Addressing Oppression, Racism and Privilege in the Occupy Movement | by John Chasnoff, Sandra Tamari

by Oct 15, 2011All Articles

Editor’s note: This piece by two Americans active in the U.S. occupy movement discusses some of the ways in which racial, sexual, religious, and other oppressions have been replicated and challenged within the occupied space. We publish this piece both as a frank discussion of some of the challenges an occupation must deal with, and as reminder about the importance of considering all existing axis of oppression and striving to work against and allow for them within occupied space. Ahead of today’s hugely exciting plans to Occupy London, both points are worth bearing in mind.
The Occupy movement is the first major breakout of reform-minded energy in decades, and the first major event for a new generation of activists. Through its inclusive message (“We are the 99%”) it is working to forge the new alliances and cross-cultural solidarity that Barack Obama campaigned on but failed to achieve. Along the way it brought together the authors of this article, a white male activist “of a certain age” and a young mother and active member of the local Palestinian solidarity movement. Both of us are supporters of Occupy St. Louis, though life obligations have kept us from being on the ground as much as we would like. We came together in a desire to sort through the new paradigms that Occupy is working to create and some of the difficulties they face having created a phenomenon before doing an analysis of race, gender, and other oppressions in America.

Occupy St. Louis has been holding a public park in downtown St Louis since October 1 with growing numbers of supporters and individuals sleeping overnight in tents.  Ten days into Occupy St Louis, a General Assembly passed a “Safe Space Policy” stating that no discrimination of any kind would be tolerated in the protest.  It reads:

“There are various forms of oppression embedded within the dominant culture and in the socio-political and economic systems of this country. As a community which seeks to build power and gain momentum through consensus-based decision-making and respectful social relations, we stand in opposition to the way in which our society privileges some people over others. We want to create an inclusive atmosphere of ideas in which we do not police each other’s thoughts, but we have absolutely no tolerance for oppressive or intimidating words or actions. Though our aim is to encourage and foster creative debate, we do not tolerate any form of discrimination based on actual or perceived race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, education, nationality, religion, ethnicity or abilities within our occupied space.”

This is a big first step in recognizing inequalities and privilege in our society and propelling our movement forward. But much more is needed. The group is largely white, though others are participating with seeming ease. The core group of organizers is multi-racial with roughly equal numbers of male and female. So far, so good.

Like the revolutions in the Arab world earlier this year, the protests are social experiments.  Because they draw large groups of people together over a long stretch of time, basic societal rules must be established.  The atmosphere in Kiener Plaza is electric and civil.  General Assemblies, group meetings under the model of horizontal and consensus-building decision making, are held twice each day to consider everything from how to deal with garbage and recycling to how to resist eviction from the park.

The General Assemblies have been handled well, and trust is building among the participants.  Deep conversations have led to intensive and informal learning opportunities.  Each person involved with occupy St Louis comes to the protest with a different knowledge set and background.  Inevitably, this has led to some hurt feelings and misunderstandings.  However, the spirit of goodwill pervades the protest, and people are learning. Again, so far, so good.

But many people of color are pointing out that the message of the movement ignores the realities that people of color have not shared in the fruits of this country’s economy  for centuries and have been hardest hit in recent years. Will this movement, like so many before it, succeed in getting whites back in the door and once again leave people of color behind?

Without working out our social conditioning, we recreate in our “revolutionary” space the same problems we are opposed to in the current structures. Despite all its best efforts, some sexism and homophobia have crept into the General Assemblies. Women are reporting that white males often dominate discussions. White males tend to gravitate toward being media spokespersons, possibly because they have a greater sense of empowerment and less fear of having their identity revealed. Overt discriminatory language has been dealt with effectively and gracefully. Efforts have been launched to carpool to downtown, raise money for bus passes and provide a child-friendly space with toys and crafts and some supervision. But even with surface niceties, the movement has not dealt effectively with the fact that only the relatively privileged have the ability and the resources to suspend their lives and participate for any extended period. We must acknowledge that people of color face greater danger of police brutality and political repercussions from joining publicly in the protests. It remains noble to declare that we are all leaders, but privilege makes it easier for some to grab the reins than for others. How to change these realities requires serious thought and reflection.

