Harry Belafonte built his career as a singer and actor, but his greatest legacy may be his role as an activist on social issues, beginning with his involvement with Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.He says he made the pilgrimage to the Occupy Wall Street site in New York on Saturday to better understand the motives of the activists who have changed the discussion about the financial debacle of the last four years. He spoke to The Root's Julie Walker after his visit to Zuccotti Park.
The Root: What are your feelings about Occupy Wall Street?
Harry Belafonte: First of all, I am encouraged by it. I think that its presence has done more to define the extent of social discontent than almost anything has done in the recent past. Where it's going is, I think, a great question for everyone, even those that are involved in making the machine work.
As it begins to broaden its base and begins to look for a greater specific [goal], it also understands that it is embarking on a very complicated journey here. It's one thing to protest; it's one thing to target what it is you want to change and what are going to be the costs of changing it. And I think they are now at that place where it's the protest everybody understands.
The fact that the banks have been unjust in the most extreme way is very clear. The question now is, how do you fix it? You're certainly not going to get a volunteer admission on the part of the banks to say, "Well, we understand how wrong we've been; we'll self-correct and we'll give you results in 10 days." And they are not going to be able to change the way in which business is done by a business institution unless they make business very uncomfortable with what's going on with oppression.
I know that for a fact there are a lot of schemes on the table right now about investments and institutions divesting from places where the banking rules are the most offensive and the most punitive. But that's such a hard thing to unravel. So somebody has to look at the whole system and say, "What can you fix in the system that makes all of this begin to take a corrective path?" And I think that that's what they're grappling with now, and I kind of like listening to that debate and being called upon from time to time to give an opinion.
TR: When you say "called upon from time to time," do you mean by Occupy Wall street or are you speaking in general?
HB: Both. I don't always wait to be invited — if I see something needs to be done, I'll just go ahead and get into it. But in this instance it's by invitation, because they have already said "We would like to talk to you — we would like to know [how it was] at certain crossroads and [during] certain experiences back there with SNCC [Student Noviolent Coordinating Committee], with the student movement and all the things that you were engaged in working for and with. We have some questions now and here. First of all, how does it look like we're doing?"
HB: I think they're doing quite well, but I think they also have things coming at them that nobody ever had coming at them before.
TR: What are the big differences you see between the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s that you were so heavily involved in and what's going on now?
HB: I think that at the moment there is a dichotomy here. Most of what the Occupy Wall Street movement is about appears to be a group that has become very unhappy with their middle-class existence, as one of the young people in the movement itself, one of its organizers, said. All right, so now we say to the poor, "We have just now been kicked out by the rich. Can you now let us in?" And then the poor looks at them and says, "Well, where were you when we were kicked out?" And then the question is, "Where are you going now that has relevance to what we've been experiencing for these centuries or these decades?"
It's an interesting crossroads because most of this current manifestation appears to be a class interest, but if you talk to the young people engaged in it, they've gone beyond that. But a lot of black people and a lot of people from the Latin community still think that, well, you know, this is like their thing — now they're hurting, so now they need us.
Interestingly enough, there have been no delineations within the Wall Street Occupation movement. It hasn't said, "Bring us your black, bring us your Latino, bring us your tired, bring us your poor." It just says, "Here we are. We're unhappy, and all people who are unhappy can join us and let's see where we go."
TR: I wrote something for The Root about how at the start of the movement, there were not as many blacks involved with Occupy Wall Street. While that has changed, do you see a specific place for blacks, or something holding them back from joining in?
HB: It is interesting to note that the movement as it is now revealing itself was stimulated by things that people of color did in a very faraway place called North Africa, and I do think that there is still a lot to be heard from the traditionally disenfranchised communities. I think there will come a time when black people will see in this kind of nonviolent protest that you can also get out here and stop traffic or stop business. These kids haven't stopped traffic yet; as a matter of fact, they are far and away [from] a place where it really interrupts the daily life of people, as these things should be doing.
Dr. King once said that unless you make those who are comfortable with your oppression uncomfortable, [the] character of the oppression will never be changed, and I think that's true. I think the black community and others may see in this manifestation things that they may be able to do. Not just here — because it did start in Tunisia, it did start in Cairo, and now it's having these effects on a lot of other places where there are ostensibly people of color.
Julie Walker is a freelance journalist based in New York who has been covering Occupy Wall Street.