Jonny 5 of Flobots reflects on the Occupy Movement and talks about the act's new album

Categories: Profiles
Don't let the smiles fool you, Flobots are serious about activism

Westword: I wanted to get your thoughts on the Occupy Movement. How do you feel about the overall Occupy Wall Street Movement, and how do you think Denver figures into the whole equation?

Jamie Laurie (aka Jonny 5): I look at this all from a sustainability lens. It's no secret that we have a huge challenge as an earth right now, given the limited resources, given the global warming, given unknown quantities of oil that are left, and we have to undergo a period of transition.

"We no longer have this kind of immature, knee-jerk, anti-government thing. Suddenly, it's about questions that are too big to solve by one short list of demands."

We have to change our habits and change all of those things. And I think the structure of corporations being such the extreme of only having -- corporations, who, by design -- are only there to maximize profit and maximize the rate of profit are not helping us. And it takes a whole lot to stand up and change that system, and it's hard.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, without any sort of professional organizers -- it's not been organized by the professional left -- they hit on something. And they figured out: Occupy Wall Street -- this meme captivates the nation and the world's imagination. And they did it. And they've changed the conversation. We no longer have this kind of immature, knee-jerk, anti-government thing. Suddenly, it's about questions that are too big to solve by one short list of demands.

So, I mean, it is a little bit of a Rorschach, because I'll name what I think are the top three or four issues of the Occupy movement, and someone else will name a different set of issues. But they won't be completely different. Because, obviously, Occupy Wall Street means: Hold Wall Street accountable, or something to that effect. Talking about the 99 percent and the 1 percent -- that's very intuitive: It's about income and equality. We know that that's not healthy. It's not good for democracy, and it's not fair.

And then other things like abolishing corporate personhood. I think that's such an esoteric thing that's been difficult to popularize, but now everyone's talking about "are corporations people." That's such an incredible favor for this country that the Occupy Movement has done. So I'm really inspired by it, and it's been inspiring to have that happen as a backdrop for writing a lot of the songs on this album.

Do you feel like the political climate is similar to when you came out with Fight with Tools?

Yeah, I really do, actually, and that's a good observation. Fight with Tools felt like there was a lot of agreement -- that was 2006-2007, when we were writing it, and it felt like, "Look, we know we're against this war, we know we don't like this president, we know we dream of kind of a different country - we just need to activate ourselves, just to galvanize and mobilize and sort of assert that conventional wisdom."

And Survival Story, we wrote at a time when it was, frankly, pretty confusing for a lot of people: Oh, we have this guy in office that a lot of us feel good about. He's an anti-war candidate, we think, but everything's happening slowly or not happening at all, and should we be mad at him, or should we give him time? I think everyone was just a little bit confused. What we did was we looked at the big picture of just what are the global challenges, or whatever.

And right now, it feels again, like, look, we kind of know what issues need highlighting. Now it's time to mobilize ourselves. So yeah, it's actually been really incredible just to be writing these songs while this movement is happening in real time, everywhere around us.

It just seems oddly -- and eerily -- similar, just the climate of disillusionment and the general synthesis of people and ideologies coming together, as it was during the DNC. Like after the show that you guys played with Rage Against the Machine at the Coliseum, when you marched from the Coliseum to the Pepsi Center, it has that same sort of defiant iconoclastic sort of sensibility to it. People are, quite literally, raging against the machine. It feels very similar in tone and texture, just the tenor of things.

Exactly, and there's such an important thing that's happened -- I remember reading an article that said, "When Republican presidents are in power, the music gets really good because it's protest music and it's full of, you know, channeling that angst. And then when a Democrat's in power, you get crappy, pop, like, we just want to have fun music."

I read that when Obama was coming into power, and I thought, well, is that what's going to happen? And it's kind of neat that this is transcending that binary, because that's always what I felt, and I think I heard a lot of people saying needed to happen. We can't just say, "Okay, now we have Obama in power. Now we can just sit back and relax." We have to hold him accountable.

We have to have a movement that's bigger than a candidate. And that's what people were saying, but it wasn't happening. But now it's happening. It's almost as though Obama's irrelevant; the Republicans are irrelevant, and there's other question of this movement at center stage. And everybody else, are they going to respond to those concerns the movement's bringing up or not? I think that's really important, because if we get stuck in the binary of the two parties, then we're confined to the narrow range of things that they want to talk about.

