Occupying Process, Processing Occupy: Spokes Council Musings by One POC

By Sonny Singh

(What follows does not reflect or represent the views of the People of Color Caucus at Occupy Wall Street but only the views of the author himself.)

At the notorious Occupy Wall Street spokes council meetings, the People of Color (POC) Caucus, of which I am a member, often finds itself in the role of whistle-blowing and bringing a critical perspective to the discussion. I have gotten the sense that most people at spokes — sometimes including the facilitators — just want to “get through” the agenda with little to no drama or disruptions.  While I can relate, given that these meetings are long and often frustrating, this approach doesn’t create a culture that fosters critical thinking or the voicing of dissent.  So, often when the POC Caucus voices concerns about a proposal being made or something happening in the room, I sense a lot of hostility towards us.

Last week, the issue of banning “violent people” from Occupy Wall Street came up at a spokes council meeting I attended.  Those of us in the POC spoke shared the deep concern of the majority in the room that certain individuals have made others feel unsafe by committing physically aggressive or violent acts towards others.  Many at the meeting were getting understandably worked up about it and insisted on a zero-tolerance type policy when it comes to violence and thus banning so-called violent people for life from OWS.

When it was finally our turn to speak on stack, I raised a question about the meaning of the word violent and how we wanted to make sure people are specific about the actions of a person being deemed “violent.”  Violence means different things to different people.  Violence can be verbal, physical, sexual, institutional, or state-sanctioned.  Pushing someone could be seen as violent. Yelling could be seen as violent.  Damaging property could be seen as violent.  Raising your voice and calling out racism or sexism in a meeting could be seen as violent (no, this is not a hypothetical scenario).

So, we were concerned about three “violent” people (all who happened to be people of color themselves) being permanently banned from OWS and kicked out of the church they were living in without being clear and on the same page about what constitutes violence.  We have not had this conversation at Occupy.  Many assumptions are made when people talk about someone being violent, and to raise the question is apparently taboo.

As soon as I opened my mouth with our concern, dozens were down-twinkling with looks of disgust on their face, muttering sarcastically to each other, and even shouting out loud, shocked and appalled that I would even ask such a question.  The sense in the room was, “There goes POC again causing trouble and holding us up from moving forward.”  People assumed we were condoning the actions of the “violent” people in question simply because we raised a question about what violence means.

I was pissed.  No one was listening to what I was saying.  I’m a very calm and collected person.  I use my words carefully and deliberately.  I was not being the slightest bit antagonistic.  But even for someone as calm as me, I could barely finish expressing my concern because of the backlash that was unleashed as soon as I opened my mouth.

One of my POC Caucus comrades eventually couldn’t take it any more and spoke out of “process” to explain that raising these sorts of concerns is exactly why we exist as a caucus at spokes council.  Because communities of colors have suffered violence for generations — the violence of white supremacy, the violence of the police, the violence of mass incarceration, the violence of poverty.  Again, no one listened to what she was saying but only put up their “point of process” hand signs and rolled their eyes.

I was talking about it with another friend from the POC Caucus on the phone the next day, and he felt like we have lost all good faith in the spokes council.  We have no credibility whatsoever anymore.

Honestly, it’s been a tough couple of months of figuring out how to engage with this movement.  A lot of people who I consider comrades, friends, and fellow travelers have gotten fed up with the dynamics at spokes council as well as other meetings and have understandably stopped showing up.  It’s been hard.  Sometimes I feel like my role is far too focused on process, and I’d rather be focusing on something that feels more concrete, something that has tangible results, something that feels more like action.

But what I always come back to is that if we can’t figure out these kinds of process questions, what are we really building?  Most of us can agree that Occupy Wall Street is not only about confronting big banks, corporations, and the state, but also about creating alternatives to this oppressive system.  How we in this movement interact with each other, hold ourselves and each other accountable, and sustain our community are questions just as important as what our message is and what our next direct action is.

I remember when I first got involved in OWS in late September I would always tell people that the “how” is just as important as the “what” when it comes to this movement. And that’s what makes it so different from other mass movements, and that’s what I’m so excited and inspired by.

I’m less than inspired right now by the “how” of OWS, but continue to believe that we must figure it out if we intend to be a lasting force.  We have to create the processes to deal with ugly and yes, violent, situations, and these processes must reflect our values, not the values the status quo.

When I raised the question about what violence means at the spokes council meeting last week, one person defensively responded that the person in question was “dragged out by the police,” and has had the cops called on them several times.  From what I could tell, this was compelling evidence to the majority of the room that this person was clearly a pathological violent disruptor who must be kicked out of the movement for life.  Clearly if a cop drags someone out of a meeting, there is no question that the person being dragged away 1) deserves it and 2) is without a question a violent aggressor who must be thrown out indefinitely.

The irony was too much for me.  The NYPD are now champions of keeping us safe?  Well, if we are using police intervention as our barometer of whether someone is violent or not, then maybe the next step, as a friend jokingly suggested, will be to create a Jail and Prison Working Group and then a Solitary Confinement Working Group to keep the disrupters in check.  Maybe we can recruit some of our cop friends to facilitate those meetings.  They are, after all, the 99%, aren’t they?

What can I say—things have gotten out of control.

I have a feeling that many in OWS would agree with Audre Lorde’s statement, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”  But are we willing to make the leap that is necessary to embody this as individuals and as a movement?  Are we willing to stop reacting impulsively and aggressively to difficult situations (and difficult people) and start listening for change?  Are we willing to create new tools that may not already exist?

These process questions that many of us have been grappling with may very well make or break OWS.  The good folks in the Safer Spaces Working Group along with many others have been working hard to come up with community agreements and an accountability process rooted in anti-oppression and transformative justice.  But we have such a long way to go to get the buy in of the “average” person at OWS.

On the one hand I’m tired of this conversation, I’m tired of being down-twinkled at, I’m tired of the POC Caucus not being taken seriously, I’m tired.  But if we can make it through this together and adopt radical, transformative justice approaches to accountability, violence, and harm in our community, perhaps we will in turn be well on our way to creating viable alternatives to this system we all abhor.

11 Comments to “Occupying Process, Processing Occupy: Spokes Council Musings by One POC”

  1. Hi Sonny,

    A couple of points of information as someone who was also an active part of that particular discussion:

    A lot of those down twinkles came from people of color, myself included, who felt that POC was taking a position that was overly intellectual when we had people in the room who were in fear of their physical safety. I agree that the movement needs to have a discussion about what violence is but neither I nor many of the people in the room realized that that’s what you were saying. Maybe your language was unclear? One of the facilitators re-stated your comments and it made a lot more sense. If this is something POC feels strongly about, perhaps you ought to bring a proposal to have that discussion, perhaps in cooperation with Safer Spaces. They’re doing some great work in that area.

    Also, if you look at the text of every proposal brought to exclude someone from a specific space or the movement, every single one of them is very clear that we will (a) help these people find other resources and (b) they are welcome back once they go through a process of mediation with the people they’ve harmed. Safer Spaces has been working so hard to make this happen and I think its important to recognize their efforts.

    There have been people excluded from our movement for, for instance, sexual violence or financial misconduct who have not been POC so please be careful to avoid an implicit accusation of racism. Its something people in this movement take to heart because it is so serious.

    I should also mention that the POC caucus doesn’t speak for all the people of color in the OWS movement. A lot of us find the positions that the caucus takes to be extreme and the tone of the meetings unwelcoming and don’t participate. Our mailing list is, frankly, appalling in its hostility and name-calling. I find it troubling that the caucus continues to claim to speak for all POCs even when they are speaking to POCs who disagree with them. There seems to be an attitude of privileging “official” voices over autonomous ones. The implication that we might not be POC “enough” makes the caucus an unwelcoming space. For instance, the spoke for POC called an African-American man an Uncle Tom in the Spokes meeting because he disagreed with her. The inability of the caucus to be respectful to other POCs is very troubling.

    I’ve come in and out of the caucus over the last little while for a lot of the reasons listed above as have many of the POCs I know. There are wonderful people in the caucus and it does serve a vital role. I think the rest of the community finds us confusing more than anything. They want to take us seriously but the caucus very clearly isn’t representative of the POC community. I know many people in the caucus are concerned about this and want to be in solidarity with those efforts. I’m just not sure I have the emotional fortitude to weather the inevitable shitstorm. What can I say? Spokes and GA are hard enough….

    In solidarity,

    Ravi

  2. Hi Ravi,

    I understand the concern about over-intellectualizing the problem in a time when there was a real sense of danger to people in the room. I really do.

