‘It Was So Important That We Were All Together’: Desis at Occupy Wall St., Pt. 3

If you go to Zuccotti Park at 4 a.m., you will see them: a contingent from Occupy Wall Street’s People of Color (POC) working group, standing with others who are banding together to protect protestors from a city effort to clean up the space—widely viewed as a coded way to shut down OWS.

When I first talked to Sonny Singh, Thanu Yakupitage, Manissa McCleave Maharawal and Hena Ashraf about two weeks ago, Occupy Wall Street was just gaining steam, and I was newly intrigued by what I’d heard of the quartet’s intervention to eliminate post-racial language from the OWS declaration.

Talking about one of her earliest visits to the protests, Manissa McCleave Maharawal told me,It felt like a space where people were talking about things.”  But, she added, “it needs to be thinking about the role of people of color.” When the post-racial language came up, she said, “I think there was an urgency to it.

“I didn’t want that line to be published because I knew that it would prevent me from being as fully on board with this movement as I had been, and it would prevent other people like me from getting fully on board,” she said. “I want to be able to bring my people down here.”

And eventually, they did. A recent POC working group meeting saw more than 100 attendees. Maharawal, a longtime activist who is also a CUNY anthropology graduate student, says part of the protest’s appeal for her has been the pull of the space. “It feels like it’s changing all the time,” she added. “It feels organized and disorganized at once.”

And, she added, it also felt open to growth. While the change didn’t go through without debate, by fighting for it, they were able to get it done. For Maharawal, who had never spoken in front of such a large group before, it was intense—especially because these were people she wanted on her side. “I don’t think any one of us would have been able to do that if there hadn’t been five or us there, four of us there—it was so important that we were all together,” she said.

Thanu Yakupitiyage had gone to the General Assembly the evening before the intervention and heard one person talk about the need to be in solidarity with people of color, with queer people. “But I didn’t see that reflected in who was speaking,” she said. The post-racial language caught the attention of the four of them, as well as a few others.

“It was trying to talk about unity but it was completely negating and neglecting the experiences of oppressed people,” she said. “Why in order to be completely united do we need to erase difference? …What bothered me about that paragraph was that I didn’t think that this was a movement that could grow if it was starting from such a naïve place…. If you want to use the slogan ‘another world is possible’ you have to acknowledge the realities of today.”

To get their change passed, the four of them had to declare it as an “ethical objection.” Hundreds of people turned to look at them. “We were so visible,” Yakupitiyage recalled.

UPDATE, FRIDAY MORNING: Brookfield, the private owner of the park, has postponed the cleaning. See a story on The New York Times website. However, my own Facebook feed still has information about confrontations between police and protestors… Waiting for more. Reuters has a blog of Occupy events in different locations: see this

Are you at Occupy Wall Street or another protest? Send us your images and tell us what’s in them: v_v@sepiamutiny.com

Story to be continued…


13 thoughts on “‘It Was So Important That We Were All Together’: Desis at Occupy Wall St., Pt. 3

  1. You can find it by clicking on the first of the three posts—the one linked at “first talked.” Essentially, language that referred to racism as though it were gone.

    • Sorry I missed that. Thanks. But from what I could figure out in the examples, they were not saying racism no longer exists. They were talking about how they wanted things to be. It seems like much ado over a misunderstanding/technicality.

      • There was no language in the draft of the declaration indicating that it was “how they wanted things to be.” The draft language referred to a present state. This was not a technicality, but a serious problem.

  2. I guess I am confused by the whole oppressed people of color thing when it comes to this march, at least from a desi perspective. There are quite a few desis among the “oppressors” on Wall Street. So I do not understand where desis come off making a big deal about the language. Why not keep the message simple? Don’t let the fatcats on Wall Street get away with crimes at the expense of others.

    • yes, there are many desis who work on wall street. so what? there are also many more who drive taxis, work in construction, work in convenience stores, and are losing their homes in queens to foreclosures. on the one hand, we have to challenge the model minority myth that all or most desis are wealthy, upwardly mobile, etc. on the other hand, we should be encouraging desis from privileged class backgrounds to stand up for social and economic justice, to challenge corporate greed, and perhaps to even question their own career paths. either way, south asians are still people of color who face racism every day, even in activist spaces like occupy wall street. pretending that our experiences are all the same isn’t helpful. it normalizes whiteness. it normalizes maleness. and so on. we need a much more nuanced understanding of the 99%.

      • And there are many white people victimized by Wall Street too. Many hard working whites who have not defaulted on their mortgages who have seen their housing values burst by the bubble created by greedy speculators. My point was not contradicting the point that there weren’t brown people disaffected. But the whole nitpicking on race in a movement that should focus on corporate abuses.

        Not to mention that this seems to be getting global traction. So including race becomes less of an issue because the power structure internationally is not all white.

  3. I am one of those that actually defends the initial aimless nature of these protests. Let it be a fun gathering of people who feel ripped off and powerless to do anything to gather and vent. The “voice” of the protests can be finetuned in due time. People of color should take advantage of the decentralized nature of the protests and start their own niche protest. The central message should be about the abuses of wall street and how they seem to get away with corporate welfare at the expense of many powerless people. The central message should also be that the disaffected are many and while the one voice is against wall street, people should be encouraged to seek out the difference niches to listen to the different complaints. DOn’t make the central agenda some politically correct thing diluting the central message. If you are a person of color, get your ass to the marches and start your own protest. Don’t whine about the central message.

    And if you look at the economic climate around the world, the rich and powerful, regardless of race, are good at abusing their power to garner a lot of wealth. Just look at the warlords and dictators bankrupting Africa. And I still gotta emphasize. Indians and other desis are definitely not the oppressed here. They are guilty of financial crimes as much as any other white person.

  4. Phew. I was worried at the headline there. Many more desis living in my 1 Bedroom in New Jersey :) Sad nonetheless, insulting to all those Hindu/Muslim dads who immigrated and make good thanks to free market capitalism. Now their clueless desi/brown/”South Asian” kids – otherwise completely disloyal mind – and dishonest, when it comes to their parent’s culture, tell us it’s all for our sakes! Bring in the heavy artillery folks Mitchell Patel, Laskhmi Sita Saraswati Narayana-Stein and Krishnaa Dell.

    Always screaming oppression, sometimes I really wonder if this is all a suppressed colonial fetish, who knows?? Dears, if you seek to uplift your poor downtrodden brethren then get an arranged marriage or work at your local religious center. Otherwise just move to the socialist utopia of India and Sri Lanka.