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Civil rights icon John Carlos on the Occupy movement


In the past few months, many Americans dealing with the difficult economy have taken part in some of the largest domestic protest movements in recent history: what began as Occupy Wall Street spread from coast to coast. Demonstrators protested economic inequality and injustice, foreclosures, and bank bailouts. It could all be summed up in one rallying cry: “We are the 99%.”

But if Occupy had a slogan, it doesn’t necessarily have a moment – one image to define it in people’s minds. And that’s something that separates it from other big movements in our past.

In the summer of 1968, one San Jose State University student became iconic to a generation of activists. John Carlos had made it to the Olympics in Mexico City, taking third place to fellow American Tommy Smith. When they stepped to the podium to accept their medals, they raised their fists in a Black Power salute. The result was a scandal – and an image that became iconic to the civil rights movement.

Now, more than 40 years later, bronze medalist John Carlos has been very involved with the Occupy movement, speaking at General Assemblies and participating in actions around the country.  KALW’s Ben Trefny sat down with him recently to talk about what he thinks of the movement. 

BEN TREFNY: Why did you get involved with the Occupy movement?

JOHN CARLOS: Because I felt it was necessary. I didn’t get involved here in 2011. I got involved in 1968, 43 years ago. The same fight that they have today is the fight that we had back then. The only difference is that the base has gotten bigger. In other words, in the ‘60s, we were concerned about people of color that were having a rough time economically or socially or politically, or in housing or medical. We were concerned about education for those individuals back then. And now, the circle has grown immensely to the point where it affects all ethnic groups now, irregardless to what your ethnic background is. You could even go so far as to say irregardless to what your nationality is, because this Occupy Wall Street is Occupy the World right now. Everyone is concerned about the same issues that we were concerned about then. We were concerned about buying a house. Now people have a concern about losing their house. We were concerned about whether we were going to be able to get into school. Now they have a concern about whether we will be able to afford to go to school. We were concerned about finding a job. Now they’re concerned about finding a job, but not only that, they’re concerned about the fact that they keep getting these letters in the mail talking about paying your student loans. So, many of those concerns are the same concerns, and maybe have an additive to it. And it looks like to me, if we don’t have Occupy the World, so to speak, it looks like places that I’ve gone to around the world and saw, where they had castles with gold on them, marble walls and marble floors, and gold chandeliers, and then come outside and walk two yards, and they got little sugar shacks and shimmies all around this area. And it looks like if the people don’t stand up, I can see America becoming that way one day as well.

TREFNY: Bring me back to that moment at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City when you and Tommy Smith raised your fists in the air.

CARLOS: Well, it was a very energetic, high intensity situation, from within the field and in the stands. And then, at the same time, the competition was enormous, in terms of the competitiveness, the greatness of the athletes that were there at those particular games. And then at the same time, we had overhead the swirling of a potential boycott that was still in the minds of many people although we were at the games. And then – boom – here Tommy Smith and John Carlos get together and put our minds together and feel that the fact that the boycott was called off, we felt that it was necessary to make a statement for the concerns that we have for society.

TREFNY: Knowing that this was going to be watched by so many people, did you have any idea about the significance of that through history?

CARLOS: I think I had that perspective from the time I was born into the world relative to the idea that I could make a difference and that people could respond based on what they see me do, because I’ve been doing things like that all my life. It just so happens that the Olympic movement that I became involved in was such a spectacle that it was seen around the world.

TREFNY: Let’s look ahead now to what’s going on here, with the Occupy movement taking place around the country and around the world. You’ve become involved with that – as you say, you’ve been kind of involved with that throughout your entire life. What do you see as the similarities or differences between the development of that movement and the movements that were taking place in the late ‘60s. 

CARLOS: You know, we had a concern in the ‘60s as people of color. That concern has multiplied to the point where it’s not just people of color any more. It’s people of the world right now that have this concern, whether it’s in Egypt or whether it’s in Afghanistan or wherever the case may be. Many people right now are looking for social justice. They’re tired of dictatorship. They’re tired of the Big Five controlling and running their lives.

TREFNY: But do you see the way that they’re manifesting their protest then being different or similar to the protests that took place in the ‘60s?