The Occupy movement also has aspirations beyond setting an example of a model community. It wants to change economic inequality on a national and global scale. But it cannot create a mass movement without recognizing oppressions and dealing consciously with them. Some occupiers have tried to gloss over racial inequalities by stating that race is a myth.  Yes, that is scientifically true, but don’t tell a Muslim woman being jeered at for wearing her hijab that racism doesn’t exist.  Additionally, these same people who have been the most oppressed in our society have been struggling against inequality for centuries.  We have much to learn from them.  To get the message, the goals and the tactics right, whites should accept accountability to people of color and other oppressed people. Our solidarity means that white people consciously step back so we don’t suppress other people’s gifts and struggles. 

The Homeless
The economic policies of our country have devastated families and individuals and more people than ever are homeless.  St. Louis, like cities across the U.S., lacks sufficient services to safeguard this population.  In downtown, the homeless are among us.  Some participants have been wary of the homeless, and have needed to be gently reminded that that all of us are entitled to full human dignity. Still, Occupy St. Louis seems to have been aware from the beginning that we are newcomers in their space. The supply of free food, open to all, has enabled exchange between the groups. The homeless are part of the mix, participating at General Assemblies, serving meals, and breaking bread with new friends.  But Occupy St. Louis has not been as successful in integrating other groups.

Muslims, Arabs, the Undocumented, and Other Immigrants
The Patriot Act, racial profiling, anti-immigrant movements and other institutional and societal targeting of Muslim and Arab citizens and immigrant groups have stifled these communities’ political participation.  How do we acknowledge their absence and create a safe space for them?

America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our support of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and our military incursions into Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen in the name of the war on terror are part of the same system of oppression that has given rise to the Occupy movement.  The military profits of St. Louis-based Boeing and other defense and non-defense companies is largely based on perpetual war on people perceived to be non-white and therefore inferior to us.  We have a obligation to hear the voices of Iraqi, Afghans, Palestinians and other victims of U.S. wars who are unable to stand with us and emphasize the thinking behind “Occupy Together”.

The Palestinian grassroots has been organizing around raising awareness of the crimes of U.S. and multinational companies in advancing Israeli human rights abuses.  The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (or BDS, as it is known) is growing since its inception in 2005 and pressure is mounting against companies like Northup Grumman, Motorola, Veolia and Caterpillar to quit selling equipment and weapons to the Israeli army.  With Boeing in our backyard, doesn’t St. Louis have a role to play in raising public awareness of Boeing’s crimes in Palestine and around the world?

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community (LGBT)
It is estimated that 10% of the U.S. population identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.  LGBT Missourians are not protected from employment discrimination by a statewide law.  Fewer than 30% of LGBT Missourians are protected from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations by a local ordinance.  They are vulnerable to physical assaults and abuse.  In short, they are treated as second class citizens in this country.   We have an obligation to address the specific concerns of this community.  

African Americans
St. Louis is 50% black. If Occupy St. Louis is not, then we have a problem. That community is watching but not yet fully participating. First we have to better overcome obstacles like transportation and child care so that we are accessible and welcoming. But more important, we have to stop setting the agenda in the vacuum of Kiener Plaza and find out what the agenda already is; stop waiting for social justice groups to lend their support, and start lending support to them. We need to hold our current space, but not be so territorial that we don’t spread out into the spaces that others are already occupying.

We present these ideas with love and solidarity to the people who have maintained this protest.  No one takes action without some missteps. The occupiers have shown remarkable ability to accept feedback and grow. Less than two weeks into Occupy St. Louis, the group is holding its first Anti-Racism workshop to discuss these issues further.   We look forward to being a part of an ongoing discussion.

John Chasnoff is an activist working under Black leadership in St. Louis on a variety of social justice issues. Sandra Tamari is an activist working with the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee.

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