Despite flaws, OWS deserves our participation

‘Occupy’ protests across the country are promising, though often deaf to the issues facing people of colour.

Occupy Photos
Oakland ‘Occupy’ protesters launched a general strike in the city on October 25 [GALLO/GETTY]

“Rebellion is a stage in the development of revolution, but it is not revolution. It is an important stage because it represents the ‘standing up’, the assertion of their humanity on the part of the oppressed. Rebellions inform both the oppressed and everybody else that a situation has become intolerable.”

– James & Grace Lee Boggs, Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century

New York, NY – It’s November 16 at 4.30 AM and I’m sitting at JFK airport waiting to board a flight while the New York Police Department is evicting the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park. I’ve just completed a 33-city tour with the Blue Scholars, which embarked from Seattle on September 17, and ended here in the nerve centre of capitalism. 

It’s a surreal coincidence of timing that the epicentre of this nationwide movement, which was born on the same day our tour started and which we had just visited 24 hours after our last tour date, is now a trash heap of books and tents. As I watch a live video stream of the eviction happening just a train ride away, I’m reflecting on everything I’ve seen and experienced having visited Occupy encampments and mobilisations across the country for the past eight weeks.

When it started, I was captivated by the bold “We are the 99 per cent” slogan and the identification of Wall Street – the literal and symbolic headquarters of the wealthy few – as the centre of this global financial crisis. Have we finally reached a breaking point? Only those completely out of touch with reality would disagree that economic inequality and corporate greed is a problem. Supposedly, I’m one of the more “successful” independent musicians in Seattle and I’m currently fighting a home foreclosure, don’t have my own healthcare plan, and am still paying back loans on a college education I’ve never completed. Whatever my struggles and privileges: I, too, am the 99 per cent.

On the other hand, I’ve been organising for more than a third of my life now, and have come to embrace the protracted work of building up and educating your community rather than participating in short-lived postmodern rebellions and emotion-fuelled internet rah rah – which Occupy Wall Street, a proudly “leaderless” movement, initially appeared to me to be. I’ve seen too many “celebrities” opportunistically latch themselves onto causes like a new fashion trend, which is better than nothing, I guess. But I’ve witnessed so much sloganeering without substance that I initially restrained myself from speaking on the movement as people began asking what I thought of it.

Furthermore, it was clear to me that the people who started the ‘Occupy’ protests probably didn’t look like me and probably didn’t consider my or my community’s issues. Otherwise they wouldn’t have named this movement with a word we historically (and presently) colonised people aren’t too fond of. The absence of colour and abundance of pale bare feet at Occupy Seattle and Occupy Portland confirmed this for me, and I left the Northwest on tour feeling conflicted about this whole OWS thing. But as Mao said, “No investigation, no right to speak”, and I couldn’t bring myself to either throw my support blindly or become overly critical without taking the opportunity to see this movement unfold as we travelled from city to city.

That uneasy feeling began to change after our stop in the San Francisco Bay Area. On October 11, I participated in direct action led by a coalition of people of colour-led organisations, with women at the forefront. It was good to see my folks from Bayan-USA in full force among the crowd at 8 AM, linking our struggle for democracy in the Philippines with this one. Writer and activist Naomi Klein came and spoke in support, declaring that “this is just the beginning”, as a human chain successfully shut down Wells Fargo for the day. 

Across the Bay, we stopped through Occupy Oakland, where the encampment at Oscar Grant Plaza was crackin’. Folks were barbecuing and the conversations were animated. This 99 per cent was better represented demographically and was far more organised than other sites, likely owing to the East Bay’s longstanding militant past (Black Panthers, University of California student strikes) and recent history (Oscar Grant). I wasn’t surprised to hear that the removal of the camp a week after we had visited led to a confrontation with police and a re-occupation of the park, which catalysed into a general strike on October 25.

So, along with my Los Angeles-based tourmate Bambu (who made this video in the back of our tour van), we left the West Coast with renewed vigour. ‘Occupy’ encampments in Albuquerque, Denver, and Boulder were all comprised mostly of students. Throughout the western interior of the US, we ran into throngs of middle-class white people at each site who were all inspired by the previous week’s events in Oakland. They were well-meaning and friendly, but as the tour continued, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed, especially after seeing what it looked like in California.

Occupy Portland [Geo Quibuyen/Al Jazeera]

We attended Occupy Boise’s general assembly on October 26, and heard that a one-tent encampment had been shut down when the lone protester was arrested. At Occupy Salt Lake City’s encampment of 80 tents, we saw drama unfold among campers over dogs sullying other people’s tents. Occupy Minneapolis was a ghost town – a stack of signs and unhitched tents with zero people. Nobody nearby could explain to us what had happened, though a helicopter ominously flew directly overhead. 

Understandably, many of these cities had only been organising ‘Occupy’ sites and mobilisations for no more than one to three weeks. Whatever it is we were witnessing was clearly still in its infancy. Many conversations revolving around the movement’s goals and next strategic steps often led nowhere, centring mostly around holding down and expanding the encampments in the face of threats from city officials and local police. But the mere fact that this thing was happening was an accomplishment in itself. I was asked by a sceptic who attended one of our shows, “What is ‘Occupy’ accomplishing?” to which I responded, it at least ensured that the conversation is about our economic future rather than some video we saw on World Star Hip Hop.