    That said, that night’s POC caucus was very deliberate in acknowledging the weight of the situation and taking those safety concerns seriously. Sonny’s statement, in my opinion, was couched very delicately and with necessary sensitivity. It is my opinion that his words were very well chosen and the same points he makes in this posting are points he made that night.

    If you failed to glean his intention I am sorry about that.

    One reason why that may have happened is because a great number of people who were present at that spokes council meeting were so preoccupied reacting to the valid challenge of how we construct and define violence that they were not listening to the content of what Sonny was saying. This, to me, re-emphasizes the importance of active listening (a tendency extremely remiss in spokes council as it currently stands). Making assumptions about what someone is saying while they are saying it can result in confusion and misguided allegations. In short, it is not the way to build understanding.

    It is also important to mention that the people of color caucus that night in no way gave the illusion that it was speaking for all people of color everywhere nor, to my knowledge, does the wider people of color caucus ever make such a claim. As you and I both know, people of color exist in a variety of shapes, sizes, and opinions. That night all three people in the people of color caucus spoke felt very strongly that aspects of the conversation at hand deserved to be complicated and that is what we collectively empowered our spoke to do. As is custom, any person who identifies as a person of color is welcome to join the people of color caucus at spokes, yourself included. There is no vetting process for making “official” POC caucus representatives, there is no measure of “authenticity” (I personally have been called inauthentic enough that meaninglessly divisive rhetoric like that holds no interest to me. Many others in the caucus feel the same). Personally, I cannot say I have seen any evidence for the measuring of authenticity within the POC caucus that you point out.

    That said, I am not about to defend the often vitriolic language of the email list nor will I defend the actions of every single member of the people of color caucus. However, to use the actions and choices of some to define, and perhaps even implicitly delegitimize the entire caucus, well, that’s troubling to say the least. I do hope you recognize the multiplicity of opinion and experience within the POC caucus– It is as real and legitimate as your decision to stand in opposition to the POC spoke that Wednesday night. The POC caucus is no less scarred by the institutional and interpersonal oppression of the systems of capitalism than the wider OWS movement. In both cases the manifestations of that oppression are not always pretty nor obvious. The patterns of oppression will always be easy for us to fall in into, they are normalized and thus are attractive. It is in having the difficult conversations and complicating what, to some, may be apparent, that we deepen understanding of the ways that oppression operates in our society. If we fail to do this we will continue to recreate the current society with all its ills and evils and this movement won’t stand a chance.

    We don’t want moments of urgency to prevent us from taking necessary examinations. Know that we speak up because we want to see this movement succeed.

    Solidarity always,

    Nicole

    • thanks for both of your comments. what i am saying goes beyond my specific concern around the definition of violence that evening. i am talking about a pattern of dismissive and hostile behavior towards the POC Caucus. I’ve seen it at the majority of spokes council meetings i’ve been to, and heard it described by people i trust who have been there when i haven’t been. and yes, plenty of that dismissiveness and eye rolling to our comments comes from other POCs who like to distance themselves from us and often take on a colorblind view of interpersonal dynamics in OWS. like nicole, i can’t vouch for everything that has ever been said or done in the name of the POC caucus, but i think it should be clear that the vast majority of us who are active in the caucus and come to spoke council and are doing organizing in this movement with the POC caucus deplore offensive and disrespectful accusations like “uncle tom”. and many of us have been called such names. just as we’ve been called hypersensitive, divisive, angry, etc etc etc for highlighting troubling racial dynamics we see right in front of us.

  3. This is a very welcome and interesting criticism of the internal politics of OWS. To me this piece was more about the regular response that the POC caucus has been receiving in spokes when criticisms have been brought up and less about this particular case. This particular case is just a gateway to talk about the bigger issues as well. I’ve had similar experiences working with white activists who have said things like we don’t need to talk about race because everyone is in the 99%. We’ve had some interesting conversations about who the 99% actually includes, what that means, etc, etc, and how its more useful as a slogan than a logic to base a whole movement around, particularly if its being used to ignore issues of race. In reality, there really have never been any movements where 99% of the population supported or mobilized for anything. Colorblind ideology is not something people easily get over, especially in white liberal circles.

