Racial Fractures and the Occupy Movement

by Guest Contributor Bridget Todd

Occupy DC

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 US 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 60s 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, DC 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 DC 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.

(Image Credit: The Washington Post)

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  • Guest

    “While being in debt is undeniably unpleasant, to compare it to the literal enslavement of millions of Africans is ridiculous” POC dont own the word slavery. The Irish were enslaved for hundreds of years, Romans enslaved people of all color for thousands of years and indentured slaves was a white on white crime. Slavery of Africans was horrifically terrible and immoral, however POC dont own the word. Furthermore slavery continues today with no regard to color as human trafficking, etc continue. Slavery is a word that cannot be owned just as history cannot be owned, but a fact to use as we all progress forward as one people of one planet. 

    • Efdimowo

      Your knowledge of history and eloquence in translating such education is truly a lost art in this country, but the author is not arguing that European ethnicities have not been enslaved; she’s making the claim that debt bogging down millions of new-degree holding graduates is not, nor will ever be, synonymous with slavery, and the comparison is ignorant at best. People of all colors have been subjected to tortures all over the world, and, at least for this country, when a group of individuals is systematically discriminated against, colored is what they become.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fragglera Rachel Kantstopdaphunk

    ok, that final image is literally enough to bring tears to my eyes. literally. oh and you left out occupy oakland’s renaming Frank Ogawa plaza Oscar Grant Plaza.

    • Durgalicious

      Which is so problematic! Renaming the plaza erases the legacy of one of the only Asian-Americans to have a public space named after him. Frank Ogawa was in a WWII internment camp, as such he is no less a symbol of institutionalized racism than Oscar Grant. This is not racial inclusivity, it is divisive and it benefits neither black nor brown. It’s the same kind of unthinking privilege that underpins the use of “Occupy.” These aspects greatly concern me although I am generally supportive of the cause.

  • Gregory

    Antisemitism as being under the umbrella of racism defines Jewish people as being a Jewish race.  One can be racially White, Asian, Latino, Native, and/or Black, and also Jewish.  Anti-Jeiwsh sentiments, actions, and negatively impacting behavior in general should included too, but I don’t think it is appropriate to generalize it to race.  That would be a major oversight.  Also, the term “Semite” refers to many different people, or which those who identify as Jewish are included.  By using that term, did you mean to highlight oppression of Jewish people in the United States, Middle Eastern and/or Arabic people in the United States, or specifically all of the groups under the definition of the term “Semite”?

    I’m using the definition from wikipedia, so I am open to discussion to continue disambiguating this term.

    In general though, yes, I think that these occupy movements need to be relevant and inclusive of the many different people included in the 99%, but whose oppression often goes unnoticed.  Considering our county’s legal changes in the last 10+ years, it is hard to imagine not explicitly talking about the divergent ways in which economic “problems” impact our actions, perceptions, and specifically policymaking with regard to new immigrants of color, and people who are (or assumed to be) Arab or Middle Eastern.

    • Tomás Garnett

      Dear Gregory, As a Sephardic-Jewish linguist and activist, I
      have to contest what you wrote. The word “Anti-Semitism” and the word Semite
      have historically been used to refer to anti-Jewish bias and Jewish people for
      countless years both as a racial/ethnic group and a religious minority.  

      The use of “Semite” in the linguistic sense of the word can
      and does refer to Hebrew, Arabic and Geez-speaking (among others) groups of
      people but does not refer to an ethnic
      group outside of Jewish people. The Wikipedia article you referred to actually
      points out this explicitly by informing us that the term was coined in the 19th
      century in Germany and roughly translates from German as “Jew-hateness” or the
      hating of Jewish people.

      There are many arguments for including other ethnic groups
      in the term Semite, but the word anti-Semitism continues to refer to the hatred
      or bias against Jewish people and personally I believe that using it as an
      umbrella term does disservice to the awareness of anti-Semitic actions against
      Jewish people. I would also just like to point out that the last two FBI hate
      crime index reports have listed Jewish people as one of the consistently
      attacked group in the religious tract (above Muslims even after 2001).

      Perhaps it is contradictory of me to end on this note but this
      is not the time to be watering-down terminology and discussing terminological
      problems. We need to be fighting racism in all its form, not being distracted
      by pedagogy.  

      Thank you.

  • Pwolsen

    A very timely article. Even as a recent transplant to the DC area, I’ve seen the issue of gentrification play out in front of me (particularly reflected in student writing). That said, I particularly appreciate the hopeful note at the end. We need models such as this to ground racial discourse.

  • Pwolsen

    A very timely article. Even as a recent transplant to the DC area, I’ve seen the issue of gentrification play out in front of me (particularly reflected in student writing). That said, I particularly appreciate the hopeful note at the end. We need models such as this to ground racial discourse.

  • Elizabeth

    Great post about an important issue, but I’m disappointed that the issue of antisemitism in OWS wasn’t mentioned. Antisemitism is racism too.

  • http://dont-read.blogspot.com Angel H.

    Occupy Nashville had a “human auction” yesterday:


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