FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Race, Gender and Occupy

by SWETA VOHRA and JORDAN FLAHERTY

At a recent panel discussion on the Occupy movement, a left-leaning professor from New York University speculated that identity politics – the prioritising of issues of race and gender in movements for justice – could be a plot funded by the CIA to undermine activism. While most commentators do not go this far, the idea that activists who focus on these issues are “undermining the struggle” has a long history within progressive organising. And in Occupy Wall Street encampments around the country these debates have often exploded into public view.

For the past six months, we have been following the Occupy movement for a two-part documentary on Occupy for Fault Lines. We have spent weeks in conversation with activists as they have planned actions and struggled to keep their movement relevant through a cold winter. And organisers have told us repeatedly that they feel these discussions around race and gender, far from weakening the movement, have lent it strength and made organising more accountable to the communities most affected by the economic crisis.

The process of challenging structural oppression has been difficult. We spoke to many women and people of colour who felt pushed out of Occupy. Some activists, already bruised by dismissive media coverage, tried not to let these conflicts show. When internal conflicts would arise they tried to not let it happen on camera. But what we did observe are many fiercely intelligent activists dedicated to waging these struggles within Occupy and strengthening the movement with their work.

The 99 per cent

When people gathered in Zuccotti Park on September 17, the anger at corporate greed was a unifying call. This was a protest that in large part was about shifting power from the wealthy to the many. It was a mostly white crowd, but it sought to incorporate a wide range of voices.

The economic crisis in the US had made the white middle class question their future. Soaring unemployment rates, suffocating student loan debt, and thousands of foreclosures began to close in. This reality propelled the Occupy movement forward. And many feel that the presence of so many relatively privileged white people brought increased media attention and public sympathy. 

Organisers told us they immediately saw the next step as needing to raise awareness among the many young people new to activism that came flocking to occupations. “It’s the job of the social justice movement to continue that conversation,” says Max Rameau, a co-founder of Take Back the Land, who advised many of the Occupies.

He told us that occupiers need to “make sure this isn’t just a movement of the way white people have gone from being able to every day shop at particular malls, and now they have to shop at reduced, discount stores … this has to do, really, about inequality and long-term inequality, including communities who have suffered for years, not just because of the recent economic downturn”.

Manissa Maharawal, a PhD student and Occupy activist, said: “I love the discourse of the 99 per cent. I think it’s great, I think it’s been really unifying. But I would like it to go along with saying something like: ‘We are the 99 per cent, but the way that we experience the 99 per cent can be very different’.”

Jack Bryson, a 49-year-old black public service worker, became an activist after his sons witnessed the killing of their friend Oscar Grant at the hands of transit police in Oakland. When he heard that Occupy Oakland had named their camp Oscar Grant Plaza, he came to check it out. He was excited by what he found, but also thought many young white activists he met had a lot to learn about poverty and repression. “The black community, for 400 years, [have] always been the 99 per cent,” Bryson said. “Welcome to our world.”

Bryson was one of many who told us that Occupy activists needed to understand the ways in which communities of colour experience the criminal justice system. He noted that Occupy Oakland had faced intense police repression. But, he told us, what many failed to realise was that police brutality is a daily fact of life in many communities. “Black, young men … would love to come out here. But what happens here, with the police? It happens on Saturday nights to black young men leaving a nightclub, or a black young man going into a gas station and being followed by the police.”

Boots Riley, a hip-hop artist and Occupy Oakland organiser, added: “I think that what happens normally is the media has most of white America looking at people of colour as deficient, savage, and when they see something happen to them by police they believe that it was somehow their fault.

“Our ideas and views about the police are very tied in to our ideas and views about why people are poor.”

If OWS wanted to be a movement that was going to shift power in the US, these organisers felt it had to come to terms with the fundamental differences in the ways that communities of colour experienced racism, how women experienced patriarchy, and how queer and transgender communities experienced homophobia and gender bias. If Occupy Wall Street wanted to talk about envisioning an alternative community, activists would first have to face their own privilege. 

That awareness has involved active organising by white anti-racists, as well as the activists of colour who engaged deeply in the movement, despite often facing attacks for bringing up issues of race and gender.

“I was totally impressed by the leadership that was coming from young people of colour, young women of colour,” activist and scholar Angela Davis told us in a conversation about Occupy camps she visited on the East coast.

“I think it’s good that there’s some white men getting involved, but they also have to recognise that, in order to be involved in this campaign of the 99 per cent against the one per cent, we have to recognise that the 99 per cent is hierarchically developed by itself.” 

Davis told us that Occupy was indebted to a long history of direct action led by women and by people of colour. She specifically noted the legacy of resistance in prisons, led by those behind bars.

“Let’s recognise that we’re not artificially imposing these issues on the Occupy movement,” added Davis. “The Occupy movement has organically risen from those movements.”

For Lisa Fithian, one of many white activists who seeks to challenge race and gender bias in the movement, this consciousness raising is a crucial part of struggling for justice. She told us: “What I teach is that those with more privileges whether because your colour of your skin, your gender, your education, whatever, how do you use those privileges strategically to raise those of all?

