October 25, 2011 Leave a comment
Kenyon Farrow makes some very cogent points on why the #occupy movement, while very visible nowadays, is not doing so well with the non-white demographics. As always with a lot of these movements, part of the issue is always a message delivery problem.
The economic crisis has disproportionately affected people of color, in particular African Americans. Given the stark economic realities in communities of color, many people have wondered why the Occupy Wall Street movement hasn’t become a major site for mobilizing African Americans. For me, it’s not about the diversity of the protests. It’s about the rhetoric used by the white left that makes OWS unable to articulate, much less achieve, a transformative racial-justice agenda.
A big issue with the coverage of police brutality a lot of non-white people have had is this idea that police brutality is so exceptional that when it goes down it should have been news yesterday. And you know what? That should be true. Police brutality should be that damn rare. However, try being POC in this country dealing with law enforcement.
Pundits have observed that many black people may be staying away from the Wall Street protests to avoid (additional) direct contact with police. Last year, New York City carried out 600,000 random stop-and-frisks, half of which were conducted on black citizens, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union; it makes sense that blacks, who are often in daily contact with police, would stay away from an event where interaction with law-enforcement officers would be inevitable. In fact, on October 22, scores of OWS protesters joined a Harlem demonstration against the practice of stop-and-frisk, during which several people were arrested.
But when the New York Police Department began to act violently against the mostly white protesters on Wall Street, many of the videos posted by OWS attendees on YouTube made the point that protesters were arrested, beaten, or pepper-sprayed “just for asking the police a question” or for “just exercising their right to protest.”
In contrast, many nonwhites assume the worst in any interaction with police, and if the worst doesn’t occur, we often consider that the exception, not the rule. [Emphasis mine]
Then there’s the fact that the middle class didn’t feel attacked till it was the white middle class getting attacked and then shiiiiieet. Suddenly, this mess doesn’t fly. Suddenly, we need to take this country back from corporations and corrupt congressmen. Unfortunately, for a lot of POC, we’ve never had anything that we’re supposed to take back.
Another fundamental flaw of white progressives (like many participating in the OWS movement) is the “take back our country and/or democracy” framework. In order to be invested in that idea, you have to see and believe that you had some stake in it to begin with. If you’ve been stopped and frisked 50 different times with as many fines to pay, or you’re HIV-positive and your welfare benefits were cut off because you were too ill to keep an appointment with a case manager, it’s hard to believe that the government is just broken—it seems pretty insistent and hell-bent on your demise.
Kenyon ends with:
Comparing debt to slavery, believing police won’t hurt you, or wanting to take back the America you see as rightfully yours are things that suggest OWS is actually appealing to an imagined white (re)public. Rather than trying to figure out how to diversify the Occupy Wall Street movement, white progressives need to think long and hard about their use of frameworks and rhetoric that situate blacks at the margins of the movement.
The piece doesn’t address everything, but it makes enough of a noticeable dent that’s worth repeating till something sticks.