New York, New York – Dwayne Henry had visions of shooting a documentary on Occupy Wall Street – that is until he found himself so engaged in the movement, he had to put his camera down.
This past weekend, Henry, 24, was one of the more than 700 protesters arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge.
He spent 12 hours in a cell before being released and he started to notice something else that was bothering him — the lack of African-Americans involved and doing the ‘occupying’.
“I could probably count on one hand the number of black people that are here, and I probably know them all,” Henry said from Occupy Wall Street ‘headquarters’ at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan. “It’s not that blacks are rejecting the movement, they just don’t believe in it yet.”
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Henry said that in addition to fighting against the unfair benefits he believes the wealthiest one percent receive, most of the issues the movement wants to change have a direct and intense impact on African-Americans: lack of health insurance, unemployment, environmental pollution and spending cuts in education and other social services.
He thinks it’s time for President Barack Obama to speak up.
“I know he can’t outright support [Occupy Wall Street] for political reasons, I understand that but if he would acknowledge it, I think a lot [of people] in the African-American community would then acknowledge it,” Henry said. “Because Obama’s really a black leader…”
Many African-Americans at Zuccotti Park Wednesday agreed there should be more black involvement in the Occupy Wall Street protests.
“If we’re talking about wealth inequality, if we’re talking about poverty, unemployment – there’s no way that we can have those conversations without the people who are most victimized by those things here,” said Stephon Boatwright, a Ph.D candidate in political science at the CUNY Graduate Center. “I think [blacks and Latinos] would just like to see more people like themselves…that way maybe we can get some more specific issues to blacks and Latinos addressed.”
But without systematic data on participation, some scholars are not ready to say definitively that blacks are not engaged in the occupy protests sweeping the nation.
“Everyone-commentators, journalists, politicians and even movement participants-expects African-Americans to be out front and center taking the lead in every progressive movement,” said Alvin Tillery, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University. “Given the severity of the economic downturn and the organizational crisis in the African-American community, I think this sort of permanent vanguard view of African-Americans is incredibly naive.”In an appearance on MSNBC recently, media and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons suggested he could help bring hundreds of thousands of people to the protests.
“I think we need some adjustments and I think the protesters represent a growing number of Americans who feel that there is a class warfare and the rich are waging a great war on the middle class and working class,” he told MSNBC’s Martin Bashir.
Some participants said Simmons’ presence, along with other high-profile African-Americans, such as Cornel West, will help show black America that Occupy Wall Street has as much to do with them as anyone else.
The protests have spread all over the U.S. – from Los Angeles to Chicago to Connecticut – with no signs of slowing down. The protests, which originated in lower Manhattan, saw a spike in black and Latino participation around the time of the Troy Davis debate and execution but then tapered off.
“I think the [African-American] presence is definitely missed,” said Anne Baxter, 60 and a registered nurse. “There are individuals here, like myself, but not to the extent where you can say ‘African-Americans are here and are taking on the struggle.’”
A Facebook page, ‘Occupy The Hood,’ has attracted one thousand ‘members’ and has a specific focus on getting more African-American voices heard throughout the protests. The group has a Twitter account as well.
But social media may not be enough.
“Black people are tired,” said Cassandra Freeman, an actress and drama instructor. “They’ve been feeling what a lot of these protesters have been feeling for years, so they support the movement even though they are not physically here.”
Freeman, 32, says those who have jobs are lucky and need to hold on to them. She says that may be a reason why African-American women especially have not been a strong presence at the protests.
“They want to be a part of this, but you can be a part of it and not physically be here.”
Tillery, whose research specializes in social movements, said the question of black involvement in the occupy protests is a serious one – and one that deserves more critical coverage.
“What we know from social science research is that people need resources that increase their sense of efficacy and facilitates their ability to break out of such hardship conditions and participate in protest actions,” Tillery adds. “I am not ready to say that African-Americans are underrepresented in the movement because their participation may not yet be fully visible.”
NBC News associate Chika Oduah contributed to this report.