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People of Color at Occupy: Towards a More Intersectional Movement

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A group of people of color at Occupy in New York, Sonny Singh is in the center making an announcement.

Occupy’s “class-first” analysis still reverberates in the movement; we have much to do in building a more intersectional politics.

I first stopped by Zuccotti Park, or Liberty Square as we were then calling it, on a September 2011 afternoon with my trumpet. I hadn’t been taking the so-called “occupation” too seriously until then, but decided to at least take a look. After walking around and checking out the encampment, I ended up blasting out some improvised melodies on a spontaneous march to the New York Stock Exchange. The energy was buzzing and infectious. I also saw few of the usual suspects who turn out for NYC protests. Within a few days, Liberty Square became a magnet for me and thousands of other new and veteran activists fed up with economic inequality and other forms of oppression and exploitation in the United States and beyond.

Early on, I usually came to lower Manhattan armed with an instrument and intending to lift people’s spirits, but I quickly became deeply involved in organizing and facilitation efforts. The power and potential in this scrappy encampment really struck me in late September when hundreds of us were protesting the State of Georgia’s execution of Troy Davis, a Black man convicted of murdering a police officer. He was put to death despite serious questions about his guilt. The march ended at Zuccotti Park where the mostly young and white “occupiers” joined us in our grief and rage.

In this moment I began to realize how rare a space like this was – and how much we needed it.  Zuccotti Park became a hub for social and economic justice movements and campaigns in NYC. Anyone who was organizing a march or protest made a stop at Zuccotti. We co-created this public, physical space to exchange ideas, to build relationships, to raise consciousness, and to strategize and engage in direct action around a wide range of Left issues – under the compelling slogan, “We are the 99%.”

I was drawn into Occupy Wall Street (OWS) quickly, but with plenty of skepticism. A lot of the people who seemed to be running things (in the supposedly leaderless movement) were inexperienced, white, and overconfident. A defining moment in my involvement in OWS came in October when several South Asian friends and I walked over to Zuccotti together after another meeting. The General Assembly was about to approve the “Declaration of the Occupation of NYC,” a statement of purpose of sorts for OWS. The Declaration began with a preamble that immediately struck us as a red flag as the people’s mic echoed the white man who loudly recited it:

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As one people, formerly divided by the color of our skin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or lack thereof, political party and cultural background, we acknowledge the reality: that there is only one race, the human race, and our survival requires the cooperation of its members.

To us, the post-racial language of the Declaration was deeply naïve and erased the realities of systemic oppression. We knew a statement like this would further repel many people of color and racial justice activists from OWS. So we quickly raised our concerns to the General Assembly and eventually blocked the proposal. We were met with hostility from the facilitators and the white man responsible for the proposal. This led to an exhausting exchange and impromptu anti-racism workshop I led for a couple of naïve young white aspiring activists, but eventually we prevailed and convinced the group to take out the post-racial language. It was a small change, but felt like important harm reduction.

Tools for building an inclusive space

That same evening, I met a handful of other people of color (mostly Black women) who were coming to Zuccotti. They shared a lot of our critiques and concerns, and we started the People of Color Working Group (which eventually became the People of Color Caucus) at OWS. We were excited about the energy and potential we saw at Occupy and wanted to do everything we could to ensure that we built an inclusive, radical space that put racial justice and the leadership of people of color at the forefront. We started having meetings every day, and they grew quickly. Our meetings became an empowering space to vent with and support other people of color who were frustrated by racial dynamics at Occupy, as well as a place to build skills and leadership capacity.

I simultaneously joined the Facilitation Working Group of OWS and regularly co-facilitated General Assemblies – to date some of the hardest facilitation I have ever done. It felt critical for us active members of the POC Working Group to be taking on substantive roles in “mainstream” OWS. Making that happen proved challenging – both because of people’s limited capacity and because of how unwelcoming a lot of spaces in OWS were to voices of color who spoke up about race. The POC Working Group/Caucus developed a reputation for being angry and divisive. I had countless frustrating conversations with influential OWS “leaders” who pleaded with me to “do something about” the POC Working Group (often just referred to as “POC,” even more disturbing), even asking me to dissolve it.

