The man who blocked John Lewis speaks

Occupy Atlanta backer Joe Diaz isn't a white anarchist. He's a multiracial Obama voter who's given up on Democrats.

Published October 13, 2011 4:38PM (EDT)

 Joe Diaz       (YouTube)
Joe Diaz (YouTube)

When Atlanta's Occupy Wall Street offshoot seemed to turn away civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis last Saturday, it threatened to become one of those decisive moments in which a complicated social movement is defined, and not in a good way. Put simply, it looked like a mostly white group of young people disrespected an African-American hero from an early era of social struggle, preferring their own process over his wisdom.

Pretty quickly it became clear that wasn't exactly the situation: Lewis hadn't asked to address the group, and OA didn't turn him away. The group asked him to speak in the segment of the agenda set aside for public speakers – but Lewis couldn't stay. The Atlanta congressman told reporters he wasn't insulted, that he related to the Occupy Atlanta protesters, and that their consensus-oriented process was "grassroots democracy at its best."

All's well that ends well – except questions persisted about the mysterious young activist identified as "Joe" who decided to block Lewis from speaking, when the larger group seemed open to hearing from him. After I wrote about Joe's role in thwarting Lewis' possible speech, people began emailing and messaging me asking who he was, suggesting he was with an anarchist group or some lefty sect. Others raised questions about why one lone young white man had the power to turn away a venerated African-American hero in Atlanta, a capital of the civil rights movement.

So I reached out to try to find Joe – and he contacted me and agreed to speak. Via email and over the phone, we had a long conversation over the last couple of days. He's not exactly what he seemed.

Joseph Diaz, 24, is a Ph.D. philosophy student at Emory University looking for a career in political theology. Describing himself as of "Afro/Cuban/Italian descent," he grew up Catholic in the New York suburb of Pearl River, the son of a Cuban immigrant New York Police Department detective and a Bronx Italian mother. He graduated from SUNY Geneseo with a degree in philosophy and political science, and a minor in Latin American studies, and got a fellowship to study at Emory. In 2008, he voted for Barack Obama – but he's been on a steady odyssey to the left ever since.

Earlier this year Diaz was arrested in a student movement to win better wages and working conditions for Emory's food service workers. He joined the local effort to stop the execution of Troy Davis last month. He says he's friendly with local activists in the socialist All-African People's Revolutionary Party, and he calls the anarchists involved in OWS "good people." He quotes left-wing Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse and Michelle Alexander, the author of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." He moves from plain talk to lefty jargon frequently. He sees the modern Democratic Party as just another "war party," and while he votes, he insists he wouldn't ever again vote for a Democrat, no matter how progressive.  "I'd tell them to look to Bernie Sanders," the socialist senator from Vermont, he says.

Asked if he could sum up his politics with a political label, Diaz said, "First and foremost, I'm a Christian." Then he added a lot of qualifiers like any good philosophy Ph.D student, but in the end he told me: "I believe in the radical egalitarian community of the Holy Spirit."

Diaz may be the nightmare of folks who hope the OWS movement can be channeled into progressive Democratic Party politics. When he claims to work with "the real black community," he will raise many people's hackles, as he did mine. And yet, even as I lay out his openness to what, as a veteran of post-'70s lefty sectarian politics, I consider dead-end lefty sectarianism, I don't entirely write him off. We had a friendly debate about where our country is, has been and where it's going.

Many people may still believe John Lewis should have been allowed to speak Saturday after reading this story, but it will be hard to say some spoiled white boy blocked him simply out of ignorance.

The moment where Congressman Lewis wasn't allowed to speak to Occupy Atlanta has become racially charged. It looks like a predominantly white crowd turning away a black civil rights hero. So I hate to try to put you in a bubble, but how do you characterize your own ethnicity?

No, it's OK, I think the move to pretend to "color-blindness" is very dangerous. My four grandparents come from Italy, Africa and Spain. I'm a quarter black. In terms of "bubbles," when I'm filling out forms, I bubble in Latino, black and white. Growing up in Pearl River, my friends were Irish Catholic, and being of mixed race, I was the minority. I've never been white enough for the whites, or Latino enough for the Latinos; it's actually the black community that I've felt most at home with. So it's ironic, the John Lewis thing.

Tell me a little bit about the context of the clip. It looked like the crowd was responding favorably to the idea of an impromptu message from Congressman Lewis. I wouldn't call it consensus, but I'd say a majority expressed openness to it. Am I missing anything there?

When Congressman Lewis walked over, much of the crowd began clapping and cheering. There was some conversation between Rep. Lewis and our general assembly (GA) facilitator. This was happening about 20 minutes into our meeting. It's important to note, this was our 4th GA, and there was a specific agenda drafted, which included "open mic" time for anyone to speak. The question of interrupting the meeting for Rep. Lewis to speak was put to us, and there was certainly strong support, but there were also plenty of dissenters.

