On Oct. 15, 2011 I set off with my friend Takisha Burke for Washington, DC from Aiken, SC to attend the opening of the Martin Luther King memorial and to engage the Take Back The Machine occupation up close and personal. The following day we arrived fashionably late at the opening ceremony and missed the great Aretha Franklin’s performance, but we were in time to hear hours worth of speeches about the legacy of the magnificent Dr. Martin Luther King’s life. Let me correct that a bit we heard bits and pieces of speeches because the sound system was horrible.
Only those speakers who yelled into the mic could be heard. Of all the speakers there I only heard three of them and of those I knew who two were, the third I didn’t know but I liked his moxie and the fire in his speech. The others were Andrew Young who really educated us about how the financial systems failed us, and Al Sharpton whose best line was, “This ain’t about Obama it’s about yo mama!!” The crowd went wild for that one.
As a black woman I have to say that standing in a sea of blackness was nothing short of awesome. But that sea was interspersed with significant numbers of white, brown, and yellow faces. The conversations were in languages too numerous to mention. On the big screens we could see the First Family slowly making their way thru the memorial and it was at this time my friends and I left, as we were not really interested in yet another speech by this President. As we were leaving the chants of “Four more years !!” were echoing thru the park. We wanted to go to see the memorial, but due to the President’s speech it was closed, so that would have to wait for the next day, we had some occupying to do.
From there we headed to Freedom Plaza to take part in the occupation we had arrived the night before and had gone there. We had some great discussions with the occupiers and had been told that Dr. Cornel West would be speaking at 2:00pm. As we arrived at the occupation on Oct. 16th we heard that there would be a discussion on racism that day and we were excited that our good fortune would be not only hearing Dr. West but also participating in this discussion.
The occupation at Take Back The Machine is predominately white with several black people participating so I felt that our outside black voices would be an important inclusion in this conversation. I had forgotten my memory card for my camera so we walked around to several stores looking for a replacement, then decided to give up the search and return so as not to miss the two events which most interested us. Plus we would be joined by another of my friends Thaddeus Henry Hale, whose iphone would capture pictures of the days event for me.
When Dr. Cornel West arrived the crowd got bigger, but it wasn’t as big as I had anticipated and that may have something to do with the lack of organization that permeates this group. They had fliers to announce his appearance but they didn’t have people on the street handing them out to passersby.
When Dr. West finally arrived he brought with him two dynamic artist, Bootsy Collins formerly a member of Parliament came in his signature garb a bright red suit with a top hat to match. He would represent one generation and Raheem Devaughn, whose song Bulletproof is reminiscent of something Marvin Gaye might have written, had he been alive today. Dr. West told us that he had specifically come to get arrested and he spoke to what the movement really is about.
The essence of this movement is about the change Obama promised, but never either through his own capitulation or the sheer force of the opposition against him ever delivered. It is about a government that is bought and paid for by multi-national corporations, which works against the interest of the people. It is about a nation perpetually at war, a social network that is being eroded by a do nothing Congress except when it is doing something against the will of the people. It is about the loss of our guaranteed rights, and the isms that work to destroy us as a nation.
After his speech he opened the floor for questions and I took the opportunity to ask him to speak to the media created personal beef that it is said he and Tavis Smiley are forwarding against the President. I told him that I had been speaking with two black sisters who think he is great, but they take umbrage with his personal attacks on the President. He took much of his time answering this question and explained that what has been characterized as a personal attack on the President was really an attack on his policies. He explained that media much like they have done with hip-hop artist chose to paint these differences as something akin to East coast--West coast beef rather than elevating the conversation to what it actually is, the ability of some blacks to ignore the color of the President and hold him accountable for his policies. He urged people to join the movement then marched off with many of the occupiers in tow to get arrested on the steps of the Supreme Court.
I chose to stay at the Plaza because I didn’t want to miss the conversation on racism, and frankly I still had some questions about this movement that had not yet been answered.
When I found out about this occupation I had signed onto their website and posted twice about my concerns about their stance on illegal immigration. Both post have languished with few responses but with people encouraging me to come. So there I sat waiting for this discussion on racism, which would not take place at all. My next opportunity to engage this group would be at the general assembly that was to be held at 6:00pm.
This nightly ritual is apparently patterned after the one that has been used by the Occupy Wall Street folks. As Dr. West and Kevin Zeese the erstwhile leader of this leaderless movement would say earlier in the day in this movement there are no leaders, we each are stakeholders in the movement giving each voice equal importance. With this in mind when it came time to list what the group would discuss in the general assembly I took the opportunity to say I would like to speak to the issue of illegal immigration and how it effects people of color, particularly blacks. That then was placed on the list along with one or two other issues and the various reports of actions that they had done, and committee reports.
The actions reports told us that while they were not able to face off with Dianne Feinstein or Eric Cantor at CNN after a Sunday show they did prevent them from addressing the press and issuing sound bites, because they escaped the building from some back door or something to that effect. They also updated us on what was happening with Dr. West, apparently he had been arrested by the Supreme Court’s own police force so they weren’t taken to the usual lockup and the legal aid lawyer also said they had no idea who he was and needed her to spell his name for them. I didn’t get this since they had arrested him and were holding him because he lives out of state, which meant he would have to appear before a judge. I also assumed since they knew he lived out of state it would be just as easy to find out his name. They also had three of their members who had been arrested and not identified so she was asking that if anyone knew who was missing to come give her their names.
