I was recently talking about the race-related problems that I see in the #OccupyDenver movement with a friend, and he said, “Why don’t you reach out to your friends and allies, your contacts who are activists of Color?”
I responded, “While I support the general #Occupy movement, I do not trust the folks at #OccupyDenver nearly enough to welcome activists of Color into the movement. I have worked hard to build trusting relationships and allyships with some respected community leaders of Color from around Denver, and there is no way I would risk jeopardizing those relationships for what I have seen as a poorly-organized group of activists at #OccupyDenver.”
Saturday at the #OccupyDenver march, I was reminded of exactly why I would not feel comfortable encouraging my allies of Color to attend. Just before the march began, a group of Indigenous activists from the American Indian Movement of Colorado showed up with a group of protesters bearing signs opposing the Tar Sands Pipeline.
Upon their arrival, one of the White folks who identified himself as a member of one of the #OccupyDenver committees used the “People’s Mic” to say, “Our brothers and sisters from the Indigenous community have joined us! Welcome them!” People cheered. Then our White activist friend went on with what he was saying.
It was as if he was saying, “Hey! Look! Some Brown folks joined us! Yay Brown people! Now look back over here at the White agenda!” Essentially, the mention felt like little more than tokenizing. “Our token Brown folks have arrived!”
Out of curiosity (since I have been trying to understand and analyze the relationship #OccupyDenver has with race), I watched the AIM folks very closely for about ten minutes. As far as I could tell, not a single person from the #OccupyDenver organizing group went over, addressed the Indigenous activists at all, or worked to bring them into the fold.
After watching for a while, I decided to chat with the two men holding the red American Indian Movement of Colorado sign. I asked them if they had been reached out to by the #OccupyDenver Outreach Committee or if they had come down on their own accord. One of the AIM activists, a respected and seasoned activist named Glenn Morris, replied, “We came down as part of a solidarity action with activists in DC who are protesting the Tar Sands Pipeline and the way it will confiscate and destroy sacred indigenous lands.”
I pressed him further, and he said (paraphrased), “We reached out to some of the #OccupyDenver folks, but we got no response, so we came down here hoping that some might join us. It’s interesting. You don’t see many People of Color down here. That’s a problem. This movement won’t last long without more People of Color. Why isn’t anyone talking to us? Why isn’t anyone talking to these incredible young people (pointing at some young Indigenous activists)?”
Therein lies #OccupyDenver’s race problem.
Since the beginning of the #Occupy movement (with its roots in NYC), there have been some incredible critiques of the White Privilege and class privilege inherent in the movement. Joel Olsen has described well how Left Colorblindness must be overcome if the movement is ever going to represent the actual 99%. Mike King described how White people must work within themselves and their communities to abolish Whiteness if the movement will ever build true coalitions. And in perhaps one of the best critiques of the movement, People of Color Magazine published Seven Occupy Wall Street Racial Justice Roadblocks.
Some of the #Occupy iterations have responded well to these criticisms by working to engage and learn from seasoned activists and organizations of Color. In many cases, I think the actual #OccupyWallStreet in New York has done this. #OccupyTheHood separately emerged in NYC as a way for activists of Color to engage communities of Color in the movement. Some preempted the criticisms by simply building strong coalitions from the beginning, as appears to be the case at #OccupyOakland.
Denver, though, seems to suffer from a terrible case of what Joel Olsen calls “left colorblindness” which “claims to be inclusive, but it is actually just another way to keep whites’ interests at the forefront.” While there are definitely some activists of Color who attend and are even heavily involved in #OccupyDenver, this seems to be more a case of those activists identifying personally with the movement than of #OccupyDenver’s efforts to engage communities of Color from around Denver.
It is frankly shameful that #OccupyDenver has remained so insular considering that there are seasoned activists of Color and organizations of Color who have been working to end wealth disparities and the damaging effects of White corporate greed.
After all, Communities of Color are the ones disproportionately affected by wealth disparity. Communities of Color are the ones being disproportionately affected by unemployment. Communities of Color are the ones who suffered disproportionately at the hands of predatory lenders. The fact that a predominantly White-led movement suddenly started to address this fact in 2011 and that the media took notice of that movement only hides the reality that activists and organizations of Color have been working against this reality for a long time.
However, in the analysis, conversations, and speeches at #OccupyDenver, discussion of the racial reality of wealth and oppression are glaringly absent. The attitude seems to be, “We’re all part of the 99%. Let’s put aside our differences.” To do so, though, obfuscates the legitimate concerns and criticisms that People of Color have of this movement.
When I’ve marched with #OccupyDenver, I have not felt comfortable taking part in the “Whose streets? OUR STREETS!” or “We Are The 99%” cheers. After all, at #OccupyDenver, we are not the 99%. We are the 69%, as the 30% of Denver that are People of Color are quite noticeably absent. I’ve been uncomfortable when people call for the “People’s Mic,” yet that mic seems to be held almost exclusively by White hands. I’ve become even more uncomfortable when White activists have used the “People’s Mic” to draw upon the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the nonviolent aspects of the American Civil Rights movement, trying to draw comparisons between #Occupy and Civil Rights. They are different. Distinctly different. One of the main reasons they are different is because of how #OccupyDenver finds its grounding in White Privilege.
In my 4 Things #OccupyDenver Must Do (Better) to Survive, I point out clearly that #OccupyDenver must start to work to welcome People of Color and must start building coalitions that include organizations of Color. This must also be done accountably, not simply with the mindset of “There are no people of color in our activist group; let’s go to a meeting of people of color and invite them to join our group.” These are not simple suggestions. I use the word “survive” for a reason. As Glenn Morris noted, “this movement won’t last long without more People of Color.”
Economic Justice Means Racial Justice. Wake up, #OccupyDenver.