When the Occupy Wall Street movement burst onto the scene in fall 2011, some people scratched their heads over the participants’ use of the word “occupy.” Why would a protest movement seeking to raise awareness of economic inequality and corporate greed choose a name associated with the brutality of living in a land occupied by an invading military?
But author and activist Mickey Z. asserts, if people don’t like what the word has meant in the past, “Let’s steal it back from the oppressors who use military might and corporate propaganda to invade and then control and profit.”
Mickey Z. believes so strongly in reclaiming the word that he named his new book “Occupy This Book,” in recognition of the success of Occupy Wall Street and to pay homage to Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal This Book.” Hoffman, in the introduction to “Steal This Book,” describes it as “a manual of survival in the prison that is Amerika.”
“Occupy This Book” serves a similar purpose. As an unofficial sequel to “Steal This Book,” which was published in 1971, Mickey Z. provides a radical critique of contemporary activism but also seeks to help people understand the age-old benefits of a cooperative, creative, participatory, tolerant and downsized way of living.
Throughout “Occupy This Book,” Mickey Z. offers suggestions for identifying various forms of propaganda, whether it’s delivered by the corporate state or status quo liberals. “Taking information in and then decoding and explaining what’s being done and how we’re being manipulated — that’s one of the most important issues of any writer or activist or artist,” he said in an interview.
Mickey Z., a lifelong New York City resident, also strongly encourages both well-seasoned activists and their younger comrades to consider new ideas, especially ones presented by historically marginalized people. Radical groups are notorious for excluding certain voices. In the book, Mickey Z. recites the words of former Black Panther Elaine Brown, who explained that a woman asserting herself in the Black Power movement was a pariah. “If a black woman assumed a role of leadership, she was said to be eroding black manhood, to be hindering the progress of the black race. She was an enemy of the black people,” Brown said.
It’s not easy to stand up and expose rampant sexism and patriarchy within a high-profile radical movement. And what Elaine Brown and other activists have done “isn’t about demanding/expecting perfection or purity from yourself or anyone; rather, it’s all about being unafraid to recognize and challenge inconsistencies, contradictions, and blind spots,” Mickey Z. writes in his book.
Mickey Z. found his own blind spots and they were located in his long-time work as a vegan and animal rights activist. The new people he met starting in September 2011 forced him to re-think its belief system, a reassessment that at times has not been easy for him.
Eschewing single-issue activism
Since the launch of Occupy, many of Mickey Z.’s fellow activists have known him as “Mickey Z.-Vegan,” based on the essays and photography he has disseminated through social media. “In New York City, I became synonymous with veganism and animal rights. But that’s never been my goal. I never really write about one topic,” he said in the interview. And yet, the ethics of veganism has defined in many ways how has lived his daily life over the past 20 years.
In recent years, though, Mickey Z. began to notice an inability by some of his animal rights comrades to appreciate the value of other movements. “There’s almost no attempt to understand what it’s like to be an oppressed or marginalized population,” he said. “What I try to do is listen and to see what it is I don’t understand.”
According to Mickey Z., many vegans miss a crucial point: the only chance to help nonhuman animals is to grow the movement. And the only way to grow the movement is to connect with other dedicated activists — an approach that has made the Occupy movement so successful. “If you don’t even pretend that you care about human rights issues, you’re never going to be taken seriously. And in the long run, you’re hurting the animals,” he said.
Because vegans have relegated themselves to the fringes of activism and very rarely show solidarity with other movements, “it’s easy for nonvegan activists to almost look at them like 9/11 Truthers,” Mickey Z. said. “They’re just like these fringe activists with these absurd theories. If the vegans stopped tying their identity to that one issue and embraced all of collective liberation, they would get to know these activists as who they are. Just because they eat meat, doesn’t mean they can’t be a comrade. And that’s what I did with Occupy,” he said.
In his writings and public talks, Mickey Z. challenges vegan and animal rights activists on their “single issue-ism.” And he makes the case that many high-profile white male leaders of the vegan and animal rights movement are not radical in any sense of the word except animal rights. “In some cases, they are straight out the opposite of the Left,” he asserted. “When you hear how racist and sexist they can be and mocking of human rights issues, I don’t want to be associated with it.”
“Occupy This Book” includes a foreword titled “Occupy Your Integrity” written by a fellow vegan, Cindy Sheehan, who, like Mickey Z., sees how militarism, economic inequality and environmental degradation are interconnected. Sheehan became well known a decade ago for protesting and publicly mourning the death of her son Casey, a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq in 2004. In the foreword, she tells readers that she respects how Mickey Z. views activism as a lifelong commitment, not a hobby.
