Occupying Society: How the Movement Hashes Out Race, Class and Privilege in Real Time

Since Occupy Wall Street lost its stronghold in Manhattan's financial district last week, thanks to a long-threatened raid by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, discussion swirls about the fate of the movement -- especially in light of similar evictions of Occupy encampments in other cities.

But the loss of encampment space is about more than the movement's physical presence; it threatens the loss of the most compelling story, a hybrid of breaking news and reality TV show. This couldn't have been dreamed up by MTV, but the premise feels familiar: An organic, ad hoc society springs from encampment village, hashing out in real time tensions around class, race and competing priorities that have gripped the progressive movement for decades -- essentially the early seasons of "The Real World" for change agents and social activists. (The comparison wasn't lost on MTV producers, who created a special called True Life: I'm Occupying Wall Street, which aired earlier this month.)

Occasionally, the competing priorities of the movements made headlines, but the stories aired and published usually focused on tensions that arise when resistance to the state meets the need for police authority, as evidenced in ongoing battles over dealing with sexual assault in some encampments. Matters of diversity, homelessness and conversational direction draw less attention from media, but are fiercely debated in the Occupy communities -- and those conversations are instructive in the quest to create a new type of society.

Busting a Stereotype

Back in October, responding to Bloomberg's first threat of eviction to the OWS camp, I found myself prepping to head down to Manhattan's Zuccotti Park at dawn. (Bloomberg said that the park needed to be cleaned.) The night before, I had gotten lost and ended up on Wall Street, gawking at the police brigades, barriers and officers on horses. I wasn't planning on getting caught in any kind of sweep (and I wasn't, though there is a disturbing pattern of journalists being arrested covering OWS protests), but as a life-long resident of Washington, DC, I know protests can go from peaceful to nuclear in seconds.

So, I took to Twitter, asking folks who had been down to Zuccotti to help me decide between a business-casual hybrid outfit (sneakers, professional dress) or the I-may-end-up-incarcerated gear of sneakers, jeans and multiple layers.

Overwhelmingly, the answer was business. One person tweeted, "We're already smeared in the media as a bunch of smelly hippies, break up the stereotype."

Another stereotype went hand in hand with the "smelly hippies" smear: hand-wringing over the numbers of homeless people coexisting with the occupiers. Media coverage began focusing on tensions within the Occupy movement over the growing number of homeless people who found shelter, food and companionship within the camps.

Through the space that Occupy provided, the conditions under which the homeless in America live under each day were illuminated. The rough camps attracted enough people carrying their possessions on their backs that, back in DC, I soon found myself playing the "Homeless or Occupier" game in my head, as I observed the people wandering Farragut Square, near the Occupy K Street encampment, around lunchtime. While this blended reality could be chalked up to a silly quirk, the fact that the well-run camps (which managed to provide a steady supply of food and relative safety on a skimpy budget) soon became a beacon for people in distress, pointed a damning finger at the failure of our society to care for all its members.

Tensions increased when the New York Times interviewed a young activist named Hero Vincent in Zuccotti Park, who said in exasperation, "It's bad for most of us who came here to build a movement. We didn't come here to start a recovery institution."

But other activists jumped to question the assumption, noting that the lives of the homeless are the human evidence of the mounting inequality in the nation, and are, perhaps, impacted most by our increasingly draconian social policies. Currently being without shelter does not preclude someone from activism -- and the Occupy movements in particular demonstrate what happens when homeless folks are seen as full, autonomous individuals.

dany sigwalt, an activist who spells her name in lowercase and has invested time at Occupy K Street, also known as Occupy DC, explains that many of the homeless people here have stepped up to take on leadership positions in the movement. "There are really key people at Occupy K Street who were homeless before the encampment. I can think of, like, four to five people in the camp who are in committees making shit happen who are open about the fact that they are homeless." She starts ticking off the different roles: "Finance committee, declaration committee, medics."

