By Saara Azadi
I had spent Monday afternoon at Occupy Wall Street at a working group meeting. Wandering with a friend, we heard the conch shell call and drums from a Mixeca group of dancers that had assembled in a corner of the park. As the dancers began to offer blessings and tributes to our ancestors and the earth, a circle of onlookers formed around them. Some were taking photos, others were ensuring that a safe space was created around the dancers. Wary of the police and potential disrupters, the dancers had sent an email to the People of Color Working Group earlier that day, asking us to come and “protect and support our danza circle tonight. Many of our folks… would feel safer knowing that there’s an outer circle having our backs during the ceremony.” A young curly-haired woman of color nosed in between myself and my friend and said, “Wow, the energy feels really good here.” As we linked arms – strangers, friends, family – you could feel the energy and spirit created by the dancers, the drumming, and our collective power.
While we ‘occupied’ the area under the Red Sculpture, the General Assembly (GA) was well underway in the area by the library. The dancers continued – one explained that this was not a performance – that they were here to offer blessings to our ancestors, the earth, the elements, and to this movement and the many indigenous and global communities in resistance. She went on to declare that they would finish when they were done. I didn’t quite know what she meant; the dancing, drumming, and prayers continued….
After some time I moved out of the circle to catch some of the GA. I sat adjacent to a group of people signing in American Sign Language to one another, and saw the projector screen for the first time, with someone typing along verbatim as people spoke. The People’s Mic sounded in two waves. How great that we’ve made so many strides to be inclusive! How amazing there are all these concurrent and differing ways to use the space! Me and my almond bubble tea, I was feeling good.
The GA came to a ten-minute recess, and a middle-aged white man standing behind me made a snide comment about the Mixeca dancers. In a loud voice intended I imagine for all within earshot, he rhetorically asked when they would finish already, that they’d drummed long enough. I looked up quizzically and asked what the problem was – the GA seemed to me to be functioning normally. What ensued was a useless back and forth wherein he did not once let me finish my sentence, listen to what I was saying, or in any way consider an opinion other than his own. He escalated his own manner from dismissive to combative, while I evenly refused to be streamrolled. Seemingly annoyed that I had challenged and/or disagreed with him, he abruptly left in the direction of the dancers, leaving me to call out loud, “thanks for taking the time to listen to what I have to say…”
There was a younger white man seated there, who had originally responded positively to the older white man’s displeased and snarky comment. He looked at and addressed me with genuine puzzlement. What ensued this time around was a rather respectful conversation wherein I acknowledged his frustration, but wondered why he didn’t think it was amazing that there could be a GA, a hippy drum circle, a passing performance troupe, a food line, sleeping people, chess-players, and a whole mess of other activities – including the Mixeca dancers – all happening at once in one space. Why fixate on them? The GA continued and I expressed appreciation and respect for those who had to work a little harder to hear, a little harder to focus. Because it’s hard! This whole occupation is hard! And so what? The struggle is hard.
And here’s where he dropped the bomb – “The GA is the most important thing. Nothing should get in the way of the GA.”
The reason I had the patience and took the time to talk with this person was because he spoke from a place of sincerity and respect. I kept returning to the point that today is Columbus Day – a day when this country grotesquely celebrates the legacy of colonization and genocide, while we are here! On Wall Street! Built by slaves to keep out the native peoples! – but it just didn’t resonate. No, he hadn’t considered that others might not view the GA as the most important forum at OWS. No, he hadn’t thought about the effects of shutting down the offerings from an entire community. No, he hadn’t even wondered what they were doing here and why they were dancing in the first place. No, he hadn’t walked over to see for himself or ask what they were doing. He candidly informed me he wasn’t that interested in blessings or dance.
And for this lack of curiosity, for this lack of humility, for this lack of self-questioning and active pursuit of understanding, I am disappointed in / challenge / do not excuse OccupyWallStreet.
The older white man returned – apparently he had marched over to the dancers to see when they would be done. They essentially blew him off: 10 minutes, 20 minutes, WHEN WE’RE DONE. He relayed all this to the younger white man, but entirely for my benefit. He was livid at having been told off, at having been given so little regard. He couldn’t look at me, talk to me, or engage with me directly. There was nothing for me to work with. I leaned over and thanked the other guy for talking with me and left to return to the circle.
Seems like we weren’t just linking arms to create a safe space for the dancers, to offer them a feeling of protection from cops and crazies, to create that good energy my new curly-haired friend pointed out. We were linking arms to protect them from us. I thank my companer@s from native communities for coming to offer their blessings, to mark Indigenous People’s Day, to decolonize Wall Street. But first, we have to decolonize OccupyWallStreet.
And in the glow of the halal carts, as I joined a conversation with new friends and old, out of the corner of my eye I saw the younger white man. Alone and with a hesitant step, he gingerly make his way towards the circle of Mixeca dancers…
We will finish when we’re done.