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Racism, Colonization and Occupy Wall Street: Challenges for Occupy Toronto

October 11, 2011

There is change in the air, many say. This spring, in many Arab countries, long established regimes crumbled and fled under a barrage of public protest and armed resistance. Egypt fell fairly quickly, others like Libya took longer, others yet are still ongoing. In North America, the question was often raised in response: Could something like that ever happen here?

In the past month, a movement that began with a pocket of people has made waves in cities across the United States, the foundations of what is Occupy Wall Street. The goal was to demonstrate the inequality of the current capitalist system that privileged the richest 1% at the expense of the other 99%, to take back America from the bankers, corporate owners and oppressors. Now I am not saying that Occupy Wall Street is similar to the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ but the beginnings of this movement posited itself as a ‘revolution’ and some were eager to make the connection.

It was a noble cause that has spread; joined by prominent unions, growing crowds and media coverage, marches and sit-ins have propelled the movement beyond New York into other major US cities. On October 15th it is expanding to Canada with an organized Occupy Toronto. Lots of my colleagues are undoubtedly planning on being involved in various forms, many are ardent activists already. Others, like myself, are raising some serious questions about the legitimacy and voice that these protests are bringing front and center, and are hesitant to join the fray for fear of participating in the further silencing of particular voices.

For me, the elephant in the room is this: Who is getting to speak and what are they saying? I come to this question through a particularly antiracist lens that looks to center racialized and minoritized voices and experiences of oppression.

A fantastic article by Jessica Yee on raises a most important question – why are we talking about occupying land that is already occupied… by us? This land is Indigenous North American land. When hundred of mostly disenfranchised White folks march on Wall Street – what are you able to accomplish without acknowledging that the land you are on has already been occupied? How does occupation advance revolution? An open letter from an Nishnaabe writer says,

I know that this whole genocide and colonization thing causes all of us lots of confusion sometimes. It just seems to me that you’re unknowingly doing the same thing to us that all the colonizers before you have done: you want to do stuff on our land without asking our permission.

What does occupation ever accomplish and who does it benefit? As Yee argues, we need decolonization to happen because colonial power and unequal relationships of domination are what holds up the capitalist system; without decolonization there will be no end to capitalism.

Giroux, in Theory and Resistance in Education, reminds us that not all oppositional actions are resistance – the two do not equate. Giroux also argues that resistance must have a revealing function, it must highlight the injustices and colonial power structures – how can this be done when the occupation of Indigenous lands is not addressed? Resistance is rooted in the experiences of the oppressed and works for transformation of those oppressive structures and discourses. There is nuance needed here; how can Occupy Wall Street or Occupy Toronto enact resistance rather than opposition?

This is connected to my next point: When you make the protest about 1% vs. 99%, whose voices are lost? Who is subsumed and silenced in the vastness of the 99%? The answer: Those who have the least power, the most oppressed and the least privileged. Not everyone’s voices can be heard and those who are pushed to the side are those with the most to lose: the racialized, the minoritized, the stigmatized, the disabled. Rinaldo Walcott, famed Black Canadian cultural critic and chair of my academic department, tweeted:

Torontonians plan to occupy Bay Street on October 15 and continuing. Will black people’s poverty be on the agenda?

Will these voices be heard? In an open letter to #OccupyWallStreet, a story was told about a black woman who wanted to speak and was silenced by the crowd and organizers. This woman had something important to say:

In this case the silenced black woman was going to speak about her close relative, who was killed by police. She was the only person speaking with a personal relationship to police brutality at a level almost unimaginable to the people occupying Zucotti Park, and her voice was not heard.

Last week, during Occupy Atlanta (another offshoot), famed Black American civil rights leader, John Lewis was silenced by the crowd, told they didn’t want to hear from him. He rose to fame as one of the original Freedom Riders, being beaten almost to death multiple times and arrested more than two dozen times for challenging color barriers in Southern United States during the 1960’s and 1970’s. This commitment to equal rights r allowed him to speak at notable events such as the famous march on Washington where he spoke alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. This man, who has scars to prove his dedication to resistance, was silenced by the crowd.

It is not hard to see how other minoritized and racialized bodies are silenced in these crowds, their concerns and experiences of oppression silenced by the seething White majority who pay little attention to those who have both paved the way and those who continue to bear the brunt of the colonial ‘stick’.

In any activist movement that seeks to harness the power of the ‘masses’, this is a major issue: Who decides what gets voiced? In this case, as in many others, a select majority craft the message. This message often excludes and/or demeans the minority within the movement who have the least power, those who suffer the most. Is the 99%, the ‘oppressed’, really all the same? Or equal? Or holding the same concerns and fears? Does a White college student enraged by capitalist oppression have the same concerns as a Black mother whose child has been ‘pushed out of school’, beaten by police, and ignored by society? The very real and material fears of many of the racialized are just that – real and material. It has to do with food on the table, personal safety and daily survival.

As it stands, these protests are missing the mark. In fact, they’re missing the whole picture, hiding the voices of the lowest percentages in the roiling mass of 99% rhetoric. The ‘middle class’ is silencing the ‘lower class’ and, in the process, benefiting the ‘upper class’ though this silencing. This movement is reproducing the very systems that they are fighting and it is going largely unnoticed.

Connected to this not noticing, protestors are refusing to see their own implication in systems of domination. A commenter on Twitter stated that they saw a poster that stated,

“In America you are the 99%, but to the rest of the world, you are the 1%.”

In this holds the difference between Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. In the Arab nations they were able to see their position int he global context and were tired of their leaders pandering to American capitalist interests (especially in the case of Egypt) while oppressing the freedom of the citizens. They saw that they were the oppressed of the global system. If Occupy Wall Street was willing to examine the global structure they would see that the 99% is implicated in a system of American colonialism and domination, they are what makes the system run.

I support anti-capitalist movements but they, to have any legitimacy, sustainability or transformative power, must center themselves on decolonization and the lived experiences of the most disadvantaged; it is in these experiences, voices and ‘lived libraries’ that real power resides, the power to fight, ‘talk back’ and change systemic power. These are the voices of the Indigenous people of Canada and America whose land has been stripped from them and occupied, their children boarded up and abused in schools and their languages and sense of belonging decimated. These are the voices of poor Blacks who are pathologized as violent and policed as always-already-criminals. These are the immigrants who are seen as exploitable labor. These voices must be heard if real change is to happen. These are voices that I’m not hearing in these protests.

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