Desis Take Action At Occupy Wall Street

 video courtesy of Thanu Yakupitiyage

I no longer live in New York, and I was following the Occupy Wall Street movement only vaguely when last week, something on FB caught my attention… and kept it. It was a lengthy note by Hena Ashraf, chronicling how she and a few other desis had gone down to Liberty Square on Thursday night and argued to change some of the language in Occupy Wall Street’s primary declaration.

I recognized some of the names in her story from my own time in New York: Sonny Singh (of, among other things, Red Baraat) and Thanu Yakupitiyage, an immigrant rights activist who is also a Lanka Solidarity member. And another, whom I didn’t know: Manissa McCleave Maharawal. These four, it seemed, had formed the posse primarily responsible for the intervention that had me riveted.

Here’s how it looks in the Occupy Wall Street notes:

Block 4—Grievance in supporting a document that claims that my oppression on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, religion, and things not mentioned on this document are something that happened formerly and not in the present day.

Response: This can be addressed.  The document says that these divisions have formerly happened.  We know they happen now, that’s why we’re writing it this way.  This document is saying “we want to leave this shit in the past where it belongs to create a new America, world, new society, where everyone is equal.”  We do not mean to ignore present-day issues.  It was drafted so we can leave that behind.

Block 5—That phrase erases so much history of oppression, it is idealistic, not realistic.  We still think it should be changed, and we think it’s an ethical issue.

Response: Rephrase, “formerly divided” so we can have what you would like to see written.  Then the working group can decide whether we want to move to consensus without it.

Let’s all relax!

We appreciate the process, we appreciate everything you’ve done, we want a small verb change, we feel it is an ethical matter.

“As one people, despite divisions of color of our skin…”

Response: We’re fine with that.  Let’s meet after and decide which phrasing to use.

Block withdrawn.

And here’s a snippet of what it felt like, from Manissa’s point of view:

Let me tell you what it feels like to stand in front of a white man and explain privilege to him. It hurts. It makes you tired. Sometimes it makes you want to cry. Sometimes it is exhilarating. Every single time it is hard. Every single time I get angry that I have to do this, that this is my job, that this shouldn’t be my job. Every single time I am proud of myself that I’ve been able to say these things because I used to not be able to and because some days I just don’t want to. 


And from Hena’s:

Long story short, we got the paragraph changed to adequately address our concerns that it reflect issues around dynamics of power and privilege that marginalized people feel every single day. This was a very hard discussion to have, and it felt so real, it hurt. It hurt that it had to happen, it hurt that we had to explain what is really behind racism to this man, and the people around him, it hurt that so many tried to disrupt us. But at the same time, we were meant to be there, meant to be heard, to make this happen, to make these changes occur. And there were a lot of people sitting there and listening in and contributing constructively. We walked away realizing what we had just done – spontaneously come together, demand change, and create it, in a movement that we are in solidarity with, but also feel a need for constructive criticism.


How many activities and movements or even conversations have I forgone, thinking that they had no space for me? How many times have I thought that some purportedly progressive activity wasn’t even considering anyone like me? How many times have I walked away, rather than saying anything, because I was bone-tired?

Thanu-Sonny-Manissa-Hena-anyone else who was there: THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU—

I can’t embed this one, but if you go to about the 53:30 mark, you can actually see the post-General Assembly discussion (thanks, Manissa, for pointing this out).

All four of them chatted with me, so stay tuned for an update, or Part II!

6 thoughts on “Desis Take Action At Occupy Wall Street

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  3. Hena is one of my friends and I have been following the movement that she and her friends/group members have been responsible for. I am so proud of the fact that they entered a space and made their voices not only be heard, but written down and recorded. I truly believe that we have the power to create spaces for our voices wherever our feet may lead us. I hope that I can continue to gain inspiration and mobility from this movement as Hena and others continue to pave the way for more calls to action across the nation amongst members of the South Asian community as well as others.

  4. Pingback: Desis Take Action At Occupy Wall Street, with video by V.V., with video by Thanu Yakupitiyage | DisOccupy

  5. I find this rather depressing. I am an Indian South African and have actually experienced real discrimination when I was younger, but find this victim attitude troubling. The ‘discrimination’ you face is not suficient to keep you down. It takes alot to make a winner fail.