Monday, October 24, 2011

A Great Article on Whiteness in the Occupy Movement

I want to republish this article because I think it is really good and because my next post is in response to this so I think it is important to have the context.

Whiteness and the 99%
Submitted by bajin on Thu, 10/20/2011 - 00:11.
Tagged: Criticism and Response
This piece was written by Joel Olson, a member of BtR-Arizona, as a contribution to ongoing debates about the occupations taking place in the U.S

Whiteness and the 99%
By Joel Olson
Occupy Wall Street and the hundreds of occupations it has sparked nationwide are among the most inspiring events in the U.S. in the 21st century. The occupations have brought together people to talk, occupy, and organize in new and exciting ways. The convergence of so many people with so many concerns has naturally created tensions within the occupation movement. One of the most significant tensions has been over race. This is not unusual, given the racial history of the United States. But this tension is particularly dangerous, for unless it is confronted, we cannot build the 99%. The key obstacle to building the 99% is left colorblindness, and the key to overcoming it is to put the struggles of communities of color at the center of this movement. It is the difference between a free world and the continued dominance of the 1%.

To read the rest click here

You really need to read it to understand what I am responding to.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Distant Observer, Insider Observer, Member - What perspective am I posting from?

All day I have been putting off the challenge of even writing this blog. It was easy to focus on trying to figure out which friends were out of jail and how to shift the agenda of tonight's OccupyBoston solidarity meeting.

Up until now I have been publishing the blog from the perspective of an outsider looking in. Then on Friday I decided that I was going to spend a night with Occupy and choose to cross over from a outside observer to a more engaged observer. I am not sure that I was ready to be a member, but I was moving in that direction.

Then last night as an action moved forward that I didn't agree with in terms of strategy, I couldn't figure out what my relationship was to #OccupyBoston.

Like many folks I have grown up hearing that you don't put family business in the street. So I am really struggling with whether it is right for me to speak to a larger world about my own frustrations with what is going on within #OccupyBoston. Should I just be sharing it with the folks who are in Dewey Square and not the larger community of folks that I was eager to share with when my outlook was extra hopeful.

I have been thinking about this all day and I have come to this conclusion. This movement has been all about transparency and living right out in the open. This transparency is what drew me to #OccupyBoston and so I will choose to remain open and transparent about my reflections of what is happening in real time.

That means that some days I may be more up and other days I might be more down. In the complex world of building community, that is how it goes. If it was not already completely obvious - this is just one women's opinion and a reflection of my experience with #OccupyBoston and the larger Occupy movement. If you really want to understand this movement (and any movement for that matter) you need to read multiple opinions.

A lot of times in organizing the approach is a football-style huddle with the goal of keeping your strategy and opinions hidden in order to psych out the opponent. You don't air the problems or challenges of the group so you don't give any "power" to your opponent. But a few posts ago I was saying that I reject that approach in order to embrace #OccupyBoston. So today I have decided to also reject that approach in the way that I reflect on #OccupyBoston. I will be doing "open source" blogging in which I will be transparent about the fact that my ideas are evolving before my eyes. I hope that you will allow me to speak the truth that I know right now, and to let that truth evolve as my perspective evolves.

I will not name other people but I will reference conversations only so much as they have influenced my thinking.

So with that caveat, please feel free my all my posts with an eye to the grains of truth but with a grain of salt.

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What Happened at #OccupyBoston last night

I walked into my house at 3:30am last night very tired and not sure what I was feeling. I had hoped that when I woke up this morning it would all make sense and that I could write an introspective and intelligent blog. Now it is almost 5:30. I am waiting for my ride and I still don't quite know what to say.

For those of you who don't know, last night 100+ members of #OccupyBoston were arrested when some folks decided to expand the camp onto another piece of downtown land. I was not there for the general assembly meeting where the decision was made, but having talked to a few people who were there - this is what I understand to be the basic outline of the facts:


New people showed up with tents wanting to join #OccupyBoston. There was not enough room on the land they had already been using so they started planning to move to extend to another piece of land. The Nature Conservancy that owns the land said that they would rather not have folks move there, but if that decision was made then they just asked that people respect the space as they have been respecting the space they are already in. The police then said that they could not move to the new space and that if they did, they would be arrested.

