A version of this article originally appeared on the Al Jazeera website
At a recent panel discussion on the Occupy movement, a left-leaning professor from New York University speculated that identity politics - the prioritizing of issues of race and gender in movements for justice - could be a plot funded by the CIA to undermine activism. While most commentators do not go this far, the idea that activists who focus on these issues are "undermining the struggle" has a long history within progressive organizing. And in Occupy Wall Street encampments around the country these debates have often exploded into public view.
For the past six months, we have been following the Occupy movement for a two-part documentary on Occupy for Fault Lines. We have spent weeks in conversation with activists as they have planned actions and struggled to keep their movement relevant through a cold winter. And organizers have told us repeatedly that they feel these discussions around race and gender, far from weakening the movement, have lent it strength and made organizing more accountable to the communities most affected by the economic crisis.
The process of challenging structural oppression has been difficult. We spoke to many women and people of color who felt pushed out of Occupy. Some activists, already bruised by dismissive media coverage, tried not to let these conflicts show. When internal conflicts would arise they tried to not let it happen on camera. But what we did observe are many fiercely intelligent activists dedicated to waging these struggles within Occupy and strengthening the movement with their work.
The 99 per cent
When people gathered in Zuccotti Park on September 17, the anger at corporate greed was a unifying call. This was a protest that in large part was about shifting power from the wealthy to the many. It was a mostly white crowd, but it sought to incorporate a wide range of voices.
The economic crisis in the US had made the white middle class question their future. Soaring unemployment rates, suffocating student loan debt, and thousands of foreclosures began to close in. This reality propelled the Occupy movement forward. And many feel that the presence of so many relatively privileged white people brought increased media attention and public sympathy.
Organizers told us they immediately saw the next step as needing to raise awareness among the many young people new to activism that came flocking to occupations. "It's the job of the social justice movement to continue that conversation," says Max Rameau, a co-founder of Take Back the Land, who has advised many of the Occupies.
He told us that occupiers need to "make sure this isn't just a movement of the way white people have gone from being able to every day shop at particular malls, and now they have to shop at reduced, discount stores … this has to do, really, about inequality and long-term inequality, including communities who have suffered for years, not just because of the recent economic downturn."
Many women reported harassment in the camp, and even assault - especially those that stayed overnight. "I think there were some (Occupy camps) that allowed homophobia and sexism to thrive in a really significant way," says Rameau. "I think homophobia and sexism in society exist everywhere, but were allowed to thrive in some of these areas."
Manissa Maharawal, a PhD student and Occupy activist, said: "I love the discourse of the 99 per cent. I think it's great, I think it's been really unifying. But I would like it to go along with saying something like: ‘We are the 99 per cent, but the way that we experience the 99 per cent can be very different'."
Jack Bryson, a 49-year-old Black public service worker, became an activist after his sons witnessed the killing of their friend Oscar Grant at the hands of transit police in Oakland. When he heard that Occupy Oakland had named their camp Oscar Grant Plaza, he came to check it out. He was excited by what he found, but also thought many young white activists he met had a lot to learn about poverty and repression. "The black community, for 400 years, [have] always been the 99 per cent," Bryson said. "Welcome to our world."
Bryson was one of many who told us that Occupy activists needed to understand the ways in which communities of color experience the criminal justice system. He noted that Occupy Oakland had faced intense police repression. But, he told us, what many failed to realize was that police brutality is a daily fact of life in many communities. "Black, young men … would love to come out here. But what happens here, with the police? It happens on Saturday nights to Black young men leaving a nightclub, or a black young man going into a gas station and being followed by the police."
Boots Riley, a hip-hop artist and Occupy Oakland organizer, told us that he hopes the Occupy movement can challenge the ways that people have viewed policing. "I think that what happens normally is the media has most of white America looking at people of color as deficient, savage, and when they see something happen to them by police they believe that it was somehow their fault," says Riley. "Our ideas and views about the police are very tied in to our ideas and views about why people are poor."
If OWS wanted to be a movement that was going to shift power in the US, these organizers felt it had to come to terms with the fundamental differences in the ways that communities of color experienced racism, how women experienced patriarchy, and how queer and transgender communities experienced homophobia and gender bias. If Occupy Wall Street wanted to talk about envisioning an alternative community, activists would first have to face their own privilege.
That awareness has involved active engagement by white anti-racists, as well as the activists of color who committed deeply to the movement, despite often facing attacks for bringing up issues of race and gender.
"I was totally impressed by the leadership that was coming from young people of color, young women of color," activist and scholar Angela Davis told us in a conversation about Occupy camps she visited on the East coast.
"I think it's good that there's some white men getting involved, but they also have to recognize that, in order to be involved in this campaign of the 99 per cent against the one per cent, we have to recognize that the 99 per cent is hierarchically developed by itself."
Davis told us that Occupy was indebted to a long history of direct action led by women and by people of color. She specifically noted the legacy of resistance in prisons, led by those behind bars. "Let's recognize that we're not artificially imposing these issues on the Occupy movement," added Davis. "The Occupy movement has organically risen from those movements."
For Lisa Fithian, one of many white activists who seeks to challenge race and gender bias in the movement, this consciousness raising is a crucial part of struggling for justice."What I teach is that those with more privileges whether because your color of your skin, your gender, your education, whatever, how do you use those privileges strategically to raise those of all?"
"We have to take our privileges, become conscious and use them to actively change the social relationships, and access, and availability of resources," she added.
Blocking the process
Manissa Maharawal, a South Asian woman, has been one of Occupy Wall Street's most eloquent and passionate defenders. But she almost walked out of the movement on one of her very first visits to Zuccotti Park. When she, along with several people of color, stood up in front of hundreds of people to block a proposal at a very early Occupy Wall Street assembly, she felt anger and hostility from many of those present. She says it's "still one of the more intimidating things that I've had to do in my life". The proposal was for a document called the Declaration of the Occupation, and she felt language in the document erased oppression faced by people of color.
She did not want to have to block the proposal and face the angry stares of hundreds of people. However, says Maharawal, it's something she had to do. "What struck me then was that if I want Occupy to be something that's around for a long time in my life … it needs from the very beginning to be a movement that's taking these things on," she explained. "And that is thinking about not just corporate greed and financial institutions, but is thinking about how these things are connected to racism, to patriarchy, to oppression generally."
Ultimately, Maharawal and others who agreed with her succeeded in changing the language of the declaration. Nearly two months later, one of the white male activists who had expressed his frustration with her came up to her to thank her for her intervention. "I'm really glad you did that, I learned a lot right then," he told her.
"Making these connections is difficult, it's been like constant work in this movement," says Maharawal. But, she adds, "this stuff doesn't feel like minutia, it feels fundamental to me". She says this movement is about creating a real alternative to our current system, and, for her, that means fighting these systemic issues. "Why are we going to create a system that just re-creates all these oppressions? That recreates racism, that recreates oppression, that recreates gender hierarchy. Why would I want to be a part of that?"
Sweta Vohra and Jordan Flaherty are producers of Al Jazeera's Fault Lines. Fault Lines presents two special programs on the Occupy movement premiering March 20 & 27.