The Occupy movement doesn't have a leader, but Oakland activist-rapper Boots Riley is serving as one sort of de facto spokesman for his hometown's defiant occupation, lending the collective grievances a high-profile voice.
Inspired by public gatherings in Greece and Spain, the self-described "outspoken Communist" visited Occupy Wall Street in September, went to Occupy Oakland on its first day, and performed there on the protest's fourth day. Last week, when crowds marched to retake Oscar Grant plaza after being kicked out, Riley was there with them. And today, as the Occupy movement attempts to shut down Oakland in a rare "general strike," Boots Riley will be out marching again.
"This is just a warning," he says of the strike, "like us flashing our guns and saying, 'This is the power that we have.' We're going to shut the city down, we're going to close the port, and from there, we're moving on."
Riley has been airing his anti-capitalist views as part of Oakland hip-hop outfit the Coup for years. In 2001, the group was widely criticized for album cover art, shot months before Sept. 11, that depicted its members blowing up the World Trade Center. (Warner Bros. pulled the album that very day, but the art leaked and the Coup faced heavy scorn.)
The Detroit native and longtime Oakland resident is now one-half of Street Sweeper Social Club, a fiery rap-rock project with former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello featuring polemical, class-conscious lyrics. But Riley says he's especially optimistic about the Occupy movement, and hopeful that a successful general strike will serve as a huge inspiration to future efforts.
"There's been movements where people just simply block traffic, or people are going around, trying to figure out where is the victory point," Riley tells All Shook Down. "What's going on here is something in which we have a defined goal of what we want to do. Of course, the larger goal is undefined. But what we do know is that this setup is not right, that the fact that the 1 percent is leeching off the 99 percent is not going to hold water."
Riley's advice for the Oakland police force -- which called in every officer to work during today's general strike? Get out of the way.
"If you want to prove that you're sincere in thinking you're part of the 99 percent, stand down," Riley says. "Let us do what we want. Show us that you're not just merely here to protect the status quo."
Despite his outspoken views, Riley argues that violence on the part of the protesters -- whether it's breaking windows or throwing bottles -- isn't going to help the movement at all. A pamphlet was circulated around Oakland recently calling for an end to nonviolent protests in favor of more forceful ones. Riley calls the issue of violent versus nonviolent protests "irrelevant."
"What we're doing, the violence that we're using, is our bodies stopping the system from working," he says. "Our goal is to win."