People were debating what to do and some people said that they would move there no matter what. Once people decided to move to the new space, others decided that they should not be just left there alone to face the police. Once the tents were set up, lots of police (it seemed like at least 150 to me) started coming downtown and putting on riot gear. Folks linked arms and formed a circle around the new camp.

The police came in. Some people were carried out peacefully. Some people looked like they were beaten. Because it was so dark, even though I was right across the street I couldn't tell exactly what was happening to whom. I need to watch more video and talk to more people to understand how many folks were beaten and how the issues started but it is clear that some people were definitely hurt.

These are the facts as I know them, my understanding may evolve over time as I have more conversations, but I wanted to share them because so often the media doesn't really quite get it right.

What I will say is that my basic evaluation is that #OccupyBoston is at a critical place. Last night really showed both that folks were willing to stand together and that there are real limitations to the way that decisions are made. I think that there were so many more creative approaches to the problem of running out of space, but it doesn't feel like the space for creative thinking was really there. I recognize that it is hard to be creative when you have a thousand people trying to make a decision, but I think that if the group is going to really move forward it will have to develop better processes and folks have to be more committed to getting the information that they need to make good decisions and evolve even better processes to disseminate that information and unlock the creativity of the group.

So as frustrated as I was last night both at the #OccupyBoston membership and the City/Boston Police, I am not pulling out of this conversation. I have more thoughts but I have to head out to get to an event and then off to an Occupy meeting.

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Friday, October 7, 2011

Reflections on a week with #OccupyBoston

On Monday morning I made my first trip to visit #OccupyBoston. Monday night I went to a meeting of grassroots organizers/activists from Boston and leaders from Occupy Boston. Throughout the week I have stopped by the camp two other times, had conversations with members of the movement and have followed the development of interactions between local groups that have been organizing for years and Occupy leaders (while there is not a formal leadership structure, there are people who have been there longer, are playing deeper roles and are in a leadership role by default.)

There are many things that have played out in ways that we have seen before. This movement is led by predominantly young, white people who have not been connected to a particular organizing group. The majority of them seem to be middle-class, and many that I met have a college education or are in school now. They have a clear sense that something is wrong with this country but I get the sense that for a good number of these folks this is there first experience going deep into some of the issues of economics and the American caste structure. The fact that a lot of folks don't have a lot of experience in drafting demands and that they are really working to figure out how to choose the right tactics for what they want to achieve is indicative of the fact that so few college campus have the kind of organizing landscape that I was part of as a student in California in the late 90s.

They are overwhelmingly young, white, privileged and inexperienced - and I am even surprising myself that I find that really exciting. For those of us who have been doing organizing for awhile, isn't this part of what we have been waiting for? Haven't we been complaining that the "masses" aren't taking action? As we have watched our country becoming more and more unequal, as we have watched some of the race baiting and "me mentality" of the Tea Party - didn't we wish for a deeper, more united, more focused on the real folks that are getting away with murder in our country movement? Haven't we wanted a movement that would say that it is Wall Street and not immigrants that are driving our nation to hell in a hand basket?

That movement might just be here and it is fraught with all the challenges that movements have. The problem of folks not being on the same page - that is what late night dialogues until 2am over beer are about (but since there is no alcohol allowed into the camps I guess they will have to settle for hot chocolate.) Last night there was a peoples assembly in Boston to consider if the group should release a statement calling for the end of corporations having the the same constitutional rights as people. Folks were struggling about whether to make it a demand or a statement and whether it would alienate people or bring more people in. This is Activism 101 happening for a lot of folks that probably would not have had this experience otherwise.

