Occupy Wall Street's Race Problem

The economic crisis has disproportionately affected people of color, in particular African Americans. Given the stark economic realities in communities of color, many people have wondered why the Occupy Wall Street movement hasn’t become a major site for mobilizing African Americans. For me, it's not about the diversity of the protests. It's about the rhetoric used by the white left that makes OWS unable to articulate, much less achieve, a transformative racial-justice agenda. 

One of the first photos I saw from the Occupy Wall Street protests was of a white person carrying a flag that read “Debt=Slavery.” White progressive media venues often compare corporate greed or exploitation to some form of modern-day slavery. But while carrying massive amounts of debt, whether in student loans, medical bills, or predatory balloon-payment mortgages is clearly a mark of a society that exploits poor and working-class people, it is not tantamount to chattel slavery. In fact, slaves, who were the property of others by law, for centuries symbolized wealth. A slave, as property, could be sold as a commodity to clear debt. Currently, black households carry about $5,000 in wealth compared to $100,000 for white households, according to a recent Brandeis University study. Arguing that white working- and middle-class people are slaves to debt or corporations undermines not only the centrality of the African slave trade to the birth of the modern corporation but the distinct ways in which debt prevents many blacks from achieving middle-class status.

In this way, white progressives subscribe to the same “slavery” line conservatives use to incite white fears of economic and political subjugation. Rush Limbaugh, according to Media Matters, equated the 2009 health-care law to slavery, noting, “It's not going to be a matter of whether you can or cannot pay. It won't be a matter of whether you have coverage or don't have coverage. What'll matter is that all of us will be slaves."

Pundits have observed that many black people may be staying away from the Wall Street protests to avoid (additional) direct contact with police. Last year, New York City carried out 600,000 random stop-and-frisks, half of which were conducted on black citizens, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union; it makes sense that blacks, who are often in daily contact with police, would stay away from an event where interaction with law-enforcement officers would be inevitable. In fact, on October 22, scores of OWS protesters joined a Harlem demonstration against the practice of stop-and-frisk, during which several people were arrested.   

But when the New York Police Department began to act violently against the mostly white protesters on Wall Street, many of the videos posted by OWS attendees on YouTube made the point that protesters were arrested, beaten, or pepper-sprayed “just for asking the police a question” or for “just exercising their right to protest.”

In contrast, many nonwhites assume the worst in any interaction with police, and if the worst doesn't occur, we often consider that the exception, not the rule.

In a London Guardian op-ed, white feminist writer and Democratic strategist Naomi Wolf wrote that she was arrested at an OWS demonstration while “standing lawfully on the sidewalk in an evening gown,” as if to connote that nice white ladies on the way to high-society gatherings wouldn't or shouldn't be treated as criminal by the police. She went on to detail the ways in which police lied or broke the law in handling the protest. Though blacks and Latinos are never mentioned directly, statements that accuse police of misconduct when they clash with ostensibly law-abiding activists highlight how much white occupiers take for granted that only “criminals” will be the target of police violence and harassment.

Another fundamental flaw of white progressives (like many participating in the OWS movement) is the “take back our country and/or democracy” framework. In order to be invested in that idea, you have to see and believe that you had some stake in it to begin with. If you've been stopped and frisked 50 different times with as many fines to pay, or you're HIV-positive and your welfare benefits were cut off because you were too ill to keep an appointment with a case manager, it's hard to believe that the government is just broken—it seems pretty insistent and hell-bent on your demise.

Comparing debt to slavery, believing police won't hurt you, or wanting to take back the America you see as rightfully yours are things that suggest OWS is actually appealing to an imagined white (re)public. Rather than trying to figure out how to diversify the Occupy Wall Street movement, white progressives need to think long and hard about their use of frameworks and rhetoric that situate blacks at the margins of the movement.

Comments

The Occupy Wall Street movement is just a result of the rage the people are now feeling over their difficulties in terms of the financial system. The American consumer's mistrust of the country's economic system proceeds to grow. Faith in the American financial system is indicated by only 23 percent of those questioned. Experts say that regulators can work to repair that trust. But the public must also be knowledgeable enough to know when the program is failing them.
Source of article: Over three-fourths of Americans distrust financial system

Thank you for this article. It's something that has bothered me about this movement since the beginning. I'm involved in OccupyChicago as a person who will stand on the corner with a sign for a couple of hours and go to their larger demonstrations. I was arrested over the weekend for sitting in around the medical station aid station set up by National Nurses United.

