Occupy History

Occupy History: The Pre-Occupy Days (Part One) with Priscilla Grim

(When Occupy Wall Street began on September 17, 2011, Priscilla grim was 37 years old and a single working parent. She was organizing for Occupy Wall Street as early as August of 2011 and became especially involved with the Media Working Group in Liberty Square, or “Zuccotti Park.”

She worked on websites, blogs, helped create and publish the movement’s newspaper, The Occupied Wall Street Journal, slept in the park some nights, and participated almost daily in demonstrations, until Liberty Square was raided by the NYPD in November of that year.

She tells her Occupy History to Hard Times Review 10 years later, in late July of 2021.)

What was your life and work like around the time Occupy began?

I was marginally employed. I was a Master’s student at Columbia University in their Information Science program. I was a single parent of an eight-year-old girl. I was on unemployment, and I believe that was the summer I got denied food stamps for myself and my daughter, because I “made too much money on unemployment.”

I had some debt, but it wasn’t terrible, and – you know – when you have a child, the first six to eight years are just 24/7 kid, because they just have so many needs, so you don’t really have any time that is yours. So, in summer of 2011, when the planning started, I had some time that I could dedicate towards things outside of work, school, and parenting, so I started going to Tompkin Square Park for the meetings.

How did you first hear about Occupy Wall Street?

I saw a video on Facebook from a Manu Chao concert, this amazing alt-rock band – I dunno what the kids today would call it, but they’re an amazing band – and they had someone come up on stage and say, “We’re planning to Occupy Wall Street.”

I had lived in New York City since 2000. And I thought that was the coolest fuckin thing I’d ever heard of.

Nobody really lives in the financial district. I mean, they have some people living down there. But it’s not a residential neighborhood at all. I mean, even in Time Square, there are still a lot of residents, but the financial district – like, wow – that had to have been the first line of gentrification in New York City.

It’s really just Air B & B’s and weird hotels down there, and some people who own multiple homes.

I thought it was awesome, because I also had a whole 10 years of working before that, and I had worked as a wealth researcher for the New York Public Library and for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is The Bronx Zoo, to identify the wealthiest people in New York City for them to then fundraise from, and doing that work was a kind of masterclass in wealth, philanthropy, and systemic injustice since the beginning of the United States.

At the top levers of power, you have these social clubs – like, one of them is called The Colony Club – and all the top hedge fund money managers or anybody who is, like, a huge CEO of a company, they are related to that club in one way or another, or they married into it. The Colony Club is just one of many examples.

In doing this research, I just saw how the United States is a world made by and for big business, and if we could break that system in New York City, we could break it everywhere, because New York City is the heartbeat of global capitalism.

New York was the opening shot for this experiment of building a country on genocide.

So, yeah, those were some reasons I was really excited to hear about an idea called “Occupy Wall Street.” I was like, “Yes, I am there tomorrow. Every chance I get, I’m going to be there. I do not care what it takes. C’mon, kid, we’re gonna go have dinner in Zuccotti Park.”

(laughs)

Elaborate on what you were studying at that time …

Information Science. At the time, I really believed – I still do – that, because of the internet, for any media outlet, anybody who wants to have a substantive voice online, as long as they bring the content to it, can be just as powerful as CNN or NBC. So, I’ve really tried to work on different projects that have that promise. The latest one, which I just came on board with last week, is called letsrethinkthis.com.

But Information Science at Columbia University was a Master’s of Science Program. At the time, 10 years ago, they were really trying to understand what the future of information architecture would look like for companies, organizations, political movements. It depended on your focus.

Everybody in my class was specifically chosen from the different industries we came from, and I had just been part of a founding team for this online radio station called Real Punk Radio, and basically we made a platform for Punk Rock podcasters and called it a radio station. So, if people went to realpunkradio.com, they would get all these different podcasts of punk rock shows from all over the globe.

So, nobody actually owned it. It was owned by the DJs, because they were the ones creating the content for it, and that’s still how it is run.

So, I was brought into the Columbia program, because I represented not working for a corporate brand or a big corporate platform, but rather trying to work to build something brand new that had a social justice bent to it.

So, when I actually left the program in 2011, I’d just cried uncle because I missed like 75 percent of the semester and I really wanted to try to build an organization with some other media folks in Zuccotti Park, and I just spoke to the Chair of the department, and was like, “I can’t,” and she was like, “It’s okay, because everything you’re doing now is exactly what you said you wanted to do in your professional life, so you can count on us for recommendations in the future. You’re great. Thank you for being in our program.”

What was your feeling of where the country was at that time, before Occupy started?   

Obama had just gotten elected. I mean, there was so much around him, that he was gonna … (trails off) I mean, I was older for this whole Occupy thing, like, I made phone calls for Barack Obama, like, I literally thought he was going to – you know – close down Guantanamo Bay on day one, things he campaigned on, right?