Early criticism of the Occupy Movement has centered on the perceived nebulousness of the proceedings, how there was no list of demands and the fact that there didn't seem to be a focal point for the movement other than just a general sense of disenfranchisement among the masses.

How much do you think the movement itself is based on and inspired by the Arab Spring, and the whole idea that you don't necessarily have to have a focal point, as much as it serves as vehicle for people to have their voices heard until it reaches critical mass?

With the Arab Spring, people occupied various city squares until they eventually toppled regimes. The Occupy movement seems to have started like that, but now it seems like it's become a little less abstract and a little more focused, would you agree with that?

I absolutely think that this wouldn't be happening if it weren't for the Arab Spring, because it was so magnetic, what happened in Egypt, it made everyone want a piece of it. And as a tactic, this occupation, maybe we weren't visualizing it, like we didn't really think it was possible. I mean, we can't even get people together for a rally. How are we going to get them to stay?

And so I think you're exactly right: That was the thing that captivated our imagination and allowed us to imagine this. The whole question of whether the nebulousness is good or bad, I think everyone loves to talk about it and think about it. I think it has been primarily good, but I certainly think that right now, Occupy has a solid foundation that's in everybody's imagination. It's in all of our consciousness. Now there's so much that can be grown from it. So I think, for me, it's a time to start thinking what are the different ways that can evolve, what are the different things that can spring up from this soil of Occupy.

It kind of has the trappings of a filibuster, where it was just kind of filling the gap...

Can I just say what you say to me and I get credit for it? Cause you're thinking this shit through, man. [laughs]

It just kind of seems like it was the social equivalent of a filibuster to fill the space and keep the dialogue going until the tacticians and the more vocal members of the movement could formulate the next move and pinpoint what the focal point is. It kind of seems like that still hasn't taken shape, but the abstract nature of it is becoming less so.

It's slowly starting to take shape. It doesn't seem like such an abstract concept anymore. I remember when the movement first started, the direct criticism was, "What the hell are these people doing? They're just basically showing up." And so it kind of seems, for lack of a better parallel, like a social filibuster. Would you agree with that?

Mm-hmm. It's genius, right? And that's why it's been important because it had to be... I was talking about it as an anchor -- the job of Occupy is just to stay put in its position and say, "No!" And most little reforms that will, or could be happening, aren't going to be enough, and it's the job of Occupy to say, "That's not enough."

I had the privilege of spending the day with Jim Lawson recently. He was the architect of the Nashville Sit-Ins. He was basically the same age as [Dr. Martin Luther] King. Maybe one of them was a year older. He spent time in India, before he met Martin Luther King, and they were peers. He was basically the most respected teacher of non-violence during that time period, and he's never stopped.

He emphasized to us that those things took twenty years to change, from the beginning of the movement to desegregation, the segregation signs being taken down. The "Whites Only" signs, that didn't change for twenty years, and that's just some signs.

That's just a system of social apartheid. That wasn't financially threatening people in the same way. So some of these things being talked about, like abolishing corporate personhood, could require a constitutional amendment or a constitutional convention. Those types of social movements take a lot longer, but it's more transformative. But it's exactly the type of work that needs to be done this century.

It was kind of groundbreaking for me to be thinking on that level. Like, this isn't about what happens six weeks from now or the next presidential term. This is about what happens over the course of the second half of my lifetime. And so taking a stand that is bigger than a set of demands is very important.

Right -- that's the challenge: How do you keep people engaged once the novelty wears off?

I think it's the culture, the culture that's being built up, the sub-culture, which is actually the thing, the stepping stone, that led me back to music from when I was just doing youth organizing. Sub-culture, that's a powerful thing. That's part of your identity. That's something the kids adopt and it becomes them. I think we're going to see a sub-culture -- we have seen it, and we're going to see it continue to grow out of the Occupy Movement.

One of the most profound things that really helped exact the focus, for me, that I heard somebody say: Sole said something in an interview that we did with him that struck me, when he was asked about abstract nature of the movement.