They are predominantly white but at least in Boston they are really open to being pushed around this issue. There are people of color in the Occupy movement who pushing from the inside and are helping those of us who are "outsiders" to engage with Occupy members. This same push is happening in New York also and probably in other parts of the country. On Monday a People of Color group is meeting to talk about how to move race into the center of the dialogue and structure of Occupy Boston.

They are disconnected from formal organizing and from the work that folks have already been doing in Boston. A group of young people of color participated in the General Assembly on Wednesday and are presenting a proposal at tonight's General Assembly about how they can teach #OccupyBoston members about the youth organizing work that has been happening in Boston. Tuesday a group of local community organizers and Occupy members are meeting to talk about connecting the Occupy movement to local struggles.

I am not saying I know where this is going. I hear people calling for clear messaging, concrete demands, and unified action. I think that does need to happen. But I also think that this movement is less than a month old. They are dealing \ out-in-the-open with the challenges that many of us have had to deal with behind closed doors before going out to present as a united front. So I don't think that their process is much messier, but there is more transparency about where they are struggling.

That transparency is why in less than a week since their launch there is a people of color group, a youth organizing group and a engagement strategy with the low-income folks and communities of color being developed in conjunction with local organizers.
That transparency that is part of what I believe is drawing people. It is the willingness to hear people and to let each new person add to the movement that is making folks feel like they are in a community where they are valued. The set-up needs some adjustment to make sure that it is not dominated by white men who tend to have a communication style that works best in the set-up as it is. As a Black person and a woman I can attest to the fact that many other longstanding organizing efforts are still struggling with this, so I don't think folks should act like Occupy is the only place where this is an issue.

This transparency is a paradigm-shift from the behind closed door deals that not only the banks and politicians but many mainstream organizing groups have become accustomed to. The back door dealing is what has turned people off to the organizing work of those of us who have been professionalized organizers. In the name of policy wins and "moving the ball forward" we have wheeled in dealed our way to "victories" like even the health care bill which might be overturned because we failed to make space for people to make it their cause.

My thoughts only speak for the work that I have seen in Boston, but if the struggle, dialogue and consensus-building that is happening here is happening at the 200+ other Occupy meet-ups then this is something radical and unique for this country. Even if they don't topple the financial system, they will have brought a lot of new folks into the dialogue about what needs to change in our country, and that is an important thing.

I for one will not blog on the sidelines without committing to working this out. This messiness, this community-building, this uncertainty, this passion, this frustration, and this hope - this is what democracy looks like and I for one will not miss the opportunity to make this a transformative moment for me, for all the people I serve (most of whom need to be brought into the center of this movement), for our country as a whole, and for the next generation.

The image that comes to mind is that of a burning building. There is a small water fountain out front and one small beach pail. Just across the street there is a fire hydrant but they don't have a hose or any way of getting the hydrant open. It is clear that the fire fighters are asleep on the job so the people have to save themselves. One person suggests that since the hydrant can't be opened they line everyone up and put out the fire with what they can get from the fountain. Recognizing that there is no way that is going to save the building another person suggests that they all start working together to open the hydrant. She doesn't know how to open it and she doesn't know how they will control the water once they get it open, but she trusts that if the 9 of them work together that they have a better chance of saving the building. Will they get it open? I don't know. But I know that if there is a chance that it can work that I am going to take a break from the beach pail assembly line and put my head and my energy into to trying to figure out how to open that hydrant.

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Monday, October 3, 2011

On the eve of my trip to Occupy Boston

It is 3:20am and I am have decided that tomorrow morning I am going to visit the Occupy Boston encampment. I have been following the Occupy Wall Street movement through their website and a barrage of articles, blogs and email posts. I am excited that folks are choosing to speak out radically against what is happening in our country. I have no idea what to expect and at the same time I am worried that I might know exactly what to expect.

