Some Ideas For inclusiveness
by Robert Saleem Holbrook
Twelve years ago, in the aftermath of the “Battle of Seattle" and the resurgence of the antiglobalization movement that followed it, commenting on the lack of participation by activists of color, longtime community activist Elizabeth Betita Martinez wrote an article entitled "Where Was The Color in Seattle: Looking For Reasons Why the Great Battle Was So White". It seems as though that same question can be asked today about the Occupation Movement that while capturing the attention and participation of white activists and people has failed thus far to generate more participation by activists and people of color. Many activists, of all races have asked the question why? Many activists have chosen to ignore it because race, especially in the "post-race America" of President Barak Obama, is always an uncomfortable issue to address and often serves as a stumbling block preventing coalitions around issues that on the surface are agreeable and important to all communities, ethnic groups and races. This is not an article of finger pointing or identifying responsibility for the lack of overall participation of activists and people of color in the Occupation Movement but rather is a primer, hoping to serve as a bridge that will help enlarge the coalition of people and ideas that represents the Occupation Movement. As Occupy Philly recharges itself for new movement in the sphere of protest and civil disobedience I share some thoughts on how more people of color may be added to its ranks and assemblies.
The tradition of civil disobedience and protest runs deep in the African American and Latino communities and within the Native American and more recently the Asian American communities in the United States. There sometimes appears to be a misconception though that African Americans naturally should gravitate towards protests and rallies against injustice. While African Americans tend to naturally incline towards the arch of justice based on our collective experience with injustice in the United States we possess no predisposition to hitting the streets with picket signs in hand to join every protest movement that erupts in response to societal injustices. To be honest there are many suspicions with the African American community to protests of any sort based upon the historical memory of our struggle for civil rights and equal justice under the law. To put it short, the African American struggle did not start with the civil rights movement in the 1950's, it started the first moment African slaves departed the shores of Africa destined for a life of chattel slavery in the United States. Nor did it end with the gains of the civil rights movement which while largely symbolic (like Obama’s election) never the less provided some breathing space within American society. Perhaps it can be said, controversially, that the African American community is in a lulled state of awareness still weary from the tumultuous battles of the civil rights and black liberation movements of the 1950's, 60's and 70's and partially reeling from the advent of the war on drugs and culture of drug violence and abuse that emerged in the 1980‘s.
There are many examples that support this position. The platform adopted by Occupy Philly‘ November 6, 2011 and reported by Suzy Subways "Let's Fix Our City!" at Occupy Philly Media is a platform that easily could have been drawn up by activists of color within the Philadelphia community as its solutions address the problems communities of color have been confronting for years. Yet it still did not pull into the Occupation Movement mass participation by people of color despite addressing many of the communities concerns. Muitiple reasons account for this, one being the moderate support and attention given to Occupy Philly by the Black Press in Philadelphia which for the most part is inclined to rally around the city‘s African American mayor Michael Nutter. The Black Press while embracing the civil rights movement because of its middle class origins and leadership has historically been socially conservative and slow to rock the boat. Occupy Philly would do well by itself it it would extend its social networking ability and reach into Black social networking sites articulating its platform directly instead of relying on the traditional Black Press to cover its movement. Let's not forget that it wasn‘t too long ago that the Philadelphia Tribune, one of the oldest Black newspapers in the nation, endorsed Lynn Abraham's reelection for Philadelphia District Attorney.
Another factor that may be contributing to the lack of mass participation by people of color in the Occupation Movement is the potential and actual possibility of confrontation with the police. Again this is a product of our communities collective memory when it comes to relations with the police, (read "Our Enemies in Blue” by K. Williams) not because of any cowardice on the part of the community or activists of color. Practically every major riot of the 20th century in the United States in communities of color was in response to brutality. Philadelphia’s last major urban rebellion in 1968 that broke out on Cecil B. Moore Avenue in North Philly was in response to police brutality. The war on drugs has militarized police departments to such an extent that police no longer patrol communities of color. Instead they conduct ”gang suppression" and "stop and frisk" operations that resemble military incursions. Ordinary people in communities of color going about their daily errands risk a life or death confrontation with a police officer, simply standing in line waiting on a pizza can result in a brutal beating for refusing or not obeying an officers order. Just look at the case Askia Sabur. The African American youth whose beating in front of a pizzeria that was captured on video led to the launching of the Askia Coalition Against Police Brutality. When just moving around your community runs the risk of mortal combat with militarized police who believe they are soldiers on the front lines of a drug war it is little wonder why so few people of color would be interested in participating in a movement or tactic that potentially invites the risk of confrontation with the police.
