Chicago poet speaks out about Occupy protests

Chicago poet speaks out about Occupy protests

I have to admit I was nervous to sit down with Kevin Coval. I mean, the guy's a hip-hop poet, a four-time HBO Def poet and co-founder of the Louder than a Bomb teen poetry slam. Coval makes poetry cool, cutting-edge even. He's one of Mos Def's favorite poets. By contrast, I am a nerdy reporter whose knowledge of poetry doesn't extend beyond my AP English class and whose knowledge of hip hop is practically nonexistent.

Coval has a new book, L-vis Lives, a reflection on race, art and hip-hop culture, exploring the character of L-vis, a white artist who has made himself famous using a black art form. Through L-vis, Coval reflects on the boundary of race in our society and the potential problems of a "post racial" culture. He recently wrote a new poem, anthem for the "99 percent." He and I sat down to discuss the Occupy protests and their role in crossing racial and class boundaries today.

Revelation: Kevin Coval is very cool. But he is also genuinely nice and has a lot to say about inequality in America. Here's some excerpts from our conversation:

Megan Cottrell: What's your reaction to the Occupy protest and where do you think they came from?

Kevin Coval: It's stunning to see people in the streets. It's inspiring. I think it's a continuation of what happened in Tunisia and the Arab Spring. There's something profound in how people are taking control of history and their own lives and wanting to literally put their body on the line in order to do so because the need for change is that drastic.

It's also a long haul. I know that those conversations also need to be had. There's something about change and change producing moments that require a long-term conversation. Artists and culture are so important because they allow you to do the work of imagining what you will build, not just what you want to deconstruct. It's part of the reason why I do the work that I do. After the fall, what are we going to create together? I think we need to be cognizant and co-creating that now. I want to be involved in that work.

MC: Is it fair to draw the comparison between injustice here and injustice in places like Tunisia and Egypt?

KC: The "we are the 99 percent" idea is a brilliant idea. That's a universal worldwide phenomenon. On a global scale, there are people everywhere who are always sort of waiting on some sort of failed trickledown economic policy, whether those streets be on the West or South side of this city or Tahrir square. Working people around the planet are working people around the planet. Of course in the U.S., there is a certain level of subsistence. Too often we don't see our situations as having some sort of comparative value. We are the 99 percent in a grand system of inequity that only supports those who have millions of millions of dollars. There are those who work for those people, those who suffer for those people, in the public sector and the private sector.

MC: Why do you think it's happening now?

KC: I think some of it certainly is a kind of desperation that when people are looking at their lives--the quality of their lives. And then they're seeing the banks being bailed out, when they're seeing a continuing rising salaries of CEOs at an outrageous rate, when you see endless war and the billions of billions of dollars put into that industry to wreak havoc on other working people.

There's a huge disappointment with a president who ran under the banner of change. I think people are realizing that the Democrats and the Republications are all just millionaires. The Arab Spring was inspiring around the planet. I think what the folks did there to ward off a rule of kings and aristocracies--that's the same situation we find ourselves in here. People want actual democracy or new versions of it.

MC: You travel a lot for  your work. Do you hear stories of people who reflect this movement?

KC: I think I've always been interested in the stories of people. Always when I travel, I end up listening a lot. It seems like the stories don't change. Most people work too hard for too little. I've been traveling a ton in the Midwest.  These cities are decimated. Chicago is doing incredibly well. Chicago, in some ways for some people--the North Side mostly--has found ways to have new jobs come in,  but in the rest of the region, industry has left and not returned.

I meet a lot of mothers who are juggling jobs and babies, men who have worked in an industry for 20-something years and get laid off, and the union has been undercut so that their pension is cut. Unemployment [insurance] is not what it was. I meet a lot of nontraditional students at community colleges because they need to get more education for a new industry that they've never been a part of, that might not even exist. Where will the workers go? There are no jobs. There are 35-, 40-, 50-years-old, back competing with 18-years-olds who've had a computer every day of their lives.

It's one of the great things about traveling, you get to see what the country actually looks and sounds like. To be in Finlay, Ohio, and to see the biggest attraction there is a carpeted mall that is mostly empty. That's the growing effect of the recession in most of the country.

MC: One commonly heard criticism of the movement is that it's too disorganized. Do you think that's true?

KC: Blogger Jay Smooth--he has a great piece about that. He says it's broad enough for everybody and not too specific. One of the things that I love about being at a Occupy camp or at a march--you see a ton of issues that are very specific. It's just that they are now speaking in concert with one another. That's a beautiful thing because that's how a movement builds. The way that Washington looks at it is issue-by-issue, but these issues are part of the same system. We need to address what's wrong with the system.

