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Friday, October 7, 2011
Seven Occupy Wall Street Racial Justice Roadblocks
Already millions of people have been captivated by the Occupy Wall Street protests, as well as the Occupy events that have cropped up in Los Angeles, Houston and dozens of cities. The actions have recently raised discussions about race and how to connect Occupy Wall Street more widely with Black and Brown communities.
There are many ways to advance this conversation. There are a number of disputes with the Occupy Wall Street movement, its approach and politics. Some have declared they have no interest in working with these movements. Others are supporters and see the Occupy clashes with the powerful as a revolutionary breaking point.
I want to come at the issue from the position as one who believes in the power of people to seek justice, and who wants to assume the best of everyone. I find so many valuable things about the space that Occupy Wall Street has created. Helping to foster popular conversations about capital, profit motives, privilege and class — in some cases for those (white and of color) who do not think of society in those terms — is one of those rare national moments that do not come around too often. I have frank assessments of how Occupy Wall Street and its myriad splinters are tackling the matter of race and, on a larger stage, racial justice. However, all critique is offered in an effort to make movements better.
How does this Occupy movement confront racial justice head on? Issues facing those engaged in, and interested in, the campaign include:
1.) Consciousness of History As is apparent to many, some communities of color are rightly suspicious of white left activist initiatives. Some whites react with defensiveness or, worse, as if they are at liberty to just ignore criticism because what they do is regarded to themselves as more essential to the world than what disenfranchised people think.
More important than rehashing histories of such indifference or even understanding that people of color are suspicious is understanding why.
Groups that are not sensitive to communities of color are marching up a well-worn hill. Obscuring needs particular to Black and Brown communities needs to also be understood by Anglos as it is perceived by those communities: deflection. Even when one comes to politically inexperienced people and seeks to agitate around a line that says, in effect, a particular drive’s relevance trumps a community’s longstanding needs, such positioning needs to be understood for the problematic relations and tensions such set up. The regularity with which such occurrences go down is a part of why incursions by white-dominated movements get the sideeye. People of color are always expected to look beyond our needs, interests and ways we are treated in our seemingly endless toil for the greater good. And a lot of us are tired of it.
Some people of color are open to coalition work and come to these events to do that. Others want to work independently of larger groups. Neither approach needs to be treated by whites as a threat. How groups address this can further be educational, and the Occupy movement needs to be sensitive to the past. Even if none of us are responsible for things that transpired generations ago, privilege and power are passed down and we are obligated to ensure the present isn’t one where past truths were denied or unreconciled.
2.) Credibility Gaps It’s been said in comments on People Of Color Organize! as well as on the streets generally, but it bears repeating, even if it stings. What do people of color gain by staking our credibility in our communities on a group of white left activists, many of whom we do not know, have no history organizing with, or have no knowledge of their personal and political efforts in our communities?
That’s not to say, obviously, that the Occupy Wall Street pickets have not been interesting or even valuable. Nor does that say participating and demonstrating discontent isn’t valuable. But these movements need to speak to communities of color and relate tangible gains for involvement, for the truth is (as mentioned before) that people of color have been recruited by white-dominated movement after movement with promises of hope, so there’s a lot of skepticism.
It is often unspoken, but people of color who actively go into communities of color to back up white activist friends put themselves politically, socially and culturally on the line in those communities. These movements need to be aware of that reality, and act accordingly.
Accountability is a related subject. One Black organizer I know shared a story of how those leading her city’s Occupy protests were, in many past run-ins, openly hostile to activists of color, treating community concerns as “identity politics.” Are these really the folks you want us to vouch for? How are these groups addressing internal racism and perceptions in communities of color? Have they asked? If not, how can one reasonably expect people of color to stake ourselves on white people who come in (whether they are responsible directly or not) with a burden of history, but have not done the appropriate work to earn that support?
