Decolonization and Occupy Wall Street

by Guest Contributor Robert Desjarlait

Decolonize Oakland

The Occupy Wall Street protest has become a matter of debate in Indian Country. Some have chosen to be included under the slogan – “We Are The 99%; others, like me, have chosen to be excluded from the 99%. Many of those who support it have come up with their own slogan – DECOLONIZE WALL STREET. I simply don’t believe that the indigenous nations on Turtle Island are a part of that 99% equation, let alone that the Occupy Wall Street movement is about decolonization.

One protester, Brendan Burke, said: “Everyone has this problem. White, black. Rich or poor. Where you live. Everyone has a financial inequity oppressing them.”

I assume from his statement that Burke only sees things in white and black. Apparently he is color blind when it comes to red and the brown. As far as financial inequity is concerned, we, the red and the brown peoples of the Americas, have suffered financial inequity ever since the oppressors first invaded our shores. Financial inequity – perhaps better termed as socio-economic inequity – began with the subjugation of our lands through treaties. Annuity payments were often late and were never the amount negotiated under the treaty. Supplies and food rations that were part of annuity payments were often appropriated by Indian agents and resold for higher prices.

The tragedy at Gaa-mitaawangaagamaag (Sandy Lake) exemplifies the socio-economic inequity of annuity payments. In the fall of 1850, nineteen Anishinaabeg bands from Wisconsin journeyed to Gaa-mitaawangaagamaag for annual annuity payments and supplies. The annuity payments and supplies were late and the people had to wait until early December before they received limited sums of money and available supplies. Trying to survive on spoiled and inadequate government rations while waiting for the annuities, 150 Anishinaabeg people died from dysentery and measles at Gaa-mitaawangaagamaag. Two-hundred and fifty more, mostly women children and elders, died on their way back home to Wisconsin. This is but one example of the economic inequity that has been part of the indigenous experience in the United States.

One of the things that the Occupy Wall Street organizers have repeatedly stated is that the inspiration for their protest is the Arab Spring movement. If this is the case, one may ask how did the indigenous peoples of the Middle East fare from the Arab Spring?

On September, Daniel Gabriel, the SUA Human Rights and UN NGO Director, stated: “While the media focuses all its energy on the Palestinian search for Statehood and the ‘Arab Spring’, it is the reduced indigenous populations of the Middle East who continue to lose out. Time and time again, the world demands justice, democracy and freedom in the Middle East, but it fails in its obligation to demand the same for the minority groups like the Arameans. Today we barely survive in our homeland. But tomorrow we may silently vanish from existence. The SUA pleads with the global bodies such as the United Nations and the world community and media to prevent this imminent tragedy from happening.”

If the Arab Spring didn’t flourish for indigenous peoples in the Middle East, how can we expect it to flourish here?

If the indigenous peoples in the Middle East are barely surviving in their homelands, can we expect the Arab Spring inspired movement on Wall Street to lessen the oppression in our homelands? Will the actions on Wall Street abate our youth crisis, our teen suicide rate, our domestic and sexual abuse, or our alcohol and substance abuse in Indian Country? Will it heal our broken families and communities? Will Wall Street stop the rape and plunder of Mother Earth by the mining, oil and energy interests? Will it halt the ecocide, ethnocide, lingocide, and genocide of the indigenous peoples in North America? If Gabriel’s words offer any insight, then our historical trauma will not lessen but increase. It will increase in the present generation to the Seventh Generation – and beyond.

Then there is the matter of decolonization. The question is – the decolonization of what, of whom? How can decolonization be a part of the process if the occupiers are occupying occupied land?

Perhaps the most notable feature of the Occupy Wall Street movement is its lack of diversity. According to columnist Michelle Malkin: “When Occupy Wall Street activists call themselves the ‘99 percent,’ it turns out they mean 99 percent non-diverse (by their own politically correct measurements). It’s as pale out there at Camp Alinsky as MSNBC’s prime-time lineup or the New York Times editorial board. Not counting the cameos by Jesse Jackson and Cornel West, that is.”

