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.
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Story to be continued…