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.”