Occupy Wall Street + Troy Davis + Slutwalk=??

Occupy Wall Street + Troy Davis + Slutwalk=??

Lester Spence

A few weeks ago for all intents and purposes, Baltimoreans re-elected incumbent Stephanie Rawlings-Blake after a fierce campaign that saw each candidate tackle the central questions of unemployment, poverty, and crime. The construction of a Baltimore Youth Prison played a central role, as candidates trenchantly debated whether continually incarcerating Baltimore youth was the best use of hard earned tax dollars.

Ok. Except for the election, everything I said above was alternative history.

Rawlings-Blake was re-elected. But the central issue was…property tax abatement. The poverty rate for female-headed households in Baltimore is 40.6%. The poverty rate in general is at least 28%. Most Baltimore residents are not property owners. Many Baltimore residents are unemployed and struggling. And the most important issue in the mayoral campaign was the property tax? People asked me afterwards why turnout is so low–they’re asking the wrong question. The question is, given that the election didn’t really speak to the most important issues Baltimore residents face, why was turnout so high?

Baltimore is one of the approximately 80 cities participating in the growing Occupy Movement. Later today I’m giving a talk at an OccupyBaltimore teach-in. Given the stark inability of elected officials to speak clearly to the needs of Baltimore residents this couldn’t have occurred at a better time.

But some wonder whether this nascent movement is representative enough. More specifically they argue people of color are missing.

The small number of black, Latino and Asian protesters involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement — which began in New York — speaks volumes about how the movement took shape and was publicized, Malveaux said. It also hints at how poorly understood the economic struggles of non-white Americans remain, she added.

“I think that what we see in this movement is really not much different than what you see in a lot of progressive causes,” Malveaux said. “Progressives frequently are so convinced of their cause and its merits that they don’t do enough to reach out. The problem is if we aren’t there, everybody’s concerns ultimately won’t be addressed.”

Protesters will have to identify some concrete economic goals if they want to attract more of the people who have suffered the most in the recession and have any real impact, Malveaux said.

“People who are concerned with survival want to know about outcomes,” she said. “What is it you want? Our protests have always been very targeted. You know, don’t put this person to death. We deserve to sit anywhere that is available on this bus. Protesting something like globalization? That is like saying that you are protesting electricity.”

The claim that the article relies upon is incorrect. Many large unions gave their support this week, and as blacks and Latinos are over-represented in their support for unions it’d be hard to imagine union support NOT translating into diversity on the ground. And as the movement spreads to places like Detroit and Baltimore the numbers will increase. But even before we take union involvement into account, we can SEE the incredible diversity–not just at the elite level (Cornel West is there, as is Columbia Professor Dorian Warren) but at the grassroots level. Similarly Malveaux is wrong to make stark distinctions between progressives and people of color. She’s wrong to state what the movement has to do to succeed given that the movement itself is barely a couple of weeks old (conservatively measured). Finally she’s wrong to talk about what “progressives” need to do to get “us” involved.

But, she isn’t wrong in stating that the issues American citizens have are not just issues with Wall Street, or with government regulation of Wall Street. Whites are now dealing with the same types of pressures that blacks and Latinos have routinely dealt with (the white unemployment rate now is 8.1%…in 1996 when the US economy was flush black unemployment was 10%). Arguably that makes them much more sensitive to the plight of black and Latinos in general. However blacks aren’t just concerned with Wall Street they’re also concerned about the prison industrial complex, which is why we supported Troy Davis and the Jena 6. Latinos aren’t just concerned with Wall Street they’re also concerned about the growing security industrial complex, which is why tens of thousands of Latino/as gathered in L.A. in 2010 to protest racist immigration policies. Women of all races and ethnicities are concerned about Wall Street. But they’re also concerned with sexual harassment and violence, and with reproductive rights.

How do we deal with this issue?

We have to understand what the Occupy Movement is. It represents the first fleshed out US example of open source protest. John Robb understands this better perhaps than anyone else. The protest model it represents is portable, and I believe, scalable. It can be used in a variety of instances, by a variety of different groups. It is dynamic, and it is “polyrhythmic”. The fluidity of this movement lends itself to a number of different organizing possibilities. Not having demands right now is a good thing, particularly because people with other linking interests have the opportunity to flow into and perhaps change the greater movement. To the extent we can, we should be participating and moving INTO IT as opposed to critiquing it from afar. Dr. Malveaux for instance should in her capacity as an HBCU thought leader be urging black students–who will no doubt be carrying burdensome student loans after they graduate–to participate. And should be participating herself.

But to the extent the movement doesn’t deal with specific issues, the model the movement uses can be ported over and used in other circumstances. In as much as the tactics the movement has used so far come from black protest movements this shouldn’t be hard theoretically. And in as much as blacks and Latinos use social media more than other groups this shouldn’t be hard to apply. We just have to take the leap, publicize our leap, and then through publicity see how the form takes hold and changes.

What we’d be talking about then is a fusion of something like Occupy Wall Street with Troy Davis with Slutwalk etc. With each loose institution working alongside and through each other, with different iterations bubbling up over time, until a new form is settled upon. A form that leads to substantive political change.