It also has to be mentioned that potential confrontation with police brings with it arrest and potential imprisonment and brings people of color into contact with the Criminal Justice System and Prison industrial Complex, two state institutions that the African American community has historically clashed with and in which disproportionate numbers of people of color are caught up in. It is a natural inclination within communities of color to avoid contact with these (3) institutions; the police, the courts and the prison. Under these circumstances most people of color are not going to flock to a movement that while overwhelmingly demonstrating peaceful disobedience the police departments are not reciprocating and have responded in many cases as stormtroopers defending corporate capitalism. Communities of color are well aware that the police are not our friends and are under no illusions that the police or politicians will embrace this movement.
These factors should not be interpreted as people of color are not inclined to support the Occupation Movement or do not share its vision and aspirations. Quite the contrary, communities of color have always felt outside the system, abused by the system and victims of the 1%. Although a minority in the United States people of color have always represented the 99%. If anything the retracting of the American economy has thrust much of white America into the uncertainty of the future that communities of color have long experienced. The economy has always been hard on the African American community. Government, even under Obama, long neglected our communities. There is therefore more common ground that could create a bridge that would draw more people of color into the Occupation Movement as partners. I say partners because as more people of color gravitate toward the movement they are going to bring concerns and issues that are important to communities of color into the movement and the movement must be mature enough to accept and embrace these legitimate concerns.
Also the Occupation Movement may want to reconsider its outreach to activists and communities of color. What type of coordination is being done by the Occupation Movement with the numerous Occupy The Hoods Movements popping up in communities color? How many even know how to get in contact with activists from these movements? (contact Malik
Rhasaan, Occupy The Hood Coordinator, twitter #OccupyTheHood). Occupy The Hood is
doing a lot of important work in communities of color including defending against foreclosures, opposition to gentrification in communities of color, protesting abusive policies in government housing, police brutality, etc. Are they being invited to Occupation Movements assemblies and strategy meetings? Is the Occupation Movement putting out bilingual literature and speakers?
Just as the Occupation Movement cannot depend on the traditional Black Press to support its movement it cannot depend or expect anything more then verbal lip service support from most traditional Black leaders so the Occupation movement is going to have to reach out to grassroots activists and organizations within communities of color. So as an activist of color I would recommend the following suggestions for the Occupy Movement to attract/bring more people of color into the movement:
1. Invitations to activists of color and organizations of color to Occupy General Assemblies and Strategy Meetings.
2. Roving General Assemblies in parks and Community Centers in Communities of Color that would address concerns the Occupy Movement and the Communities have in common.
3. Outreach to and coordination with activists from the Occupy The Hood movement.
4. Start Occupation Movement forums in Black/Latino/Asian Social Networking sites.
5. Sensitivity to Communities of Color historical repression by the police.
6. Embracing activists and people of color as partners in the movement, not communities that need to be saved.
7. Incorporate issues important to Communities of Color into the broader Occupation
These are just some suggestions that i believe would make the Occupy Movement more inclusive, stronger, relevant and could sustain its powerful momentum that has helped raise
awareness of the hijacking of democracy by corporate capitalism and hopefully will lead to a more participatory democracy and the replacing of the corporate state by the will of the
Robert Saleem Holbrook
Saleem Holbrook is an activist and writer from Philadelphia wrongly imprisoned as a
juvenile offender. To learn more about him, including his writings and story, please visit and join his facebook support page http://www.facebook.com/groups/freesalim/