The incident is well-known now. When civil rights hero Representative John Lewis asked to address Occupy Atlanta, the activists’ consensus process produced a decision not to let him speak. For many, the denial was a damning answer to a question that had arisen since the earliest, overwhelmingly white occupiers first took over Zuccotti Park: Is Occupy Wall Street diverse enough?
“Diverse enough for what?” is the query that leaps to mind. Diversity alone will not ensure that OWS advances an economic change agenda that is racially equitable.
The notion of taking over Wall Street clearly resonates with communities of color. Malik Rhassan and Ife Johari Uhuru, black activists from Queens, New York, and Detroit, respectively, started Occupy the Hood to encourage and make space for people of color to join the movement. On October 19, a different group, Occupy Harlem, put out “a call to Blacks, Latinos, and immigrants to occupy their communities against predatory investors, displacement, privatization and state repression.”
Such interventions have been necessary. The original OWS organizers didn’t consciously reach out to communities of color at the beginning; as a result, many people of color felt alienated. But local movements seem able to self-correct—and some newer occupations have been racially conscious from the start.
In Atlanta, the Lewis decision was followed by renaming Woodruff Park, the local occupation site, Troy Davis Park. In Albuquerque, the General Assembly, after a long and difficult discussion, renamed its movement (Un)Occupy Albuquerque in recognition of the history of indigenous lands. In San Diego, where October 10 was named Indigenous People’s Day, speakers have come from members of the Islamic Labor Caucus as well as immigrant and Native American communities.
These are all great symbols of racial solidarity. We must now move from questions of representation to ask, How can a racial analysis, and its consequent agenda, be woven into the fabric of the movement? We need to interrogate not just the symptoms of inequality—the disproportionate loss of jobs, housing, healthcare and more—but, more fundamentally, the systems of inequality, considering how and why corporations create and exploit hierarchies of race, gender and national status to enrich themselves and consolidate their power. As the New Bottom Line campaign has pointed out through a series of actions across the nation launched the same week as OWS, the subprime lending practices of Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo have devastated communities of color. A 2009 study found that 85 percent of those hardest hit by foreclosures have been African-American and Latino homeowners.
If racial exclusion and inequity are at the root of the problem, then inclusion and equity must be built into the solution. OWS has resisted making specific demands, but local groups are taking up campaigns and actions. The challenge and opportunity of this moment is to put these values at the center of their agenda.