CARLOS: Well anytime you come together, unified, it’s the same. It’s about unification and having an understanding that we understand what we are fighting for. We understand who the enemy is. But I see these individuals stopping by Occupy when the get off work, when they’re out to lunch, stopping by to look for 15 minutes or 20 minutes at what’s taking place, and I realize through these 15 minutes or this half an hour that I’m in the same boat as these people here. I might have a job, but my job is threatened. I might have a union, but my union might be gone tomorrow. I might have a house, but my mortgage is up for foreclosure. So many of these individuals, they are watching, and every day that they come back is building courage for them to say, “I’m gonna walk into this soup bowl. I’m gonna eat the soup that these people are eating because I have a full understanding as to why they’re out there now.”

TREFNY: Where, being a lifelong activist, do you think that the Occupy movement should go from here? How should it develop?

CARLOS: I think first of all, we need to develop a line of communication to the point where we have one blanket statement that represents all of us from Wisconsin to New York, from New York to Oakland, from Oakland to Egypt, to the point where we all are on the same page and they can’t use us or fragment us to the point where you say, “You guys are different from what’s happening in New York. Your fight is different than what’s happening in Wisconsin.” We need to line ourselves up and have a steel fence in front of us to say we are one, on the same quest. I think that’s the biggest thing that we can do. The second thing that I think is we have to understand that we’re in this game. Now, how do you go about winning a game? You have to know the game rules in order to be a winner. For instance, down there in Oakland, when they took that trash bin and they took it and put it out in the center of the street and created this fire eight feet tall, game rules state now we have probable cause to come in and crack your head or crack anybody’s head because we went against the game rules.

TREFNY: You mean the police had that…

CARLOS: The police. That’s the attitude that they had, or the government had. But yet those individuals that were at Davis, when they sat there, humble, peace-loving, on their knees, sitting there, never creating a ruckus, and then you see the law enforcement go and spray them with the mace or pepper spray or what have you. That sends a signal to the world that these individuals didn’t break no game rules, they didn’t do anything wrong other than to have the opportunity to express their First Amendment rights.

TREFNY: So one thing that strikes me in talking with you, and why I’m really interested in talking with you about the Occupy movement right now, is that your book is John Carlos: The Sports Moment that Changed the World. It is an iconic moment in protest history, in the American history of protest. The Occupy movement doesn’t have such a moment. It doesn’t have an identified leader like that, like you. Do you think that it needs that kind of moment?

CARLOS: Well the identified leader in the Occupy movement would be the Occupy movement coming together as one, as I stated earlier. It doesn’t have to have a figurehead.

TREFNY: Would it be more powerful if it did? If it had a Martin Luther King Jr. who was leading the way?

CARLOS: I don’t know if it’s necessary to have a leader, per se. As long as they have the same line of defense. You understand? Because that in itself, that statement, “Occupy,” and they say Occupy Wall Street or Occupy Oakland, Occupy San Francisco. My attitude is Occupy the World. And that in itself sets a consensus for all the people to realize that this is a universal claim that we have. It is not one individual or one state or city that has this vibe and this feeling, that now is the time for us to step up because enough is enough. No one individual can carry that load. It has to be all individuals, to come together to be one individual to carry that load.

TREFNY: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

CARLOS: Yeah, stay in the fight. Stay in the fight. This is not a fight that we will lose or win overnight. This is a fight that’s gonna be long going on. It’s a fight that our kids are going, probably, to endure. We had a discussion last night at Laney Junior College, and we were sitting back, and I remember Angela Davis making a statement about the fact that when we were there in the ‘60s, we thought that based on this fight or this war that we had, this thing will be surpassed in another three or four years and we would change the world. Here we are 43 years later and we’re still at the same level, but with the same level that we’re in, there’s still more people that are conscious as to what we need to do as a people to change society. Whereas before that time, maybe we didn’t have that nucleus that we have today.

Ben handles daily operations in the news department, overseeing the editorial and sound engineering teams, delivering daily newscasts, producing the nightly news and culture show Crosscurrents, and supervising special projects including KALW's Audio Academy training program.