A Lotus Grows in Brooklyn

Dear Occupy Wall Street
November 24, 2011, 12:30 am
Filed under: Occupy Wall Street, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

Dear Occupy Wall Street,

This is Thanksgiving Eve. And despite a nasty cold, I came out to take minutes and participate in Spokes Council. I could have been in bed, or curled up watching a movie, or going out, or doing the things other girls my age are doing. But I chose to volunteer my time for the cause because it means something to me. It means a lot, actually. I have been involved with OWS since October 10. I came down to Zuccotti and saw a community of people passionately engaged in trying to change the world. But who were also beginning by building a community based on love, respect, and cooperation. I was stunned by this spirit of togetherness. I had never seen anything like it and I immediately felt embraced like never before.

Since then, I’ve thrown myself into OWS, participating in countless marches and giving 4 or 5 nights a week to attending GAs and Spokes Councils. No, I was never an occupier. Yes, I have a day job.  But I’ve also spent many hours of each working day researching, reading about, and tweeting about OWS and editing minutes. It has become my life. I have been an activist in other causes (marriage equality, animal rights, food policy) but I’ve never “joined up” with such an all-encompassing, once-in-a-lifetime revolution.

Tonight, as at many GAs and Spokes Councils, things got contentious. Mostly because of the same few agitators who always cause problems and refuse to respect our agreed-upon process. It’s disconcerting because there are SO MANY crucial issues that the movement as a whole needs to focus on. I thought we were all here for the same reason: “Shit is fucked up and bullshit.” Right? The corporations have completely overtaken the political process and therefore every aspect of our lives. They have turned the country into a place where the common man’s concerns are not looked after and in fact he is overtly screwed by the politicians he puts in place because those people don’t answer to him but to corporate interests. There’s a lot more to our “platform,” but that’s the core, as I understand it.

One thing I have loved about OWS is that I’ve met people I might not have normally. We, at our best, have had fresh, open conversations about our differences, and the consensus process forces us to resolve them.  In theory, everyone has a voice. We all win. We all come together.

What I experienced tonight was a culmination of many of the Spokes Councils I’ve been to, where a few vocal people take control by shouting (against our principles) and we have no effective way to deal with them. But tonight (a night I thought would be warmer, being that it is almost Thanksgiving), things turned even darker. Once again, the race issue was raised by the  historically marginalized among us. And I respect what they have to say. I really do. I wish they could state it in keeping with the process we agreed upon, but they don’t. Instead, a few of them tend to shout over everyone. And tonight, they chose to express their ire at “white people” again and again, very disrespectfully. Which is fine … to a point. But they started accusing Finance of being corrupt because it happens to have a lot a white males involved in it. Same thing with Facilitation. I was called a bitch for being the girl taking the notes who happens to have an (old-ass, janky, given-to-me) laptop. There were repeated calls of “white people, step back!”

The thing is, this is a (painfully, sometimes) open movement. If you want to join Finance, you could do so. Same with Facilitation. Same with Minutes. It’s easy to sit back and shout epithets. It’s harder to be really engaged. The people I’ve seen at Spokes Council are, yes, probably majority white or Latino. But when you assume things about us because of the color of our skin, you are denying the very accepting principles of our movement.

So, to the unendingly shouting guy sitting behind me who assumed I am privileged because I am white:

I was raised by a single mother making $15,000 a year. I’m pretty sure we were below the poverty line at many times. Yes, I have a graduate degree. That came on loans and via jobs and at the expense of my financial well-being for basically the rest of my life. I declared bankruptcy last year because I had $75,000 in credit card debt, due to the nefarious schemes of the credit card companies, to give me a card at 18 on my college campus and continue to reward me for overspending by raising my limits, and then charging me 25% APR for years when I couldn’t make minimums. What did I put on my credit cards? My rent. My groceries. Cheap clothes. This went on for years, as I had to explain to the bankruptcy judge. I still have $50,000 in student debt. Tonight, when you were assuming I’m a privileged white girl and questioning my involvement in this movement, I have $40 in my bank account. Many people my age have homes and cars, things I can never possibly fathom.

So I fight. Not for me, although I am demonstrably part of the 99%. But for people even worse off than me. For all of us. For you. For me. But when you call me out, when you disrespect all of us who are here fighting so hard on behalf of people who aren’t among the 75 people at Spokes Council, when you lose sight of the larger goal because you’re so focused on your own prejudices and bullshit. … you make me want to leave. And that’s sad. Because, as another fed-up white woman said tonight, she didn’t come here for this. She came here to make things better. And when we’re infighting and name-calling, there’s no way for us to focus on making things better.  I love you, OWS. I just don’t know how we can move forward when we allow such unfounded, irresponsible division. Tonight, I feel defeated. I feel disappointed.  I don’t know how to move forward. I am sad.

11 Comments so far
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Your sadness and frustration come through strongly in your writing. I hope that tomorrow you can breathe and recharge. As I heard someone mutter during the chaos after you left, making change is never easy. You’re a part of that change and with your heart and soul invested, the inevitable (and, perhaps, necessary?) difficulties impact you so much harder. From one distance occupier: give yourself time and opportunity to recover. But please, please don’t give up.

