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Six Years Later: An Interview with Kelly Heresy of Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street protesters rally in a small park on Canal Street in New York, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011.  Police officers evicted the protesters from their base in Zuccotti Park  overnight.    The National Lawyers Guild obtained a court order allowing the protesters to return with their tents to the park, where they have camped for two months. The guild said the injunction prevents the city from enforcing park rules on the protesters.  (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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Remember Occupy Wall Street? Doesn’t it seem like it happened in another century or another dimension?  It’s only been six years as of September 17, 2017. You hardly ever see it mentioned anymore.  And yet we have seen aspects of Occupy Wall Street in new movements from the Bernie Sanders election campaign to the Trump administration’s rejection of institutional traditions in favor of their own inventions. Standing Rock was only five years after Occupy Wall Street. What has become of the occupiers themselves?  Are they in their mother’s basements?  Do they lead new movements?  Are they eager capitalists?  
A good person to ask these questions is Kelly Heresy.  Kelly was the first Occupier to be pepper sprayed.  He’d been photographing NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna pepper spraying three young female protesters who were penned in behind orange netting. Kelly was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, NY 1, ABC 7, Democracy Now, Fox News and Keith Olbermann’s Countdown. 
Kelly did not then and does not now speak on behalf of Occupy Wall Street.  His perspective is purely his own. He’s also a veteran of the Evolver movement  I first interviewed Kelly for Newtopia Magazine at the beginning of Occupy. One night at my house a phone call with him was the center of a gathering of friends working on a documentary.  I’ll never forget that feeling of history when hearing the sounds of Liberty Park in the background. 

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Tamra Lucid: As someone who was a day one occupier at Occupy Wall Street what is your take on the election of Trump?
Kelly Heresy: It will probably annoy your readers that I did not vote in the election.  My position on electoral politics is directly a result from my commitment to the principles of Occupy, which was that what we were doing was looking for our own solutions and to build our own alternatives to the existing order without regard to the political process.  What we were doing was direct democracy, an open rejection of existing institutions in favor of collectively co-creating our own.  It was Applied Anarchism.  To get a better idea of what that means, you can read the excellent article by David Graeber, Occupy Wall Street’s anarchist roots.  Simply by voting you are giving your consent to an electoral process which is completely broken and worthless.  Even voting for a candidate like Bernie Sanders, who would appear to be an Occupy candidate running on an Occupy platform, is a diversion from the work of direct action and building the new system.  I actually feel that a lot of the Occupy momentum that was dispersed after the eviction from the park but had continued on in other forms ended up being channeled into the Sanders campaign, as many believed that that was the reasonable next step.  But from my perspective, this was a distraction from the continued work that must be done to build an entirely new paradigm to challenge the one that currently exists.  My take on Trump is simple: I do not acknowledge him as my President.  I am looking toward the new paradigm and only engage with that paradigm to the degree that I have to.

What are you up to these days?  Does what you learned at Occupy continue to inform your actions?

I work with an art collective in Bushwick, and I am also a minority partner in The Platform Art Fair and Film Festival taking place Sept. 29 – Oct. 1 at the Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint.  More about the Fair from the curator is here.  When I came into Occupy, I was in the midst of a rent protest which I wrote about in a blog.  Sleeping in the park for more than a month and experiencing the spontaneous intentional community formed there was a big part of that experience.  Currently I have my own apartment with a couple spare bedrooms that I rent out on Airbnb.  Before Airbnb I was really big into Couchsurfing and GlobalFreeloaders as part of the homesharing economy, which allowed for cultural exchange with international travelers and opportunities for places to stay in other cities.  So I am still doing pretty much the same things, and I am still pretty much living rent free or pretty cheap as my hosting covers it.  I enjoy hospitality, meeting new people from around the world and giving them an experience of what life is like here.  I’d like to build on the concept at the level of collectively owned buildings in the city or intentional communities and ecovillages.  I also have plans for art hostels and artist residency programs.

Veterans of Occupy have gone on to start new communities like Beehive Design Collective.  Can you tell us about other cooperative work being done by people who were at Occupy?

My favorite in my own neighborhood in Bushwick is Mayday Space, a community center and activist hub that began during the planning and art making for the People’s Climate March.  They have a very interesting business model which includes a second venue Starr Bar which generates revenue to support the numerous community projects and social justice movements they support.  Also Arc38, a sustainability and permaculture project on land that was donated to the Occupy movement.  The goal by the end of the occupation in Zuccotti was to build a permanent base in which the principles of Occupy could and continue to flourish and the new paradigm could be built, and that is what is being accomplished there.
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Has your perspective on the future changed these last six years?  Are you more or less pessimistic?

