–By Thanu Yakupitiyage
[Above]: Flipcam video footage I edited of the Mexica danza group’s ritual in honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, October 10th, at Zuccotti Park/Liberty Square
I’ve been going to Occupy Wall Street almost every other day now. I can’t help it. I think this is an important moment, and as much as I have criticisms, I do think that the kind of space that has been created at Liberty Square (Zucotti Park) has opened a multitude of possibilities for public education, democratic processes, and for people to learn from each other about the kind of world we want to live in and what our alternatives are. That’s why I go and that’s why I have become invested.
Organizing with people of color to grow our presence at Occupy Wall Street and have our communities be heard in regards to our histories and the specific impact of the economic crisis, of globalization, of the greed of the financiers, of colonization, has become a specific priority of mine and many friends who have made it a ritual to head down to Wall Street in the afternoons and evenings, when we can. We cannot march and chant, “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out” without for example noting that it was largely urban communities of color in New York and across the country that were devastated by foreclosures and the housing crisis. We cannot yell, “We are the 99%” without considering the often invisible labor of immigrant workers, constantly scapegoated for a bad economy, who are being deported in outrageous numbers, while the private prison industry profits from their detention. And we certainly cannot presume that this public outrage that has boiled over is new; this frustration has been felt for decades (centuries even) by oppressed people. As this movement continues to grow, it is critical that we insert these realities and histories. This movement means nothing without it. It is limited without it.
And we ARE inserting these narratives. On Sunday, an incredible 170 people of color turned out for the People of Color Working Group meeting, from all across the boroughs, of different ages, class, racial/ethnic, and gender backgrounds (truly representing the makeup of New York City). We converged showing that we will not be silenced, and I, like those around me felt extremely empowered.
On Monday, I woke with enthusiasm and a sense of possibility. I woke feeling that people of color are going to change this moment for the better. I was glad to read on Facebook that morning that several events were being planned at Liberty Square honoring indigenous people on a day the United States federal government officially and wrongly calls “Columbus Day,” but that we all SHOULD rightfully know as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. And so once again I found myself at Liberty Square, with the desire to be around community who were conscientiousness of what this so-called holiday truly means: the massacre and genocide of countless native people from all over the Americas and a marker of imperialism across the globe.
My friend, Julian, and I, approached the square just as a march was starting. We were told that this march was heading towards the “National Museum of the Native American” close to the Bowling Green stop on Broadway and that it was meant to commemorate indigenous people. We watched as a contingent of brown folks marched with a banner I had seen the day before that said, “How many people of color have to be killed by cops before you hate the state?!”
We both thought instantly, well, we must be in the right place!
We joined the march, entering into a mixed crowd, far behind the larger contingent of brown folks we had seen with the sign. As Julian and I marched, we asked people to join in with us in chanting, “All day, all week, DECOLONIZE Wall Street.” Julian turned to a person next to us, who appeared to be white, and told her to chant with us. She looked at us quizzically and did not join in, continuing to yell the now common chant, “All day, all week Occupy Wall Street!” We tried multiple times to get folks to change the words in the chant but got little response. In the last few weeks, many, including people of color, seem to abide by the idea that to “occupy” is a neutral term, leaving little room to contextualize the occupation of the very land we are on and the unjust occupations that are happening right now in different parts of the world.
Just a week prior, Julian had made a flyer detailing the history of Wall Street, and how the “wall” was forcibly built by African slaves in order for white settlers to secure the land from indigenous people who were fighting to take it back. I think we both wished we had mountains of those flyers at that very moment to pass out to people around us in the march who seemed to have completely forgotten why we were marching to begin with on that day. As we neared the museum, Julian and my voices got louder, and we decided to stop, pointing at the museum, and chanted our slogan to decolonize wall street. Towards the end of the march, finally a group of people joined our chant for awhile, but again slipped back into the norm of “occupying wall street.” We grew silent and tired.
We walked back to Liberty Square park in time to respectfully observe a Mexica danza group (indigenous folks from Mexico) honor native resistance through an ancient dance ritual. The danza group had reached out to the POC Working Group earlier that day asking folks of color to support the ceremony and to offer in some senses a circle of protection in order for the ceremony to take place. As we watched the ceremony, those who were filming and taking photos were asked to step out of the inner circle and film from the outer circle so as to respect the space. Flipcam in hand, I stepped back, asking photographers around me to do the same. Some looked annoyed that they were asked to move and did so begrudgingly. As I watched, an elderly white man came and stood by me. In an excited raised voice he said, “WOW that’s so cool! What KIND of native are THEY?” It took everything in my power to not snap at him. I told him that this wasn’t a “cultural performance” that it was an ancient ritual and we should honor that and observe quietly. As I said that, two young white men ran past our circle, once again yelling “Occupy Wall Street!” loudly, with little concern for the sacred space that the danza group and their supporters were creating to honor the day.
As the ritual continued, defying the ruckus and at times disrespect around us, there was real solidarity amongst the people who had gathered to honor indigenous struggles, creating circles of protection around the dancers. I was moved by the commitment the group had to making the little space under the red art object at the park their own. Two musicians (including one from Mahina Movement), sang songs as the danza group made their blessings. One line of a song in particular struck me, adapted from Caribbean American poet, June Jordan’s ‘Poem for South African Women,’ which Sweet Honey on the Rock later turned into a song – they sang,
“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
You are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
I am the one I’ve been waiting for.”
In that moment, despite the many obstacles, there was a real sense that we were no longer waiting- no longer waiting for “Occupy Wall Street” organizers to be more conscious of language and race, no longer waiting for this movement to include communities of color and indigenous voices… We are making it happen. We are interrupting the narrative of “occupation,” and we are decolonizing.
Read Part 2 by Saara Azadi here.