  4. it is great that this conversation is happening. seems like many of the movements for change in recent history have been ultimately hamstrung or shredded at least in part due to inability of participants/activists to personally enact the degree of justice and cooperation that we envision, across lines of race, class, gender and social/sexual identities. it’s exactly the “how” that sonny discusses, that forms the material of oppression in action. the urgent feeling that we have to “get to the important stuff” is completely inside the box of economic oppression/repression, where we are trained to believe that time is money, and are even given bits of distorted evidence that lead us to think that’s true.

    it seems useful to remember that oppression is always a one way deal. a one-way, systematic mistreatment of a particular group. and that all of the oppressions function primarily to divide us from each other, rendering us less able to resist manipulation and mistreatment, less able to cooperate, share resources equitably, accrue power broadly and diffusely, utilize the massive intelligence and creativity that we possess for living vibrant lives.

  5. Sonny,

    I whole-heartedly agree with Ravi here. We had a member of our community state very explicitly what violence she was experiencing on a regular basis and what an unsafe space we had created. To say POC was over intellectualizing the topic is being overly generous in my view. But I think we need to be overly generous. But it was hard to be at that meeting and hear someone basically cry out that they felt unsafe for very specific reasons and then have someone say, “Well, what do you mean by violence?” After acts of physical brutality had been explicitly described in detail. Frankly POC’s response was unbelievable, no matter how well intentioned.

    Your point about the NYPD shows how little you listened to what was being said and I think illustrates how important developing strong listening skills are if we are to really build a strong community. The point made that night wasn’t that the “NYPD are now champions of keeping us safe” but that after every effort within the community had been made to deal with this violence internally, in desperation the police were used as a last ditch effort. Despite our communities best efforts at creating a safe place, the level of violence was so extreme that people who have every reason to fear the police were forced to actually call them to help. You apparently missed that very crucial point.

    Don’t be tired of being down twinkled. Understand why you’re being down twinkled. Maybe you just really missed an incredibly crucial point. Maybe you’re really over intellectualizing something that is really quite simple. Don’t take it so personally. And if your point isn’t taken seriously, maybe it’s because of all the reasons I mentioned and more.

    “Things have gotten out of control.” I couldn’t agree more. And developing these systems of transformative justice are crucial, but let’s not leave people in clearly violent situations while we ponder these questions.

    Lastly, regarding POC being taken seriously, I want to add one anecdotal item. A FA amendment was made to the housing proposal to let it last into the weekend and then end it. It was accepted by Housing and basically by every other working group in attendance. POC blocked. Now the crazy thing about the block was that POC claimed they were blocking because the FA would cut off housing too quickly. The block, however, if it had derailed the entire proposal would have ended housing even sooner! It’s hard to take any caucus seriously when they misuse the process in such a way that actually does more damage than they are trying to stop. If you were seriously concerned about housing being ended too quickly, the answer wasn’t a block but a friendly amendment.

    Listen. Utilize the process we have or work to make it better. Down twinkles, lots of down twinkles are a good sign that you’re doing something really wrong. Don’t take this as a personal attack. Just some insight from someone who was there and hopes we do grow from this.

    • david, your comment perfectly exemplifies the sort of dismissive and arrogant attitudes that have become the status quo in spokes council that my piece attempted to bring to light. you make so many assumptions about the intentions of me and we as the POC caucus, it makes my head hurt. you seem to think we’re on a mission to undermine occupy wall street. it’s a very interesting and telling response to honest criticism. and it’s kind of amazing to me that your response is that i/we (as POC caucus) were not listening, when you clearly did not understand or attempt to understand the concerns we were raising. your comment sums up why many of us are fed up with spokes council, frankly.

      as for the amendment to the housing proposal, we blocked because it’s all we could do at that point. friendly amendments had passed already, and before i even had a chance to tell people what our concern was (that people are going to be kicked out in less than 2 days and doesn’t that seem a little extreme), people (like Ravi, for example) were practically yelling at me for undermining the process and the movement. the housing proposal suddenly became the OPPOSITE of what it initially was. initially it was partly calling for indefinite funding of housing in park slope, which we did take issue with (and were the first group to raise those concerns about how we’re spending out money as OWS), and suddenly it became a proposal to kick people out after two more nights. this was extreme and kind of came out of nowhere. how dare you say blocking that is abusing process? people need transition time if their housing is being taken away. that’s why we blocked, and we explained as such, and consequently we compromised on 1 more week of funding for housing rather than kicking people out immediately.