People who work on these issues are starting to talk to each other. That's why the media is frustrated with it. It's powerful. It's scary. It's easy to say it's not specific enough. I think that that's unfair, and it's probably a way for corporate-controlled media to discount the power of the movement, but I don't think that that will work. If you read the signs in the streets, you will see every major issue that's been covered in the news for the last year.

The movement doesn't need leader. It needs organizers. Organizers are not necessarily on the forefront of every stage or on the news. They're doing the behind-the-scenes work that needs to be done.

MC: What do you think of the political reaction and the media's coverage of the Occupy protests?

KC: Has there been a political reaction? There hasn't yet it seems. I think this movement is in its infancy. That will be an outcome if we continue to organize and grow.

The media is … I don't know. One of the great things about media in this moment is that all of us are in the media. I went on YouTube and watched the Scott Olsen video and was shocked. I think we're really relying on alternative news sources. I get a lot of info on where to go from OccupyChi twitter feed. Our whole lives can no longer be determined by 1 percent of the people who have everything. I think the idea that people are also taking the media in their own hands is beautiful.

I think part of the work is to make this real. To not just have it be a passing phase. I don't think it is because you see people in the streets who have been organizing forever. You have unions there, you have people who have been working to end the death penalty, people against police torture ... seasoned organizers and veterans of movement building are at the forefront of all of this.

It's clear that it is primarily white, young, educated people. For it to be real, for it to be actually the 99 percent, we need to do the work of organizing in Chicago. We need to build a citywide movement that is conscientious of the way the city is segregated. We need to go beyond those borders and viaducts and have the movement make sense and be relevant to the South and West sides of the city. That work that has to be done.

MC: Does this movement have the ability to cross racial boundaries that have been so cemented in our society? What are the challenges to that happening?

KC: Of course it's possible. It is not new news to community of color that there is injustice. I wonder if that is some of the resistance to join what seems like a predominately white movement--there's sort of a johnny-come-lately aspect.

If your organizing community is mostly white, young and college-educated, unless you are really going outside of that demographic to organize, then you will usually have folks that come from a similar braket. There needs to be meetings set up within the spaces of neighborhoods--schools, communities, churches. I don't know if that's happening or not. In order for it to cross over, that's the work that needs to be done.  In order for this to congeal, that outreach needs to happen. There is this critical race piece that needs to be openly discussed and understood. Our willingness to do that will determine whether or not this will have the legs and longevity that it could. This is a long haul. This is a war. In order to be fully prepared for the battle, you need to build your comrades.

MC: Race seems to be a topic that often shuts the conversation down, especially in white communities. Are people too uncomfortable talking about race to really have those conversations?

KC: In hip hop, being a white person isn't uncomfortable if you do the work of telling your story honestly. I was always accepted in black cultural spaces when I was sincerely representing myself. In L-vis Lives, that character does misrepresent himself all the time. He's lying about where he comes from. Too often, the white appropriator and adopter of the black style will reap more economic benefits than the black originator.

In a similar regard, white people have stories to tell. White people are working and working-class. I think that's where we have to start, on this common ground. We also have to recognize grand differences. There's some Occupy Chicago stuff that's thanking the police officers. I certainly think police have a tough job, but they're defending the 1 percent and on a daily basis; they are criminalzing and brutalizing bodies of color in this city. I cannot thank them for their service. There is a disconnect that is there based on race and privilege. Those are the conversations that we have to have to move forward.

I imagine that a lot of the white participants--I imagine they themselves are working class. Even if they're a college student or a teacher, they are working people. Their parents are working people. This is why they're in the street.  We can have interracial solidarity, but there is a difference between how this country treats black people and white people. North Lawndale does not look like the North Shore. It is a class issue, but it's an issue of race. If we're going to talk about stuff, let's talk about stuff. This is the moment to put it all on the table, to radically re-imagine our daily conditions.

That's outrageous that no one would want to address the issue of race when we live in Chicago. I think white people are petrified to talk about race because they're scared to be called a racist. I think we need to put that aside and talk about the systems that this movement are addressing are racist. If we don't address those issues, then yes, we are racist. If we are willing to address it, you're not a racist; you're participating in the deconstruction of the grand systems of historical inequity. It's just another way for us to stay divided. What this moment is about, or what it could be about, is about the actual work of building bridges.

For more from Kevin Coval, you can read his newly released Anthem for the 99 percent. He'll be performing the piece live at Occupy Chicago this Saturday at 4 p.m. at Michigan Avenue and Congress Parkway.

Photo credit: Haymarket Books

© Community Renewal Society 2011

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  • Is he gonna write a poem about the 3 people who died at Occupy events in three different states?

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