The dominance of a white majority involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement explains why decolonization isn’t included in the proposed list of demands issued on September 3. The list of demands includes 1.) Separate Investment Banking from Commercial Banks; 2.) Use Congressional authority to prosecute the Wall Street criminals responsible for 2008 crisis; 3.) Cap the ability of corporations to contribute to political campaigns; 4.) Congress pass the Buffett Rule, i.e., fair taxation of the rich and corporations: 5.) Revamping Securities and Exchange Commission; 6.) Pass effective law to limit the influence of lobbyists; 7.) Pass law prohibiting former regulators to join corporations later.

Where in this proposed list of demands is there anything remotely connected to decolonization? At its core, Occupy Wall Street is about corporate greed, financial accountability, and economic inequity. It’s about a change in the system, although, as Gabriel points out, an Arab Spring doesn’t bring change to the voices of the indigenous. If change is the basic tenant of the Occupy Wall Street movement, then this change should not be the exclusion of indigenous populations in the United States, rather, change should in inclusive.

According to Raul Garcia “The struggle for a fundamental socio-economic change is not separate to the struggles of the Indigenous people. For if we want to have a humane and just society we need to deal with the issues that affect all people. In order to have fair and humane society it shouldn’t be just about money.”

As Garcia points out, the Occupy Wall Street movement is, at the present time, about money. The core message seems to be that corporate America and the wealthy needs to share the profits. Certainly, one can’t argue with that. But the question is – how are those profits made? The profits of the wealthy are made through the industries they own. These industries fuel and generate profits. And they create jobs and programs.

The mining, oil, and energy industries generate enormous profits. And those profits come at a cost to Indian Country, to say nothing of the environment in general. The new Indian Wars is about the opposition to ecocidal legislative policies and industries that endanger our homelands and our Mother Earth. Part of the struggle is trying to rise above the marginalization that began with colonization and continues through the corporate policies of the mining, oil, and energy industries.

According to Brenda Morris, ”Marginalization is as much a result of colonialism as it is corporatism. One is social, the other economic; I question the competence of the Occupy Wall Street movement to bring about fundamental socio-economic change – at least directly. Rebellion does not necessarily equal revolution. From the indigenous standpoint, while it is true that the struggle does not and cannot exist in a vacuum, it must not allow itself to be subsumed by a movement that, to date, has shown little – if any – recognition of it, let alone respect for it.”

As evidenced by their proposed list of demands, the Occupy Wall Street movement has no intentions of recognizing indigenous concerns or demarginalizing indigenous peoples in the United States. And that’s because the mindset of the majority of occupiers is an intergenerational extension of a colonized mindset. In her Foreword to The New Resource Wars, Winona LaDuke provides insight into the colonized mindset. Regarding “Industrial society, or as some call it, ‘settler society,’” LaDuke writes:

In industrial society, ‘man’s dominion over nature,’ has preempted the perception of Natural Law as central. Linear concepts of ‘progress’ dominate this worldview. From this perception of ‘progress’ as an essential component of societal development comes the perception of the natural world as a wilderness. This, of course, is the philosophical underpinning of colonialism and ‘conquest.’”

This way of thinking is also present in scientific systems of thought like ‘Darwinism,’ as well as in social interpretations of human behavior such as ‘Manifest Destiny,’ with its belief in some god-ordained right of some humans to dominate the earth. These concepts are central to the…present state of relations between native and settler in North America and elsewhere.

The “settler society” that LaDuke refers to isn’t from the historical past. It is present in non-indigenous society today. It is the mentality of this “settler society” permeates the mindset of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Their demands aren’t about decolonization. Rather, their demands are about wanting a share of the profits, profits that come from the rape and plunder of the earth and our indigenous homelands.

This isn’t to say that the Occupy Wall Street movement lacks merit. Economic inequities, corporate greed, the mortgage crisis, the unequal distribution of wealth are legitimate concerns. But those concerns have nothing to do with neither decolonization nor environmental justice. As such, the 99% slogan is not inclusive of the myriad of environmental problems that plague both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in the United States.