“We have to take our privileges, become conscious and use them to actively change the social relationships, and access, and availability of resources,” she added.

Blocking the process

Manissa Maharawal, a South Asian woman, has been one of Occupy Wall Street’s most eloquent and passionate defenders. But she almost walked out of the movement on one of her very first visits to Zuccotti Park. When she, along with several people of colour, stood up in front of hundreds of people to block a proposal at a very early Occupy Wall Street assembly, she felt anger and hostility from many of those present. She says it’s “still one of the more intimidating things that I’ve had to do in my life”.

The proposal was for a document called the Declaration of the Occupation, and she felt language in the document erased oppression faced by people of colour. 

She did not want to have to block the proposal and face the angry stares of hundreds of people. However, says Maharawal, it’s something she had to do. “What struck me then was that if I want Occupy to be something that’s around for a long time in my life … it needs from the very beginning to be a movement that’s taking these things on,” she explained. “And that is thinking about not just corporate greed and financial institutions, but is thinking about how these things are connected to racism, to patriarchy, to oppression generally.”

Ultimately, Maharawal and others who agreed with her succeeded in changing the language of the declaration. Nearly two months later, one of the white male activists who had expressed his frustration with her came up to her to thank her for her intervention. “I’m really glad you did that, I learned a lot right then,” he told her.

”Making these connections is difficult, it’s been like constant work in this movement,” says Maharawal. But, she adds, “this stuff doesn’t feel like minutia, it feels fundamental to me”.

She says this movement is about creating a real alternative to our current system, and, for her, that means fighting these systemic issues. “Why are we going to create a system that just re-creates all these oppressions? That recreates racism, that recreates oppression, that recreates gender hierarchy? Why would I want to be a part of that?”

Sweta Vohra and Jordan Flaherty are producers of Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines. Fault Lines presents two special programs on the Occupy movement premiering March 20 & 27.

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

March 23, 2017
Chris Zinda
Aggregate Journalism at Salon
David Welsh
Bay Area Rallies Against Trump’s Muslim Ban II
March 22, 2017
Paul Street
Russiagate and the Democratic Party are for Chumps
Russell Mokhiber
Single-Payer, the Progressive Caucus and the Cuban Revolution
Gavin Lewis
McCarthyite Anti-Semitism Smears and Racism at the Guardian/Observer
Kathy Kelly
Reality and the U.S.-Made Famine in Yemen
Kim C. Domenico
Ending Our Secret Alliance with Victimhood: Toward an Adult Politics
L. Ali Khan
Profiling Islamophobes
Calvin Priest
May Day: Seattle Educators Moving Closer to Strike
David Swanson
Jimmy Breslin on How to Impeach Trump
Dave Lindorff
There Won’t Be Another Jimmy Breslin
Jonathan Latham
The Meaning of Life
Robert Fisk
Martin McGuinness: From “Super-Terrorist” to Super Statesman
Steve Horn
Architect of Federal Fracking Loophole May Head Trump Environmental Council
Binoy Kampmark
Grief, Loss and Losing a Father
Jim Tull
Will the Poor Always Be With Us?
Jesse Jackson
Trump’s “March Massacre” Budget
Joe Emersberger
Rafael Correa and the Future of Ecuador: a Response to James McEnteer
March 21, 2017
Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt
On Being the “Right Kind of Brown”
Kenneth Surin
God, Guns, Gays, Gummint: the Career of Rep. Bad Bob Goodlatte
David Rosen
Popular Insurgencies: Reshaping the Political Landscape
Ryan LaMothe
The Totalitarian Strain in American Democracy
Eric Sommer
The House Intelligence Committee: Evidence Not Required
Mike Hastie
My Lai Massacre, 49 Years Later
James McEnteer
An Era Ends in Ecuador: Forward or Back?
Evan Jones
Beyond the Pale
Stansfield Smith
First Two Months in Power: Hitler vs. Trump
Dulce Morales
A Movement for ‘Sanctuary Campuses’ Takes Shape
Pepe Escobar
Could Great Wall of Iron become New Silk Roadblock?
Olivia Alperstein
Trump Could Start a Nuclear War, Right Now
David Macaray
Norwegians Are the Happiest People on Earth
March 20, 2017
Michael Schwalbe
Tears of Solidarity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit, Nationalism and the Damage Done
Peter Stone Brown
Chuck Berry: the First Poet of Rock and Roll
Paul J. Ramsey
What Trump’s Travel Ban Reveals About His Long-Term Educational Policy
Norman Pollack
Two Nations: Skid Rows vs. Mar-a-Lago
Michael Brenner
The Great Game: Power Politics or Free Play?
Sam Gordon
Falling Rate of Profit, What about Some Alienation?
Jack Random
Sidetracked: Trump Diaries, Week 8
Julian Vigo
The Limits of Citizenship
James Graham
French Elections: a Guide for the Perplexed
Jeff Mackler
The Extraordinary Lynne Stewart
Lee Ballinger
Chuck Berry: “Up in the Morning and Off to School!”
Binoy Kampmark
Romancing Coal: The Adani Obsession
Nyla Ali Khan
Cultural Syncretism in Kashmir
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail