A Change Gonna Come: A Response to Occupy Wallstreet

In the first few weeks of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, a close friend of mine asked me what my thoughts were on the ongoing protests taking place in Zucotti Park.  I had been following the news, keeping updated on the movement as it became a global phenomenon.  Mind you, I haven’t been down to Wall Street since the movement began so I cannot speak from personal experience, which is one of the reasons it’s taken me so long to form an opinion on the movement. 

But I’ve been watching and listening.  I’ve been tuned into NY1 News, reading the papers, following the Occupy Wall Street Site and talking to friends about their thoughts on the movement.  When the protesters began to occupy the park, I immediately thought of the student protests at Hampshire College – the liberal hippy school I graduated from in 2009.  As news cameras scanned the park, they dubbed the “leaderless movement” a band of jobless college graduates who were more interested in playing drums and chanting then organizing.  Because the movement itself was purposefully leaderless, it was already being presented as a nuisance. 

I’ll admit I bought into it.  I was unsure as to where the movement would go without a leader.  I was taught that change comes when one voice is willing to speak up on behalf of others, for the people who cannot speak for themselves and for those who are seeking to be led.  I learned that leaders help the masses to flourish, leaders like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and the list of Black figures goes on.  So I was skeptical about Occupy Wall Street.  But once I started to see elderly, newly retired, jobless mothers, fathers, aunts and grandmothers peacefully protesting and as the movement spread globally, I realized this form of action was not just about my generation but about the US at large.  People are fed up with corporate greed, pay cuts and lack of job security and Occupy Wall Street has created spaces for folks to actively protest the collective inequalities this country faces.

And it is inspiring other movements and protests.  Last week, union workers stormed the streets to protest the creation of new jobs, using the now famous “We are the 99%” slogan to promote their cause.   Office cleaners throughout NYC gathered at city meetings to fight to maintain their already reduced salaries.  Whether the movement is composed of disruptive hippies or ornery old ladies, people are listening and speaking up for themselves and for their rights as citizens determined to realize the American Dream. 

And, without even participating in the protest itself, Occupy Wall Street has also inspired me.  It has awakened awareness in me that my generation is not the only ones experiencing the job crisis and I admire the bravery from the people willing to risk their well being for their rights.  I have been appalled at the countless reports of police brutality throughout the last few months – the excessive use of pepper spray and the blatant disregard for human safety.  The risk of being arrested and more ironically, my job schedule, kept me from fighting on the frontlines alongside my peers.  As I was working trying to pay my bills and loans, I pushed through the hours thinking of those who have been the face of the movement and I admire their courage.

In the past, I have struggled to see the connection between the often twisted, confusing world of politics and my daily life.  Occupy Wall Street has closed that gap for me – Am I a part of the 99%?  Yes I am.  I am a black woman from a middle class suburb who owes over $100,000 in student loans, struggling to maintain a reliable bank account.  I left college ready for the work world, convinced that I would build a career and pay back my loans overtime.  But after leaving a temporary teaching job, I struggled to find a full time job to pay my rent.  It took a lot of hounding employers and hustling to land the hourly job I have now – without benefits, security or a future of building a career.  On my search for employment, I must have filled out over 50 applications and interviewed dozens of times with no results – which was exhausting, upsetting and down-right discouraging.  The only comfort I got during those times was talking to my post-college buddies, all of whom were experiencing the same stresses, along with the rest of the country.

I consider myself part of the 99% because the color of my skin, my gender and my sexuality places me in multiple marginalized communities.  Being queer, poly, kinky often makes me feel as if I am in the margin’s margins!  And my history places me in the 99%.  My family is from rural North Carolina and I am one generation away from the Civil Rights Movement.  My mother grew up in the segregated South and her town did not officially integrate public schools until she was in the 6th grade.  My grandmother grew up in some of the poorest conditions I have ever heard.  I still remember her telling me stories about building her childhood library from books collected from her city’s trash heap and celebrating when she received an orange or a pair of shoes for Christmas. 

The issue I have with Occupy Wall Street is the fact that the movement is mostly composed of white folks.  Now, I hate to pull the race card but class issues and race issues go hand in hand.  Black people have survived at a 15% unemployment rate for years.  Considering there is a large percentage of African American males that live in our nation’s prisons and another large percent of Black men who have been released from prison but are not employable as a result of a prison record, we might speculate that black people are 15-20% of the 99%.  I won’t even begin to look at the employment rates of African American woman who as a result of male absence in the home, work multiple jobs to support their children and loved ones.  Unemployment and under employment has demolished the nuclear structure of the Black family.  With the down turn of the economy, black people have suffered even more so then before – I hear it in the conversations on my bus rides to Harlem and from the Black women I interact with one a daily basis.      

It’s hard for me not to come to the following conclusion: now that unemployment is also affecting white folks, people are more willing to take collective action.  In addition to the threat of police brutality, I have heard and read too many stories of brown and queer folks feeling alienated and excluded from the movement when they’ve attempted to protest.  Granted, there are marginalized groups that are forming their own inclusive groups to continue to contribute to a variety of conversations that are emerging from the movement.  Protesting, fighting and hard work has been in the blood of brown folks for centuries and it is my strong belief that people of color will continue to find anyway to have their voices heard, by any means necessary.  So on one hand, it’s nice to see white folks fighting the same fight that POCs have embarked on for centuries and on the other, it is disappointing that it’s taken an economy crisis for Americans to protest in large numbers. 

Let’s face it: Americans are greedy.  Our culture breeds a mix of selfishness and ignorance, which is a dangerous combination when considering those who have less than others (I was reminded of this after the news coverage of a LA woman who pepper sprayed a costumer during Black Friday so she could get a hold of a half priced Xbox).  I am convinced that our materialistic “survival of the fittest” mentality will continue to perpetuate this greed.  If the rich were willing to pay higher taxes to support middle class society, if people were willing to lend a hand to others, even if it is at their personal inconvenience and if we were willing to commit to creating a nation that systematically and individually supports financial prosperity for all, then we may be able to rebuild in the aftermath of the job crisis. 

This is the beauty of Occupy Wall Street – folks who are willing to come together to brainstorm actions to take to create a better world for all.  It may take as much time to dismantle the system as it has to build it but as long as we continue to speak up, to act out, to protest loudly, peacefully and creatively, as long as we as are willing to physically occupy the spaces that separate the rich from the poor, change will come.  And if it doesn’t come soon, Occupy movements will continue fight until it does.

References

Occupy Wall Street – http://occupywallst.org/

Why African American’s aren’t embracing Occupy Wall Street – http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-blacks-arent-embracing-occupy-wall-street/2011/11/16/gIQAwc3FwN_story.html

Black Friday Shopper Allegedly Pepper Sprayed – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/26/black-friday-pepper-spray-shopper-turns-self-in_n_1114486.html

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