“I have learned what Mickey Z. says more eloquently: being an activist isn’t a hobby, it’s a deep lifestyle and in our lives we cannot sustain a marathon pace forever without the inevitable burnout,” she writes in the foreword.
Sheehan recalls how thousands of supporters joined her to occupy a space outside Crawford, Texas, near President George W. Bush’s ranch. Since the end of Camp Casey, though, Sheehan has continued working as an antiwar activist, while other former supporters, who Sheehan describes as “nefarious forces,” sought to co-opt the energy she created at Camp Casey to rally people to vote for a war-loving Democratic administration.
Like Sheehan, Mickey Z. doesn’t believe in compromising with a system that values profits over life. But Mickey Z. also recognizes there is much to learn from others, even if their belief systems aren’t 100% aligned with his own. He sees the importance of “intersectionality” as did the Occupy movement, which made addressing the intersection between systems of oppression and domination a guiding principle. These intersections create opportunities for new connections. And with these connections come the amplification of a diversity of voices.
Adopting the Occupy Standard
According to Mickey Z., Occupy helped to invigorate activism around the world. “It’s morphed into so many different things,” he said. “The aspects of Occupy have become standard in activism across the globe.”
The energy of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, reminds Mickey Z. of the early days of Occupy — “only it’s not primarily white people so it’s even better,” he said. “You have greater diversity. The people making decisions and calling the shots and choosing the parade routes are not the usual suspects.”
Black Lives Matter activists recently held a die-in at a Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in a bid to raise awareness among shoppers at the upscale store. Mickey Z., who participated in the action, was watching Saks Fifth Avenue customers and employees for their reactions. “There wasn’t this sense of confusion,” Mickey Z. said. “I saw them pulling out their phones and they started videoing.” The Occupy movement, followed by Black Lives Matter actions, has boosted awareness to the point that even non-activists understood the message at the Saks Fifth Avenue action, he explained.
“If Occupy played any role in empowering other groups to start stepping up — more oppressed groups and traditionally marginalized groups — then it’s the greatest thing in the world,” Mickey Z. said. “When I go to events surrounding police killing African Americans, I see the usual suspects, but I also see new people and they’re running the show. To me, that’s a positive change — horizontalism. I’ve seen changes that I would have never foreseen in early September 2011. I couldn’t have predicted these connections would have happened and endured.”
Mickey Z. was approached by Deborah Emin at Sullivan Street Press in 2013 about writing the book that became known as “Occupy This Book.” She had read Mickey Z.’s articles on the Occupy movement and had attended his public talks across New York City. It was Emin’s belief that Mickey Z.’s insight on activism from a writer-thinker perspective but also his work on the ground during the height of Occupy would make for a compelling read. As with Mickey Z.’s 2010 book “Self-Defense for Radicals: A to Z Guide for Subversive Struggle,” published by PM Press, cartoonist Richard Cole agreed to provide illustrations for “Occupy This Book.”
Due to the success of “Occupy This Book,” in both print and e-book, Emin recently asked Mickey Z. about publishing a follow-up book — one that showcases the many activist-related photographs he has taken over the past three-and-a-half years. Mickey Z. liked the idea, and agreed to move forward with the project. The book of photos is scheduled for publication later this year and will include in-depth captions with each picture.
Mickey Z. hopes “Occupy This Book” and his other writings get read by as many people as possible. And he would love to be able to make living off his nonfiction books, novels and poetry. But for Mickey Z., wanting to become a best-selling author is not about ego. It’s about knowing your ideas will gain traction with a wider audience, which, if you’ve properly articulated them, could eventually translate into a larger number of people agitating for a more compassionate society.
The same standard should hold true for activists. In the book, Mickey Z. recounts how activists had “become drunk on the Occupy movement’s every radical move being documented in real time.” Activists had a new way to measure success – “by Facebook likes, Twitter followers, and donation page tallies,” he writes.
“‘Activist’ became the upper rung of yet another human hierarchy, and we know how easily those on the top justify their actions based on their dominant position. Once again, I saw, we chose ego over solidarity,” he remembers.
For Mickey Z., “Doing the activist thing means doing the right thing — as often as possible” while resisting the temptation of personal power over collective liberation. In “Occupy This Book,” he tells the story of Bob Marley, who just two days after a politically motivated assassination attempt on this life, he was back on stage at a big outdoor concert. Mickey Z. writes that when asked how he could do it so soon after nearly being killed, Marley answered: “The bad people trying to make the world worse never take a day off, so why should I?”
Mark Hand reports on political action. You can reach him at email@example.com.