by Guest Contributor Esther Choi, originally published at Squirrels for Justice
(Note: These are my undeveloped thoughts about Occupy Wall Street, which may be unfair to many people. I would love to have my views checked and challenged by anyone who might see things differently. Thanks.)
For the past few months, the vague idea of a revolution had been constantly on my mind, and though I didn’t know how exactly it would be carried out or what specific changes it could achieve, it seemed like the only way out of the ridiculous state of our country. So it should have seemed like a serendipitous turn of events event for Occupy Wall Street, the vague idea of a revolution incarnate, to pop up in New York and very rapidly gain widespread support. Yet for some reason, I felt very hesitant to sign onto the movement in any way. I would never want to discourage or discount the efforts of people who recognize the need for change in our country and actually take a stand for it. But try as I might, I couldn’t seem to connect to the whole thing. It wasn’t a matter of being jaded or cynical – my ideals easily and constantly compel me into action, but nothing about Occupy Wall Street seemed to compel me. In fact, what I was seeing and hearing about it made me feel even more disempowered. I didn’t know how to explain it exactly, but thought it might have something to do with:
· the fact that it was popularized by admittedly privileged organizations and individuals
· the empty and misleading symbolism of “Wall Street”
· the demographics drawn to it and the exclusive methods of communication used to reach out to them
· and the disconnect I observed between this movement and the historic work of marginalized communities throughout the country, especially in this city, which continues to be carried out day by day with very little attention.
Struggling with these feelings and recognizing my own biases, I approached the protest as open-mindedly as possible. I showed up at Liberty Plaza last Friday night, with some people from my program, and we made our way through the almost theatrical encampment at Liberty Plaza and sat in for the occupation’s general assembly. Once there, however, I realized that the representation was even more limited than I had expected. The crowd was overwhelmingly and undeniably white and, from the looks of it, “hip” in a way that privilege enables people to be. All the moderators were young, educated white people, as were all those who seemed to be playing a more direct role in the assembly.
As one who has been subjected to spaces dominated by white privilege all my life, I felt a guttural negative reaction to the scene, and could not help but feel oppressed by it, despite my hope and desire to feel solidarity with the people there. I can’t fully explain or justify my feelings, and I know a lot of it is a matter of my own biases, which have developed through a long process of struggling against white dominance and power in my own country, city, school, etc. and having to overcome feelings of Otherness in all spaces. I don’t want to take away from the presence of people of color at the protest, who I am sure have been actively involved and dedicated to the process. In my personal experience of the protest, however, Occupy Wall Street was just another place in the world where I felt marginal and tokenized, where the terms of the game were once again being dictated to me by the white majority.
I recognize that these feelings are personal and in need of more critical exploration, and I’m sure many people of color would disagree with me completely. Aside from these feelings, my hesitance toward Occupy Wall Street has to do with my own vision of an American revolution. I believe that a true revolution cannot be carried out by those who are comfortable enough with the power structures that exist. It cannot have been initiated by a privileged organization of educated people who are shielded from the worst aspects of our unjust society, who have plenty of options in life and to whom the fact of oppression is not much more than an intellectual entity. A true revolution must be carefully and gradually mobilized by those who have been most oppressed and marginalized by the current state of our government and economy, whose continued existence in this world really depends on a radical change. Otherwise, we are replicating the structures of power that continue to oppress us.
It was shocking to me to see how poorly immigrant communities and communities of color had been included in Occupy Wall Street. I guess the reasoning or justification is that, since all the dispossessed masses and people of color are covered by the “99%”, this protest is all-inclusive. But the fact is that amongst that 99% exist great inequalities of their own and extreme gradations of wealth and privilege, which are inextricably tied to race, despite the general assembly’s blatant attempt to suggest we live in a country “formerly divided by race” (Read this: http://henaashraf.com/2011/09/30/brown-power-at-occupy-wall-street/). To act as if we share one experience and one problem and therefore seek the same solution would be a terrible lie and an extremely weak and superficial grounds for collective action, especially if the voices that have begun to dominate the movement have the least to lose if the movement were to fail. It’s great to feel solidarity with one another against the people who rule over the 99%, but within the 99% are plenty of people who rule over the rest in their own way, and this makeshift solidarity can only go so far.
The fact that there is no clear demand reveals the lack of urgency on the part of those who are shaping it. It’s a movement fueled by ambiguity and theater, and it’s hard to say that this movement could survive the process of forming real demands that can significantly improve the lives of the 99%. The reality is that there are a lot of VERY urgent demands out there, which have been very carefully researched and formulated by marginalized communities, but this movement seems to have all the time in the world when it comes to deciding on what it really wants to take action for. I saw signs about college graduates not having jobs and signs protesting the lack of funding for art students, and it is great that these people are taking a stand to change a world that does not allow them to achieve their dreams even though they did everything in their power to make it happen. But while those people might be unemployed or underemployed because they can’t find a decent job in the field of their choice, on the other hand there are people cleaning toilets and being subject to all sorts of abuse, who have never had the option to pursue their dreams, and as evidenced by the turnout, don’t have the time to come perform their feelings about the injustices they live.
After the general assembly, we stopped by a dinky little sushi restaurant nearby, where an Asian immigrant woman was working frantically into the late hours of the night to prepare noodles and make the last of her day’s earnings. It struck me that this woman, working around the clock and living a life in the United States that could not have been the life she had imagined for herself, could not participate in, much less lead or help determine, the movement being carried out a block away in her name – a movement which would more readily include her as a nameless point in their argument than a voice in its future.
(Image Credit: Occupy Wall Street)
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