I also wanted Barack Obama as president. I mean, come on. He was kind of awesome. We didn’t know back then. The thing is: If anybody was going to take the presidency and make it something that could change things quickly and in a good way, it would’ve been him, but he proved that that’s not what the presidency is there to do at all. The presidential campaigns set such big tones.

Then you get Trump, just saying, “Well, we’re gonna be racist assholes who kill children,” and people are like, “Yeah, that’s sounds cool.”

I DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW THAT HAPPENED, to this day.

Well, I mean, I do, because Hillary Clinton really wanted to be President, and manipulated the fuck out of everything and the Democrats.

So, anyway, I am sympathetic to electoral efforts. I’ve worked on one mayoral campaign. And I worked on Jill Stein’s campaign, which I’m never doing again, but I learned my lesson.

But I don’t think electoral politics is where power mainly resides. I’m more interested in the cultural education that needs to happen so that people understand what they are moving towards. That’s really how my activism has settled since Occupy.

But at Occupy, I didn’t see our role being needing to educate as media activists, so much as needing to inform to the public about the actions in the park, in the sense of, like, “Here’s a library,” “You can get healthcare here,” “Here is someone who thinks we can implement this Robin Hood Tax on Wall Street.”

Occupy Wall Street was creating this beautiful soup of ideas and it was being duplicated all over the United States, and there was a lot of work worldwide too.

Even just talking about what the physical space could be, at those beginning meetings, in my imagination, in my experience, at least, was amazing. It was like, “Wow, this is really going to present a new vision to people,” which we need.   

What specific political issues were you most concerned with at that time?

Lowering taxes on the rich really made me mad, because I had to pay a lot of them.

I had been an activist since I was a teenager. I’ve always been a pro-choice activist. I housed women in New York City who were coming here for third trimester abortions, because I think freedom is important and abortion is healthcare, and if you’re seeking an abortion in the last trimester of your pregnancy, that probably means you’re dealing with a whole bunch of other things that’ll be made a lot easier by not being pregnant. So, if those are your choices, then whatever you need to do to feel better.

I was also involved in a lot of the riot-girl kinds of sex positive things, and I did anti-war demonstrations as well, just showing up. I was never with an organized group.

That is, regarding the invasion of Iraq?

Yes, I just showed up. Then there was another thing I showed up to, or didn’t show up to, which is kind of hilarious: When the RNC came to New York City, there was this initiative called “The Disappearing Volunteers,” which people were being recruited online to be part of, and because I was, like, a nerd online, I signed up to it, and what it was: You signed up, went to the training, and then just never showed up for your shift.

It was awesome, and then on the news, like, during the convention, someone was like, “Oh yeah, we expected all these volunteers but none of them showed up. It was so strange.”

(laughs)

I mean, I had my kid at 27, so I moved to New York about a year and a half before then, so it was just a lot of working and raising a child.

Perhaps tactics should be utilized like that more to appeal to people who want to participate but need to be home or at work. If you can’t go somewhere, sign up to not go somewhere.

(laughs)

YES.

Describe the first times you got involved in Occupy, what that was like.

I went to a couple of meetings at Tompkin Square Park. I worked at a place called The Association of Independent Video and Film Makers in the early 2000’s, when I first moved to New York, and we had organized against an executive director, because of various things, and we had a representative from a local union help us.

Someone introduced themselves from that union and I told him what we were doing. He was like, “Well, how do you think you can help?”

I was like, “Well, I do online promotions really well. Check out this radio station I helped build,” and he linked me into the media stuff and just started working from there. On the “We are the 99%” Tumblr blog, it was announced that they wanted it to happen, but I think that was after September 17. I’m getting ahead of myself.

So, after the first couple meetings, we started sharing messaging points and stuff. I was introduced to the website team. The next weekend, I went on my computer, and Indie Media, from the 1990s, still had 60 or 70 sites alive, so I wrote a little blurb, like, “Come on the 17th. Bring a tent,” a little consensus thing, and a link to the website with a little graphic, and I posted that on every single Indie Media website that was still alive.

Then all the on the ground stuff started happening. The first day of the first march, September 17th, a bunch of people showed up, and it was awesome. Flyers were handed out with possible places where we’d be stopping, and finally, somebody came up to me and was like, “We’re going to Zuccotti Park,” and I had my daughter with me. We were marching together.

I was also posting about it on Twitter, watching everything and everyone, reading all the signs. It was super remarkable.

Describe the beginning of September 17th for you.

I mean, I really felt like it was going to be something remarkable. Like, I remember doing my laundry the day before and being like, “Occupy Wall Street is gonna happen. I gotta get ready,” but, like, if I said that out loud to anybody, they’d be like, “You’re crazy Priscilla. This is just another thing you’re saying is gonna be awesome.”

And I’m like, “But this time, IT IS …”