Liam

I’m from New Zealand. [I have a] good family. Lucky. Mom, dad, brother and sister. I’d say that both my parents are socially conscious. My dad was a union organizer for a while. My mom’s just written a book about her experience setting up a safe house for a gang woman, which was a work cooperative and stuff in the 1970s. So she’s spent the past seven or eight years getting these women together again and writing this book. So I guess the way they are is an example to me. I see them putting their energy into positive ‘making the world a better place’ things. And then also, I’m just lucky. I have two parents who are not wealthy. When I was growing up, Mom was a bus driver and Dad was a union organizer, but they both have university degrees, they’re still together after 30 years, the family was the most important thing for them. So I grew up in this loving, great environment, which is rare. So I take that as a privilege.

When I first graduated I went and got a corporate job for a financial consulting firm. I did it for about 8 months, but it was pretty soul destroying, and I knew that that was not what I wanted to do.

I’ve been in Boston for 3 months. And the timing was good. Just in time for the revolution [laughs]. I’ve been here once before and, because New Zealand’s so Americanized, there’s no culture shock. I don’t feel foreign here. My only foreign marker is the accent, I think. But if anything, that’s an advantage. So the transition’s not a hard one. It’s a bit hard being away from family, but I’m doing what I love. I have a good life.

I came here to go to graduate school. I’m at Boston College, still settling into Boston. I’ve been a student for a few years now. I guess the academic road is what I’m trying to make work. It’s not an easy career path, but it’s a good one if you can make it work. So, for me, it’s kind of a risky maneuver to see if it’s going to work. It takes years and years. And I am committed to doing that. I already have a masters and I am in a 5 to 8 year PhD program now. And maybe it will all crash and burn. There’s not a lot of jobs for sociologists, but it’s not only a career thing for me. As an undergraduate I did economics and politics. When I first graduated I went and got a corporate job for a financial consulting firm. I did it for about 8 months, but it was pretty soul destroying, and I knew that that was not what I wanted to do. I knew even before I started the job. I thought I would just be able to get on with it but it wasn’t what I want to do. It was a lot of work. Long hours and stuff, and I don’t mind hard work. I work my ass off, but I have to feel like it’s for something. We were a consulting firm so we’d be helping a Pilipino power company get the best deal from the regulator. I was putting all my energy into something that was fucking the world up, or making it worse. I would lie in bed at night and be like, what the hell am I doing. My energies are better spent elsewhere. It wasn’t what I want to do because I need to feel that I’m using my privilege to help make a difference. And I think sociology allows for that blend, of blending academic work with social change. Linking those two together. And I’m in a department at Boston College, which really encourages that, which encourages you to think about how your work can be used to bring about positive change.

There’s a few reasons. One of them is that academically it’s so much stronger here. I think that when you’re learning complex, big things, which you are in sociology, often in New Zealand you’ll be on your own, trying to do it yourself. Where here, you’re in a cohort of graduate students. So they’re all at the same level as you. They had to work their asses off to get there, so they’re all committed. And you’re part of a group, which is all involved in this process of learning. There is so much value in that. You can’t learn these big things by yourself. That really appealed to me. I think that this kind of group-collective learning was really lacking in my New Zealand graduate education, and I really wanted to do that. It’s also well funded. So I don’t get paid a lot, but I get a stipend. So I can just be totally focused on my studies. And then also, this kind of amazing thing of New Zealand being extremely Americanized, and especially my topic area of prisons, and New Zealand’s doing its best to follow America down the road to mass imprisonment, which I think is madness. And this is kind of like coming to the belly of the beast. To understand what’s happening in New Zealand, I have to understand what’s happening here, too, because there’s so much crossover. Just as an example, last year New Zealand introduced Three Strikes legislation. It’s an extremely harsh prison legislation where…under third offense, you get life without possibility of parole. And California has it. And there’s been examples of people stealing pizza and going to jail for life without possibility of parole. And it’s bankrupted California. The whole state is screwed, and in a large because they have this gigantic prison system. So, New Zealand introduced this Three Strikes legislation last year, which, aside from the practical madness from it, three strikes is a baseball metaphor, and we don’t even play baseball. It’s kind of a symbol of how blindly we’re replicating what’s happening here. And prisons are one aspect where we’re copying America, but in everything. From the music, the shows, the TV shows, when I come here there’s no culture shock. New Zealand is so Americanized… 9,000 miles on the other side of the world. So, as a sociologist trying to understand New Zealand, I feel like I have to understand America, too.

Being down here a lot makes me realize that the people who are most useful are practical people, people who build stuff, and mechanics, and logistical people. Changing the world’s a very practical thing.