3.) The Power of Political Trickle Down Speaking of earning support, some people of color, I have found, engage in movements like Occupy Wall Street, regardless of who is leading things, in hope that “everyone” (people of color) can gain if the majority gains. Call this “political trickle down” after the Reagan Administration contention that gain for the wealthy would benefit the working class by improving the overall economy. It’s also known as “the magic of low expectations.”
But these kinds of approaches would not happen if not for implicit and explicit messaging that such movements and their participants supersede the needs of communities of color.
A good friend and activist puts it this way: “why is it considered an ‘opportunity’ for people of color to participate in this ‘movement’? This epitomizes the arrogance and ignorance of these people in this ‘movement’ and even other people of color who are in argument that the settler should always be seen as ‘subjects’ of history as opposed to ‘objects’ of history. This puts forth a mindset that nothing ‘real’ or substantial is put forward without the settler’s agreement.”
While political trickle down is a tendency that should be struggled against (very little historically indicates that the majority’s gain will be enjoyed by anyone but the majority in the case of people of color), it is incumbent for Occupy activists and others to actively resist this notion that their message somehow is more important than the needs of everyday communities. Intentional or not, when one talks about the greater purpose when responding to concerns, the message is that one group’s objectives are a movement’s and indeed an entire country’s objectives. Not only can a lot wrong be read into this, but given the Occupy Wall Street movement’s pretensions of egalitarianism, it likely may not be what participants want to say to communities of color.
4.) Lack of Leaders Means Leaders Move Covertly Many Occupy actions are forwarded around the idea of no leadership. I’m reminded of what Jo Freeman wrote about striving for structurelessness: it is useful as it is deceptive, for these ideas do not prevent the idea of informal structures (validated by existing power and relationship dynamics), only formal ones (which can be voted on).
The rationale for telling everyone that no one is leading is obvious: it is harder for law enforcement to quash protests, for organizations and different political stripes to squabble over power, for media to single out people and so on. But it is naive to think the rest of the world around us is in such denial when a reportedly leaderless group defers in various ways to individuals who clearly have leading roles, but are not accountable or chosen formally to do so.
Inherently, the ideas of leaderlessness in Western countries depend on notions of meritocracy, or the belief that intelligence, education and skill organically bring people to the top. In practice, meritocracy does not address the networking, connections, preconceived notions and assumptions that reside in our world. Without a process and commitment to develop organizers and leaders, those closest to leaders get opportunities to develop. People of color have historically been shut out of these circles, and Occupy activists should be aware of this.
Yet simply choosing people of color (who may be friends, associates, etc.) to participate in organizing does not address the issue; practical efforts must be made to ensure transparency. Organizations still need to prioritize racial justice structurally in organizations and act on disempowerment of people of color, if they want regard from communities of color.
5.) Lack of Agenda More than a few people have pointed out that the Occupy Wall Street protests will merely be a cover to shore up Democratic Party support in the 2012 elections. With an agenda focused on corporate greed, an occasional campaign stump point during the 2008 Obama run, but little else, one has to give credence to this worry.
Every community wants to represent their agenda as well as broader interests. But is, in seeking to appeal to lots of people by making no real demand, appealing to only those who will quickly be led a direction by a contingent with a clearer message?
Most noteworthy in the agenda matter is how little we are talking about the role of capital. Corporate greed does not cut it. Nor do CEO salaries. Capital’s role intersects many complaints about how things are run, and the hardships people face. Why can’t Occupy say it formally? And are people ceding that ground unconsciously so to not alienate particular people, while forgetting others in that decision?
For communities of color, the dangers of no-agenda should be apparent. There are many issues of great importance in our communities. Simply bringing them to a protest, as some Occupy outgrowths suggest, does not substantively address those issues. In fact, just doing that likely would be drowned out by the goulash of grievances and causes that are dominating the platform. It feels like something people of color have been told before: bring it up, but do not expect the majority to take it seriously, make it a discussion point or act as a group on it. Without an agenda that centers racial justice, the Occupy Wall Street fight will be looked at as something that looks to please everyone but please no one.
