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Occupy Wall Street Fights for Diversity

A new working group is fighting to make the movement more diverse, and to reach out to those hit hardest by the Great Recession.

Occupy Wall Street is beginning to look more like New York City.

A refreshing wave of color came as thousands of union workers and students joined last Wednesday’s march, and the crowd gathered at Foley Square began to reflect a city that is 60 percent black and Latino and famous for its diverse and thriving immigrant communities. However, once the crowd eventually dispersed—and many of the protesters of color returned to their homes in Harlem, Bed Stuy, Bushwick, and the South Bronx—Liberty Plaza, though a welcoming home to the bottom 99 percent, went back to being predominantly the young, unemployed and white.

The good news is, this demographic is changing.

“Even though we are all the 99 percent, we experience our poverty—and our privilege—differently from one another,” Kanene Holder, a young black teacher and activist tells me. “The fact of the matter is, these protests were not born because black and Latino and other people of color were experiencing a crisis; they were born because that crisis spilled into the white community.”

Kanene Holder, a teacher by day and a performance artist by night, is the spokeswoman of People of Color Occupying Wall Street Working Group, a recently formed collective of voices of color responding to the lack of racial diversity and racial consciousness at Occupy Wall Street. “We are black, Asian, Latino and Native American. We are Chinese, aborigine, Lebanese, Dominican, Haitian, Pakistani, Mexican, biracial—and we are united and excited to seek change,” she said.

The People of Color Occupying Wall Street Working Group has already made major strides. This past Saturday’s edition of the Occupied Wall Street Journal—in addition to including the female bylines noticeably absent from the previous edition—is also printed in Spanish. On Sunday, the General Assembly was translated into Spanish, allowing the Hispanic and Spanish-speaking human microphone to speak truth to power to their communities.

Born a little over one week ago, the working group has two major goals: diversifying and addressing issues of racial and economic justice within the General Assembly and bringing the movement to communities of color.

The working group is also planning to provide teach-ins and workshops specifically oriented around deconstructing notions of privilege and heightening structural racism and cultural awareness to explain why the struggles of people of color are central to the collective movement against capitalism.

“The issue is that people of color have been occupied by crisis—our consciousness, our past and our presents—from the moment that we were born in the United States of America,” Kanene Holder explained, “Our issues are the most pressing: high rates of incarceration, low rates of education, inadequate health care, if any health care at all, and extreme rates of unemployment.”

It is understandable that many people and communities of color might feel alienated from the current structure of Occupy Wall Street. The extreme police presence is enough to make anyone wary, but holds a particular meaning for blacks and Latinos—700,000 of whom have been stopped and frisked without a warrant by the NYPD in 2011. Muslim and Arab-Americans have had their homes searched and their communities monitored by both the NYPD and the FBI, also without warrants or warning. Immigrants, both undocumented and documented, risk a serious threat of deportation if they have a confrontation with the police at a demonstration.

The lack of racial diversity and racial consciousness at the general assemblies has been criticized as inadvertently promoting a brand of idealism that disregards the critical histories and realities of racial oppression. Though the movement’s leadership purports to be horizontal and non-hegemonic, many who lead the general assemblies and satellite meetings are white, and often male. Their strength in numbers, though mobilized by the fight for equality and economic justice, weakens the movement from reaching its full potential by presenting their specific experience of economic injustice and poverty as universal, when it is only one of many.