As Occupy Wall Street (OWS) picks up momentum entering its fourth week, more and more people of color are squeezing themselves into Zuccotti Park here in the Financial District in downtown Manhattan.
Shouts of “does anyone here speak Spanish” can be heard throughout the day. Native Americans in traditional attire are playing tribal songs. The images, smells and sounds of multiculturalism intermingling here is intense.
In this mix is Erin Malone, an African-American female from Brooklyn, helping to make sure all of these voices are being seen and heard. She and a handful of committed, multi-ethnic young people are facilitating the “People of Color Working Group”. It’s aim is to help ensure marginalized communities of color feel included in a social movement many feel speaks directly to their issues.
Erin says there is plenty of ethnic diversity singing and chanting in Zuccotti Park and rallying in downtown Manhattan. But she feels minority participation in the dozens of committees or “working groups” that help make sure OWS’s website is updated, finances are in order and food is in plentiful supply, was lacking.
“That’s why we wanted to put together the “People of Color Working Group” so that we could be kind of a conduit for folks who are doing amazing work in their communities to plug into this movement so that we have connections with people in all of the working groups,” Erin says.
Michelle Crentsil, another African-American member of the People of Color Working Group, says more minorities need to participate in OWS because they are part of what protesters say is “99-Percent” of Americans who are being left out of the wealth distribution they feel only “1-Percent,” i.e. corporate executives and other Wall Street players, are enjoying.
“We’re looking at all of that wealth going to the 1-percent and I am going to go out and say it: A lot of that 1-percent are not people of color,” says Michelle. “So I think that its important that we are visible in this movement.”
It is impossible to gauge exactly how many people of color-or anyone else for that matter — have been participating in the protest. No one has a title per se. People standing behind a table distributing sleeping bags to campers in the park wear sticky badges with “Comfort Working Committee” written on them. There is a “Press Working Group” available to speak with reporters. But it is inaccurate to call anyone from this working group “spokesperson” as some news reports have done.
This is one of the main problems that arise when media report on social movements like OWS. When there are no official titles to pin to a good quote, one is assigned. If there is no hierarchy of vice-presidents or an established platform for us to determine degrees of importance, it is assumed the movement and, the people involved in it, are disorganized.
Protesters are prohibited from using bullhorns, so they have employed a technique of repeating the message heard in front of them to make sure others in the back can know what is being said. Some of the protesters say even that has drawn criticism.
“You know, some people are saying its cultish,” says Chanel Morales of the Spanish-Speaking Working Group. “But it’s because its new. We don’t have amplifiers.”
Many media commentators have drawn parallels between OWS and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. There are a few similarities. Both movements have strong relationships with unions. (Erin and Michelle are employed by unions here in the city. They volunteer their time to OWS). Also, participants of OWS and those of the 1960s both share feelings of social or economic exclusion.
But there are plenty of tactical and structural differences that distinguish the two movements. For example, the Civil Rights Movement was full of men and women (mostly men) who had plenty of titles and fought intensely to earn them. Erin and most of the protesters scoff at the mere mention of the word.
The church, especially the Southern Baptist Church, was a very influential component of how business was run and how politics would be played during the Civil Rights Movement. While church groups are seen at the OWS site supporting the protesters, their influence is no greater than anyone else’s. Several of the protesters claim atheism. No one person makes decisions. Instead, during “General Assemblies” throughout the day, everyone in the park gathers to vote on a particular issue.
“Its a lot of work. Its exhausting and it takes forever,” Morales of the “Spanish-Speaking” working group says. “But its worth it. Its how democracy is supposed to work.”
You cannot tack OWS to a political party, either. Unlike the Tea Party that is a very organized extension of the GOP, OWS protesters are a more disjointed lot with various political views. And while Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other Civil Rights-era icons labored to secure a meeting in the Oval Office, OWS, by and large, has no interest in taking that route.
One of the most important distinctions of OWS is that protesters are not fighting so much for racial equality as they are for economic equity. Sunyata Altenor, who is representing the Bronx-based Caribbean Community Center, says that because more and more white Americans are beginning to feel the strains economic inequality that people of color have long been used to, the country (and the media) is paying more attention.
“Folks in New York in neighborhoods like the South Bronx and other places have been doing radical work like OWS for years,” says Sunyata who also helps with the Spanish-speaking working groups. “And what they realize is what’s happening in Occupy Wall Street is what we’ve talking about (in our own communities) and we need to make this our priority, get our issues out there and make sure we’re represented.”
What is also a sharp contrast from the Civil Rights Movement is that OWS is not a black and white movement. Nor is English the only language through which OWS is disseminating its message. There is no “African American” working group. (Or “Negro working group” as it might have been called some 50 years ago)
Sure, OWS has the Mohawk-wearing, yuppie, white college students you see plastered across the television screen. There are also black, Mohawk-wearing, yuppie, college students here, too. The faces protesting reflect the diversity of all of Asia. American Indians are a growing presence. They speak Spanish, Russian, Chinese and other languages unfamiliar to the ear. Their frustrations are different. Everyone is not disaffected by the same issues. OWS, as a whole, is more hybrid.
None of the protesters lead or chair any of the working groups in which they participate. But more than a dozen protesters of all ethnic backgrounds interviewed for this story agree that their voices are indeed being heard. It is a very young movement that is constantly shifting in perspective, expanding from one part of the country to the next and working to channel it’s message-whatever it may be during any given time.
While Erin sees the power of operating as movement without titles, she and several of her working group colleagues acknowledged that there are some challenges that need to be ironed out to this approach.
“They call this a leaderless movement. But when you have a structure like this, someone mentioned a quote that ‘the people who are used to being heard are going to continue to be heard. The folks who are used to organizing and used to having resources are going to continue to have them.’ So I think that’s what it is,” Erin says.
“I don’t think there has largely been a malicious attempt to exclude people of color from these groups. But I think that its privilege. People come together, they want to work on an issue, they have the resources to make it happen and they go forward with it. And they don’t necessarily think through how to make the work that they do more inclusive because they never had to.”