Sept. 17 marks the one-year anniversary of the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement, when a small group of people set up camp in Zuccotti Park to protest the abuse of power and money by the 1 percent, represented by Wall Street. People of color quickly began to solidify their presence and to speak out, as part of the movement, against the struggles their people have faced for centuries.
The People of Color Caucus (POCcupy), a working group within OWS, formed on Sept. 23. The group was made up of people of color from each of the over 100 other working groups in OWS and officially had the power to halt larger group meetings when POCcupy members recognized prejudice or oppression in group meetings.
“Let’s be real. The economic crisis did not begin with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008,” read POCcupy’s first group statement. “Indeed, people of color and poor people have been in a state of crisis since the founding of this country, and for indigenous communities, since before the founding of the nation. We have long known that capitalism serves only the interests of a tiny, mostly white, minority.”
Sharon Cromwell, one of the founders of POCcupy, now says, “After four months of commitment to the Occupy movement, I was disappointed to find that in general it was not a safe space for advancing the struggle of communities of color or even addressing the ways in which racism prevails in American society. OWS was important on shifting public discourse … but it wasn’t the best venue for organizing around issues that affect communities of color. “
Early in the history of OWS, two Black men, Malik Rassan and Preach, also started Occupy the Hood to address the issues in their community that they did not see incorporated into the work at OWS.
Twelve months later, Rassan says, “Occupy was a sham. Occupy is on its last leg and it’s just trying its best. People who are anti-politics are now pro-Obama. They were anti-everything, and now they’re pro-everything. So Occupy is broken—the message is broken. They let America down. But Occupy the Hood will keep going without them.”
From the beginning, the movement was also quickly criticized for its lack of class and racial diversity and understanding. But people of color were far from absent and continued to do work within, around and, of course, without OWS.
As the Occupy movement grew, general assemblies, large meetings that used forms of direct democracy, sprung up across New York and the country. Groups in the Bronx and Sunset Park began to more directly address the issues of people across the city. In Philadelphia, Occupiers of Color addressed and fought racism within Occupy Philadelphia itself, and in Occupy Oakland, one of the most active and powerful branches, people of color took center stage.
Civil rights leaders came out in droves to participate, support or lend guidance to OWS. Ben Jealous and the NAACP issued a formal statement in support of OWS; Norman Seagel led OWS’s Martin Luther King Day festivities; Ben Chavis began the initiative Occupy the Dream; Jazz Hayden led people to anti-prison groups and helped them begin filming police; Harry Belafonte spoke at an OWS council; Angela Davis spoke at OWS general assemblies and started the Liberation Summer project—the list goes on. Some of these leaders also started the Elders’ Council, a body that formed and held large public events to give guidance to the OWS “kids.”
“In this season of the Arab Spring and OWS, many are coming to the realization that we are coming to an awakening,” said the Rev. Stephen Phelps, interim senior minister of Riverside Church, at an OWS MLK Day event at the church. “This country needs a conversion, a turning of the heart.” Phelps was later arrested with a group, including some from OWS, protesting the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactics.
On Nov. 17, the original OWS encampment at Zuccotti Park was violently dismantled by hundreds of riot police. The brutality of the police on that night made many occupiers, now with their own negative experience of police, refocus their efforts toward police brutality and the prison-industrial complex across the city.
This led them to Davis and the Occupy-related group Liberation Summer, who, according to their purpose statement, were “inspired by the resurgence of social movements around the world that are illuminating the root causes of social crises, class inequality, bigotry and human rights violation.” During the summer, the group worked to “mobilize thousands nationwide to organize and deepen resistance to criminalization and mass incarceration.”
OWS is planning a weekend of events, including a main event on the anniversary, Sept. 17, called “All Roads lead to Wall Street,” to remind the country of the connections they see between all the struggles we face. While many of the original occupiers of color are no longer a part of OWS itself, they have created new collectives and joined the many groups working in neighborhoods of color.
When the People of Color Caucus stopped holding meetings, some of its founders started the group DecoloNYC, “an alliance of activists and advocates of color dedicated to building power and supporting economic, political and social self-determination in our communities,” according to the group’s website. DecoloNYC has helped raise awareness and support for various community-led initiatives in Brooklyn and the Bronx and has held community mixers to introduce people of color to others working on similar projects. For the one-year anniversary, DecoloNYC is inviting all activists of color and their allies to help them celebrate the amplification of racial justice work in New York City and to join the group at Judson Memorial Church on Sunday, Sept. 16, from 2 to 5 p.m.
Take Back the Bronx, formerly Occupy the Bronx, is still fighting for community control and is planning an event for Sept. 15 to help Bronx residents “take to the streets, in response not only to the police murder of Reynaldo Cuevas, but also to fight back against every incident of police harassment, brutality and murder that we suffer in our communities,” according to the group’s Facebook page. Cuevas was accidentally shot by a police officer as he fled a bodega that was being robbed.
On Wednesday, the OWS Council of Elders, now expanded into the National Council of Elders, released the Greensboro Declaration.
“This statement represents a new epoch,” said 97-year-old Detroit revolutionary theorist and activist Grace Lee Boggs, author of “The Next American Revolution,” in a statement. “It calls on Americans to become engaged in a different kind of citizenship, one that transforms their souls in addition to asking them to go to the polls.”
Occupy the Hood quickly spread to hoods around the country, with Atlanta becoming a new leader with its “Feed the Hood” effort, which continues to regularly give out food, its community garden and children’s programs. In July, Occupy the Hood held its first national gathering in Atlanta, Hood Week, and is now planning a Hood Week in New York from Oct. 26 to 28, with panels and events to include appearances by Cornel West, Rebel Diaz, Jasiri X, the Amsterdam News’ own Herb Boyd, and even a call from Mumia Abu-Jamal.
“I would say off the cuff, OWS really showed how deep the systemic racism really is, even among the white progressive liberals. And really how deeply rooted white supremacy is ingrained in their psyche,” Preach said this week while preparing to attend some of OWS’s anniversary events.
“We have been fighting this fight for a long time, and right now we see we need a more direct effort toward the neighborhoods where these things are going on,” he said. “For them to say, it’s bigger than that and tell us what we need to do, its kind of insulting. All y’all want to do is change leadership, but we’re trying to change the world.”