That influence also extended to strategic action. Last Saturday, some Occupy DC protesters took on the issue of a dearth of homeless shelters in the city by  occupying Franklin School, an abandoned building that once housed a shelter -- until the District shut it down in 2008.

However, sigwalt explains that "intersectionality" -- a feminist term for understanding how different types of oppression (i.e. race and gender) complicate each other -- calls attention to social acceptance as a major issue in the Occupy DC camp. Folks who are homeless can be accepted, but if their homelessness arrives with other factors (like not being able to speak English), they are still marginalized within the movement.

Hand in hand with the issue of homelessness comes the idea of pushing the voices of the most marginalized into the center of the conversations currently happening. Some Occupy communities began employing a strategy called progressive stacking, where people with identities least represented in the camps are given chances to speak before the most-represented, in an effort to encourage more voices to be heard. This hasn't been uncontroversial, but it is one way of addressing the replication of existing power structures in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

However, it is very easy for a movement to splinter, based on historical fault lines. Manissa McCleave Maharawal wrote a piece on Racialicious about agitating from within the OWS movement, in which she invoked the power of an action that would have blocked the publication of the "Declaration of the Occupation" to change language in the document that minimized racism as a current struggle in society.

"Let me tell you what it feels like to stand in front of a white man and explain privilege to him," Maharawal wrote. "It hurts. It makes you tired. Sometimes it makes you want to cry. Sometimes it is exhilarating. Every single time it is hard."

While she and her counterparts considered it a victory (as did Racialicious readers) there were many both at OWS and commenting online who felt that Maharawal was overreacting and that her actions were ultimately "dividing the movement." But why is speaking up about injustice considered dividing the movement? (Notice: people generally aren't told to stop participating in bigotry for the good of the cause.)

This sentiment has been echoed in many different incarnations of the OWS movement, particularly the tensions around Occupy Atlanta denying civil rights icon John Lewis an opportunity to speak when he initially visited the encampment, and Occupy Philadelphia participants allegedly using racial slurs after a disagreement. And for every Albuquerque, which renamed its movement "(Un)Occupy" in solidarity with indigenous struggles against colonization, there are more movements that are willing to challenge inequality on one front but allow different types of inequality to fester.

Protest and Privilege

But perhaps the most telling evidence of weak points is simply looking at where people are not. To its credit, the Occupy movement has increased in diversity since its beginnings, and sparked offshoots like Occupy the Hood and Occupy Equality, as well as various working groups. But I personally can't shake the memory of heading out to Occupy Wall Street during the October eviction threat at the crack of dawn. The streets of the financial district were buzzing, but it was notable that most of the nonwhite people I passed were working -- not heading to the march or participating. I watched construction workers, nighttime cleaning crews getting off work, street sweepers and food vendors looking on as a predominantly white group of activists agitated for change.

This isn't an indictment of the activists themselves -- the crowd grew in size from 6am to 8am, and began to diversify as morning light crept through Wall Street -- but it did provoke an examination of sorts of who is able to participate in these movements. As Ivan Boothe wrote for the Fellowship of Reconciliation:

"Occupy" encampments take an enormous amount of privilege. The privilege to take time off — from family, work or school — and participate in an overwhelming and sometimes confusing community. The privilege to, in some cases, risk arrest simply by participating. But more than anything, the privilege to debate things like "an ideal community" in the midst of life-or-death struggles going on on the ground.

Race and class are playing integral roles in defining the current wave of the movement, and many decisions are being made by those who can put in the most time and effort. But who are we missing? Occupy has to contend with these questions.

The Occupy movement has gained widespread support by intentionally keeping its message open, attracting a wide base of activists and a lot of people with very different interpretations of the key message of inequality. As a result, conversations that are normally marginalized -- like questions of solidarity, diversity, homelessness and financial inequality -- are rising to the forefront of the national conversation.

Without the power of the Occupy movement's terrestrial space -- the makeshift villages where society is created in real time before a global audience -- will the discussion continue?


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