This month Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) was the first member of Congress to visit the Occupy Wall Street protest — but contrary to some reports, he says that he was not booed out of the place. The jeers from the crowd, Rangel told The Root, were directed instead at a lone heckler who interrupted his speech supporting the movement.
The Harlem lawmaker also said that the voice of a frustrated constituency — even if it's just to say, "I'm mad as hell" — is welcome and necessary for Congress to act on unemployment, foreclosure and the dissolving middle class. Rangel spoke with us about what he sees as Occupy Wall Street's potential and why he wants to focus on what legislators can do now, instead of evaluating "whether [Democrats] did enough" in the last Congress.
The Root: Why did you decide to visit the Occupy Wall Street demonstration?
Charles Rangel: I believe they're symbolic of the frustration and pain that people are feeling all over the country. I was very surprised, but very pleased, that this group of people just came out. I don't really think that they have to have any solutions for the problem. It reminds me of the movie Network, where the guy just yells out his window, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"
I was planning to be down there with Grandmothers Against the War, who I meet with every year. And I did speak. There was one heckler. It never entered my mind that the crowd was booing me. It was my impression, as well as Charles Barron, who's a city councilman, that they were booing the heckler.
TR: Did you anticipate, though, that your presence would perhaps not be appreciated by some protesters?
CR: I'm a part of the federal government. I and other public officials — Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer — have expressed support for Occupy Wall Street. And although we're saying, "I'm with you," we are a part of the damn problem. People should not have to decide who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. They should just call on all of us to get the job done.
TR: What do you hope to see come out of Occupy Wall Street? You say they don't have to offer solutions, so what do you think the potential is?
CR: They believe that the top 1 percent has abused their financial powers at the expense of the 99 percent. And if they believe that Congress hasn't done their job, then I don't think they have to wait until 2012. They should call up their members of Congress, their state representatives and city councilmember and say, "You guys are supposed to come up with the answers — what do we do next?"
If they keep doing that, then [officials would] know that their seats are in jeopardy unless they get something passed. I see the only solution to this being a legislative one. I see coming out of this a coordinated effort to pinpoint who is responsible for doing something to get our people back to work.
TR: From a legislative perspective, what have you been doing to address these frustrations?
CR: This Congress is like no other that I've been in in over 40 years. The partisanship here is where a certain group of people are not out to beat the other party, but they're out to get rid of the president. They have admitted that their primary political responsibility was not a balanced budget or economic growth, but to get rid of Obama.
Having said that, the question has to be whether they would want to get rid of Obama at the expense of losing their seats. I don't believe that America really believes that someone should die if they don't have health care. I don't believe that America thinks that we should ridicule gays that have fought in the war. I don't believe that America's proud of how many people a governor has executed.
But these spokespeople have claimed to speak on their behalf. If we had these protesters call up their representatives to say what they believe, I really think they would get a response. These protesters are doing more than anyone else that I can think of.
TR: But people are not only frustrated by the gridlock in this current Congress. They're also disappointed that the last one didn't challenge the financial industry's dominance over our economic system. How do you defend the job that Democrats did when they just had a strong majority in Congress?
CR: I don't think anybody can retroactively do anything. What could have happened or didn't happen or who was in charge before … we could go back to slavery and see whether or not any particular group did enough. I'm saying that we're dealing now with this particular protest and what they have the power to do now.
There is an election in 2012. The real question is: Have the president and the Republicans started the election now in order to have the issues be decided by two people? The people need to say that we can't wait until November 2012, and start pushing on the policymakers now. I don't really see how relevant it is to explore what could have happened when we're dealing with a crisis right now.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.