I’ve always been political, but sociology especially swamps you with social problems. Prisons is my topic area. You’re swamped with all the shit that’s going on in the world and it’s easy to become cynical. And you don’t have to be a sociologist to be cynical either. I have these conversations with people all the time about what’s wrong with the world. Everyone’s angry, and we all see these big things that are wrong. But people are equal parts cynical, too. And for good reasons, because these huge problems – ecological crisis, endless war, corporate power – they are beyond any one individual’s control. So, from an individual’s standpoint, you should be cynical because you can’t do anything. And especially because of our conventional, traditional ways of bringing about change, basically electoral politics, are screwed. In the words of South Park, “It’s a choice between a Douche and a giant turd.” Either one’s not going to help you. Whether it’s Mitt Romney or Obama who wins the next presidential election, global warming is going to be a threat to the survival of the human race, and I don’t think either of them’s going to really tackle it. So when I looked to the past and I was like, how have people brought about positive change, whether it’s the civil rights movement or the women’s movement, it’s basically organizing. It’s people coming together, mobilizing, and bringing about change as a collective. So I’ve been waiting for something like this. Where it’s this exact thing of people coming together and organizing. So I was excited the moment I heard about what was happening on Wall Street… I was thinking about going to New York and then when I heard there was going to be one in Boston I was like, ‘Great. It’s going to be right on my doorstep.’ It leaves me hopeful for the first time in a long time. Something is happening, people are organizing, which, to me, is the only route to change.

I’m learning as I go along, too. In sociology we do a lot of talking about social change and all this, but sociologists are kind of worthless. Being down here a lot makes me realize that the people who are most useful are practical people, people who build stuff, and mechanics, and logistical people. Changing the world’s a very practical thing. So I just do what I can. I was down here on the first night that it started. Well actually, they had some nights at Boston Common where they kind of planned where they were going to occupy, and laid out the basics. But the first night that they occupied here, I was here. It was probably the biggest night so far. It was a couple thousand people. I’m a graduate student, so, I’m juggling conflicting priorities. But at least I’m doing sociology, so there’s a link there. It’s not like I’m doing physics and coming down here. That’s totally different. So, I’ve been down here since the start. There’s an Occupy working group, so I’m helping out with that. And usually on the days that I come down here, I’m doing interviews myself. I spend half the day volunteering. Whether it’s washing dishes or helping out at the info tent, like now. And then the other half going around talking to people. So, it’s kind of blending my professional life and Occupy stuff. There’s also taking part in the organizing. That’s a job of talking to people and convincing them why you should be involved, and why we need this. So I’m at Boston College, and we have a student group which is organizing on campus. We meet once a week and talk about how to get more people involved and sometimes we flyer in the quad with an organized speaking event. It’s organizing, trying to get more people involved.

…if you want practical, concrete demands, then turn on the TV and you’ll find a 100 people who tell you exactly what needs to happen. The only problem is they’re wrong.

[I’m] hopeful. I love that it’s happening. A lot of people talk about how this is pre-figurative – being the change you want to see. So it’s like a democratic space where you have these general assemblies where everyone’s voice is heard, everyone’s respected, it’s a consensus model, and you do that, and the shadows of the Federal Reserve where you have people in a small room making decisions that affect the whole world without input of anyone. And also, I think there’s a right to food, a right to have a place to live, a right to safe water, a right to education, and all are happening in this camp. And to some extent I agree. And on a good day I feel that and I think, ‘wow, we’re creating something amazing.’ Then also it sometimes smells like crap. The line you hear in the media is like, ‘It’s a bunch of criminals. More and more they’re criminalizing it.’ And the other one is, ‘It’s un-hygienic and it smells.’ Sometimes it is both those things. We’re not building a movement in Utopia, we’re building a movement in a city in America in 2011. It’s not already done. The camp has its problems. The movement has its problems. But I think the good stuff far outweighs the bad stuff. I think I can say those things because in the same breath I talk about what’s great about what’s happening here. And I think most of the time when you hear people talking about how everyone stinks, it’s in a very dismissive, I-haven’t-even-engaged-with-this-thing-at-all… What do you expect when you sleep in a public park for three months… you don’t exactly have your Hollywood make-up on.

I am hopeful and I think that we grapple one step closer to the solutions to these big problems. There’s a lot of talk about how we don’t have practical, concrete demands. And I think it’s because those practical, concrete solutions don’t exist. And if you want practical, concrete demands, then turn on the TV and you’ll find a 100 people who tell you exactly what needs to happen. The only problem is they’re wrong. So I like how they’ll refuse that, and it’s a lot more open. At the moment, it’s really of a critique of the way things are, and a discussion about where do we go from here. And it’s a lot of smart, energized people involved in this discussion and I hope that there can be some new ideas coming out of this big mobilization that’s going on. I am hopeful that we are going to get some real change out of this, but we may very well not. There’s always the cynic in me as well. I’m hopeful, but I’m also realistic about the immense power system that they’re challenging and facing, that we’re challenging and facing. And things may not change, and global warming may destroy the planet, but what else do we do? Thank God we’re doing something, we’re trying something.

My name is Liam.

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