By Sonny Singh
(What follows does not reflect or represent the views of the People of Color Caucus at Occupy Wall Street but only the views of the author himself.)
At the notorious Occupy Wall Street spokes council meetings, the People of Color (POC) Caucus, of which I am a member, often finds itself in the role of whistle-blowing and bringing a critical perspective to the discussion. I have gotten the sense that most people at spokes — sometimes including the facilitators — just want to “get through” the agenda with little to no drama or disruptions. While I can relate, given that these meetings are long and often frustrating, this approach doesn’t create a culture that fosters critical thinking or the voicing of dissent. So, often when the POC Caucus voices concerns about a proposal being made or something happening in the room, I sense a lot of hostility towards us.
Last week, the issue of banning “violent people” from Occupy Wall Street came up at a spokes council meeting I attended. Those of us in the POC spoke shared the deep concern of the majority in the room that certain individuals have made others feel unsafe by committing physically aggressive or violent acts towards others. Many at the meeting were getting understandably worked up about it and insisted on a zero-tolerance type policy when it comes to violence and thus banning so-called violent people for life from OWS.
When it was finally our turn to speak on stack, I raised a question about the meaning of the word violent and how we wanted to make sure people are specific about the actions of a person being deemed “violent.” Violence means different things to different people. Violence can be verbal, physical, sexual, institutional, or state-sanctioned. Pushing someone could be seen as violent. Yelling could be seen as violent. Damaging property could be seen as violent. Raising your voice and calling out racism or sexism in a meeting could be seen as violent (no, this is not a hypothetical scenario).
So, we were concerned about three “violent” people (all who happened to be people of color themselves) being permanently banned from OWS and kicked out of the church they were living in without being clear and on the same page about what constitutes violence. We have not had this conversation at Occupy. Many assumptions are made when people talk about someone being violent, and to raise the question is apparently taboo.
As soon as I opened my mouth with our concern, dozens were down-twinkling with looks of disgust on their face, muttering sarcastically to each other, and even shouting out loud, shocked and appalled that I would even ask such a question. The sense in the room was, “There goes POC again causing trouble and holding us up from moving forward.” People assumed we were condoning the actions of the “violent” people in question simply because we raised a question about what violence means.
I was pissed. No one was listening to what I was saying. I’m a very calm and collected person. I use my words carefully and deliberately. I was not being the slightest bit antagonistic. But even for someone as calm as me, I could barely finish expressing my concern because of the backlash that was unleashed as soon as I opened my mouth.
One of my POC Caucus comrades eventually couldn’t take it any more and spoke out of “process” to explain that raising these sorts of concerns is exactly why we exist as a caucus at spokes council. Because communities of colors have suffered violence for generations — the violence of white supremacy, the violence of the police, the violence of mass incarceration, the violence of poverty. Again, no one listened to what she was saying but only put up their “point of process” hand signs and rolled their eyes.
I was talking about it with another friend from the POC Caucus on the phone the next day, and he felt like we have lost all good faith in the spokes council. We have no credibility whatsoever anymore.
Honestly, it’s been a tough couple of months of figuring out how to engage with this movement. A lot of people who I consider comrades, friends, and fellow travelers have gotten fed up with the dynamics at spokes council as well as other meetings and have understandably stopped showing up. It’s been hard. Sometimes I feel like my role is far too focused on process, and I’d rather be focusing on something that feels more concrete, something that has tangible results, something that feels more like action.
But what I always come back to is that if we can’t figure out these kinds of process questions, what are we really building? Most of us can agree that Occupy Wall Street is not only about confronting big banks, corporations, and the state, but also about creating alternatives to this oppressive system. How we in this movement interact with each other, hold ourselves and each other accountable, and sustain our community are questions just as important as what our message is and what our next direct action is.
I remember when I first got involved in OWS in late September I would always tell people that the “how” is just as important as the “what” when it comes to this movement. And that’s what makes it so different from other mass movements, and that’s what I’m so excited and inspired by.
I’m less than inspired right now by the “how” of OWS, but continue to believe that we must figure it out if we intend to be a lasting force. We have to create the processes to deal with ugly and yes, violent, situations, and these processes must reflect our values, not the values the status quo.
When I raised the question about what violence means at the spokes council meeting last week, one person defensively responded that the person in question was “dragged out by the police,” and has had the cops called on them several times. From what I could tell, this was compelling evidence to the majority of the room that this person was clearly a pathological violent disruptor who must be kicked out of the movement for life. Clearly if a cop drags someone out of a meeting, there is no question that the person being dragged away 1) deserves it and 2) is without a question a violent aggressor who must be thrown out indefinitely.
The irony was too much for me. The NYPD are now champions of keeping us safe? Well, if we are using police intervention as our barometer of whether someone is violent or not, then maybe the next step, as a friend jokingly suggested, will be to create a Jail and Prison Working Group and then a Solitary Confinement Working Group to keep the disrupters in check. Maybe we can recruit some of our cop friends to facilitate those meetings. They are, after all, the 99%, aren’t they?
What can I say—things have gotten out of control.
I have a feeling that many in OWS would agree with Audre Lorde’s statement, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” But are we willing to make the leap that is necessary to embody this as individuals and as a movement? Are we willing to stop reacting impulsively and aggressively to difficult situations (and difficult people) and start listening for change? Are we willing to create new tools that may not already exist?
These process questions that many of us have been grappling with may very well make or break OWS. The good folks in the Safer Spaces Working Group along with many others have been working hard to come up with community agreements and an accountability process rooted in anti-oppression and transformative justice. But we have such a long way to go to get the buy in of the “average” person at OWS.
On the one hand I’m tired of this conversation, I’m tired of being down-twinkled at, I’m tired of the POC Caucus not being taken seriously, I’m tired. But if we can make it through this together and adopt radical, transformative justice approaches to accountability, violence, and harm in our community, perhaps we will in turn be well on our way to creating viable alternatives to this system we all abhor.