I still have faith in basic human decency in spite of the very dark times we are living in.  I have faith in individuals desiring change and coming together and working for that purpose.  Whenever there is movement toward progress, there is always a backlash.  I didn’t foresee the type of backlash we are currently experiencing from deeply ingrained racist and white supremacist elements in this country.  It should have been expected, but I guess moving in progressive and egalitarian circles maybe you underestimate the degree to which authoritarian and white supremacist sentiment holds sway over the nation.  You want to believe that consciousness is evolving at a steady progression, but then you are confronted by that underbelly that exposes itself and is comfortable in doing so because the basic assumptions of white supremacy are so institutionalized.  If you can say one thing about Trump, it is that he has brought forth all of these fascist elements into the light of day which is necessary in order to build solidarity against them in saying that this is not acceptable and to actively dismantle the institutions supporting them.  It is Shadow Work on a mass scale, for society as a whole and for each individual to examine themselves and see where they need to make changes.

When people find out you were at Occupy Wall Street have their reactions changed over time, or are they always unpredictable?

It’s not a very common conversation anymore, which to me is shame.  But many times you meet people from different places who were also Occupying in their cities, and that is awesome.  Like when I was out in LA on election night and the immediate aftermath.  After the result was announced that Trump won, there was an instantaneous gathering and march through downtown LA in opposition.  They marchers were to a large extent former Occupiers.  They understood how to organize, how to conduct a General Assembly, the consensus process, the slogans and chants, the People’s Mic – all Occupy techniques.  They quickly built bigger and bigger marches and civil disobedience actions every single day following the election to show visible disapproval of the Trump presidency.  I was extremely impressed with what I witnessed in LA, and the solidarity they showed with their immigrant communities.  You also run into people who were inspired by Occupy in unlikely places.  When I was in Ireland I came across a group that was squatting a long abandoned industrial park and had converted it into organizational hub and intentional community.  I spent a few days with them and they were very much aware of Occupy Wall Street and inspired by it.

What is your perspective on Standing Rock?  Were you involved with the Water Protectors?  Do you know if many Occupy veterans were there?

The violation of the rights of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, compromising their health and safety and desecrating their sacred ancestral lands is incredibly infuriating.  Standing Rock is a perfect example of why it is necessary to seek direct action and solutions outside of the political system, as it was the Obama Administration that approved it and the Trump Administration that pushed it through.  At Occupy on Day 1, I and others specifically stated the need to build our movement in solidarity with the people whom are truly occupied by this nation, the indigenous people.  That message should have been clear from the original intention, but was also stated by Decolonize Wall Street. Standing Rock should continue to receive our attention and support, as there is still a chance to shut the pipeline down.  I was not able to attend the DAPL protests in person, but there were many Occupiers I know of who did.

What’s your take on Antifa?

The Seattle WTO protests in ’99 had a big role in shaping my worldview.  I was studying political philosophy in college at the time, and the images from those demonstrations impacted me in that here were people that weren’t just debating ideas or practicing theory but were taking direct action.  I define myself as an anarchist, and I support a diversity of tactics.  I also take a strong stance in support of free speech.  Racism, sexism, fascism and white supremacy need to be opposed visibly.  I’ve had some experience working with the Living Theater and the Theater of the Oppressed, so I am more inclined to street theater as a tactic than Black Bloc violence.  I don’t disavow any tactic however, as the ultimate goal is revolutionary change and certain times call for certain measures. 

In retrospect, what was the most important thing you learned at Occupy?

That milk neutralizes the effects of pepper spray.  But seriously, there were so many life lessons that I got from the experience it would be hard to summarize or pick one as the most important.  We are all connected and our actions can impact and inspire people all over the world.  Another world is possible.  We just need to let go of the old one and fully commit to the new.

What gives you the most hope these days?

We already have most of the answers we need.  We just need a way to bring it all together, to motivate people to act.  There is plenty of good and generosity in people, as seen by the fact a small group of people were able to build a global movement and those who couldn’t be there in person were willing to help out by sending money and food donations.  That support that came from everywhere and nowhere is what gives me hope.

What’ would you like to share with our readers? It can be anything: wisdom, a joke, a book, a good place for tea, whatever you would like more people to know or think about.

Here’s a couple things I like that you can check out:

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