Wendy Makoons Geniusz writes: “Because of the colonization process, many of us no longer see the strength of our indigenous knowledge. Our minds have been colonized along with our land, resources, people. For us Anishinaabeg, the decolonization of gikendaasowin (Anishinaabe knowledge) is also part of the decolonization of ourselves.”

Geniusz points out that biskaabiiyang means to “to return to ourselves, to decolonize ourselves.”

For many of us, biskaabiiyang is a lifelong process. It is a journey to heal our traumatized inner spirit of the historical past and the historical present. For many of us, our involvement in the struggles our communities and our homelands face is a part of that healing journey. From this prism, the Occupy movement can be viewed as recognizing the national trauma endured under Corporate America. But it isn’t about the biskaabiiyang of the American people. Rather, it’s about the collusion of corporations and the government to keep us under the yoke of economic inequity and the public’s demand for reformation of a corrupt capitalist system that has infested the world under the umbrella of globalization. And it is the reformation of this system that has led to the present movement of people on the streets of America.

However, should any kind of reformation occur, indigenous peoples will undoubtedly continue to be marginalized and their natural resources exploited. And, as before, we will continue our struggles in the shadows of democracy.

We will need to do this lest we silently vanish from existence.

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  • Ben Sibelman

    Just one point I’d ask you to consider: The third Occupy Wall Street demand you quote, “Cap the ability of corporations to contribute to political campaigns,” is addressing the political issue that contains all others in America, including environmental issues. As long as elections are dominated by money from the 1%, national leaders won’t truly represent those who elected them, and policies supporting Mother Earth against the interests of the 1% will never be adopted without massive organizing (e.g. the first Earth Day) and will be easily undermined. Of course, even if we restore democracy to the people, indigenous voters are still massively outnumbered–but at least your voices will have more chance to be heard.

  • Ben Sibelman

    Just one point I’d ask you to consider: The third Occupy Wall Street demand you quote, “Cap the ability of corporations to contribute to political campaigns,” is addressing the political issue that contains all others in America, including environmental issues. As long as elections are dominated by money from the 1%, national leaders won’t truly represent those who elected them, and policies supporting Mother Earth against the interests of the 1% will never be adopted without massive organizing (e.g. the first Earth Day) and will be easily undermined. Of course, even if we restore democracy to the people, indigenous voters are still massively outnumbered–but at least your voices will have more chance to be heard.

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  • Brianlewis560

    I agree with 99 percent (no pun intended) of what’s written here. The only thing I’d like to point out is that the Occupy Wall Street movement is not full of pale faces as its stated here and as its commonly portrayed in the media. As Black male, I had heard that and bought into that lie which is even spread by the mainstream media, but when I went down there, there were MANY more Black and Brown folks than I excpected, don’t believe me, go down and see for yourself.

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  • Nathaniel

    My hope is that the Occupy movement and those fighting for the indigenous people of our nation (which should be all of us) can unite behind one goal: The goal of making the government an institution that fights for the well being of all individuals. That is the only government that will have any interest in breaking the continued policies of indigenous oppression written into our culture. It’s true, many of the participants in the Occupy movement are entirely unaware of their privilege, and do not realize the importance of indigenous issues, but what they are fighting for–taking back control of the government from the rich and spreading it equally–will definitely help the indigenous people.

  • Nathaniel

    My hope is that the Occupy movement and those fighting for the indigenous people of our nation (which should be all of us) can unite behind one goal: The goal of making the government an institution that fights for the well being of all individuals. That is the only government that will have any interest in breaking the continued policies of indigenous oppression written into our culture. It’s true, many of the participants in the Occupy movement are entirely unaware of their privilege, and do not realize the importance of indigenous issues, but what they are fighting for–taking back control of the government from the rich and spreading it equally–will definitely help the indigenous people.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/stephencarvlin Stephen Ocupado CM

    Nice point. I feel like the “occupy v. decolonize” discussion here in Albuquerque took valuable time away from building some of the necessary organizational blocks to sustain the movement. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be addressed, but lots of people are turned off by a 3-4 hour discussion about the group’s name.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephencarvlin Stephen Ocupado CM

    Nice point. I feel like the “occupy v. decolonize” discussion here in Albuquerque took valuable time away from building some of the necessary organizational blocks to sustain the movement. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be addressed, but lots of people are turned off by a 3-4 hour discussion about the group’s name.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    This is a well-thought out statement regarding the concerns behind the OWS movement. I’m also waiting to see how broadly the movement encompasses different issues affecting different communities before giving my support. With that said it’s sad that this is so far the only mainstream group out there that has the potential to encompass a variety of different issues because American society has been oblivious to other people’s concerns for a long time…the only other mainstream group out there are the TeaBaggers and well we know what they stand for.