As we saw with Egypt, raising grievances without a manner for achieving them gives an opening for those who are organized, have leadership and clear objectives to ascend quickly in a political moment. Much was made by U.S. conservatives of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise during the Arab Spring, but students of history can tell you such uprisings are bound to push forward consolidated resistance forces and always have. Further, Occupy activists must comprehend that movements that do not set their own programs are doomed to have one set for them. This is the nature of Western politics and no degree of idealism can alter how business works.
6.) Occupy Language Many activists have written extensively about the use of the word “occupy” and how it is used as well as the practice applied historically. Occupation for people of color, many of whom have roots in countries that are past colonial subjects, has a particularly monstrous history. I am sure nobody meant offense or harm by choosing the word, but intent really isn’t the issue. Embracing this language is certain to alienate many people.
If the movement is unwilling to change the name or move racial justice up as a priority, what does that communicate to communities of color, especially those who see the word “occupy” and think guns, rape and degradation?
7.) Process Issues Finally, something has to be said about the utterly stifling and fundamentally anti-democratic format that Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots are using, consensus and its variants.
For those who have not had the joy of sitting through a meeting run via the consensus process, smile. Picture this: meetings of dozens of people, with the ability to completely halt or “block” a proposal, idea or suggestion by as little as one person. Wonderful if you are a person who completely hates a proposal and just can’t work with the majority that favors it. A nightmare if you are a person who has worked with others to craft something that virtually everyone else can agree on.
The problem with consensus, as you can guess, is that the rest of the world understands the population is composed of people who obfuscate, who harbor prejudices against people and politics, and who are sufficiently incoherent that building support for their positions is next to impossible. In that world, such folks do not have the political capital to halt society because they are not able to grind life to a stop with a single motion.
While I certainly share Occupy Wall Street’s opinion that money and other influence can shape majority-rule democracy, we’re not talking Iowa here. We are talking relatively small groups, where decisions can be reached by a simple vote.
By Occupy activists’ admission, their process is slow. But this acknowledgment fails to get to the heart of the matter. Consensus is not democratic, radically or in any other way. As noted earlier, Occupy spaces often have people with known and unknown biases. Bringing new communities in then asking them to submit themselves to the will of such individuals as a representation of the ideals Occupy activists hold dear seems a surefire way to chase them off.
Conclusion My last words are directed to people of color interested in these movements. Though most of my words address how largely white activist endeavors should review their approach, activists of color striving for this sort of institutionality are just as culpable.
It is the obligation of people of color who want to be involved in Occupy efforts and wish to see more political investment by communities of color to organize in a united fashion independent of Occupy actions, and to do community outreach. It is on you to meet with our communities who cannot or will not come out to these events, for whatever reason, hear openly and share their concerns with a movement you clearly wish to support. It is up to you to lead community mobilizations. If you have no relationships or credibility in those communities, beyond your skin tone, it is up to you to be honest about that and mend fences and/or build relationships.
It is also on you to remember that having a space created in the Occupy movement, having a spokes or leadership role, being taken seriously, having caucuses or forwarding demands to be adopted by your city’s general assembly are not political objectives. These are needs you may personally have specific to a political subculture with little to no bearing on what communities of color coping with American austerity and financial meltdowns are dealing with. Please remember that. It is up to people of color involved in these movements to formulate and forward a political agenda. Black and brown people holding the bullhorn changes nothing, and our focus needs to be on conveying what our communities face.
Finally, people of color involved in these movements should remember your political futures and aspirations are only as dependent on the Occupy project as you allow. Too often, people act as if their existence depends on particular causes, but really, one should hang fortunes solely on a single movement.
I am hopeful for the work that is going into the Occupy Wall Street struggle and hope these ideas help conversations that need to be had.