Building a multiracial Occupy movement

November 3, 2011

The Occupy struggle needs to represent and involve all of the 99 percent--and that means putting issues affecting people of color at the center of our movement.

OCCUPY WALL Street has sent a bolt of electricity through American society and politics in a way that hasn't happened in decades. It has made the powerful and wealthy of this society the focal point for decades of class rage that has simmered beneath the surface.

The Occupy Movement has forced the mainstream media to report on and discuss poverty, economic inequality, and the corruption and money that pollute the political system in this country.

Maybe most important is the way the movement has popularized the notion that there is a basic divide in this society and around the world: the 1 percent versus the 99 percent. As a result, mainstream media outlets are featuring stories that ask: "Who is the 1 percent?" or "Who are the 99 percent?" Even the rich acknowledge the divide--in Chicago's financial district, traders dropped fliers on the Occupy Chicago headquarters, bragging, "We are the 1 percent."

The slogan of "We are the 99 percent" has captured the way in which a microscopic minority of elites has access to an inordinate amount of wealth and power. All the measures of the quality of life in the U.S. show the effects of this economic inequality--and moreover, that economic inequality often overlaps with racial and ethnic inequality and injustice as well.

At over 16 percent, official unemployment for African Americans is twice what it is for whites. Home foreclosures have disproportionately impacted Black and Latinos because minority communities were steered into predatory sub-prime loans by mortgage lenders. As a result, Black median wealth has plummeted to historic lows of less than $6,000 compared to over $100,000 for whites.

Racism not only compounds the effects of an economic crisis that has been devastating for all working people, but it makes life generally worse for Blacks, Latinos and people of color.

So, for example, not only do African Americans have to worry about unemployment, eviction or foreclosure, but we also must think about the constant threat of police brutality and misconduct. Thus, Chicago has the highest rate of Black poverty in the country at 33 percent, but since January, the police have shot 51 people, the vast majority of them African American. Despite being only 12.6 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans were almost 40 percent of the total U.S. jail and prison population in 2009.

Likewise, not only do Latinos have to fear losing their homes to foreclosure, but they must also worry about police harassment that has been legitimized by racist immigration policies across the country.

In the latest example of vicious anti-immigrant legislation at the state level, Alabama has given police the authority to question anyone they think might be in the U.S. illegally. Of course, there is no way to distinguish between legal and undocumented immigrants, so any brown-skinned person will do. It is a recipe--in fact, a command--for racial profiling and police harassment.

THE INTERSECTION of economic injustice and racial injustice met, quite literally, on the streets of New York City just five days after the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement began. On September 22, hundreds of thousands of activists around the world mobilized for a "day of outrage" after the execution the night before of African American prisoner Troy Davis. In New York, a spirited demonstration of 2,000 people avoided police blockades to march to Zuccotti Park, headquarters of OWS in lower Manhattan.

In fact, it seems clear that the fury and determination of the protests for Troy Davis in the days leading up to his execution helped gather momentum for the Occupy movement, as we were all witness to the most extreme demonstration of the inequality at the heart of U.S. society.

Despite these initial ties between OWS and the explicit anti-racist politics at the core of the struggle to save Troy Davis, questions have arisen about the Occupy movement's commitment to diversity, inclusion and anti-racism.

Are they valid? First, it's important to distinguish between questions that are raised as attacks on the movement without an interest in advancing the struggle, and those that come from a genuine concern about the need to have more Blacks, Latinos, Arabs and Muslims, and people of color at the heart of the Occupy movement.

For example, some articles written by liberals have either parroted mainstream media critiques of the Occupy demonstrations as filled with unkempt white youth, or made wild generalizations that the Occupy movement as a whole is unrepresentative and not interested in taking on racism.

Even CNN got in on the discussion in a segment that questioned whether the Occupy Movement really represented the 99 percent because "only" 20 percent of protesters were Black and Latino, a lower percentage than the demographics of New York City as a whole. Professor James Peterson of Lehigh University, in an interview with CNN, asked back why the media never poses these same questions to the Tea Party. He added that the Occupy movement is at least attempting to expand the number of people of color involved.

Actually, CNN might be better off asking about its own commitment to diversity after the NAACP questioned the network as to why it doesn't have a single Black anchor for any of its prime-time programs.

But Kenyon Farrow, writing for American Prospect, got a much wider hearing when he wrote an incendiary article on "Occupy Wall Street's Race Problem" that effectively dismissed the movement out of hand as racist and clueless:

Given the stark economic realities in communities of color, many people have wondered why the Occupy Wall Street movement hasn't become a major site for mobilizing African Americans. For me, it's not about the diversity of the protests. It's about the rhetoric used by the white left that makes OWS unable to articulate, much less achieve, a transformative racial-justice agenda.

After comparing the movement to Rush Limbaugh, Farrow conflates the naiveté of some white activists about the role of police with the Occupy movement as whole--which he derisively writes off as the "white left."