  • Ben

    I just wanted to point out that Darwinism isn’t predicated on “progress,” but this is how evolution is commonly understood outside of the scientific community.  This just illustrates LaDuke’s point of how ingrained the colonized mindset is.

  • hobbes

    I’m a little amazed you’re quoting Michelle Malkin approvingly here.

  • zaxisofevil

    Colonized peoples should perhaps consider getting involved in the Occupy movement. For all the critiques, the decolonize crowd will be hard-pressed to find another movement with this much weight and potential that will be as open-minded to their cause. But it needs to happen now! Why identify it as a non-inclusive movement when it is three weeks old? This is the perfect chance to get out their, to make traditionally subjugated voices heard! Get in on the foundation of this thing! 

  • zaxisofevil

    Colonized peoples should perhaps consider getting involved in the Occupy movement. For all the critiques, the decolonize crowd will be hard-pressed to find another movement with this much weight and potential that will be as open-minded to their cause. But it needs to happen now! Why identify it as a non-inclusive movement when it is three weeks old? This is the perfect chance to get out their, to make traditionally subjugated voices heard! Get in on the foundation of this thing! 

  • Blacquejacqueshellacque

    There have been reports of people associated with the movement in Boston mistreating people of color, and Lorenzo Ervin says on Facebook that the movement in Memphis is a joke.  The only thing I can say is that if it isn’t good for everybody then it won’t be any good for me – this is just something I’ve learned.  So like the man said; come in, bring your issue, help me with mine and I’ll work my ass off for yours – don’t let the assholes drive you out or run you over, if I’m there I’ll stand at your side

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this. Let me add my perspective as an observer and tangential supporter of OWS.

    From the list of OWS grievances (http://nycga.cc/2011/09/30/declaration-of-the-occupation-of-new-york-city/): “They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad. ”OWS recognizes this issue along with many others in its central document, one of the few publicly agreed statements it has released. However, I think it’s asking too much to make this or any single grievance the central focus of a movement premised on the economic injustice that 99% of the people face thanks to a system designed for the 1%. While certainly the theft of native land from the people who lived here first is at the root of much economic injustice, it isn’t the only or even primary reason for economic injustice, and there’s no clear path to delivering broader justice through a decolonization agenda. (Similarly, a call for reparations based on historical slavery and the continuing discrimination against African Americans is important, but isn’t a path toward broader economic justice.) A movement that acts for the 99% by definition must organize more broadly, while creating space for these specific demands to thrive and advance in ways that are not possible when the 1% control the ability to change anything in this country.I think the organizers of OWS and its satellite movements are trying to do the right thing. They included colonization as a grievance, they have avoided making narrow demands that would alienate potential allies, they have reached out to existing movements for people of color, and (in Seattle anyway, which is the only occupation site I have observed personally) their facilitators work hard to use progressive stacking of speakers to preference non-white perspectives. I’m sure that in some cases people have failed to properly respect broader perspectives. The Occupy Atlanta group’s inability to accommodate speaking time for John Lewis might be a prominent example, though just as likely it’s just a demonstration of the shortcomings of a consensus decision-making approach. So ultimately the real issues seem to come down to two: lack of participation by activists who understand the indigenous and broader non-white perspectives, and the language of “occupation.”The solution to the first problem is simple: join the movement and bring your perspective, and don’t let the occasional privilege-blinded activist silence your views or drive you out. But when you do, listen to the perspectives of people already there and keep the big picture in mind. Infighting even for a just cause can be counterproductive. I think the best thing any of us can do is really listen to different views first and consider them seriously, then talk until we find our common ground, then act to preserve and extend that common ground.As to the language of “occupation” I think it’s important to understand that OWS and the larger movement are essentially about claiming space, not on behalf of the specific people occupying that space, or on behalf of any single group or collection of groups, but on behalf of the whole body of the people. Done right, that means a space for those who would decolonize Wall Street but not just a space for that either. By using “occupy,” the movement is using the tools of the 1% against itself. Perhaps there’s a better way to phrase this: “Reclaim (or Free or Liberate) Wall Street (for all the people, for the 99%, not just the 1%)”? Maybe it’s just a matter of adding to it: “Occupy Wall Street, Liberate New York, Free the People”? The important part is that claiming space for everyone is implied by the identity and central slogans of the movement. I don’t have the answers, but I think it would be better to work them out together rather than let our differences keep us from joining forces.

