Why Occupy Wall Street Matters to Me and How It Can Continue to Matter

by Manissa McCleave Maharawal

(In some ways this is a response to Esther Choi’s piece, and in some ways it isn’t…)

I spent yesterday evening as I spend many of my evenings: in the Financial District, at Occupy Wall Street, attending a Direct Action meeting, eating dinner, going to the General Assembly, and going to a POC-DA affinity meeting. As I was standing in the food line, waiting for my portion of beets, greens, cole slaw and bread, the conversation turned to Esther Choi’s article, “Private Danny Chen, and why I will never again reach out to OWS about something that matters to me.” Yesterday when I read this article it nearly made me cry: both because of how right she is, but also because I, somehow, felt personally responsible for the injustices and unjust and oppressive behavior that she had experienced at OWS. As someone who both identifies with the movement and as someone who has worked from the very beginning of my involvement at OWS to confront issues of racism and oppression within OWS, while still standing in solidarity with it, reading Choi’s article I suddenly felt very, very tired, sad, and angry.

To be honest, I was angry at both OWS and at her. I think OWS is strong enough and mainstream enough now to withstand serious critiques, and I think whether weak or strong, every movement should be self-critical. I’m tired of hearing that we can’t take on issues of racism and oppression because it would be “divisive.” I’m tired of hearing people call People of Color (POC) Caucus at OWS divisive because we bring up uncomfortable truths.

A friend of mine who is visibly Muslim (she wears hijab) said the other day, after recounting an incident where she was told that she had made people in a meeting “more uncomfortable than they had ever been” by telling them that she had been triggered by a racist sign: “If this is the most uncomfortable you have ever been, then please realize how lucky you are.” I laughed and agreed with her, but her comment stuck with me. In fact, this is exactly what some people everywhere, including at OWS, don’t want to have to realize–that they have a certain set of privileges in not feeling uncomfortable and that these privileges impact them and everyone around them.

So in these ways I completely understood what Choi meant and why her article feels and is so very viscerally and justly angry.

But in other ways I think her article includes troubling oversights. In making sweeping generalizations about the way an entire movement acts in regards to community events based on the actions of three people, in making them typical of an “OWS protester,” Choi does the movement and herself a disservice. Yes, some people act in these ways, I have seen and experienced similar actions. But not everyone does. If we are going to be strong as a movement, then we need to hold those who do act in oppressive and violent ways accountable while not collapsing the whole movement into their actions. To ignore the work of the POC Caucus, the Anti-Racist Allies Group and countless other people within the movement that do crucial work around racial justice issues is to do us all a disservice. It, in effect, actually silences the work of these people and groups in problematic and irresponsible ways.

All that said, I think we need to take the space that Choi’s article has opened up to talk about issues of accountability, oppression, racial justice and the way that these issues affect politics of our movement, frankly. That is not to say that people haven’t already been working hard to open up these spaces. They have, and I truly believe that more and more openings for these conversations are being created. The openings for these conversations are being created, for example, through the racial justice training that took the place of Spokes Council a few weeks ago, through a shift in language where we think about how to organize from the margins to the center, through the creation of new affinity groups and accountability structures, through holding each other as a community accountable and having conversations about what this means.

And so in the spirit of having these conversations I made a list of some of the ways that I think OWS needs to push itself to make sure that this is a movement that has has racial justice and anti-oppression at its center:

1) The “99%” does not mean that differences do not exist: I love the rhetoric of the 99%, I really, really do. I chant it at marches, I write it in my pieces about OWS. But we need to be aware of the ways that it erases difference by saying that because we are all in the same percentage bracket, we all experience this bracket the same way. This isn’t true. Let’s be careful and understand the 99% as a “complex unity” as Angela Davis so smartly said when she addressed the People’s University. Let’s draw strength from the differences within the 99% while also being explicit that, let’s say, white supremacists might technically be a part of the “99%,” but that they aren’t who we want in our movement nor who we would organize with.