As a then 31-year-old active in racial justice work since I was a teenager, I was already accustomed to (mostly) white people accusing me of being divisive for wanting to talk about racism. It wasn’t a surprise to see this playing out again at OWS, but it was deeply disappointing. Some collaborators and I (POC and white alike) started a blog where we gave a platform to critical, anti-oppressive perspectives from inside OWS, and did our best to stay engaged and patient. The consensus-based decision-making process of Occupy allowed our voices to be heard and considered, but we nevertheless were often not taken seriously enough by much of the “mainstream,” white-dominated movement.

Looking back on it ten years later, I am proud of what we were able to accomplish, even if it was super-messy and frustrating from the inside. Occupy brought a class analysis to a new generation of young activists in a way that the labor movement wasn’t able to. Occupy made civil disobedience and direct action protest cool in the age of Obama, when we were being told everything was great now that we had a Black, Democratic president. Ten years later, we have more room in mainstream liberal and Left spaces to be our unabashed anti-capitalist selves! DSA is an undeniable force now and is actually getting democratic socialists elected to city, state, and federal offices.

A legacy of class-first analysis

Ten years later, thanks to the Black Lives Matter uprising and movement, there is much more serious discourse in liberal and Left spaces about race and white supremacy than when OWS launched. This is real progress that should be celebrated. Yet we still see reverberations of Occupy’s class-reductionist approach in socialist spaces today. For example, many Black and other people of color have criticized DSA for not having a strong racial justice analysis. Full disclosure, I am a card-carrying (albeit not actively involved) DSA member, but with a fair dose of ambivalence given the many stories of that remind me too much of racist dynamics at OWS. For example, earlier this year, a Black woman was suspended from a DSA chapter for proposing a reparations framework taken on by other DSA chapters.

It boggles my mind that we still have a sizeable contingent on the Left that adheres to post-racial Marxist analysis which sees efforts to raise consciousness and organize around race as “divisive.” This contingent finds expression in the pages of Jacobin, which has often promoted critiques of intersectional racial and gender justice organizing, instead arguing for a “universalist” approach (i.e. class reductionist). This is in part why Black and POC caucuses are still so necessary in so many activist spaces. We feel the need to create these spaces when we are marginalized from the mainstream of an organization or movement (i.e. in white-dominated organizations).

But it’s not just a question of being outnumbered or needing to vent. We also create these spaces to strategize how to shift and sharpen an organization or movement’s intersectional analysis. Race cannot continue to be seen as a peripheral issue to class if we really want our progressive and radical movements to build power. This requires building an understanding of racial capitalism, which forces us to see race as a system of power and domination, not simply identity. As Robin D.G. Kelley says:

“The story of race and the making of the global capitalist order is also about the capacity of capital and the state to capture the white working class and tie its identity to race… So the secret to capitalism’s survival is racism, and the racial and patriarchal state.”

I fear that when our next big anti-capitalist movement moment arrives, parts of the Left will still be a hot mess when it comes to race (and gender and sexuality to some extent too), and thus we will still need to deal with the problem of white-dominated organizations. I hope we can look back on the beautiful, inspiring, and extremely difficult time of Fall 2011 – Winter 2012 and learn from our shortcomings. Any movement for dignity and liberation must understand that race and class (and gender for that matter) are inextricably linked. The subtle and not-so-subtle ways that racism and sexism permeate our organizations, our meetings, and our protests will destroy us if we don’t actively prioritize anti-oppression into all that we do. Thanks to Black women and trans-led movements like BLM and #MeToo, we have made incredible progress in the last decade. I remain hopeful that we will continue to do better in building more radically inclusive movement spaces.

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