Somebody snapped a photo of me getting cuffed before being put on the jail bus. My brother saw it somewhere and posted it. My FB friends were gushing all over it like I was Dr. King in the Birmingham Jail. It was disconcerting and embarrassing even.

Being in jail for 18 hours was unpleasant, but really, no big deal. I knew I would get out eventually and we had the National Lawyers Guild and a whole network of support. When I was finally released, there were about 50 OccupyChicago people in front of the cop station throwing a party for us. It was nice and I did appreciate it, but most people don't get that when they get out of jail.

I don't see the reality of white privilege and our vast racial disparities being addressed in a systematic way by the Occupy Movement. Back in the day, I was involved in the Black Panther led Rainbow Coalition. That was a whole graduate course in racial politics. Some of people I worked with did some serious hard time, were wounded in shootouts and even killed.

One of the things that I think I learned from my experience in this original Rainbow Coalition (not to be confused with Jesse Jackson's later incarnation), was the a revolutionary multi-racial coalition, whether it was the non-violent approach of Dr. King's Poor People's Campaign or Fred Hampton's armed self defense model, seems to really rattle the ruling class and eventually means people get shot at...often our best leaders. Going back deeper into history to the days of the 1930's tenant farmer struggles, the Depression Era labor wars, the brief multi-racial populist movement of the 1890's and anti-racist militias of the Reconstruction Era South confirms this in my mind anyway.

I think the Occupy Movement is now emerging from its infancy. If it doesn't address race now and seriously, it will be doomed to irrelevancy. If it does address race seriously then they ain't seen nothin' yet when it comes to how much punishment the State can dish out.

Thank you for this article. It's something that has bothered me about this movement since the beginning. I'm involved in OccupyChicago as a person who will stand on the corner with a sign for a couple of hours and go to their larger demonstrations. I was arrested over the weekend for sitting in around the medical station aid station set up by National Nurses United.

Somebody snapped a photo of me getting cuffed before being put on the jail bus. My brother saw it somewhere and posted it. My FB friends were gushing all over it like I was Dr. King in the Birmingham Jail. It was disconcerting and embarrassing even.

Being in jail for 18 hours was unpleasant, but really, no big deal. I knew I would get out eventually and we had the National Lawyers Guild and a whole network of support. When I was finally released, there were about 50 OccupyChicago people in front of the cop station throwing a party for us. It was nice and I did appreciate it, but most people don't get that when they get out of jail.

I don't see the reality of white privilege and our vast racial disparities being addressed in a systematic way by the Occupy Movement. Back in the day, I was involved in the Black Panther led Rainbow Coalition. That was a whole graduate course in racial politics. Some of people I worked with did some serious hard time, were wounded in shootouts and even killed.

One of the things that I think I learned from my experience in this original Rainbow Coalition (not to be confused with Jesse Jackson's later incarnation), was the a revolutionary multi-racial coalition, whether it was the non-violent approach of Dr. King's Poor People's Campaign or Fred Hampton's armed self defense model, seems to really rattle the ruling class and eventually means people get shot at...often our best leaders. Going back deeper into history to the days of the 1930's tenant farmer struggles, the Depression Era labor wars, the brief multi-racial populist movement of the 1890's and anti-racist militias of the Reconstruction Era South confirms this in my mind anyway.

I think the Occupy Movement is now emerging from its infancy. If it doesn't address race now and seriously, it will be doomed to irrelevancy. If it does address race seriously then they ain't seen nothin' yet when it comes to how much punishment the State can dish out.

Your last paragraph is very ominous, especially in light of what happened in Oakland...

As a retired working poor white woman who has seen first hand discrimination among my black friends, I wholeheartly agree with you that there is a disproportionate targeting of minorities. Just as slavery is used as a example of injustice, so is the nazism. There needs to be a honest discourse in this country about prejudice, unfortunately there seems to be a denial even among many journalists that prejudice still exists. Just because Obama is president , doesn't mean it has ceased to exist. Thank you for the enlightning article.

I'm confused to what you think the alternative should be. Nobody would be able to disagree with your well-put point about debt vs. slavery... however pointing out police harassment and "taking back" America from the upper class are both noble causes.
It's frustrating to hear a bunch of people who may or may not be disenfranchised complaining about police harassment when needless racial profiling happens across the country on an hourly basis... but does that behoove someone their right to complain and point out injustice? At best, the person complaining supports your cause... at worst, they have a little more empathy than they did.