2) We need to have a critique of the language of “Occupy” built into our movement: This has been said, very well, many times so I won’t rehash it. I don’t actually think we need to change the language of “Occupy.” At this point it seems like we have re-claimed the term, and if this is a movement about re-claiming then I think we might count this as one of our successes. But I want to be very careful here: we need to be critical of its use, we need to say both things at once: “De-colonize Wall Street” and also “Occupy Wall Street” and to understand how these things can be understood together. We need to say: “Occupy Wall Street, Unoccupy Iraq”. We can do this, it is possible, but the only way that this can happen is if a critique of the “Occupy” language becomes front and center in our movement (a good piece on this is here and here).

3) Privilege still exists even as people feel their conditions worsening: The Occupy movement has taken hold and sparked the nation’s imagination because so many Americans are currently experiencing the effects of the country’s economic downturn–the effects of years of corporate greed and power in this country. Many of those affected were economically privileged, and have seen this privilege start to disappear. However, they don’t like to hear that they still have a lot of access to other types of privilege, namely white privilege. So, what to do about this disturbing disconnect? People need to understand their privilege as having damaging consequences not just to those who don’t have access to it but also to themselves, simply because oppression anywhere creates oppression everywhere. Until there is first, a recognition that privilege exists and then the recognition that privilege oppresses us all, we won’t be able to move forward (for more on this go here).

4) Capitalism has always relied on racism to exist: If this is a movement about confronting capitalism and creating alternatives to it, which is my understanding of Occupy, then we also need to understand that capitalism relies on racism to perpetrate and reproduce itself; that it has always relied on a racialized division of labor and that we cannot tackle either without taking on both. The capitalist class has historically used racism to divide the working class, so if we are going to survive, we have to work hard, right now, to make sure that this doesn’t happen to us. When racism is thought about in this way, it is everyone’s problem. Everyone is affected by it, not just people of color. I am talking about both interpersonal racism as well as structural racism. In order to be strong, grow and survive, we need to be able to address both these levels of experience and analysis. We need to be both anti-oppressive as well as organize with a racial justice framework, and both must be done simultaneously in order to move forward.

The movement I am a part of still inspires me all the time. It inspires me for a range of reasons: because hundreds of people show up and stand in the freezing cold for the General Assembly like they did this past week; because I still have some of the most inspiring and exciting conversations with my friends from OWS; because on New Year’s Eve we re-assembled in Liberty Plaza and danced and hugged and chanted: “Whose year? Our year!”; because we are re-occupying homes in East New York; and because I think we do have the potential to create real change in this country. I am excited for the future of this movement and our communities and I agree with Choi that oppression should always be intolerable, but I also believe that in order to create the spaces that we want to see, we have to work for them. This is constant work, this is work that I do in my personal life and my political life, and I have found true allies within OWS who take on this work with me.

5 Responses to “Why Occupy Wall Street Matters to Me and How It Can Continue to Matter”

  1. Thank you for an engaging and thoughtful response the Choi piece. Reading her piece was truly saddening, but of course you are right that we must use it as an opportunity to deepen the efforts already in place within OWS to confront privilege and make ourselves accountable for our actions.

  2. Thoughtful piece, but I have to point out one important oversight. “Unoccupy Iraq” is fine – but how about “Unoccupy America?”

  3. Dear Manissa and info front and center,

    I am responding so many months later to your article cause it seems to be one of the few places a response can be made and seen by those curious enough to search for it.

    Private Danny Chen trials are now on and may continue for months.
    I see that the Racialicious article on him is on Google’s first page not far from the top of the list. For those looking for news on Danny I think its bad publicity for OWS on a continuous basis, particularly during the trials. Perhaps posting this now will make accessible another voice to counter the short comings of this article.

    I’m glad you responded to Esther’s perspective and its credibility. I guess what I’m posting here written in January too, speaks this articles credibility as does yours. I also want to assure readers of the Chinatown/Asian American community’s gratitude for OWS presence and support. It was originally distributed throughout OWS.

    On Wed, Jan 4, 2012 at 1:02 AM, Robert Lee wrote:

    Dear Esther,
    I’m sorry if things did not go the way you wanted at Private Danny Chen’s March & Vigil and that you found so many faults with OWS presence there. However, aside from your personal perceptions, those things that offended you in a practical sense had no impact on the March. As you observed yourself, the march was a rousing success.