      • one more thing: i think down-twinkling should be banned from OWS. it serves no other purpose than to disempower people while they are talking, causing the speaking to get flustered, angry, and/or frustrated. it doesn’t foster a culture of active listening and respect, not a culture where dissenting opinions are encouraged and taken seriously. up-twinkles are great. if someone is speaking and getting no up-twinkles, then that might be an indication to that person that lots of people don’t agree with them. there is no need to shoot people down while they are speaking. indeed, it has gotten out of control.

  6. Sonny, I whole-heartedly agree with your statements and analysis.

    It’s becoming increasingly common for the loudest and most aggressive voices in the room to steer the conversation. We’re like Sith lords; we only deal in absolutes.

    I shouldn’t have to declare my experience with violence every time that i want to have a thoughtful conversation about violence. It’s gotten to the point where we have to wear our abuse like a badge in order to get support. That shouldn’t be the case. We have to honor and respect the experiences of all, but that doesn’t mean that the victim becomes judge and jury. I am under the impression that in transformative justice the victim’s voice is only one voice in the process—a weighted voice, yes, but ONE voice.

    In our current world there’s only one way to deal with violence, and many of us hoped that in OWS we could be more nuanced and deliberative than that. Why can’t we bring immediate relief to a victim (as we did during the spokes fight at the brecht), and then talk about how the “aggressor” might also be a victim; how our environment perpetuates systems of violence; and what healing looks like?

    If we haven’t come up with a better solution to dealing with violence (or preventing it), it doesn’t mean that the solution doesn’t exist. We may just not have enough capacity, will or creativity. Instead we’re choosing to rely on blanket solutions with minimal discussion, and arguing that they are the only way to deal with violence.

    I agree with David’s point that there is a time and place for discussion, and that we have to be sensitive to the needs of people, especially victims of violence. I disagree, however, with the sentiment that the POC caucus was denigrating or invalidating anyone’s experiences by questioning the language of the proposal at hand. In fact, the very idea that asking questions is pro-violence or insensitive is manipulative and divisive. Yes, we were attacked on 9/11, and, yes(!), we felt unsafe, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about how our government helped to prop up the Taliban and fund Osama’s training, as well as created the conditions that led to 9/11. I argue that we need to have the latter conversation in order to ever be truly safe.

    As an OWS collective, the very fact that the conversation about the violence in question was happening says that we agreed that it was important. But let’s be clear: this was a conversation based on a proposal. This was not a pep rally. And conversations are meant to be complicated, and proposals should be deconstructed and constructed anew, especially when they have far-reaching effects.

    If someone was getting assaulted by a circus clown on the street, i wouldn’t crouch down on the sidewalk next to them and ask if they felt that this was an example of violence. But if a week later we were having a conversation about how to ban all clowns from food, shelter and the movement as a whole, it would behoove us to ask some more detailed questions.

    As for down twinkles… they’re lazy and somewhat rude. When i find myself doing them, it’s either in a very small setting where i know the group very well, or it’s at spokes and ga and i’m usually upset and frustrated. It’s much harder to formulate a cogent and concise argument and then get on stack.

    We’re not immune to mob mentality and group think. Sometimes a room full of down twinkles equates to a room full of angry and fearful people with very little patience or empathy. Nothing more, nothing less. So i wouldn’t base my principles, thoughts or beliefs on the mode of the room. That would be very Tea Party of me.

    As for blocking an urgent proposal… Well, i’ve witnessed many years of political parties stuffing bills with evil crap and one righteous item, e.g., AIDS research funding in a Defense bill. “We’ll give people living with HIV/AIDS the bare minimum this year, if you promise to fund the slaughter of Iraqis. Quite a deal, no!? Oh, you don’t support this bill!? Well then you must hate America and love AIDS.”

    It takes a lot integrity to vote against that sort of measure, in those types of conditions. No one but Bernie Sanders or Kucinich ever does. And the rest of us sit at home wishing that more of the yahoos in D.C. would just vote no! “I won’t play that game! Let’s talk about each item…ONE AT A TIME.”

    I’m thrilled that we have people in our movement that have the guts and patience to stop a moving train. It gives me hope that we aren’t just re-creating our current society.

    Sonny and the POC caucus weren’t voting to support violence, they were arguing that we shouldn’t set community-wide precedents without more deliberation and least of all under the heat lamp of an extreme situation. AIDS funding w/o Haliburton pork.

    To growth,
    alejandro

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