I understand society is several steps from making it clear, but America DOES belong to minorities. While the rhetoric hearkens to things said by the KKK and other hate groups, but let's let the actual disenfranchised person use it then? America's for the poor, the tired, and the huddled masses. Fortunately it also belongs to the Native Americans forcibly moved from their land and Black slaves brought here against their will. Let's learn from past injustices and celebrate freedom instead of talking about black and white.

Mr. Farrow, I find your comments full of insight. Thank you.

Excellently stated in an accessible manner. This problem isn't new; the same issues have plagued activism throughout the 20th century. The Civil Rights movement was the exception in being somewhat inclusive... but the subject matter demanded that whites participating think about the experience of non-whites. When that demand isn't there, we easily forget how people routinely see the world.

I was somewhat gratified by the level of diversity at the International Day of Action march I participated in, but it likely was still not a representative sample. In Los Angeles County, 47% of people identify as Latino/Hispanic, and only 52% identify as white (where many of those also identify as Latino/Hispanic)... yet the rally was probably at least 2/3rds Caucasian.

The City of Los Angeles has explicitly put its support behind Occupy LA, which addresses one of the issues you bring up; the concern over interacting with police is dramatically diminished. However, I wonder how things will go as the homeless population continues to join the Occupiers. Here in LA, our homeless population is nearly 50% African-American; will the mostly white Occupiers find it easy to include people who are not only so very disenfranchised economically, but who are also so different demographically and experientially? Will they be aware of their implicit biases as they approach tension between groups?

Hmmm..... interesting. And while I DO think that OWS needs to be more inclusive and encouraging to people of color, the homeless, the mentally ill, etc, I find it odd that no mention of Herman "I Call Myself A DC Outsider But I Was Head Of A Lobbying Firm for The Last Ten Years" Cain and his Social Security = Slavery rhetoric.

Thanks for the comment. I don't disagree that Herman Cain is a problem. But he is not the focus of this article. I have written about the Right as well, and have a piece on Black Conservatives to be published in an upcoming report by Political Research Associates.

Just a few points of contention:
..."Debt=Slavery"...not sure if this is what that protester meant, but: there are millions of people enslaved around the world today, many who produce things that that are imported and distributed by U.S. corporations whose stocks are traded freely on wall street, and the debt-based economy is one of the ways in which corporations maintain their economic and political hegemony, and....

I haven't been to the wall street protests, but here in DC we've got folks from all different racial backgrounds.

Kenyon, interesting article (I especially like the points about how profoundly different histories of interactions with the police are) but I have a few qualms:

1) Have you been to OWS recently? In the past week, I've spent three afternoons there, and I would say that it's quite demographically mixed -- between 1/3 and 1/2 people of color (who's there is constantly changing, but I think when I've been there it's closer to half). A couple days ago I interviewed a large contingent of community activists from the South Bronx who were using OWS as a platform for their economic and racial justice concerns. Right at this moment, at 5 pm Wednesday, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project is mobilizing a large contingent of majority POC transfolks under the red cube at OWS. So this article feels more relevant to the early days of the occupation, less so to what it is (thankfully) becoming.

2) You spend a lot of time debunking one fool's stupid sign, but I don't see slavery as a major theme in OWS messages. It's a bit of a straw man argument, since the real slogan of OWS is "We are the 99%."

3) One issue you didn't address is the language of occupation. As one protester (a community organizer in Hunts Point) said to me on Sunday, "the term occupation is a loaded term for folks of color. The problem in a lot of our neighborhoods is that we are already occupied [by paramilitary police]. We don't need to occupy the Bronx, we need to un-occupy the Bronx."

Thanks for responding.

1. I state in the opening that my interest is NOT in making an argument about how diverse or multicultural the protests are. I am pretty clear I am speaking to the level of narratives and rhetorics. And this language, while may not be operative as much in where the OWS mobilization is in NYC, but I am seeing it other places, and frankly is so prevalent in white progressive and radical movement work, it's ridiculous. I hope that people in a range of political formations, progressive media, etc, begin to thnik about how these rhetorics are CONSTANTLY used and referenced.

