Friday, Jul 27, 2012, 1:57 pm
As Occupy the Hood National Gathering Concludes, Questions About Race and Occupy Persist
As Occupy protests were picking up last fall, "Occupy the Hood" groups sprung up in cities like New York, Boston and Atlanta with the goal of bringing more people of color into the movement. Critics of Occupy argued that the “99%” meme was obscuring crucial distinctions between participants, that organizing around the right to public space would fail to address the concerns of people most impacted by deepening austerity, and that the rhetoric surrouding the police brutality confronting the movement normalized the daily repression faced by blacks and Latinos.
It should come as no surprise that, less than a year into Occupy's life, these issues are far from resolved. But as the tents have come down and the the question of what the movement is without them has become unavoidable, some of the most interesting work going on under the name of “Occupy” has grown out of these critiques. In Atlanta this week, a first-ever national gathering of about 20 chapters of Occupy the Hood, dubbed “Hood Week,” sought to bring together groups working locally on issues like police brutality, eviction and foreclosure and school closures.
Though many Occupy the Hood groups started up in order to connect long-standing organizations in communities of color with the newer “Occupy” meme, they also shaped a shift within Occupy as a whole toward occupations rooted in specific communities.
“Bringing people to the park was week one,” says Malik Rhasaan, who helped convene the gathering in Atlanta. “But a lot of those events were media-driven … It's the neighborhood model that's not going anywhere, and that has the ability to trickle up.”
In many cities, it's these neighborhood-based efforts that are now the most visible signs of life within Occupy. Commentators proclaiming the demise of the movement may be half-right: The idea that a big-tent of causes, anchored only to symbolic spaces like Zuccotti Park, would build sustainable coalitions has mostly proved unworkable—in part because of the repression and evictions that Occupiers faced when they sought to set up permanent bases, but also because the original “Occupy” model didn't provide a way to engage with the questions of race and class within the 99% that groups like Occupy the Hood have sought to foreground.
But, as Natasha Lennard has noted, Occupy as a tactic has produced new networks and new energies, and it's these networks, though less frequently under the “Occupy” banner, that are continuing to drive some inspired organizing.
In Atlanta, a hub of efforts to defend families against foreclosure and eviction, Occupy the Hood rallied earlier this year with Occupy Atlanta to call for an end to so-called “midnight evictions” and staged a mock eviction of the county sheriff by dumping the belongings of a family, allegedly evicted at 3:00 AM at gunpoint, on the doorstep of his office.
In Milwaukee, the local chapter of Occupy the Hood organized protests earlier this month when Police Chief Edward Flynn left a forum on police conduct, intended to address the fatal shooting of a 13 year-old boy by Milwaukee police, without taking questions. Earlier this year, the group also occupied City Hall to demand transparency in the distribution of Community Development Block Grants.
Rhasaan, who moved to Atlanta from New York, where he was a founder of Occupy the Hood, says that his initial excitement about Occupy Wall Street began to fade when he observed the same people speaking over and over again at the general assembly. G.A.s were adopted by most Occupy groups as a decision-making body in the first months of the movement but have become less frequent and less central to decision-making in many Occupy groups.
“There was a problem with the model of the G.A. … it became almost dismissive … If you didn't know the protocol and the hand signals already, you didn't fit in,” says Rashaan. “The G.A. didn't work. For a lot of people, it was a tourist attraction.”
Writing in New York Amsterdam News, Amity Paye notes that participants in Hood Week held differing views as to whether they were still a part of the broader Occupy movement:
Some in the group see themselves as a part of the larger Occupy movement while others insist they are now completely separate.
'They kicked us out of [general assemblies],' said Radee Westfield, one of the founding members of Occupy the Hood, explaining why he helped start OTH. 'Everywhere we talked to Occupy the Hood members who had been Occupying since day one, they said the same thing…So we were like, you ain’t here to do nothing but secure your future, and if you’re not going to secure our future, then we’ll do our own thing.'
In Chicago, the neighborhood group Occupy the Southside has been putting on a series of workshops called “Race and the Occupy Movement: the Elephant in the Room.” Marissa Brown, a volunteer organizer with the group, told In These Times that many of those who showed up at their first sessions were those who had felt alienated from Occupy Chicago general assemblies in the first months of the movement. Now, she says, Occupy the Southside hopes to focus the movement's work on building a racially united coalition.
Brown notes that she doesn’t necessarily like the name “Occupy the Hood” and that her group has not worked with its chapters nationally. But she says that "if we don't address [the issues of racial oppression] now, I feel that this movement is going to stagnate." Occupy the Southside has been organizing around police accountability, school closings and public transit. One of the developments that Brown finds most promising is a coalition between residents of Chicago's north side and south side to oppose public transit closures that would disproportionately affect poor and minority communters.
Brown says the idea that Occupy is dead is “laughable.” But, she asserts, “the future of Occupy lies in neighborhood occupations.”
Rebecca Burns is an In These Times staff writer and assistant editor based in Chicago, covering labor, housing and higher education. Her writing has also appeared in Jacobin, Truthout, AlterNet and Waging Nonviolence. She can be reached at rebecca[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns