Occupy Wall Street Fails At Race Issues: An Open Letter from People of Color

The title of an open letter from people of color to the Occupy movement caught my eye: For People Who Have Considered Occupation But Found It Is Not Enuf is a clear reference to poet, and author Ntozake Shange’s play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. A series of 20 poems performed as a play and turned into a movie in 2010. 

As I read the statement from those who have been involved with the Occupy movement from Oakland to NYC I was impressed by how honest and heartfelt it was. While the whole statement is powerful, I have highlighted some of the points below. The statement makes no claim to speak for all people of color, and acknowledges the draw to participate in the Occupy movement. However, it notes that, “So far, many of our experiences with Occupy Wall Street have shown that neither justice nor dignity can happen under occupation.” 

From Occupation to Decolonization

Speaking to the goal of decolonization the statement clarified that, “decolonization is not just about abolishing racism, supporting reparations, or wanting settlers to return stolen lands or its equivalent to native peoples.” Decolonization, “remembers and rebuilds the many systems of civilization — economics, government, politics, spirituality, environmental sustainability, nutrition, medicine and understandings of self, identity, gender and sexuality — that existed before colonization.”

Decolonization is a reminder to “resist internalized oppression” and “calls for organizing a movement that is led by individuals and communities whose voices are least likely to be heard.” Decolonization also requires “effort, time, care and trust.” 

Occupation as a Failed Strategy 

The statement is clear that it is written from multiple viewpoints. From indigenous people to those with ancestors forced to come to the U.S. as slaves, to those who have come to the U.S. as a result of international economic policy. Instead of creating something new, “OWS has continued the history of occupation.”

Despite Efforts, OWS is Still Dominated by White Men

While some of those statement authors participated in the formation of Occupy People of Color and Queer People of Color groups, they argue that, “The simple fact that our groups served this purpose shows that OWS spaces prioritized the wants, needs, values, and culture of heterosexual white men first.”

The Money Matters May Need More Thought

The authors ask, “How can people who cannot afford housing or enough food to eat each day be expected to unify with people who make over $500,000 a year, or even $250,000?” A very good question, especially when you consider higher rates of people of color in jail, thus limiting access to jobs, education, housing and health care. 

Violence, Identity and Difference

The statement discusses experiences and witnessing slurs, attacks, and intimidation based on race, culture, age, socioeconomic status, educational level, ability and/or perceived gender and sexual identities at Occupy encampments.

Fears of snitches and informants have resulted in “heightened anxiety and/or suspicion of women of color and/or queer voices who challenge organizing practices. Voices that call out internal dynamics are deemed inappropriate, divisive, ineffectual and potentially counterrevolutionary.”

The examples of power and privilege at various Occupations are detailed in the statement, ranging from racial slurs, to the use of weapons. Resulting in the “overwhelming majority agreed that the encampments were not safe spaces for people of color.”

Demands 

The letter then moves to listing the demands, which range from being clear about goals, intent, and strategies, to the acknowledgement and abolition of Rape Culture. The statement questions leadership and demands that future encampments be organized and led by those who most need them. 

Though it would’ve been nice if there was an easy fix to the hundreds of years of oppression, the statement ends on a positive note saying, “We do not have the answers for you because we haven’t yet found the answers for ourselves… We expect you to act from that knowledge with integrity.”

I’m curious to see where this dialogue goes. I hope it is not met with a “sorry,” as Ntozake Shange writes in For Colored Girls, “one thing i dont need/ is any more apologies/i got sorry greetin me at my front door....