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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.
 
 
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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.

Instead of allowing the bottom 99 percent to be divided and conquered by race lines, the People of Color Working Group is re-igniting the conversation through critical, educational dialogues on systematic racism and oppression. Through these conversations in Liberty Square, as well as outreach to neighborhoods of color with their affiliate movement, #OccupyTheHood, they hope to represent their specific experiences with economic injustice and poverty through a race lens as a means to ultimately expand and strengthen the movement.

“They say that when a white man catches a cold, we in communities of color get pneumonia,” Holder said, “We are organized to ensure that our issues are heard—not just heard, but on the forefront of the movement, because if our issues are addressed, everyone’s issues will be addressed.”

After the economy crashed, although many white, formerly middle-class Americans stood in line for food stamps and lost their homes in foreclosures—an experience once exclusively reserved for blacks, Latinos and immigrant communities—communities of color still experienced disproportionate consequences of the recession. Thousands of all demographics lost their jobs and incomes, but nearly 40 percent of the nation’s collective unemployed are black or Latino—while they make up only 29 percent of the total population. Although the overall unemployment rate is 9 percent, when broken down by race it becomes 8 percent white unemployment, 11.8 percent Latino unemployment, and 16.1 percent black unemployment.

It is not only that communities of color—especially those that make up the forgotten majorities of places like New York City—need movements for economic justice like Occupy Wall Street. Movements like Occupy Wall Street—movements that have the potential to be historic, but are still reactionary, developing and criticized for being immature and directionless—need communities of color, both as additional bodies of support but as critical histories of oppression and resistance to create empowering critical dialogues and inclusive change.

“This is our outlet,” Holder continued. “We all need to question the status quo that we have accepted up until this point, because this is not a beautiful struggle that will fade into tomorrow with half actions and half solutions. We are the United States of America. We are one and we pledge allegiance to liberty and justice for all, yet our black and brown people have been drowning in a cesspool of misery for so long. Occupy Wall Street is our chance and time for us to come together and occupy the America that is on paper.”

Anna Lekas Miller is a student, freelance writer and activist. Follow her on Twitter, @agoodcuppa.