By Sonny Singh
Yesterday was a great day in New York City. Tens of thousands joined the #OccupyWallStreet movement in downtown Manhattan, demanding an economic system that ensures justice for working people, students, the unemployed – the 99%.
It’s been a little over a week since I began going down to Liberty Square to support and participate and exactly a week since our desi bloc block of the movement’s Declaration over our concerns about it obfuscating the history and present realities of systemic racism and other forms of oppression. I have to say that yesterday, as I marched while banging the hell out of my dhol alongside so many passionate and angry and hopeful and beautiful people from so many different walks of life, the color and vibe of this movement may very well be shifting in a promising direction.
With a huge presence of labor unions and community organizations taking to the streets yesterday, the culture on the ground felt and looked really different: it looked like New York City. I saw posters in Punjabi, Farsi, Mandarin, and Spanish (and probably missed many other languages as I was pretty focused on my dhol), an indigenous people’s contingent, tons of POCs from grassroots organizations like FIERCE!, NYCPP, CAAAV, Make the Road New York and the Arab American Association of NY.
I spent the duration of the march rocking out with two other drummers of color, one with a Brazilian samba whistle, and towards the end, a group of others playing Afro-Cuban rhythms on congas and cowbells – a far stretch from the notorious hippie drum circles that a lot of us like to scoff at. The crowd’s energy and the rhythmic solidarity I felt with my co-drummers kept me going long after my shoulders was aching and my wrists were stiff. As we rolled up to Liberty Square in a deep bhangra groove with friends and strangers joyfully dancing in resistance to corporate greed all around us, I felt the lights of news cameras and was proud that in that very moment we were the face of the movement.
Of course, there were frustrations too. While #OccupyWallStreet has largely been a movement of civil disobedience thus far, it was sobering and a bit disheartening to return to NYPD-sanctioned cages (barricades) as we demonstrated and marched for a better world. Caged-in demos in NYC have never felt right to me, leaving me wondering what we are accomplishing by playing by the cops’ rules. My friend Stephanie Luce posted on her Facebook wall last night: “Today’s march was huge and inspiring. But the joy of earlier OWS events has been escaping the traditional NY permitted march. Today we were again penned in, funneled, and pushed around. Somewhere the NYPD turned into a military force, trained to treat the people of NY like the enemy. This is NOT what democracy looks like!”
Of course I understand and appreciate yesterday’s reasons for having a permitted demo and march, making it much more accessible to children, families, immigrants and thousands of other people who for many reasons are not up for risking arrest. I think we nevertheless managed to create an atmosphere of liberation and freedom within the confines of the (?)NYPD barricades, but I wonder what it would look like to build something unsanctioned, without the permission of the authorities we despise, where people of all generations and backgrounds can participate with a basic level of safety.
At the same time, as arrests and police violence began on Wall Street after the march, I was frustrated by some of the “more activist than thou” protesters urging “everyone” to leave Liberty Square and go confront the police and protect our comrades.
After the march, the energy in Liberty Square was all over the place, with more people in the space than ever before. A few of us had planned to do a mini concert in the Square after the march. It was a little awkward at first, but we began developing a pretty uplifting musical vibe, with Gabriella Callender of Mahina Movement playing guitar, Stephan Said and Morley singing simple wordless melodies with the crowd, me laying down some trumpet lines, and an impromptu cipher taking shape with some of the crew from the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective in the South Bronx. In short, it was a beautiful space that was developing.
Without any “excuse me” or warning, three times we (and everyone around us) were interrupted by white men yelling at us, “Mic Check!!”, and then informing us of the arrests down the street and how we all must go down there to intervene. I appreciated the information and urgency, but not the patronizing tone taken by most of those who made these announcements, implying that if we’re really committed to this movement, then we should go confront the police. I’ve seen this many times before in activist circles where white men willing to confront the police and/or risk arrest think that everyone else should be willing to do the same. No doubt, countless people of color, immigrants, queer and trans folks, women, and people with disabilities have historically (and currently) put their bodies on the line for justice, but that should always be our choice and on our own terms. Getting arrested has very different implications for different communities and for different individuals. If these men wanted to go confront the police while they are pepper spraying protesters, then great, but I wish they recognized that their ability to make that decision so quickly and easily is related to their privilege. I was disappointed by the arrogance, lack of nuance, and entitlement in the way these white men made their pleas to us (who incidentally were mostly people of color). Multiple white men, multiple times.
So, while I hope the #OWS movement continues to build toward more civil disobedience, we need to build a lot more consciousness in the space about oppression, power and privilege. We need to build a movement that is inclusive of everyone who came through yesterday, all 20 to 40 thousand of us. I remain hopeful.