Comment by Zoë

im with you dawg. Ive been pretty active (although never as much as I wish) in Occupy Oakland since day one. I live here, I work here, and I love it here. We have had a pretty rough time of things recently and currently are about 40 people in the cold sipping coffee and teasing cops in Oscar Grant Plaza. pretty much nightly there is a very vocal group of people who seem to want to cause more trouble than they want to solve, or at least are VERY unaccepting of any idea or view outside of their own. Ill admit, Ive engaged some of these people in arguments where Ive gotten more heated than I should have, and have wanted to step away many times. But I dont. And you dont (yet). And WE dont (yet, again) This is too important,right? And like it or not, this very thing is what we are working towards. If we want to participate in a system with no infighting. or at least “civil” infighting, where only people deemed fit to discuss the issues can, then we could go sit on in some house/senate debates. But we dont. We make our own, we open them to people we disagree with, and we deal with the reprecussions of that. This wont be easy. These past weeks have proven that, right? And you know what? As much as I hate having to get in the same argument and be called the same ridiculous shit all the time, I still prefer it to being a voiceless laborer in a system which unendingly crushes the lives of everyone not willing to fuck over their friends for some money. In the past 4 weeks I have been tear gassed 8 times, concussion grenaded 4 times (once so close it actually knocked me off my feet) and seen 1000s of others endure the same thing, and as soon as im done typing this Im going to take the coffee Im brewing down to OG Plaza to hold the space and wait to get it again. And you know who’s there too? Those same people ive been shouted down by and arguing with for weeks. and we’re gonna drink coffee and do that damn thing!!!!!!

Comment by Jed Johnson

Jed Johnson, that’s an amazing story and I admire you so much for sticking with it. I know I will. too, after a couple days to decompress. Btw, I’m from NorCal and wish I could visit Occupy Oakland!

Zoe, you know I love you too. Thanks for participating! I know we shouldn’t lose faith in the whole movement just because the group that started it is having growing pains, but when it gets personal, it gets hard. :( Thanks for the support!

Comment by Carrie M

JED! I love you, dude. Thank you for that. Also, hi!

And Carrie, I’m with you. It’s completely unacceptable that you were subjected to that kind of abuse and mistreatment. I would hope that what I’m aware of having happened tonight becomes a turning point and it sounded from @heratylaw’s work on @LibertySqGA that other people who spoke were appalled. I hope that there may be an opening for actually addressing these issues instead of letting them hurt us as we have to this point.

Ultimately, I don’t think there’s a number of times for white people to be reminded to step up and step back that is too many times. But the fact that that point has gotten mixed up with what is simply emotionally violent disruption is deeply unfortunate, because while I believe OWS needs more productive discussions about race and gender, that is not a way to make anything happen but trauma and alienation. It really has nothing to do with the deeper issues.

And ultimately, “yelly” isn’t going to get anything out of being at Spokes, or GA, or anywhere OWS-related. Yelly needs compassion and care and to be empowered and mainly to empower theirself in real ways. But realistically we’re not in a place where we can meet her where they are at. OWS could one day be a space that can do that, but right now, it can’t. Yelly people need to be removed through an accountable process and it’s imperative we develop it.

One last point: it may bother some folks to think about it this way, but in terms of macro relationships, GA is the legislative branch, Spokes is the executive branch of OWS’ governance. They’re suffering both because we have no judicial branch. And we need something to serve that role, not just to protect the process but to protect people. There have been many issues with a lack of due process, and it’s led to escalations in many situations where simply having a process for holding people accountable would have saved a lot of pain and suffering on all sides and led to more positive outcomes. It’s imperative that we start discussing this, and I hope that’s what the next spokescouncil is about.

Comment by Dicey Troop (@DiceyTroop)

I really appreciate you saying this. I was at Zuccotti and witnessed this several times and it almost made me give up and leave. But I didn’t. Stay strong and set the example as you can. Your truth is just as valid as anyone else’s. Stay strong. Please. We need you there.

Comment by George

I followed everything on twitter, as i do practically every night. Clearly if someone isn’t respecting the process they need to be removed. Some are just emotionally troubled, psychologically wounded in some way and others may be actual planted agitators. Who knows, but I think if 9/10ths consensus wants that person removed – in a ‘time out’? – that should be the process until a more judicial type branch can be created. I went through this same thing at Berkeley in the 80s, its the hardest part of keeping everything going. Ms. Nan might have a point sometimes, but it’s hard to make out.
If someone is really erratic, idk – maybe a de-escalation force needs to be present – just to deal w/ the wack jobs. Democracy is difficult but i respect and admire your dedication. it’s a new day! Thx. party at Zuccotti – and I’m bringing in the vegan/gluten free specially made by me and the kids – hope by chance you get to taste some! Keep strong! I’m so proud of all of you.

