Wallstreet occupiers shut out privilege

November 14, 2011 by  

By Jake McBride

This is our Occupation—for the millions of Americans out of work; for millions more students who are graduating with crippling student loans and who will enter a decaying job market; for homeless Americans; and for the minimum-wage, part-time workers just struggling to get by.

Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement has succeeded until now by utilizing their resources: a population of unemployed people with uninvited free time who are angry with America for passing the brunt of the Wall-Street-caused recession onto the “Main Street” population—the 99%. Both in time and in spirit these protests join the Arab Spring uprisings and protests in Greece and Spain to reveal a renewed international concern with greater equality and involved democracy. The Occupy movement has garnered plenty of accusations, however, of racism, classism, and sexism that must be addressed in order to sustain these protests and strengthen the voice of protesters.

The internet has been the lifeblood of these protests and one of the most powerful voices is the blog, WeAreThe99Percent.  Hundreds of 99%-ers tell their “horror stories” of food stamps, oppressive debt, and struggling to get by. I felt ashamed of my America when I began to read these stories and noticed how these people not unlike myself—a white, middle-class male—had fallen into poverty or unmanageable debt.  But for many black Americans, poverty and debt have been a reality long before the beginning of the Great Recession. What prompted much of the anger of the Occupy protests was that of a white , working, middle class who had done “all the right things” like going to public universities and pursuing practical degrees. Now, white people have found themselves bewildered and depending on government aid and unemployment, whereas much of the black community in America has long been relegated to welfare benefits and minimum wage jobs.  There is a sense of white centrism—and frankly, selfishness—to a movement that ignored the systematic problems of poverty and debt until it began to personally affect the protesters of that movement.

Stories of “doing the right thing” and the feeling of “I’m middle class; this shouldn’t have happened to me” will also smell funky to working and lower-class participants.  Although there are stories of homeless protesters, their narrative has not been as central to the Occupy movement as that of the college-educated, debt-laden twentysomething.  Sometimes these attitudes of white-centrism and subtle classism manifest themselves outwardly, as at the Occupy Philadelphia protest, where counter protests were scheduled after two women of color were called “niggers.”  At their counter protest of Occupy Philadelphia, participants were told they were being divisive for holding up signs that said “racism exists in the 99%.” Many argued that race is “behind us,” despite the use of the ‘n’ word by whites at the protest. At the Occupy Wall Street protest, where all food is free and is based on the donations that pour in from around the country, cooks began complaining about feeding “pretend protesters” and “the professional homeless” and began reevaluating how to avoid “freeloaders.”  This issue is blatant classism in that many of the homeless are not seen as true 99%-ers.

Much of the voice of Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement has been supplied by white men.  Although the General Assembly format and decision by consensus give every participant equal voice, the fact that white men have lead many of the protests raises the issue of sexism, as many women don’t feel comfortable at a place dominated by white men (even if democratically chosen to lead).  It doesn’t help that there have been stories about sexual harassment and rape at a few Occupy protests around the country.  Although the Occupy movement certainly has several strong, female participants, I question, as a white man, the feminist potential of a movement that is led by men.  The creation of the tumblr blog “Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street,” while not officially connected with Occupy Wall Street, is another explicit example of the anti-feminism and patriarchal ideology that women might encounter at their local Occupy protest.  In “So Real It Hurts: Notes on Occupy Wall Street” by Manissa Mahawaral outlines her experience as a woman of color at the early days of Occupy Wall Street. Most of what she experienced was ignorance and naiveté of white privilege, class privilege, and male privilege.

A visual representation of the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City. Graphic: Occupy Wall Street

She describes her experience of using the General Assembly format to alter the original text of the Declaration of Occupation to change a reference to “one race, the human race,” which reeks of white privilege and in her eyes would have de-legitimized the Occupy movement for many people of color.

The Occupy Wall Street movement must address these criticisms of racism, classism, and sexism, and must do so as soon as possible.  The message of the movement resounds with most Americans and millions around the world.  It has the potential, more so than any other vehicle in recent memory, I believe, of effecting concrete change.  Already, it has changed Republican rhetoric to emphasize the importance of the social “safety net”  and the wealth gap and government policies which favor the top 1% of Americans.  With the right kind of changes to this movement, it could become a truly diverse movement, and with each new layer of diversity, it is strengthened.  The voice of the homeless population at these protests strengthen the movement, as do the voices of the poor, the elderly, Americans of color, and women. An authentic attempt—not just a PR gimmick— to promote diverse leaders, will transcend many of these criticisms and point out the importance of these voices as members of the 99% and victims of corporate greed and systematic inequality.

In addition to diverse voices and leaders, Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement must work on educating members of their privileges: male, white, class, and others.  With cognizance of these issues, the Occupy movement can further reduce undertones of racism, classism, and sexism at its protests.  Safe spaces for women can be set up at Occupy camps, and committees can be set up to investigate suspicious activity in the camps and to educate on sexual health and consent.  Occupy Wall Street supporters can and must relay apologies to poor and black communities for taking so long to address issues of poverty and debt. The movement must acknowledge privilege and work together for equality. Without major attempts to rectify not only particular instances of racism, classism, and sexism, but underlying feelings thereof, Occupy Wall Street will survive only as a raucous group of angry, white, professional, middle-class, men. It would be the Left’s equivalent of the Tea Party.  We don’t need that right now. We need a movement which resonates, especially with those of us who are at the bottom of the 99%.  We need a diverse, united front, that is passionate and ready to change the way this system works.


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