    I have received nothing but gratitude and congratulations for OWS participation in this Chinatown event. From people who live and work in the community, from OCA who sponsored the march, from people as far as Philadelphia and China, all have had positive things to say, “The march and vigil were amazing. Thank you for trying to integrate this struggle with the larger OWS one which demonstrates long term vision.” I heard from OCA that Danny Chen’s family also was pleased.

    Your perceptions are not invalid. They need to be seen in the context of the work we are trying to do, changing society and its culture. OWS may respond defensively, because they are conscientious thoughtful people embarking on a path filled with pitfalls. Your criticisms seem real, they do ring a bell, but they have no substance, except in yourself, and maybe the few you encountered. That is real enough, in the illusory miasma we all face. It is no small achievement to emerge a whole person. For those who would use your remarks as a way to make OWS pay, as one commenter has posted, I would remind them that the Asian American community is looking forward to working with OWS in seeing this struggle through, for Danny Chen and for all the young people who serve in the military. Your criticisms will only make OWS stronger.

    I suggest Esther, you change the name of your article, remove the word “never”, it just shows your new at this. Admit the title was a mistake, then we can all admit there is a useful place for your criticisms.

    Again, I am sorry it was such a surprise for you when we arrived at the march. Perhaps if you knew that as soon as OCA announced the date of the march I brought this to POC for consensus and that night brought it to GA as an announcement. With all the paper work it took several days before the proposal to GA received funds to make posters and banner. OCA was informed of this process and the purpose of the funds. Unfortunately the press release did not go out till the last day. I think it was in the Chinese local papers. If you had known perhaps you could have helped make the banner or when the printers dropped the ball, gotten them to pick it up again. Unfortunately, all the emails I sent to you and all the other Asian Americans in OWS I had met never reached you. Luckily someone from facilitation was there to help and to push me every time we hit a snag. When we arrived at the Army Recruiting center that night we met community friends who were the ones who actually carried the banner.

    I was quite surprised when you wrote that OCA had reached out to OWS. It never came before POC, nor to my knowledge the GA. I got email from OCA requesting support. As the Asian American Arts Centre I accepted. I offered the support of OWS support as well, it was accepted and later confirmed. Several times I reiterated in emails, OCA is the leader, OWS will follow. Tell us what to do. Its unfortunate you did not know of all this.

    We unrolled the banner and stood next to the dumpster. Then we moved to the corner where it was less jammed up with people, and waited for the march to begin. Did that look to you as if we were taking the lead? In any case, the march began and the family came towards the corner of Hudson St. I instructed those holding the banner to move aside, wait till the march had proceeded, before we would join in. I had only printed sixteen small posters. They had been distributed among community people. Only a few were held by what I could see as possibly OWS people. I’m surprised your pictures did not reflect that.

    By the time I heard the ruckus about the PRC flag it was over. Joel had already moved away and I had to chase him down and see if he was ok. He always carries that flag and had walked with us from Zuccotti Park, Neither of us realized it would not be appropriate for this march. Should have known better. I was just happy to have a few people come with me when I had spoken of the possibility to OCA of bringing lots of people. After that he stayed far behind. I would suggest it is not helpful to call him ridiculous. We are all trying, we are all looking for where the wind is blowing, where our nose is pointing. Those who are young, joining their first Chinatown march, and it turns out to be a solemn procession, surely unlike any other action OWS has been involved with. How quickly would any of us adapt, tune in, and grasp the required respect in how to act. I didn’t foresee this and provide training sessions or a briefing. Neither did you.

    I am sorry you apparently met people who were a real turn off. Aside from them you are demanding OWS meet a pretty high standard, and your willing to attribute motives to the whole of OWS that is full of accusations. I think actually, that’s because you want to hold yourself to a high standard, and you want to burn in your own crucible all that is not true in yourself. That’s why you are a colleague, a comrade, bent on doing the impossible. I embrace you. At first I thought you were an agent. But what you said to those squirrels on your blog could not be thought by anyone but us.
    Be easy on those who are here to learn. Ask anyone, it takes a while.
    PS. I’ve exhibited an artist whose copied on this missive who created a banner that we hung in the City Hall. It had a hundred names on it of Asian
    Americans who died violently because of racism. Can we keep ourselves clear so our goals are transparent?


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