I was surprised to find that Chicago, the third largest city in the US, had no permanent encampment, but instead had daily rallies in the financial district. We were greeted on November 5 by a boisterous crowd of a few hundred, many of whom were sporting those ubiquitous Guy Fawkes masks. Brett, a friend of mine who moved to Chicago from Seattle, hipped me to offshoots of the Occupy movement – folks who identify with the “99 per cent” but critical of the movement’s overbearing whiteness, who were pushing a “Decolonise” line in support of indigenous and peoples of colour’s issues.

Even where ‘Occupy’ had a sizeable presence, it wasn’t all good all the time. In nearly all the bigger cities, I had conversations with protesters of colour who all shared experiences of racism within the OWS movement. To combat marginalisation, people of colour working groups had been formed within general assemblies in Seattle, Oakland, San Francisco, Chicago and New York had met with resistance from white protesters who couldn’t come to terms with the creation of this space and accused them of being “divisive”. In some cases, people of colour were beefing with each other. In New York, I heard stories of old Jewish protesters butting heads with young pro-Palestinian protesters. Some people talked of focusing OWS’ energy on more participation in electoral politics, others for a straight-up revolution.

It would be easy to dismiss these incidents as a potentially crippling disunity. On the contrary, I see it as a movement’s growing pains, as people who previously had little meaningful interactions with one another are forced to hash out their differences en route to realising their similarities. This can only happen if we’re actually talking with each other. Every city also had its share of typical passive-aggressive armchair activists or old-guard leftists, who dismissed the movement as a passing fad. Many of them had valid criticisms of OWS but had not spent one minute actually interacting with any protesters, nor had any interest in participating to change these conditions. 

The thing is, when a sleeping giant awakes, it’s going to mumble inarticulately. It’ll still be letting go of the dreams it had while it was asleep. It’ll probably need a good shower. The “99 per cent” might not yet resemble the actual 99 per cent, but I’ve come to realise that such a transformation doesn’t happen without participation. Lastly, this whole Occupy thing isn’t a new phenomenon. It might have taken a new form, but let’s not forget that as long as classes have existed, there have been those who have dedicated their lives to organising around economic justice even before the news cameras started being pointed in their direction. In the words of a black protester at OWS, “We’ve already been occupying this s***”.

By the time we reached New York for our final show of the tour on November 11, we had visited Occupy sites in 16 cities, each one completely different from another. Zuccotti Park seemed like a mashup of all these cities all at once, encompassing all the dopeness and the wackness of all the sites previously visited. There was a long line of folks waiting to get grub at the People’s Kitchen, some of them arguing, while others reminded them to keep the peace. White anarchists walked around with laptops streaming live videos and yelling obscenities at the cops who patrolled silently. There were people gathered around a tree, meditating. Someone was passing out informational flyers while peddling their mixtape. Whatever snark I carried with me in the middle of this long tour suddenly dissipated. 

Naomi Klein speaks at Occupy San Francisco [Geo Quibuyen/Al Jazeera]

A day after that visit, it was all gone. Our tour had ended, and so had the first occupation.

So, the same question I carried on this eight-week tour remains: What is to be done? Dorli Rainey, the 84-year-old woman who was pepper-sprayed at Occupy Seattle by the Seattle Police Department referenced an old feminist slogan in her public statement: “Screw us and we multiply”.

And with the coordinated efforts of city officials to screw the ‘Occupy’ movement, a multiplicity has been born. Zuccotti may have fallen, but before I left New York, I heard of ‘Occupy’ assemblies in Harlem, Queens and Brooklyn. When we started this tour, there was one ‘Occupy’ site. Now, it’s in over a hundred cities and counting, with many college campuses joining. Everywhere, police are using violence to shut down sites under the guise of some law that says camping out overnight in public is against the law. Which is funny, ’cause I’ve never seen any police shut down a line of people camping out to buy the newest pair of Air Jordans.

As winter approaches and sites get shut down, strategies are shifting, too. Occupy The Hood, which supports OWS, centres around working-class communities of colour with different strategies that better fit those community’s conditions. In New York, Oakland and elsewhere, organisers have begun employing the strategy of occupying foreclosed buildings and homes. If that picks up steam, you can guarantee there will not be a police presence big enough to stop it. 

Touring the US for the past seven years, even before the emergence of OWS, has served to remind me that this country is economically screwed, and it’s getting worse with each tour. Over the past eight weeks, I’ve become convinced that the ‘Occupy’ movement is the early rebellion stage of something potentially bigger, and, despite its shortcomings, deserves our attention and, even more, our participation. It is a privilege to still be travelling and performing in 2011 at a level that sustains me financially, but I know that this can all go way real fast. 

And if it does, I just hope my tent is next to Bambu’s. 

Prometheus Brown (Geo Quibuyen) is the emcee half of Seattle-based rap duo Blue Scholars. You can follow Geo’s blog here and follow him on Twitter @prometheusbrown.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.