Two weeks into Occupy Wall Street’s takeover of Zuccotti Park, a group of Bronx community organizers and friends rode the subway down to Lower Manhattan to check out a movement they supported in principle.
When they got there, they recalled, they found what they had suspected: a largely white and middle-class crowd that claimed to represent “the 99 percent” but bore little resemblance to most of the people in the group’s own community. That community, the South Bronx, is one of the poorest areas of the country and home almost exclusively to blacks and Hispanics.
“Nobody looked like us,” said Rodrigo Venegas, 31, co-founder of Rebel Diaz Arts Collective a center for political activism and hip-hop run out of a warehouse in Mott Haven. “It was white, liberal, young people who for the first time in their life are feeling a small percentage of what black and brown communities have been feeling for hundreds of years.”
Even as the Occupy Wall Street protests have spread and grown, many critics have pointed to the visible scarcity of blacks and other minorities in the protesters’ ranks, notwithstanding the occasional infusions of color, whether from black celebrities like Kanye West, or from union members who have rallied with the protesters, or from a Muslim prayer service at Zuccotti Park last week.
But that reality has begun to change, with minorities and people of color increasingly taking to the streets, as the movement responds to the criticism that a people’s movement should look more like the people.
A survey conducted at Zuccotti Park by Fordham University a month into the protests, from Oct. 14 to Oct. 18, found that 68 percent of the protesters were white, 10 percent were black, 10 percent were Hispanic, 7 percent were Asian and 5 percent were from other races.
And, many critics have noted, the black and Hispanic protesters participating in the protests have tended to come from the middle class, just as the white protesters have.
The reasons that minorities have tended to be leery of the protests are complex and deeply rooted.
Minority communities, said Gonzalo Venegas, 26, Rodrigo’s younger brother, “have a history of resistance but also a history of fear.” (Both brothers have remained involved in the protests.) In a cheeky but ultimately serious Village Voice piece on blacks and Occupy Wall Street, the black essayist Greg Tate mused that a blacker protest movement would have drawn harsher treatment from the police. “Thanks to our overwhelming no-show of numbers,” he wrote, “49,000 shots haven’t been fired at OWS yet.”
Some critics have also accused the protesters of being reductive in their claim to represent the majority and oblivious to their own privilege, and argue that racism, rather than capitalism, continues to be the main problem for many minority Americans.
... Earlier this week the N.A.A.C.P put out a statement in support of Occupy Wall Street, which is planning a civil rights rally and an event with Harry Belafonte over the weekend.
Wow, that will definitely heighten awareness among Today's Youth of Color: Harry Belafonte! Don't let anybody tell you the NAACP is the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People resting on their laurels.
Sonny Singh, 31, a Sikh musician from Brooklyn who joined Occupy Wall Street early on, recounted the scene in Zuccotti Park the day the general assembly drafted its “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” — the closest thing to a political manifesto the protesters have put out thus far.
Mr. Singh said that he and a few other “brown” people at the assembly were appalled by what was going to become the first paragraph of the declaration: “As one people, formerly divided by the color of our skin,” the document began, “we acknowledge the reality: that there is only one race, the human race.”
“That was obviously not written by a person of color,” Mr. Singh said, calling the statement naïve. “Race is a reality in the lives of people of color, you can’t put out a statement like that without alienating them.”
Mr. Singh and others pushed back, and eventually got the phrasing changed to be more sensitive to racial realities within the movement.
How could they have forgotten America's litany of historic crimes against Sikhs?
Anyway, let me take a stab at a general theory of Occupy Wall Street. There's been much criticism of the movement for not having a coherent manifesto of political demands. What exactly are they doing during all these endless meetings with their weird hand signals if not coming up with a political agenda?
What they do spend time talking about is how to keep everyone housed, fed, safe, healthy, and entertained. With this protest, logistics are political too: By creating a self-contained, self-governing, radically transparent and egalitarian community, they’ll model how the rest of society ought to work.
So, they are organizing the logistics of their campout: How many different kinds of recycling bins should we have? That sort of thing. Middle class white people find this kind of self-organizing to be pretty fascinating. It also bores the heck out of most minorities and non-middle class whites, which has the salutary effect of driving away undesirables.
The obvious model for this is the successful Burning Man campouts that take place each September on a godforsaken dry lake bed in Nevada. A bunch of naked white hippies do a pretty fine job of setting up a huge community for one week each year. (My cousin, the tough hippie, goes there every year, and now his octogenarian mother, a lifelong outdoorswoman, wants to go to Burning Man, too.)
Burning Man started out in San Francisco, but moved to the middle of nowhere for various reasons, one unmentionable one being: barriers to entry. Ticket prices are now a few hundred dollars for entry, plus the cost of travel and camping equipment. That keeps out the petty criminals, homeless guys, gang-bangers, and other predators, parasites, and losers. Old San Francisco hippies remember, even if they won't mention it, what kept the Haight-Ashbury Summer of Love in 1967 from continuing: criminals, especially black criminals from the Fillmore district, discovered, to their delight, that drugged-up white hippie chicks were easy prey. So Haight Ashbury went from a utopian middle class scene to a dystopian underclass one in weeks. Hence, it's really expensive to get to Burning Man now.
But, it's still on a dry lake bed in Nevada, where nobody would want to live for more than a week. Wouldn't it be awesome if we could set up a permanent self-organizing Burning Man-like community in a high rent district, such as Manhattan? But without paying any rent! I know, we'll claim it's a political protest! But how do we keep out the low-lifes? Well, how do some convenience stores keep juvenile delinquents from hanging out in front? By playing classical music. Similarly, OWS tries to keep losers away by boring them with endless public debates on minute administrative details about sustainability.
Still, undesirables can put up with a lot of yakkety-yak for the sake of tasty food. Hence, according to the not-unbiased New York Post:
The Occupy Wall Street volunteer kitchen staff launched a “counter” revolution yesterday — because they’re angry about working 18-hour days to provide food for “professional homeless” people and ex-cons masquerading as protesters.
For three days beginning tomorrow, the cooks will serve only brown rice and other spartan grub instead of the usual menu of organic chicken and vegetables, spaghetti bolognese, and roasted beet and sheep’s-milk-cheese salad.
They will also provide directions to local soup kitchens for the vagrants, criminals and other freeloaders who have been descending on Zuccotti Park in increasing numbers every day.
The good news for Occupy Wall Street is that there really aren't that many derelicts and hoodlums left in Manhattan anymore. If this were 1990, there'd be rapes, drive-by shootings, and maybe an outbreak of cholera.
In summary, I think one of the stronger emotions in the world right now is the desire for restrictive communities where people with something in common can exclude everybody else, such as what Burning Man achieves for a week each year. But 21st Century people lack any kind of vocabulary for explicating their forbidden desires for exclusion.