seeing the movie Gasland. United for Action was the first environmental activist group I got involved with. I did an internship with The Human Impacts Institute and then Occupy came up.
Has there been an environmental focus at Occupy Wall Street?
At the beginning, it didn’t really come out of environmental concerns. Economic issues were definitely the main concern. But it took a few weeks before 350.org got involved and began talking about the tar sands issue.
But since the Occupy Movement started I was wondering, “where are all the environment issues?” I started writing a blog through my internship about Occupy Wall Street and the environment.
It was a huge opportunity for environmentalists, activists, this whole movement, to show how everything is connected, even to economic issues.
I’ve seen many people become environmentalists through this. I know many people who knew nothing about what “fracking” [hydraulic fracturing] was before, and are now “Fractivists” as part of Occupy Wall Street.
Are there many young people involved from schools and universities?
A lot of the schools are involved with Occupy Wall St because of student debt, that’s their main focus I think. That resulted in a lot of police violence.
Students are definitely involved, mostly around tuition issues. My school, New York University, isn’t as involved as I’d like to see, partly due to the range of private schools.
Are there environment groups set up within Occupy Wall St?
The first one was the sustainability group set up to create sustainable practices to keep Zuccotti Park running. They had Pedal Power to generate electricity, brought down from Boston to bring power back to the people. This summer Pedal Power powered a Water Festival concert against fracking. Now I think they are re-defining their focus since there’s no park to Occupy.
Another was the The Environmentalist Solidarity Working Group that mostly works around grassroots action. It has campaigned with the group Shut Down Indian Point Now [Indian Point is a nuclear power plant outside New York City], and about fracking and tar sands [oil production].
And they’ve organised a couple of global climate justice days with panels of speakers. They had a mock trial against Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP responsible for the [Gulf of Mexico] oil spill.
How has Occupy Wall St developed, especially in the face of repression and threats of eviction?
I think that any attempt at police repression has just resulted in us growing stronger. Compared to Occupy Melbourne, we’ve seen a more immediate comeback because we have the numbers and we know we’re part of something bigger.
We’ve had thousands come, and the General Assembly (GA) after eviction was the biggest. If you look at the numbers at the second Brooklyn Bridge march two days after the eviction there’s a huge difference. We won’t let them intimidate us.
Has Occupy Wall St and the activist-published Occupied Wall St Journal helped empower and organise people?
This movement is a great education in that whatever people have gone through is a result of the larger systemic issues.
I think people love the Occupied Wall St Journal. I think it should be distributed even more than it has been.
After the eviction, it was a little hard to find. I tried to distribute it at my school to get the truth out. A lot of people even a short subway ride away didn’t even know it was still going on.
That publication has a lot of power, it has done a lot already and it could do even more.
What are the other means of communication to get the word out for Occupy Wall St?
The people involved mainly use New York City General Assembly, but there are others. I think the actions around the city are the most powerful way of getting the word out and engaging people that aren’t yet involved.
Flyers can only do so much, they get lost or cleaned up, or people don’t really see them. But when you see the actions in the city, people see what we’re about and fighting for something that interests them as well. Actions happen almost every day, check out their website for the huge schedule of events.
What can we learn from Occupy Wall St? What have you learned from Occupy Melbourne?
I think that everyone can learn from every Occupy site, not just Occupy Wall St. I think a lot of sites have great ideas.
I think Occupy Melbourne has had trouble getting back on its feet after intimidation, so they need to remember why they are here.
I think it would be helpful to teach those who were involved about their rights, and the solidarity that brought them together is going to keep them together.
Once they get their numbers back, they won’t have to keep focusing on the most immediate issues and can start working in working groups. I think working groups are extremely important and attract people from the outside.
The people's mic is definitely something that Occupy Melbourne could benefit from and with practice they'll see how powerful it really is.
It makes the general assemblies productive because the speakers must be prepared and the listeners must be focused.
[For more information on the environmental campaigns of Occupy Wall St, visit occupytheearth.net. Occupy Melbourne has initiated “Occupy Friday” every Friday, at City Square from noon to midnight. Visit occupymelbourne.org]