Learning from our Elders

By Prita Lal

On Sunday, November 20, 2011, a group of veteran civil rights activists from the “Council of Elders” Organizing Committee hosted Intergenerational Days at Occupy Wall Street and in other Occupy cities around the country. In NYC, the day included an interfaith worship service at Liberty Square followed by a panel discussion at Judson Memorial Church. The event was organized and hosted by the People of Color Caucus and the Anti-racism Allies working groups.

The Council of Elders is an independent group of leaders from the farm worker, sanctuary, civil and human rights movements that shook the nation’s conscience with public protests during the 20th century. This intergenerational dialogue brought together hundreds of activists, organizers, educators, and community members to discuss questions, challenges, and lessons that can be gained from the civil rights era to the current Occupy movements happening worldwide. As an excerpt from the statement of solidarity by the Council of Elders states:

“We see Occupy Wall Street as a continuation, a deepening and expansion of the determination of the diverse peoples of our nation to transform our country into a more democratic, equitable, just, and compassionate society.”

The Elders who took part in the NYC Intergenerational Day were Rev. Phillip Lawson, a long-time civil rights leader and co-founder of California Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights and Black Alliance for Just Immigration; Rabbi Arthur Waskow, an ardent peace activist in the Israel-Palestine conflict who has been hailed by numerous organizations, including the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation; Rev. Mel White, an outspoken LGBTQ advocate and author for and minister to the LGBTQ community; and Rev. Nelson and Joyce Hobson Johnson, long-time advocates and organizers for poor people in Greensboro, NC and leaders of the first US-based truth and reconciliation process. Joining them on the panel were Drs. Paul and Sally Bermanzohn, with activist roots going back to the 1970s labor struggles in North Carolina.

One main theme from the discussion was the importance of having a racial justice analysis at the core of our organizing. Rev. Nelson Johnson made the important point that we should not avoid talking about race and racism for the sake of not being “divisive” or to maintain “unity” because that would actually be an inauthentic unity. He said that to have true unity, we need to embrace discussions and an analysis around racial inequality and that this analysis will make a stronger, truer 99%.

Dr. Bermanzohn shared his experiences as being an anti-racist white ally to people of color when he organized within working- class white and Black communities. He spoke passionately about fallen comrade Jim Waller who had taken on the struggles of the Black working class as his own and saw his liberation tied in with the liberation of people of color and was subsequently killed in 1979 as a part of that struggle.

Rev. Lawson made a critical and complex point when he talked about how he gets upset when people of European descent say they are “white” because when white people identify themselves in this way, they need to also acknowledge the oppression and power associated with that term, which they usually do not do. For instance, whites need to acknowledge the association of that racial identity with white supremacy, unearned privilege, and the basic erasure from one’s ancestral culture. Rev. Lawson made reference to how white people get disconnected from where their people came from and their ancestral culture, and this disconnect facilitates to racial oppression.

We can infer the following from Rev. Lawson’s insights: white activists ought to identify as anti-racist white allies (so as to not identify with the oppressive idea of whiteness), find out where their people come from (and reclaim that identity), and understand how race and class (among other forms of oppression) intersect. Otherwise, we risk making the same errors of the past, like earlier examples of feminists or workers movements that focused only on gender or class inequality and elided racial inequality, which caused those movements to fracture since there was a lack of a true unity.

Joyce Johnson said it best when she stated that once we’re able to sincerely integrate an analysis of racism with our understandings of class inequality, then we’ll be “free at last, free at last, free at last…”

We were honored to have this opportunity to learn from the Council of Elders and hope that we will continue to apply these lessons to our current organizing to build a true direct democracy that is accountable to those persons most directly impacted by the injustices in our society.

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