Comment by Maria

Sounds like last night was tough and indicative of some larger struggles in the movement. I wasn’t there, but what I’m reading online seems to focus more on the “yelly” than what may be some real underlying issues of racism. Of course it’s difficult to even decipher, let alone be empathetic to, a message delivered in the form of an attack. But, sometimes people are yelling because they feel like it’s the only way that they can be heard. I don’t know if the people yelling last night were folks of color or people marginalized in some way. I wasn’t there. But, after reading your twitter feed while following last night’s spokescouncil and from there reading your reflections on the meeting, I wanted to write to you about some of the ideas you’re voicing.

I’ll start by saying that this comment comes from a place of love. It is not an attack. I believe that when it comes issues related to racism, as white people (of any class background) we have a responsibility to hold each other to being anti-racist in our thinking and our actions. We need to call each other on our shit in constructive ways.

In the blog post above I feel like you’re holding up your class background as a kind of credential that exempts you from white privilege. It doesn’t. I’m not dismissing your life experience or class background. We all have multiple layers of interlocking identities that shape who we are. Race is just one of these. I’m sure that your motivation is pure of heart. But it’s possible to mean well and still be complicit in a constructed system of white supremacy from which, despite your class background, you (and all white people) undoubtably benefit. At least on the surface. Ultimately I believe that this system hurts white people too, and that it’s in our own self interest to dismantle it…but that’s too much to get into here.

On twitter you mention reverse racism. To oversimplify: There is no such thing as reverse racism.

Racism is an institutional phenomenon. It’s about power. More plainly, racism = prejudice + power. A person of color can call you a cracker. That might hurt you on a personal level– That’s prejudice. Bigotry even. But it doesn’t have any teeth. That person can’t call you a cracker and then deny you a bank loan or medical treatment. That person doesn’t have the entire institutional, cultural, and historical fabric of this country backing them up. They can even physically assault you (and go to prison), and while that violence is contemptible, it’s violence on an individual level– a single person or small group of people striking out from a place of relative powerlessness. On the other hand, the institutional and culturally pervasive violence that continues to be perpetrated against people of color is unfathomably massive in scale– even in more progressive movements in ways that are often less immediately visible. Make sense? I feel like I’m paraphrasing anti-racist author and organizer Tim Wise who says it much better than I can here:

On reverse racism:

and here on racism on the left:


I’m sorry that last night was difficult. We are trying to make a new world. We’re part of a long trajectory of folks engaged in that struggle. As our elders will tell us, there has been and will be a lot of yelling and a lot of tears. This comment is not to justify how things went down last night or to say that you deserve to be yelled at. Sounds like you are working hard and really dedicated to fighting for economic and social justice and I hope that you don’t walk away from the OWS movement!

Comment by Todd Chandler

Todd, thanks so much for your insightful comment. (And no, I had not deleted it previously–for some reason it automatically went into my “pending” queue. Maybe WordPress feels uncomfortable about conversations about race? :) )

I think you are absolutely right. This is a difficult conversation and I realize that as soon as I open my mouth to complain about my existence as a white woman, I am playing with fire. I wish I had more time to respond to this very important discussion, but I can’t right now. Let me just say that I guess my overall feeling is that all of us in OWS must walk a fine line of not assuming things about each other while still recognizing and encouraging historically marginalized voices. When this balance works, it’s an amazing experience. When it doesn’t, like last night, it’s hurtful to everyone involved.

More to come when I’m done cooking! :) But thanks again for your valuable and thought-provoking input.

Comment by Carrie M

Thanks, everyone, for your words. I regret letting people get to me last night, and I will take a breath and try to find faith in the movement as a whole.

Just for the record, because a couple of you seemed to assume the main source of the problem last night was Nan, it wasn’t. I respect her, and she has a lot to say, but it wasn’t her causing the disruptions. And it wasn’t just the guy sitting right next to me issuing a nonstop stream of “fuck you’s” (e.g. “Fuck the facilitators! Fuck the leaders! Fuck the process! Fuck white people!”. There were individuals all over the room calling other people “asshole,” “bitch,” and all sorts of colorful, hateful, damaging expressions. The entire process, for two hours, basically devolved into people shouting horrible things at each other. As a pacifist (as I thought we all were) I can only take so much of that rhetoric before I need to escape to a safer, more loving space.

There were multiple other people, and whole groups, who walked out last night, if that’s not reflected in the live tweets. There were other women who said at them meeting they feared for their safety.

I just thought we were better than this. We should be an example of peace and love to the world. I don’t know how we can get back to that ideal.

Comment by Carrie M

Readibg your post was heartbreaking. I can say im indebted to your work and appreciate everything you’ve done. I hope we can come up with a way of dealing with this. We can’t afford to lose you.

Get the rest you need. You are appreciated.

Comment by Dave Buccola

I am sorry this happened, people and the things they assume. I appreciate you and your dedication to this ows.

Bravo to your well written account of the incident. What do you think of making some print outs of this blog and having it in hand for next time? Maybe you could just have it casually passed back to them or hand it to them in person. Might just give them something to think about, and if they don’t at least you tried to.

- Autumn

Comment by Autumn Sol

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