OAKLAND, Calif.--Criticisms of the Occupy Wall Street movement have ranged from its lack of focus to the composition of its constituency.
Mocked for wielding their smart phones and ordering pizza during the protests, the middle-class white youth who have characterized the movement have fed its ridicule.
During Tuesday’s kick-off of Occupy Oakland at Frank Ogawa Plaza, people of color challenged the movement’s mantra, “We are the 99%.” They commented on the need for more of that 99% to represent more of those the movement claims to speak for.
Starting off at the protest’s open mike was Needa Bee, an Oakland resident and member of the Occupy Oakland organizing committee. Noting that the movement originated with white, middle- to upper-class men, she declared, “They felt good because they started something, but it’s going to take us to finish it.”
Oppression New to White Majority
Several minority members there stated that although white middle-class Americans have only recently begun to experience oppression and economic distress, most people of color have dealt with these struggles for years.
George Jackson, a teacher in Oakland, commented, “It’s a new thing for a majority of white people to live under these conditions, but black people have been living with these conditions as long as we’ve been here.”
Several speakers acknowledged that the participation of educated, middle-class whites helped the movement gain traction. Ethnic demonstrators at the Oakland rally were less critical of white protesters than emphatic about the need for diversity.
“People of color need to step up and claim a space in the movement and make sure our stories are represented,” stated Chelsie Brooks, an Oakland resident and fundraising associate at Californians for Justice declared.
Brooks stressed that more ethnic involvement would give the new movement a more historical context than a limited outcry against oppression.
James Mott, a former Black Panther, reflected on the similarities of the protest to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. “It’s like déjà vu all over again,” he said. “In the ’60s and ’70s it was a populist movement, too.”
While saddened that young people must now carry on the same fight he had been part of 40 years ago, Mott was hopeful that the movement would gain enough momentum to echo the impact of the Civil Rights movement.
Few Protestors of Color in the Crowd
Many protestors saw Tuesday’s events as only the beginning and said they intended to camp out for the long haul. Some, though, recognized the privilege associated with being able to protest at all. They reflected on why more people of color were not in the crowd.
Those struggling with joblessness, oppression and poverty for years, tend not to set protesting as a priority, explained Jessi Thrash, an Oakland resident and retired gerontologist. “We only have so much energy, we’re just trying to survive.”
Naina Khanna, who coordinates the U.S. Positive Women’s Network, said, “There are reasons why brown folks didn’t show up until five.” Some were likely absent out of fear of law enforcement. “HIV positive folks can’t afford to be arrested,” she said.
Khanna added, though, “It is a privilege to be standing out here in the rain.”
Khanna suggested encouraging participation where people don’t necessarily have to be physically present at the protests, possibly through video messaging. “We are going to have a lot more work to do to make this truly representative,” she said.
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