In college it was so clear to me that - WITHOUT STRUGGLE THERE IS NO PROGRESS. I envisioned a life of hand-me down furniture and time spent on communal farms and being a freedom singer. I thought that I would be putting my very life on the line for what I believed in. That is what my ancestors did to give me the opportunities I have and that was what I was supposed to do for the next generation. Instead I am writing this from a custom couch built to fit in my condo and I just turned off my flat screen because I thought this was a better way to work out my insomnia rather than watching reality TV shows. And while I did come back to my community to live and work, I have to admit that my life doesn't quite look like I imagined.

The truth is that Occupy looks at lot more like what I envisioned for my life. Going there might make me confront my failure to meet my own expectations of my life of social justice. If that was the only fear then I could march right down there, be in solidarity, give of myself and my privilege and have an epiphany. But my fear actually runs a little deeper.

Growing up I lived in a community where many of the other kids on the street were not doing nearly as well as I was. They called my family the Cosbys because we were the most stable Black family that they knew. Between the constant of poverty, the tumult created by the onset of crack in the 80s and the epidemic of violence that my generation lived through in the 90s, things were not so great in Roxbury when I was coming up. And yet I was surrounded by a strong web of Black families who were determined to both raise their families and serve as pillars in a community that sometimes seemed to be crumbling no matter how tall they stood.

So when I hear Black children associate basic prosperity and quality education with "whiteness" I feel the need to stand and show that we too have a right to the American dream. I want them to see that Black people can have nice homes and stable marriages. I want them to know that being healthy and eating well are not "white" things and that we have just as much right to walk into the fanciest restaurants in Boston and be waited on with courtesy and respect. In part I have constructed my life to be stable so that I can hold up my community. I have tried to become a pillar of my community because I think folks need some solid and stable things to believe in.

So what does all of this have to do with Occupy Boston and Occupy Wall Street?

I admire their desire to call out the economic system. But I worry that these same protestors will not ride a few train stops be in solidarity with many of the folks in my neighborhood of Dorchester who have been screwed by the same banks that they are calling out. I worry that the encampment might not be a welcoming place for the young people who I work with because they haven’t had the privilege to go camping and might now know how to work a tent. I worry that the families I am fighting with and for will be so turned off by the appearance of the protest that they will not hear long enough to connect with the message.

I am going tomorrow because I am drawn to the willingness of people to sacrifice. I am okay with the fact that they do not have an organization, or a spokesperson or a 10 point plan. While all of those things are important and have their place, I have been doing that stuff for a few years now and I have come to see it as important but not the fundamental thing. What I had growing up in that small network of Black families and in our tiny church is what I want to for the world. BELOVED COMMUNITY.

Beloved Community is that thing which Dr. King talked about, which the Zapatistas are living, and it is what I really believe the world needs. To create spaces where all of us are loved and where our love at the local level is so strong that it helps us to love all of our fellow human beings. Beloved Community is the place where we learn to let of our "dog eat dog" mentality and where we make decisions based on our love for each other. Beloved Community is not a place that we can get to through policy changes. We can only get there through being with each other - hanging out, laughing, sharing pictures of our families and talking about the things that really matter. TOGETHER.

So the truth is that I have a lot of hope for what this space can be. The idea of a space of deep community that stands in opposition to deep oppression - that is what I have been looking for and trying to create. I want it so bad and I am already prepared for the fact that it will be a mostly white and mostly young space. I suspect that most folks will come from at least as much privilege as I have. I am not going tomorrow expecting to see utopia. I just want to feel like the other people have as much desire to struggle for radical Beloved community as they do to struggle against the banks. If the desire is there, then I hope I can start to be a bridge builder between some of the folks that have had the privilege to be out there to this point and most of the folks in my hood who don't even know it is happening.

Maybe Occupy can't be and won't be that space. Maybe it will be a huge let down. But at least it has reminded this Black activist woman what she really wants and it is not just another non-profit program. They have reminded me that I still want to cross boundaries to work for the vision that my biggest hero, Jesus, talked about. So now it is 4:20am and my body needs to go to sleep. But my heart has been awakened.............

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