Then it seems like you "block" him. You expressed respect for his civil rights history but you stated that no individual is inherently more important. Say more about why you blocked him.

My block of Rep. Lewis had more to do with the "form" of the event rather than the content. The Occupy movement was initiated because many of those in attendance feel that rules in our current system have been unjustly bent towards (or created for the sake of the welfare of) politicians and bankers. I felt that bending the rules of the GA towards a politician was contradictory to the spirit of the gathering. Yes he put his life on the line for people's rights. Yes he should be honored for that. But there are construction workers, firefighters, coal miners, etc., who in a very real way put their lives on the line when asked, and we would not have bent the rules for them.

Did you support the compromise to ask him speak after the GA's planning meeting?

Absolutely. It would be dogmatic and hypocritical to refuse to allow any person to speak at Occupy Atlanta.

I understand there's a lot of concern about the OWS movement being "co-opted" by Democrats. But where is the line -- if a progressive Democrat like Rep. Lewis wants to get involved, what role can he play, if any? Is there a role for MoveOn? Unions?

Rep. Lewis is invited to join Occupy Atlanta like all peoples. Maybe he can lead workshops on the consensus process, civil rights history, and other areas of expertise. But for us to continue to trust progressives who are in power with that power is not only dangerous and naive, but absurd. If there's anything our government has proven to us over the last three years, it is that no member of the two-party system is worthy of our trust when it comes to ending the stranglehold that transnational corporations have on our foreign and domestic policy. Any organization that upholds the legitimacy of the two-party system simply buttresses interests opposed to those of everyday people. Unions have participated in Occupy Atlanta, but a sharp distinction must be made. Rank and file members should be front and center; professional staffers should take a step back.

A lot of people seeing the video had strong feelings -- that a civil rights hero was being disrespected. In hindsight, given the reaction to the YouTube clip, would you reconsider blocking him?

I would not. I think very soon this will be seen as a tone-setting moment for the Occupy movement. I have personally been very involved in reaching out to the black community here in Atlanta. The real black community.

OK, you realize that sounds condescending: "the real black community." Who's the real black community? Who decides that?

That might have been crude. I'm talking about the segment of the black community here that feels ignored and disenfranchised. Here in Atlanta, there's very much a class divide. I think a lot of black leadership, and black church leadership, tends to be separated from the urban poor black community. Politically, things have to be pretty non-controversial for many in the official black church to get involved, and when they do, their answer is, go out and vote for the Democrats! That's very unsatisfying to a lot of us.

How would you describe your own political affiliation, if you have any? Did you vote in 2008?

First and foremost, I'm a Christian. I'm a student of political theology. My politics are inspired by scripture. I am antiwar, anti-nuclear-proliferation, pro-LGBTQ full equality, pro-universal health care, pro-marijuana legalization, pro-radical immigration reform, and so on. 2008 was my first presidential election. Admittedly, I was swept away by the sea of hope and change rhetoric. Although there was a point around July when Obama began articulating his wish to build up in Afghanistan that I considered a third party candidate. Ultimately, the feeling that I was some part of history by voting for Obama won out. Other than that, I've voted in local elections here in Georgia for Democrats when only Ds and Rs were on the ballot.

But do you vote now, or do you think voting is a dead end?

Voting alone is a dead end. But I vote. If you don't vote, you leave yourself open to criticism if you are also participating in any activism – people will tell you that your protest is illegitimate because you’ve given up on our formal system for the redress of problems. So, while I understand withholding the vote in the spirit of not wanting to legitimize the system, I vote in order to cover myself. I just won't vote for either of the major parties.

So no matter how progressive a Democrat is, if he or she puts a D after their name, you won't vote for them.

No. I'd tell them to look to [Vermont's socialist Sen.] Bernie Sanders ...

OK, but look, it's easier to be elected a socialist in a place like Vermont. There are other places and other communities where that's just not going to be true – and where a Bernie Sanders might have the best shot at power running as a lefty Democrat.

Well, there's a desperate need for trailblazers outside the two-party system. The fact that you're telling me that you can't have an effective political career if you don't join one of the war parties shows the brokenness of the system. And there are many people who don't want to vote for either party. These are both war parties.

I've been working with a grassroots black empowerment group, For the People, since prior to the occupation. I've worked with the Revolutionary African Party. These groups represent the most disenfranchised - unemployed, political prisoners, immigrants, the homeless, and so on.

Are you a member of the Revolutionary African Party – I mean, it's a socialist, pan-African, "revolutionary" party that's pretty out there…

No, I'm not a member, I don't consider myself a part of it, and I don't think they, or any other single organization, should lead. But I work toward amplification of their voices, because they're speaking to truths about the destruction wrought by our imperialist foreign policy. I am absolutely non violent, morally, politically but also pragmatically, I believe political violence is suicide.

