OPINION Since its inception in September of 2011, The Occupy Wall Street movement has come to mean many things to many people. For some it’s a movement to end skyrocketing tuition at State Colleges and Universities. For others its a platform to stop and bring attention to unfair and illegal foreclosures. Still others see the Occupy as a movement that’s going to bring back unions and level the playing field for workers.
But one of the nagging critiques of OWS has been that it’s a movement for white middle-class youth who were late to the social justice arena — where many who are poorer and darker had been struggling for years. While economic disparities on the surface appear to be universal, the challenge has been recognizing how many who are white and part of the 99 percent have been used strategically by those in power as a sort of buffer to keep black and brown folks at an economic disadvantage. Many have brought into the narrative that underachievement by blacks is the result of individuals not applying themselves hard enough.
The economic downturn in the white communities is now viewed as systemic, with a call to arms and a move to confront the system. What’s been missed is that for decades folks in the hood have been challenging the system, trying to survive and barely holding on. Only now are you starting to see deeper discussions between OWS and black and brown community members about how this economic system has uniquely impacted them.
Because we’ve seen former black panthers and leaders within black liberation struggles like Angela Davis, Elaine Brown, Bobby Seal, Mumia and Dave Hilliard work with or show support address OWS, the question of how OWS relates to the Black Power Movement has emerged.
Like OWS, Black Power means many things to many people, from economic empowerment to political empowerment. If we go back to what Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leaders Stokley Carmichael (Kwame Toure) and Willie Ricks (Mukasa Dada) meant when they first coined the phrase in 1966, it was a call for solidarity and challenging racism and the systems giving it light..
Black Power leaders back then weren’t about trying to reform the system and its institutions, but dismantle it and rebuild. That approach, and the militancy that came along with it, caused a split in the Civil Rights Movement. It was break from Dr. King and the nonviolent approach by the so-called Big 5 civil rights organizations.
Today, many of the aforementioned leaders, along with others, have evolved in their definition and understanding of what it means when we say Black Power. Not to short change or misspeak for anyone (keep in mind entire courses are devoted to the topic), today we see that Black Power has expanded on its critique of capitalism. That, of course, has been echoed in many sectors of OWS. In fact, that’s what’s attracted many from the old guard to it.
Today we see many in the Black Power movements dealing with issues like the Prison Industrial Complex, the mass incarceration of black folks, and tactics like stop and frisk, gang injunctions, war on drugs etc. Any conversation about economic disparity inevitably leads back to discussions on the prison system in the black community.
While we hear within OWS calls to rebuild the system and harsh critiques of capitalism, we haven’t always seen an emphatic call to arms to deal with the PIC and issues related to police terror — even as OWS members are frequent victims themselves.
In places like Occupy Oakland, we see those bridges being built in meaningful ways. We’ve seen the forming of Occupy the Hood, which frequently addresses those issues — but talk to OTH organizers in various cities and they’ll tell you it’s still a struggle to get folks on board and make this an intuitive part of their day to day outlook.
The good news is we see conversations taking place and folks trying to work it out..
And while OWS deals with building bridges into communities of color, in our own ranks we have the challenge of class divisions. We have folks who are black, and have means, who won’t even give lip service to these issues.
But then again, mass movements even during the hey day of Dr. King always had those who spoke out, got in the way and took up space for real change. With spring coming, there’s a lot of hope that things will pick up.