The next order of business was all about the various committees and where they should meet, what issues fell under which committee, and what actions they would be taking the following day. They also discussed how many actions they should do in a day, because apparently they splinter off and do too many thereby limiting the effectiveness of each action. An example they gave was who cares about three people demonstrating at a bank. There was some debating about each of these issues, and they have some parliamentary rule called stacking, which is they determine in what order you are allowed to ask questions about each issue. This prolonged the issues portion even further.
When they finally opened the floor for my issue it had to be determined by a vote of the temperature of the group as to whether it would be discussed at all.
When it was determined that they would allow the discussion to take place I addressed the group explaining to them that I had spent thirty years in an industry, which was inundated with illegal immigrants. I explained that blacks had historically been represented in thoroughbred racing and we were now nearly invisible in the sport. I spoke about the immigration policy of this country having always been based on assimilation and amalgamation.
Oh I forgot, before I was able to fully address my issue I was interrupted by some Coptic Egyptians who wanted to address the group, and rather than having a vote on them addressing the group they let them speak. I started to leave, when they realized what they had done. I found the whole thing ironic and told them so since I was speaking about immigration and how blacks have been shuffled to the back, and here they were shuffling me to the back in favor of the Egyptians.
I think the irony was totally lost on them and what makes me pretty sure of that is the person who was leading this whole thing apologized to me and when I said I find it ironic, he dropped to his knees to ask my forgiveness. I found that not funny and it would serve as a precursor to what would follow. Just like the name Obama is a dog whistle on the Right which elicits charges of Socialism or name calling like Hitler, on the Left illegal immigration does the exact same thing.
The minister who appears to consider himself a leader among these leaderless people jumped up and told me that I was being divisive and that there is no designation on the Census of Hispanic white/black. Even some of the other members knew that was dead wrong and told him so. Then another member stated this is a labor issue and we on the track should have formed a union. I disabused them of this foolish notion by explaining that to work and live on the track one must have a state license and that activists risked not only their livelihood but also their housing. Then the most nonsensical of all the responses was issued by the legal aid lady who was highly offended because no people should be considered illegal.
I really should have stayed to ask her if I should be allowed to practice law because no one should have to pass a bar to be able to practice law. That is how ignorant her argument sounds to me it isn’t even an argument it is merely a personal statement about her feelings. Once I could see which direction this group in large part was headed, I determined that this wasn’t the group to have this conversation with.
In fact I determined that maybe black people shouldn’t be having this conversation with white people at all, maybe we should be having it with ourselves along with several other conversations. Maybe it is time for the re-emergence of the Black Panthers or a similar group, because white people have control of the microphone, they continue to control the nature of the discussion, and they, whether on the Right or Left want to control how we view issues that directly effect us. As I was leaving several of the group asked to speak with me privately because they were interested in what I had to say.
My friend Takisha decided to stick with the larger group, as my surrogate. In her group she told them that they didn’t have a right to negate 30 years of my life and that they were missing the entire point of the discussion because they were focusing on their dog whistle words (my words not hers). According to Kisha, the legal aid lady stated that she felt very strongly about the issue. She also wanted to apologize to me for jumping on the word illegal, though she never managed to walk to where I was to issue that apology. That indicates she wasn’t really sorry but, this group realizes that they don’t look very multi-racial since at this assembly there were only four blacks. And I didn’t see any other races besides the majority 20 or so whites, and two of the blacks in attendance were myself and Kisha, and we would be gone after this encounter.
Kisha and I would further discuss this whole encounter first with the group I went off with, then with each other. My group really discussed the issue fully and two women in the group urged me to continue to stay connected with their movement, because they felt this was a necessary conversation that they needed to be having. They didn’t want to look like the Tea Party with an overwhelming white presence and some other races mixed in but not in a significant way.
I told them that the reaction of the larger group didn’t surprise me because I have been met with that reaction often from the Left. But what it did do was solidify my feelings that blacks don’t really have a place in this movement, unless we absorb the larger white message and spit it out with regularity like they do. I told them that wasn’t something I would be willing to do, and therefore I would be looking for a black group or forming one that may be able to find common ground with these largely white groups on issues like war and some social justice issues, but that would approach issues like illegal immigration as a social justice issue in which we are being crushed.
Kisha being much younger and this being her first taste of a social movement is far more willing to listen to white people than I am. And I explained to her and this smaller group that I recall in the 60s when the Panthers and SDS could be counted on to work towards a common goal. But, those movements moved away from each other as whites felt the war was their most pressing issue, not poverty, jobs, voting rights, and enfranchisement.
As much as I love Dr. West and appreciate his standing up, he is a black man in a very special position, he is a writer, educator, and media figure who knows what side of the bread his butter is on. That being said he will not be the one to challenge this movement to hear voices of black opposition on policy issues. He will not be the one who points out that since the Census states that NGOs will be funded to provide a social network for illegal aliens (their word) it is a policy, not an accident that we have untold numbers of mostly Hispanic people entering the country illegally and that we have to examine the causes for such an action. Who benefits, who loses, will they like the Irish assimilate within three generations into the white majority and does this further drive us toward a permanent black underclass?
Will I continue to stay engaged in the Occupy Wall Street movement probably, but with a weary eye, rather than one that sees this as a movement of the people. I know who the people are in these social movements, and I know who they aren’t. The sooner my brothers and sisters assert themselves at these general assemblies across the nation and find out what redress their fellow occupiers are offering the better. They too might find their place in the movement is precarious at best, and more window dressing than anything else.