As he kind of advocated for non-violent activism, he was basically making a point of the fact that it made indeed seem abstract right now, but there's so many us -- and I'm paraphrasing poorly here -- but there's so many of us that you cannot ignore this movement.

And we're going to keep going until there's so many of us that we've reached critical mass where they have to send in the troops to intervene, and bring them home to disengage this movement. And that, to me, was pretty profound. He put it in perspective in a way that nobody had really been able to fully articulate yet at that point.

That's a very beautiful image. He was -- and you know this -- he was down there day in and day out. I've been down there just a few times here and there, but it's been inspiring to see the people who've been at the hub and at the core of Occupy Denver. The times I have been down there, every single time I would see some kid that I don't know wearing a Flobots bandana, a few people that I know very well from working with Fight with Tools back when it was street teams all across the country -- the community is there. Our community is there.

And I've always felt like it was a two-way street between our audience and fans and us. When we're doing the music, sometimes it keeps us from being at the center of the activism. But to see the folks doing the activism and knowing that they're connected to us in some way, it makes doing the music piece feel worthwhile. It feels like we're working in tandem.

It's been really inspiring seeing Sole or someone like Boots Riley in Oakland that have been right at the center of it. And the video that Mane Rok organized, did you get a chance to see it?

Yeah, it's powerful, man.

Pretty good, right?

What do you feel like the primary thing that has been galvanizing the disenfranchised, the one thing that links everyone together. Obviously folks are upset with a lot of things in the country. But what do you think the common ground is for everybody?

I think what's amazing about it is that it wouldn't be possible if there wasn't already vast amounts of agreement on more than one thing. I don't think it's just about jobs. I think it's about this conventional wisdom that's at odds with the existing order. I mean, nobody likes big money in politics. No one likes unlimited corporate money in global advertising. No one likes the idea of corporate power being unchecked globally, and no one likes the idea that Wall Street hasn't been held accountable for the crisis.

And I think corporate personhood, I seize upon that sometimes, because it's just such a common-sense gut reaction: A corporation is not a person. Why are we treating it as one? I think it's a testament to the work that's been done on the level of conversations, things like the Daily Show.

This conventional wisdom had to develop, and it was developing slowly through all of the things that you can't quantify. And it just reached a point where all it took was this little spark, and everyone agreed and took action.

There's such a polarization between the different classes. The dissolution of the middle class is a very real thing. It seems like you're either economically depressed, living paycheck to paycheck, or you're wealthy. When we were growing up, there was a very clear designation of being middle class, and it seems like there's been a complete dissolution of the middle class. It doesn't really seem to exist anymore. So I think on that level, fundamentally, when you dissect this movement, that is the driving force for this. It's a class war. We had race inequality in the '60s. We now have class inequality in the modern era. I think fundamentally that's what we're talking about here. Would you agree?

I think so, but I'm also inspired by the full spectrum of the people that have been involved. There's people involved because they're students who see only that they have no jobs and no future. But there's also people involved, people I know, who are saying, "We're part of the 1 percent. We stand with the 99 percent." And it's very much about principle. I mean, the police chief in Philadelphia was arrested. It affects his pension.

Maybe the first wave of reaction was this gut, irrational anger. But now I think it's a little more thoughtful and focused. This is where we make sure that we don't just let it go and say, "Well, let's just continue and let it happen again."

Do you think the movement has the sustainability to last through the winter and into the summer and into next year?

Absolutely. I thought maybe we'd start to see the end of the first phase by now and people would sort of start to strategically cede and regroup and figure out phase two. But I think what's becoming clear to me is phase one is not going end. The physical occupations are going to remain in some way, shape or form. And the second phase is going to grow organically from that. Because part of the thing when you have homeless that are part of the movement, organically and genuinely, they can occupy for a long time.

What do you think the second phase is going to involve?

I don't know. I really don't know. I want to put some thought into it, but I think there's small ideas bubbling here and there. I mean, some of the places where people are occupying homes. There's actually a place in Atlanta where the Occupy Movement heard about a police officer who was being evicted, and they were occupying that police officer's home in solidarity with him and his family to keep them from being evicted and foreclosed upon. I think occupying physical spaces or people's homes who are being threatened with foreclosure, I think that's the logical next step. I don't know if that's the next full evolution of it. I think there's a lot of possibilities from within it.

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