By Bridget Todd
Originally posted on Racialicious, republished with permission.
People often tell me that I don’t look like your average Occupy protestor. I was initially drawn to the Occupy movement for several reasons. As an educator, anything that gets young people paying attention to the world around them is something that I feel the need to support. As an activist and organizer, I generally believe in the need for all citizens to engage in this kind of political discourse. As a black woman, I feel any conversation about economic inequality is incomplete if it doesn’t also address racial inequality as well. The various occupations across the country present spaces for such conversations to take place. I’ve found plenty of reasons to support the Occupy movement, but does the movement support me?
Much has already been said about race and the Occupy movement. Some have criticized the movement for its perceived lack of diversity and aggressive “whiteness.” Earlier this month, organizers took heat for refusing to allow state representative and civil rights legend John Lewis to address the crowd. A protester at Occupy Philly claimed volunteers called her a “nigger” while she waited to use a communal cell phone charging station. She responded to the incident by forming her own coalition within Occupy Philly: The People of Color Committee.
She isn’t the only protester working to bring race into the central message of the movement by mobilizing occupiers of color. Occupy Harlem’s first general assembly was largely black and Latino and included veteran black activists like Professor Cornell West and Nellie Hester Bailey.
After being confronted by the whiteness of the protesters, two friends from New York and Detroit started Occupy the Hood, a movement that works within Occupy Wall Street to mobilize people of color on issues of economic injustice. According to their Facebook page, “Occupy The Hood stands in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement… It is imperative that the voice of POC is heard at this moment! We must not be forgotten as the world progresses to the next economical stage. We can all agree that the voices in our communities are especially needed in this humanitarian struggle. We are our future and we possess the energy needed to push the Occupy movement to the next phase.”
These attempts to bring race into the conversations taking place at various occupations are integral, as racial injustice and economic injustice go hand in hand. Despite under-representation at Occupations around the country, black and brown people make up the majority of those suffering economically. A new report from the Center for Social Inclusion confirms this disparity, maintaining that “today, Jim Crow exists in the job market as more black and Latino workers are cast as second-class workers: over-represented in low-skill, low-wage occupations with limited chances to move up the ladder of opportunity.”
As we all know, racism exists, even within well meaning progressive movements. It exists as a kind of pathological denial of the privilege in which white progressive activists are actively rooted. Ignoring complex issues of race and privilege in the Occupy movement will only suggest that it actually is steeped in the kind of racial intolerance of which it has been accused.
During my time spent at Occupy K Street and Occupy Wall Street, I was disgusted by the amount of white protesters who happily waved signs likening student loan debt to slavery, with seemingly no thought to how the co-option of slavery rhetoric might look to black protesters. While being in debt is undeniably unpleasant, to compare it to the literal enslavement of millions of Africans is ridiculous. This is the kind of racial obliviousness that will alienate black and brown folks who might otherwise be sympathetic to the overall message of the protests.
That being said, some Occupy movements are more racially inclusive than others. Many seem to have openly embraced the sometimes-thorny intersections of race and class that tend to pop up during discussions of economic injustice. In Albuquerque, occupiers renamed their movement “UnOccupy Albuquerque” out of respect to the Native American community’s distaste for the word “occupy.” In LA, protesters reached out to black and Latino homeowners who were facing foreclosure. In Atlanta, Occupiers renamed their occupation site Troy Davis Park.
If it is to be successful, the entire Occupy movement needs to take deliberate steps to be racially inclusive, even if that means addressing the white privilege that exists from within the movement. Only then will they be capable of wielding strength as a unified movement. As Color Lines puts it, “The Occupy movement is clearly unifying. Centralizing racial equity will help to sustain that unity. This won’t happen accidentally or automatically. It will require deliberate, smart, structured organizing that challenges segregation, not only that of the 1 percent from everyone else, but also that which divides the 99 percent from within.”
I encountered a perfect illustration of this kind of racial inclusiveness during the March for Jobs and Justice in Washington, D.C. on Friday, October 28th. The march, which included organizers from the Occupy movement, began at Howard University and ended with a rally outside of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The group of marchers began as a mix of mostly black Howard students, faculty and alumni. Karen Spellman, a Howard University alumni and a veteran of 1960s era SNCC civil rights organizing, was in attendance and she said a few words before we departed. We marched down Georgia Avenue, encouraging most bystanders to join us (some did). When we made our way through McPherson Square, the site of Occupy K Street, more white Occupy protesters joined us.
Blacks and whites marching together might be the norm for protests in Oakland or New York, but D.C. has a different kind of racial landscape all together. Thanks in part to the rapid gentrification of many neighborhoods, D.C. is a city with a tense racial divide. With the influx young, white professionals embarking on D.C., the once “Chocolate City” is quickly becoming less brown. Neighborhoods that were once mainstays of black nightlife and culture have become increasingly white. Rising rents and property taxes have pushed many black longtime D.C. resident elsewhere. D.C. is a city where one can actually see this racial divide unfold over time in neighborhoods. So, I wasn’t terribly surprised when this divide began to play out during our march.
As we continued our march, some of the older black activists began to lag behind as the young and mostly white Occupy K Street protesters took the lead. Sensing a fracturing of the group, a young white occupier shouted, “We all need to stay together!” Everyone waited for the rest of the group to catch up. Someone in the crowd urged Spellman to get up front and handed her a bullhorn. She tells the crowd, now a mix of black and white, that she wants to teach us the classic civil rights protest anthem “Oh Freedom.” The entire group falls silent as they listen to Spellman, a black woman who led her own protests decades before Occupy, sing the tune. Eventually, the entire crowd joined in the singing and we continued marching. We marched: old with young, black with white; all united by one cause, our voices blending together and echoing into the D.C. night.