Is this really an accurate representation of the Occupy Movement? This critique is pretty unfair to a movement that has existed for just over a month. The movement should be judged not by how it began, but what, if anything, it is doing to make itself more representative and diverse.

THE BLANKET criticism of Occupy as "too white" ignores the way in which the movement, though it varies greatly from city to city, is actively grappling with how to include all of the 99 percent.

In Oakland, for example, activists renamed their encampment Oscar Grant Park to honor the young African American man who was shot in the back and killed by police almost three years ago. Atlanta renamed its park after Troy Davis.

Occupy Wall Street in New York has a "People of Color" working group whose whole existence is organized around bringing more Blacks and Latinos into the movement. Occupy Chicago has organized teach-ins on "Racism in Chicago," "Our Enemies in Blue" and "Evictions and Foreclosures," which disproportionately impact Blacks and Latinos. Occupy Los Angeles is planning a teach-in on the history of the civil rights movement.

Most significantly of all, African American activists in New York who noticed the lack of Black participation in the OWS protests organized "Occupy the Hood," whose aim has been to raise the profile of the Occupy Movement in communities of color across the country and widen the number of people involved.

A few weeks ago, more than 30 protesters from OWS--among them, author Cornel West--were arrested demonstrating against the NYPD policy of racial profiling known as "stop and frisk," which has led to the arbitrary questioning and search of hundreds of thousands Blacks and Latinos throughout New York. In Boston, the launch of Occupy the Hood in the Roxbury neighborhood brought out 400 people, mostly African Americans, to speak out against evictions, foreclosures and police brutality, among other things. Just in the last week, a new initiative for Occupy Harlem brought together more than 100 activists.

Moreover, in cities where the Occupy Movement has successfully collaborated with organized labor, the demonstrations and direct actions have been more diverse. This isn't surprising since Black and Latino workers are disproportionately more likely to be union members--especially in public-sector unions that are under particular attack right now. OWS saw a dramatic increase in the numbers of people of color present at the occupation and in its demonstration after working together with labor on days of action against corporate and bankers greed.

None of this is to say that there aren't problems with an under-representation of communities of color in the Occupy Movement, only that in many places, organizers recognize this and are actively attempting to overcome it.

We live in cities that are divided by racism and segregation. It would be utopian to believe that the political, social and economic issues that often lead to the isolation of Black and brown communities will be overcome overnight by a new movement--regardless of the intentions of the activists involved.

Moreover, writing off the Occupy Movement as "the white left" denigrates the efforts of people of color who have been involved in pushing for more inclusion of issues that affect communities of color.

The critique also underestimates how this movement--by legitimizing and promoting political protest in almost every major city in the country--can help to generate confidence for others to fight their own particular grievances. For example, there are a growing number of reports of Black and Latino families "occupying" their homes in the face of foreclosure and eviction, after being inspired by the Occupy movement.

WE CAN do even more to make our movement multiracial by taking up issues that are crushing communities of color.

The Occupy movement should demand an end to the "war on drugs," to the record levels of incarceration of Black men and women in the racist criminal justice system, and to police brutality in communities of color. We should call for halting the deportations of the undocumented and an end to the legalized racial profiling targeting Latinos in states like Arizona and Alabama. We should challenge the Islamaphobic practices of the NYPD, CIA, FBI and other police forces that target Arabs and Muslims.

Our movement should organize marches to institutions that are responsible for the conditions in Black and brown neighborhoods. That means marches on racist police precincts to highlight police brutality, on the local Board of Education if it is planning, as it is in Chicago, to close more schools in Black neighborhoods, on the many banks responsible for the rash of home foreclosures in Black communities, or on the main post office in your city to protest the planned mass layoffs of postal workers, large numbers of whom are Blacks or other minorities.

Our movement should call attention to the way that economic and racial injustice and inequality overlap by calling for affirmative action and prioritization of African American and Latino placement in higher education, jobs and housing programs. This would be a recognition that racial oppression often compounds economic marginalization, leading to more Black unemployment, foreclosures and a general lack of access and opportunity.

One immediate thing the Occupy movement everywhere can do is expand its leading activists to include more women and persons of color. Too often, the core organizers in many cities, those who constitute an informal leadership, are young white men. While this may have been where the movement started in particular locales, there is no justifiable reason for it to remain that way.

As activists, we should always strive for our organizing to reflect the best of our aims for a just society that we are fighting for--and that includes women, Blacks, Latinos, Arabs and Muslims, and other people of color at the center of our movement for a different and better world.

Finally, in the U.S., the central way that the 1 percent maintains its grip on society is by dividing the 99 percent. One of the most central of these divisions has been racism against Blacks, immigrants and other ethnic minorities. Our side must make every effort to include those who are oppressed by racism so that this movement does belong to all of us.

The Occupy movement can do this by emphatically putting issues that affect people of color at the center of the movement--to signal our solidarity with the oppressed and our fundamental agreement with the old union slogan that "an injury to one is an injury to all."

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