Friday, November 04, 2011

Justified Rage from an Unsafe Space: Reflection on Occupy Wall Street

28 October 2011

Many Peoples, Many Identities: Racism and Sexism Within the Occupation
It’s been over a month since the Occupy Wall Street Movement began. Like many
others; despite my active involvement and overall support, OWS has both inspired and
enraged me. It’s made me remember why I became an organizer. And it’s made me
realize why sometimes, I want to quit.
A lot of us have reasons for feeling enraged. At my first GA, several young white
men who identified themselves proudly as those who had been at Zuccotti Park since
“Day One” shouted disagreements with a Black woman who voiced legal concerns about
the risks of arrest for undocumented protestors. The men used their self-proclaimed
“veteran” status to silence and ridicule the legitimate concerns of some of the most
economically disadvantaged and historically marginalized of the 99%–undocumented
A few days later, on indigenous people’s day, a white man who identified himself as
“one of the OWS organizers” physically and verbally attacked a female jaranera who
was performing son jarocho music. Apparently, she was “standing on the flower bed.”
The two cited examples of racism and sexism that have manifested themselves in the
OWS movement are not isolated occurrences. The arrogant dominance of young white men
is constant and has turned many experienced organizers—particularly women, queer and
trans people, and people of color—to withdraw support for the movement.
But despite the many amazing organizers who have justifiably left OWS and vowed to
never return, many others just won’t walk away. They see the potential of the
movement. They hate many of the people and ideologies behind it; they hate the
privilege and the arrogance, but they see the potential.
Every organization, every movement, struggles with acknowledging systematic
oppression. Movements that deny racism, movements that deny sexism; movements that
are completely unaccountable to the very people they claim to be liberating; these
movements will fail. Again and again, we have witnessed their failure.
Systemic Inequalities Within the 99%
As a queer white woman, I’ve struggled with how to contribute to the OWS movement.
After my first GA, I felt conflicted. Inspired and enraged. I never wanted to come
back, but I wanted to set up camp and stay every night. I recognized that as a white
person, it was my responsibility to use my own privilege and power to try to battle
the racism I’d witnessed; but as a queer woman, I felt uncomfortable and unsafe
dealing with such blatant and unacknowledged sexism. Yet again, the biggest leftist
movement of our generation is seemingly clueless about race, class and gender.
As an organizer, I saw the benefit of the populist message that “We Are the 99%”,
but the deeper I became involved, the more I’ve realized that many who are
“occupying Wall Street” neither understand nor believe that there are systemic
inequalities within the 99%. Many neither understand nor believe that we are not a
big ol’ “American melting pot” of “one people”, but that we are many peoples, many
races, many identities.
Some see nothing wrong with white male voices facilitating every meeting. Some think
it’s okay to curl up next to a surprised sleeping woman and ask if you can share.
Others don’t flinch when a white man hands out white flyers to white people about
Occupying [Black] Harlem.
But some of us—many of us—are not going to sleep as the movement passes us by. We’re
not going to walk away, even though we could. Even though, in some ways, it would be
Sexism Unresolved: Queer Women Occupy the Park
After making excuse after excuse to myself about why I wouldn’t sleep on the
concrete ground of Zuccotti Park like everyone else, I realized that I was
absolutely terrified. Terrified of an unknown body next to mine, of the potential
experiences and memories that they might bring. Terrified because of stories I’d
heard, because of sexism unresolved.
A lot of women, queers, and trans people—along with many people of color and
undocumented immigrants—do not feel comfortable sleeping in an open space with a lot
of men, surrounded by police. Police presence ensures that protestors could, at any
time, be risking arrest; and a racist police system ensures that people of color
will be targeted. Unrestricted male presence in all sleeping areas ensures that
protestors could, at any time, be exposing themselves to molestation and/or rape;
and patriarchy ensures that women, queers, and trans people will be targeted.
Maybe I was out to prove something to my friends that were too afraid to stay, or
maybe I had to prove to myself that I wasn’t going to let male privilege prevent me
from another experience.
As I walked around the park trying to scope out a safe space to sleep, I was on the
lookout for the women’s sleeping space that I heard about. Despite many tours and
several sleeping invitations from men, I couldn’t find a single women’s (let alone
queer or trans) space. I saw a lot of single men scattered about the park,
heterosexual couples cuddling under their sleeping bags, and a number of sleeping
spaces that were covered in tarp and not “open to the public.”
After about an hour of roaming and observing, I found a group of three sleeping
young women, and I decided to lay my sleeping bag out at their feet. As I lay in my
“bed”, trying to write, I felt the eyes of several people fall upon me. The eyes of
those who are eager to make conversation. Eager to be invited.
I decided that I’d feel safest if I de-gendered myself by putting the sleeping bag
over my head and just going to sleep. As I nervously closed my eyes, I was woken up
several times by loud voices. Once by a man yelling about losing his stuff, another
time by an altercation between several men over politics, and finally by a midnight
“mic check” of someone who was angry about theft within OWS.
I finally drifted off to sleep, and in the morning I awoke with men on every other
side of me, despite my deliberate attempts to be in a woman’s space. I was annoyed,
but validated. My experience proved what so many had told me: OWS is not a safe
Ends and Means: Making OWS a Safer Space
It’s been one month since the Occupy Wall Street movement began. Despite OWS
organizers priding themselves in increasing diversity, they have yet to really
address issues of systemic racism, sexism, and classism within the movement. But in
some ways, they are right. The movement is growing. Over 100 cities in the U.S.
alone have endorsed the Occupy movement, with over 82 countries participating in the
October 15th global day of action.
But again, movements that deny racism, movements that deny sexism, classism,
homophobia, ableism; and do not prioritize an anti-oppression framework; will fail.
OWS has a critical role to play in eliminating oppression within the movement; they
have a role to play, but they cannot do it alone. They need us. They need the active
participation of queers, women, people of color, unemployed people, low-income
workers, union members, and undocumented immigrants. They need all of us.
Instead of struggling for a new [white man’s] “American Revolution”, we need to
struggle for a People’s Revolution that acknowledges that the “America” we live in
is a history that is founded in genocide and slavery. The “American Revolution” was
founded in colonization and imperialism.
I understand and respect the many people—and there are many people—who see the
obstacles as too great and the opportunities too small to further engage in this
movement. But to those optimistic enough to see a purpose, for those imaginative
enough to envision a new future, and foolish enough to dedicate themselves to its
creation: I’m with you.
The movement may not be perfect, but it is our movement. Our rage is justified. Our
impact is inevitable.
- Charlene Obernauer

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