Has Wall Street become the site, the space, the barricaded-yet-porous position of the next American Revolution? Is Zuccotti Park, the 33,000-square-foot privately owned yet publically accessible sliver of real estate across the street from the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan the new streets of Chicago (October 1968) or the new streets of Seattle (November 30 and early December 1999)?
For the past few weeks, I’ve been visiting the #OWS site as often as I can, bringing down everyone from my 10-year-old daughter to friends visiting from the West Coast. The park, for those who haven’t been there, is a swirling self-governed space, from drumming at the Burger King end to the now infamous rows of self-painted political placards on the Starbucks/police reinforcements side. Meetings and conversations emerge by the power of one voice shouting “Mic Check,” followed by a collectivity of voices responding in kind, “Mic Check.” And from the 7 pm general assemblies to the post-Mic Check speeches of visiting dignitaries like Naomi Klein this past Thursday to the smaller yet more immediate (and, I’d argue, more significant) “Mic check” democratic circles of conversation that emerge and dissolve throughout the day, Zuccotti Park is an inspiring, boisterous, and highly anticipated new non-violent social movement that so very many of us in America, and around the world, have been waiting to be born.
As part of my thinking through and participating in #OWS, I’ve been rereading James Boggs’ seminal 1960s text, The American Revolution, recently reprinted in an important new collection of writings issued by Wayne State University Press, Pages from a Black Radical’s Notebook: A James Boggs Reader. (You can also read the book online at the History Is a Weapon Web site, but you’ll miss out on the other 300 pgs of Boggs’ writing including pieces from Correspondence, his select columns from the Black Power era in Detroit, and the poignant pieces on community building and grassroots leadership in post-industrial Detroit from the last decade of his life.) And what strikes me in reading Boggs today, as I was struck when I first found a used copy of The American Revolution years ago, is the former Detroit autoworker and true organic intellectual’s ability to articulate all struggles both dialectically and together, to see and appreciate and analyze them not as separate arenas of struggle but as deeply interlocked sites of dialectical contention (and potential). Take, for example, the first part of the book’s concluding paragraph:
Today . . . the struggle is more difficult. What it requires is that people in every stratum of the population clash not only with the agents of the silent police state but with their own prejudices, their own outmoded ideas, their own fears that keep them from grappling with the new realities of our age. The American people must find a way to insist upon their own right and responsibility to make political decisions and to determine policy in all spheres of social existence — whether it is foreign policy, the work process, education, race relations, or community life.
If one were to go back and study the testimonies of participants in the WTO protests of 1999 (a large group of these are downloadable from the WTO Oral History Project, housed at the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies at the University of Washington), one of the central and repeated critiques of that social movement from a decade ago that one will hear in interview after interview is the reproduction of the demographics of power in the structure of the social movement itself, particularly regarding issues of race. For example, when Kristine Wong, who was affiliated with the Community Coalition for Environmental Justice, was asked for her opinion on the role of people of color — Were they there? Were they present? — during the WTO protests, Wong said the following:
Well, certainly they were there. They were definitely not in the majority, but I don’t think that people are really acknowledging why they really weren’t there. Whenever you hear talk about how the Battle of Seattle was so white or whatnot, the way they framed the debate is in a way that it’s almost like blaming the victim. “Oh, well, everyone talks about the importance of having a multicultural movement, but people of color weren’t even there, so why should we even have a multicultural movement?” I feel like that’s the way the debate has been framed, when people have not stopped to take a step back and look at how racism and classism plays out in this society, and the dominance of a white, liberal movement, and how that even marginalizes people of color even more.
I think that the role of people of color was one of struggle. I think that we all, the people who were involved, got involved because it meant something to them and they realized how WTO was affecting and going to be affecting our lives, but other people might have realized that, too, but didn’t want to deal with all the politics of race and class involved in the Northern anti-globalization movement just to be able to take part in it. More specifically, one example might be is if a person of color wanted to get involved in Direct Action Network, there was the race and class issues of feeling uncomfortable, feeling like you weren’t one of them. Even the general mobilization meetings that were held weren’t that diverse. The only place where people of color really were there were with organizations such as the People’s Assembly, Community Coalition for Environmental Justice, or LELO.
Even when people were trying to make their voice heard — I can speak from personal experience — when I was trying to make my voice heard, it didn’t matter, because I was just a person of color from a locally-based, community-based organization. As people of color, our role was to be able to represent all of the other people around the world who couldn’t be there, who didn’t have the luxury to take time off of work or school, who didn’t have the money to fly all the way to Seattle. We were there representing those folks, but no one ever captures it in that way.
All around Zuccotti Park, one will find placards (or people standing with their hand-painted messages) imploring women, the queer, and transgender community, and people of color that this, too is their revolution, that in addition to Occupying Wall Street there is also a need, as one sign I saw on Friday afternoon had it, to “Occupy the Ghetto.”
And at least a portion of protestors, it should be said, are aware of this problem. After being summoned by a “Mic Check” circle at Zuccotti on Friday afternoon in which people interested in security issues at the site were asked to attend a discussion a few blocks away at Trinity Church, a group of twenty people gathered in a small circle of metal chairs in a quiet space just to the left of the entrance to the church. In addition to other “security” issues (and a desire to change the name of the group from “security” to something in the vocabulary with less state-sponsored reverberations), one member of the group addressed how the twenty people gathered to discuss the issue were “demographically problematic,” that 75% of those gathered were men and only one person of color was present among the twenty.” Another member took exception at assigning race to others based on visual representation, but added that the general sense of the comment on racial representation was no doubt true. The processes that might be engaged to address this problem, however, will still need to prove — as they have historically not proven in so many previous social movements in which the problem has been deeply embedded — that they will be able to provide enduring solutions to “the race question” in global Northern social movements. This, in itself, would be a significant victory for this movement.
If “Women, People of Color, Queers” (as the photo that accompanies this piece proclaims) are to “Grab the Wheel,” the featured keynote dignitaries (Naomi Klein, Barbara Ehrenrecih — who didn’t show up at her scheduled time slot on Friday — Anti-Flag, & others) will need to much more regularly represent a more inclusive 99%. More importantly, those who carry historical power (esp. white males) within the 99% will need to quell their urges to shout “Mic Check” and allow space and voice for another sector of the disempowered 99% to grab the mic. It’s not what I’ve seen so far in my many hours at Zuccotti Park. But as one member of the security discussion said at one point in the conversation, “I don’t want to stop behaviors, I want to allow behaviors to evolve. Everyone can find inclusion in this group.”
But the evolution of behaviors in a moment like this will not be easy. Toward this goal, perhaps the final sentences of James Boggs’ The American Revolution will ring as true for today’s occupation as they did when Boggs first penned them nearly forty years ago:
The coming struggle is a political struggle to take political power out of the hands of the few and put it into the hands of the many. But in order to get this power into the hands of the many, it will be necessary for the many not only to fight the powerful few but to fight and clash among themselves as well.
It is only in the full and total emancipation and participation of the entirety of the 99% that Occupy Wall Street will grow larger, prove to be more lasting, and enact the kind of deep, ongoing social and economic changes that are required in the present moment. Otherwise, the 1% will once again be victorious. And none of us in the 99% can afford to allow that to happen.
Occupy Wall Street.
Mark Nowak is the author of Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press, 2009) and Shut Up Shut Down (Coffee House Press, 2004). Read his blog Coal Mountain at <coalmountain.wordpress.com>.
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