I have also seen speculation online that you're an anarchist. A lot of otherwise sympathetic people have expressed concern that there's growing anarchist control of OWS nationwide. Is there?

Ms. Walsh, I am not an anarchist. But they are good people. There is not anarchist control at OC ATL; I cannot speak for other Occupy sites.

I didn't live through the '60s, but I know progressives distrust the role of so-called "revolutionary" groups in popular movements because the 60s "revolutionary left" was a nihilistic dead end that helped push the country to the right. Revolutionaries aside, so much of the left declared the Democrats hopelessly corrupt, and moved outside of electoral politics, or to third parties – to the point that the party was taken over by its corporate wing. So it's a self-fulfilling prophecy, to declare the Democrats hopeless…

I think it's dangerous to say that leftists have "allowed" the party to be pulled to the right, rather than saying that Goldman Sachs has invested hundreds of millions in the party to protect its interests, corporate America has invested hundreds of millions more, to pull the party right.

Yes, they did, and that's part of the problem.

But your analysis is making the far left so powerful.

I think both those things happened, and both changed the Democratic Party, and American politics, for the worse in my opinion. Meanwhile, far-right movements, whether it’s the Barry Goldwater forces, or the Christian right, or the Tea Party, they join the Republican Party and try to take it over. The left by contrast stands outside and tries to destroy the Democratic Party. We don't live in a parliamentary democracy; our third party votes are usually wasted.

You may be right about the '60s. But right now, I don't think the enabling conditions are there, I don't think we have an open political system that really allows for popular electoral control. I mean, if you read "The New Jim Crow," we've disenfranchised so many people who could change the system, through the criminal justice system. And now, across the country, we're disenfranchising students, Latinos, poor people, with new voter laws.

You're right about that, and we should all be fighting the disenfranchising that's come about --  especially since those groups began to really use their votes in 2008. Can there be an organized electoral politics channel to Occupy Atlanta, or is the movement anti-electoral politics?

My specific goals for this movement are often characterized as broad, but they seem specific to me - do away with a for-profit prison system, end both wars, make full employment a reality. This movement must not allow itself to be co-opted and turned into a voting bloc. We all know that this will only lead to disappointments and broken promises - we'll be back at square one again, or worse. There has been some talk that OWS will call for boycotts and general strikes. If they prove successful, the end goal may be the declaration of a provisional government in NY. This sounds wacky to some, but it must be seriously considered.

What do you say to people who look at the video and are put off by the human mic "chanting" and the process? Is there a role for sympathetic people who nonetheless don't have time to join a process like that, or just aren't patient enough for it?

Those who are put off by the human mic "chanting" are similar to those who go out for a nature walk with head-phones on... they're missing the point. Those who are sympathetic but don't have time to join the GAs are very much encouraged to work with us in whatever way they can - be that come down to the site at their convenience and share ideas, bring supplies, knit blankets, spread the word wherever they are, or whatever!

Is there any political label you'd apply to yourself?

I'm a Christian first and foremost. I believe in the radical egalitarian community of the Holy Spirit. Liberalism cedes family values talk to the Right at its own peril.  But it must be stated that when speaking to Christianity, one must be very upfront about the slavery, imperialism, degradation of women, and homosexuals done in its name. I believe that this hatred cloaked itself in Christian terms, but in reality, it had nothing to do with the message of a Savior who came to peacefully sacrifice Himself for the good of all.

I'd like to add that the human element of this movement should also be part of the story. One of my new best friends is a 50-year-old African-American man named Ulysses, a death row exoneree. He was acquitted thanks to new DNA evidence. He spent 26 years on death row maintaining his innocence. Ulysses was married with three kids when they locked him up in 1985. He was 24 -- my age. He told me about how small his cell was, about how they'd roll a portable shower to link up to the opening of his cell door so that he wouldn't be going anywhere to shower. He told me that if he was lucky he got recreation time 3 days a week - which consisted of being shackled up and walked to a small cage area where some outdoors could be seen so that he could walk in circles for 30 minutes. Ulysses told me how his kids grew up without him, his mother died in 1995 while he was locked up. He told me how when he got out 3 months ago, for the first month, he couldn't go further out of his house than his front porch. The subway here absolutely terrified him. But he also told me that they took his freedom, his chance to raise his kids -- but he was determined the whole time to not let them take his hope.

Picture that - a 24-year-old philosophy Ph.D. student and a 50-year-old death row exoneree sitting and talking in the pouring rain in the park very early on Tuesday morning, talking about fear, death, hope, and bonding over both being not just basketball players, but point guards. Connections like this strengthen our resolve. They affirm the idea that we are all more alike than the divisive system has us believe. And they convince us that fundamental changes must be made not only in our political and economic system, but in the way we see ourselves, our neighbors, and our duty to both.

By Joan Walsh

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Occupy Wall Street Rep. John Lewis