2. I spent a total of 900 words, which is hardly any time spent to delve deeply into any of these issues (so it's hard to say I spent a lot of time on anything, really), but I used that one sign become it comes up NOT just in that one sign, but in a lot of narratives about being slaves to corporations, using the sign as one example. There is plenty more where that came from. The we are the 99% framework is a MAJOR straw man if you ask me--albeit clever framing. It really obscures which communities are closer to the "zero" and which are closer to the 98% mark if that's the scale of wealth and capital we're using. I had some language in the piece to that very issue that didn't make it into this final version.

3. The occupation framework had already been critiqued other places, and I didn't feel the need to retread that ground. I had already made a statement about that on a radio show a couple weeks ago. So it was already taken care of from multiple angles as far as I was concerned.

I also find it interesting that many people of color, particularly Black people, some of whom have been involved in the OWS or in other cities, have not felt the need to point out to me the diversity of OWS in an effort to challenge the politics of my piece. I think a lot of people, despite whatever bodies happen to be present, understand that these things are very much operating even while people are struggling to use OWS toward their own ends, or to shift the political vision from which it arose.

When I wrote that I had qualms, I meant that I had quibbles. Mixed up my 'qu' words, whoops. That changed the tone of the comment, because I very much agree with your original post and in fact shared it with a lot of people. I certainly didn't mean to "challenge the politics of it." Quite the contrary. If it seemed like I was defending the rhetoric of OWS organizers, then I expressed myself so badly that I somehow expressed the opposite of what I meant to (I blame tapping my comment out on my phone). I have elsewhere been extremely critical of the political vision from which OWS arose.

I'll also clarify that I asked if you've been to OWS recently because for me it has become most interesting (only interesting?) in the past week or so, when groups that should have been part of the process from day one have reclaimed and reappropriated the space. That's what I meant about your piece being most relevant to the earlier incarnation of OWS -- for me observing it firsthand, it is almost an entirely different protest now (with the rhetoric and vision of the original organizers largely marginalized). Admittedly, I'm picking and choosing how I experience OWS (skipping the General Assemblies, focusing on groups who are mobilizing there in interesting ways), so maybe it's wishful thinking, but it feels like a completely different movement compared to what I was observing even two weeks ago. I am curious what you think about this evolution.

Also, I think it's very important to acknowledge the changed and changing demographics of the protest and the new groups getting involved, because the MSM accounts completely ignore this. They're stuck on one narrative, which does a disservice to the groups mobilizing in interesting ways there now. It's easy to find and profile some trust fund squatter foraging for edible garbage and complaining about his bongos, but there are much more interesting stories to be told there (now that groups are reclaiming the space).

I remember during all the Tea Party rallies the last couple of years, I saw quite a few signs that said "Taxes=Slavery." I'm starting to think equating anything to slavery is turning into the new "x=Hitler." We obviously need a new term for this along the lines of Godwin's Law.

re: occupy as a loaded term: (Un)Occupy Albuquerque
http://www.truth-out.org/unoccupy-albuquerque-connects-corporate-greed-fight-native-land/1319378293

Thank you, Kenyon Farrow, for bringing this grievance of the OWS movement to light. I've heard it before, and I have a few thoughts on the subject myself. First, the sign "Debt=Slavery" holds no comparison to the enslavement of African Americans during the early history of this country, you are correct. I does, however, look a lot like the sharecropping model of business that kept millions of African American's impoverishment during and beyond reconstruction after the abolishment of slavery. In this world, there's more than one way to skin a cat, and if you don't believe that, go to an African American community and count the businesses Black people own in it. Look at the profit in their books and match that to a white neighborhood business. What interest are they paying on their business loans? Do they, can they, get the materials needed to operate their businesses from another black company? The African American community is bleeding capital on all fronts by corporate design. They don't even own the Black Entertainment television station. Many people have been enslaved in this country, but true slavery occurs in the mind. In many ways, 'slavery' is a more than appropriate term for what is happening across the globe today, possibly more than ever, and none of my ancestors would be satisfied with 'half freedom', as they had been through unimaginable hardships to make sure we knew the real thing. Second, letting a corporate (and make no mistake, corporate interest is what insured this country was built on slavery in the first place) conservative media spin the definition of various words to make false division lines is enough of a crime, must you cow to them so easily? Third (and I use this method of counting my persuasive arguments to illustrate how many flawed statements you've just made) you would downplay people being released from jail do to political protest because EVERYBODY that goes to jail unjustly doesn't get a standing ovation? Well call me Justin Timberlake and cry me a river. Occupy Wall Street is a mobilization of people trying to bring change to the same system that would beat a black man, or any man that would challenge the status quo, in the middle of the street in broad daylight. Your representative picture of the African American man would have us painted in the picture of Bigger from 'Native Son', and if you've ever read James Baldwin (and if you haven't, you have no business writing about race in a magazine) you're skirting dangerously close to calling the aggregate black man an Uncle Tom, an assessment that brings us to a grounds for disagreement. I was born a black man in America with all the rights to this country that I TAKE RESPONSIBLY FOR, regardless of the possibility of a greater price I'll have to pay. This attempt to derail an entire movement based on a false, imagined lack of demographic of African Americans (See photos of myself showing to our local protests with family & the marine in times square who faced of the cops) is deplorable, and only serves you in that it excuses your own voluntary denial of citizenship responsibility. Please discontinue speaking for 'your people', we'll be with the 99 as men getting things done.