    • Anonymous

      these concerns are not narrow. thinking that you have to put POC issues to the side for a so-called broader economic justice is why so many of us are either wary of this or are staying away. some don’t want to fall for the same okey doke we have in the past

    • Anonymous

      these concerns are not narrow. thinking that you have to put POC issues to the side for a so-called broader economic justice is why so many of us are either wary of this or are staying away. some don’t want to fall for the same okey doke we have in the past

  • Sophia

    This is right on. But I have to point out two things – 1) Palestinians are not “searching” for statehood. The corrupt self-appointed “leaders” are. The statehood bid would destroy the right to return, among other things, and should never be attributed to Palestinians inside or outside of the occupied territories. And on that note – 2) Palestinians are also indigenous peoples. Which relates to my first point – the issues that Palestinians ACTUALLY struggle for (ending apartheid!) are NEVER in the popular media. So please don’t cast Palestinians aside when you discuss the subjugation of indigenous peoples in SWANA (Southwest Asia North Africa – category titles such as the “Middle East” are imaginary and perpetuate imperial borders). You may not know this, but indigenous peoples in the Americas and Palestinians have been communicating for a very long time about how to conquer the viciousness of settler colonialism. They’re watching these types of debates closely…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=13305872 Robin Margolis

    Excellent article. I think more people, especially those drawing inspiration from the different revolutions and rebellions of Arab Spring, need to hear your point about how little those movements included/helped indigenous people. Many of the main people organizing and participating in Occupy Wall Street lack an understanding of privilege and the history of white supremacy/colonialism. The “we are the 99%” is a boldly aspirational phrase, which I think could be a powerful short hand if it was articulated with an awareness that immense work must be done to live up to a movement that inclusive and that it’s impossible if greater diversification, outreach, stepping aside, and listening is not done- particularly by straight white males.

    I don’t know if you’ve had an opportunity to go to Occupy Wall Street, or even if you could/would want to. I would caution you to generalize too readily about it’s demands and to use one participant’s comments to understand what’s going on there. Arab Spring inspired it definitely is and I think the language of Occupation needs to be consciously addressed as a perpetuation of settler mindset and language. There has been very little official acknowledgment that Wall Street sits on Alonquin land, but then again there have been very little official statements.

    Still, Michelle Malkin is a conservative blogger who’s a good preview of what the cultural conservative’s game plan will be. The People of Color Working Group, which includes a lot of powerful activists who are working to address the lack of diversity and the limitations inherent to the over-representation of white perspectives, made a point of forecasting that conservatives activists aim to coopt valid critiques as a way to splinter and discredit the movement.  Michelle Malkin is not a good source. There are diverse communities present and working within OWS and they deserve to not be completely erased, even though many will share and support the criticisms of this post. 

    http://www.blackyouthproject.com/blog/2011/10/occupythehood-represents-on-wall-street/

    Also, there are many who support alternative economies, the overthrow of capitalism, and many environmental causes. The gist is most largely economic, but this is not only about money. They have a gray water filtration system set up to on site to minimize their waste. That, plus their commitment to continuing to feed all that come there makes it about something very different than just a “I want my cut of the profits”

    Thanks for your post!