Sonny Singh, 31, explains that a pivotal moment for Occupy Wall Street’s racial politics came at an early General Assembly meeting about the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City. “We had a copy in front of us. There were four of us, all friends, South Asians, and the more we looked at it, the more we realized that there was a really problematic section of it, the second sentence of the whole declaration.” That clause originally read, “As one people, formerly divided by the color of our skin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or lack thereof, political party and cultural background, we acknowledge the reality: that there is only one race, the human race…”
“When I read that, my gut reaction was—this could only have been written by a white man,” recalls Singh, who along with a handful of others blocked the declaration from passing that night. According to Singh, the facilitators and the members of the Call to Action working group that drafted the statement were resistant to changing the wording. “They were like—Oh, we’ll figure out the wording later.” But words were important to Singh and his friends, especially the word “formerly”. “Oppression and racism are actually very current, and they exist in that space and in that movement and in the conversation we were having right there,” explains Singh.
The block held, and eventually Singh and other people of color at OWS convinced the Call to Action group to take the wording out. The Declaration now reads: “As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members…”
“None of us had been deeply involved until then and suddenly we were helping shape this declaration that probably millions of people have read at this point,” says Singh, who originally came to play his trumpet with Occupy Wall Street musicians but now facilitates General Assembly meetings and is a member of OWS’ People of Color working group, which officially formed on October 1.
In this plastic, anarchic stage of the Occupy movement, these almost painfully conscious protesters, who have nicknamed themselves POCcupiers, are determined to forge a new paradigm that eschews the divide-and-conquer pitfalls of the past. At the same time, the 33,000 square-foot plot that delineates the Occupation remains connected to the entrenched racial, ethnic and gender patterns of society as a whole. Issues that Occupy Wall Street has championed as a matter of principle manifest more concretely as day-to-day struggles for POCcupiers. For example, Occupiers have held aloft signs demanding the repeal of the PATRIOT Act, the effects of which Muslim and Arab POCcupiers have experienced first hand when profiled at airports. Indeed, people of color are over-represented in prisons, public housing, public education and crackdowns on undocumented immigrants.
Reverend Rosemary McNatt, a Unitarian Universalist minister, underscores the paradoxical centrality of the POCcupiers’ concerns. “It’s clear that the Occupy Wall Street folks really have excellent points…But they’re no different—they can’t be any different—from the society they come from.” According to McNatt, protesters who truly seek to create the broad reforms they’re demanding need to acquire “an understanding of the role that gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnic status, immigration status all play in keeping the system the way it is.” She is eager to avoid “the negative narrative” ascribing separatist motives to the POCcupiers. McNatt, who joined Martin Luther King’s demonstration against the Chicago school board at age ten, sees the Occupation as going a step further than the Civil Rights Movement. “All of us exist simultaneously in positions of marginalization and privilege…How do we help people move beyond positions of privilege and marginalization into this space of community and equality and justice? That’s what I love about this movement. Because at its core, that’s what they’re after.”
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The POCcupiers’ first objective is to establish and maintain a presence in every working group among the larger OWS movement, collaborating with a White Allies group whose function is to liaise between the People of Color group and the general OWS community. POCcupiers also feel a special sense of responsibility to conduct outreach to their various communities, some of whom have been isolated by choice or by circumstances for as long as they’ve existed, because the OWS movement requires these missing pieces in order to succeed.
Juan Carlos Romero, 20, became an activist for undocumented restaurant workers like himself because he couldn’t afford college. Between two jobs, he spearheads the Undocumented Workers Subcommittee of the POC group. “Undocumented immigrants have been spoken for and never really spoken out for themselves. I am here because of that. A lot of people are not aware that a lot of their issues are connected to our struggle.” The restaurant industry, one of New York City’s largest, employs some of its lowest paid workers like prep cooks, dishwashers and counter attendants. “When you see what kind of people compose it, the ‘back of the house,’ you see immigrants, mainly illegal immigrants,” says Romero.
During a rally for the National Day of Protest against police brutality, Firewolf Bizahaloni-Wong, a Dineh (Navajo) activist, spoke about her own experience as a teenager being gang-raped by three white boys who slit her wrists and left her for dead. She later identified her assailants when they showed up in the emergency room suffering from wounds she had inflicted on them in self-defense, but “the cops did absolutely nothing. That’s the way things go on the reservation, and to this day, it’s still the same.” Dineh men like her cousins routinely get stopped and asked for their papers. Bizahaloni-Wong says that while a few Native Americans have occupied Wall Street from the beginning, “there’s a lot of Natives in New York, and most of them are like—yeah, yeah it’s a wonderful thing that’s going on, but what’s the red man gonna do?” Wong has no use for the characterization of the protesters by some people of color as privileged white college kids. “If you’re so on about these white kids being here, let’s get our butts down there and make a show.”
Preach, a member of OccupytheHood, a hip-hop based group focused on activating the black and Latino community, explains, “One of the things we really want to promote is economic independence for the community. We would rather have community banks where the people have a say where the banks invest.” Up until now, Preach did not find a large audience for his ideas. “One thing that is so great about Occupy Wall Street is that it provided this big megaphone for people to be able to speak.”
Bob Lee, who currently heads the Arts & Culture subcommittee for the POC group grew up in the black and Puerto Rican section of Newark. He later participated in I Wor Kuen (Righteous Harmonious Fist), a Chinatown organization that took its cue from the Black Panther movement, and co-founded the Asian-American Arts Centre in 1974. Lee is looking for ways to bring Chinatown into OWS. “This is not something that people in Chinatown can just ignore, as they do most of what goes on in the city. No, we have to try to wake them up and see that the issues here are the same issues that have kept Chinatown people selling dim sum for half the price.”
Chinatown, synonymous with shoddy, black market goods and sweatshops where underpaid garment workers toil long hours, in many ways represents a microcosm of the global rat race. “And that standard, we don’t even talk about it anymore," laments Lee, "it’s just accepted…We need to add our voice and our energy and our history to an American movement that will reflect who the American people really are, including its ethnic peoples.”