Hmmm...I think that chattel slavery was not solely about economic exploitation--that's the mistake people make in their leap of rhetoric. And I never said that Black people choosing to participate in OWS were uncle Toms or anything like that.

I've been to the protests and I haven't heard anyone compare the debt problems to chattel slavery. I think you are creating the straw man here. Debt slavery is different. And if you need clarification, it's nowhere near as bad as chattel slavery system in the Atlantic from the 16th-19th centuries. Of course, there have been many forms of slavery in the world and by no means to African-Americans have a exclusive claim to being the ancestors of slaves. Nobody is diminishing that experience. Tt just happens not to be the focal point of the Occupy Movement which is about addressing issue of today. The term "wage-slavery" I believe is an apt description of the non unionized poor working class, of which the African American community is large part of. Since it's the most accurate description, I see no reason to abandon it because the word "slavery" makes some people nervous that it somehow is an attempt to minimize the harsh treatment of slaves of previous centuries. I can't even imagine that there are even very many people seriously concerned about this unless they are completely removed from the context of which these protests have been taking place.

The focus is uniting people of all stripes against the corporate dismantling of democracy. Certainly, the civil rights protests inspire people today as model but I don't think the people getting arrested are the type that are in any way deluded about police brutality against the poor and minorities. Why don't you go outside and ask them their thoughts, if you are wondering?

I do agree that the "take back America" rhetoric makes no sense given the fact that we've never owned it.

..When the slaves were freed...many refused t leave the Plantation..that is why so many Blacks are in the South now...it seems once again, theyre refusing to leave the Plantation..thats all...heres how Debt is slavery, if you dont work in the prescribed social construct, along their terms you dont eat..theres nothing free in that, nothing voluntary in that, it is forced labor by intimidation, public policy and depravation...that was the same thing as chattle slavery...in the words of Bob Marley...Babylon release the chains but them a use them brain...its alright mr farrow...stay on the plantation...I am a Balck man and have been supporting OWS from the beginning...FYI

Discourse concerning race in the US will continue to be ham-fisted and regressive if people continue to rely on the lazy identifying binary of "white" and "people of color."

Thank you.

I don't get it.

A smart friend of mine said I was taking this as a "personal attack." As a white progressive, the article states pretty clearly that I am indeed the target of these stretches of logic, and, I guess, that I need to define, then implement, a "transformative racial-justice agenda."

Can't I just get out on the sidewalk and protest the (finally) increasingly illuminated unfairness?

Could it be that "Debt=Slavery" might not even be a reference to North American students, patients or homeowners? I might reference it toward any poor country owing huge amounts to banks, so much that it prevents them from supplying their citizens with things like clean water or steady electricity. Maybe that doesn't define "slave" exactly, but it is certainly keeping whole populations down.

"Pundits" are spinning tales and you're legitimizing and backing them up with statistics. I am not getting why a white lady in a gown complaining of being treated like a "criminal" is somehow dismissive of the reality for blacks (and Latinos, as you mention directly) in the U.S. of A.

Would it get us anywhere different to say "Hey! It's against the law for you to treat me like a black or Latino!"

One commenter here (sloucho84) wondered, why turn this into "black and white?" Just one? I don't get it.

Why is it a "fundamental flaw" to describe the protest in terms of basic democratic guarantees just because (as you imply) whole classes of people have little familiarity with these so-called guarantees? All the more reason to hammer home just that message!

Plus, time seems to be suggesting that protesting this flaw in democracy will bring more people from the margins into the very heart of the movement.

That part I get.

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