This is our Occupation—for the millions of Americans out of work; for millions more students who are graduating to a decaying job market with crushing student loans at an all-time high; for homeless Americans; and for the minimum-wage part-time workers struggling to get buy. Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy Movement has succeeded until now by utilizing their resources: a population of unemployed people with much free time and the anger towards Wall Street and the government for passing the brunt of the Wall-Street-caused recession onto the “Main Street” population—the 99%. Both in time and in spirit these protests join the Arab Spring uprisings and protests in Greece and Spain to reveal a renewed international concern with greater equality and involved democracy. However, the Occupy Movement has garnered plenty of accusations of racism, classism, and sexism that must be addressed in order to sustain these protests and strengthen the voice of Occupy protesters.
The internet has been the lifeblood of the Occupy protests and one of the most powerful voices is the blog WeAreThe99Percent. Hundreds of pages of (mostly white) 99%-ers tell their “horror stories” of foods stamps, oppressive debt, and struggling to get by. Personally, I felt a sense of shame at my America when I began to read these stories and noticed how these people not unlike myself had fallen into poverty or unmanageable debt. But for many black Americans, poverty and debt have been a reality long before the beginning of the Great Recession. What prompted much of the anger of the Occupy protests was the anger of a white working middle class who had done “all the right things” like going to public universities and pursuing practical degrees who found themselves bewildered and depending on government aid and unemployment, whereas much of the black community in America has long been relegated to welfare benefits and minimum wage jobs. There is a sense of white centrism (and selfishness, frankly) to a movement that ignored the systematic problems of poverty and debt until it began to personally affect the protesters of that movement. (See Melissa Harris-Perry’s excellent piece “ Are We All Black Americans Now?”.)
Within the testimonies of protesters, stories of “doing the right thing” and the feeling of “I’m middle class; this shouldn’t have happened to me” will also smell funky to working and lower class participants. Although there are stories of homeless protesters, their narrative has not been as central to the Occupy Movement as that of the college-educated, debt-laden twentysomething. Sometimes these attitudes of white-centrism and subtle classism manifest themselves outwardly, as at the Occupy Philadelphia protest, where counter protests were scheduled after two women of color at the protest were called “niggers” and refused the group’s cell-phone charging station. At their counter protest of Occupy Philadelphia, where they held signs that said, for example, “Racism exists in the 99%,” they were told that they were being divisive and that race is “behind us.” At the Occupy Wall Street protest itself, where all food is free and is based on the donations that pour in from around the country, last week the cooks began complaining about feeding “pretend protesters” and “the professional homeless” and began reevaluating how to avoid “freeloaders.” This issue is blatant classism in that many of the homeless are not seen as true “99%-ers” sufficiently committed to the Occupy Movement.
Much of the voice of Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy Movement has been supplied by white men. Although the General Assembly format and decision by consensus give every participant equal voice, the fact that white men have lead many of the protest can raise the issue of sexism, as many women don’t feel comfortable at a place dominated by white men (even if democratically chosen to lead). It doesn’t help that there have been rumors but also stories (such as this one) about sexual harassment and rape at a few Occupy protests around the country. Though Sarah Seltzer at The Nation has written an excellent piece on the women of Occupy Wall Street, portraying a very egalitarian structure and strong female participants, I question even as a white man myself the feminism of a movement that is led by men. The creation of the tumblr blog “Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street,” while not official connected with Occupy Wall Street, is another explicit example of the anti-feminism women can encounter at their local Occupy protest. The opinion piece “So Real It Hurts: Notes on Occupy Wall Street” by Manissa Mahawaral outlines her experience as a woman of color at the early days of Occupy Wall Street before the movement had spread across the country and around the world. In her case, most of what she experienced was ignorance and naiveté of white privilege, class privilege, male privilege, etc., and she describes her experience of using the General Assembly format to alter the original text of the Declaration of Occupation to change a reference to “one race, the human race,” which smacks of white privilege and in her eyes would have de-legitimized the Occupy movement for many people of color.
The Occupy Wall Street Movement must address these criticisms of racism, classism, and sexism, and must do so as soon as possible. The message of the movement resounds with most Americans and millions around the world. It has the potential, more so than any other vehicle in recent memory, I believe, of effecting concrete change. Already, it has changed Republican rhetoric to emphasize the importance of the social “safety net” (cf. this Paul Ryan fundraiser letter, as ThinkProgress points out) and emphasized the wealth gap and government policies which favor the top 1% of Americans. With the right kind of changes to this movement, it could become a truly diverse movement, and with each new layer of diversity, it is strengthened. The voice of the homeless population at these protests strengthen the movement, as do the voices of the poor, the elderly, Americans of color, and women. Only by promoting diverse leaders as an authentic attempt to create a diversity of stories and voices at the protests and within the movement (and not as PR gimmick) will Occupy Wall Street transcend many of these criticisms and point out the importance of these voices as members of the 99% and victims of corporate greed and systematic inequality.
In addition to diverse voices & leaders, Occupy Wall Street and the other Occupy protests must work on educating members of their privileges: male, white, class, and others. With cognizance of these issues, the Occupy Movement can further reduce undertones of racism, classism, and sexism at its protests. Safe spaces for women can be set up at Occupy camps, and committees can be set up to investigate suspicious activity in the camps and to educate on sexual health and consent. Occupy Wall Street supporters can and must relay apologies to poor & black communities that its protesters took so long address issues of poverty and debt, acknowledge their privilege, and work together for equality. Without major attempts to rectify not only particular instances of racism, classism, and sexism, but underlying feelings thereof which temper the movement at present, Occupy Wall Street will survive only as a raucous group of angry, white, professional or middle class, men: the Left’s equivalent of the Tea Party. We don’t need that right now—we need a movement which resonates, especially with those of us who are at the bottom of the 99%. We need a diverse, united front, educated and passionate and ready to change the way this system works.
EDIT: I’m in the process of correcting minor errors. Thanks!