Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The people Occupying New Orleans

I stopped by the OccupyNOLA camp yesterday to try and meet up with the Anti-Racism Working Group, a coalition of organizers who examine race-, class-, and gender-based power and privilege within the OccupyNOLA encampment and broader society as a whole.

While a formal meeting failed to take place, I had a very tough yet very important conversations with some Occupiers there:

Jessica, a white 20-something member of the internal "Integrity Camp," whom I met while searching for the Working Group meeting, told me her role on-site is to act as night security for the encampment.  After hearing numerous reports of violence at the site, especially against women, Jessica and her companions decided to take on the responsibility of patrolling the area armed only with small cans of mace.  She said that since her group began its effort, all nighttime disputes have been resolved peacefully and without the use of force.

Jessica introduced me to Peter, a white Vietnam War veteran, who says he camps at OccupyNOLA because he wants a better world for his grandchildren.  Having worked hard all his life, including his two-year stint in a war zone on behalf of American interests, Peter found himself struggling to maintain his home and VA medical benefits.  "I can't imagine what young people think of this country," he said.  "We didn't know what we doing in Vietnam, but we knew America needed us.  These kids feel like America has nothing for them."

While Peter and I were talking, a few young white men sidled up to listen in.  After hearing that I was looking for the Anti-Racism Working Group, one of the men expressed his frustration with the group, accusing its members of being exclusionary and detached from the main encampment.  "They meet in a totally different place" than the other working groups, he said.  "And they waste time at [General Assemblies] talking about things that aren't relevant."  When pressed, he told me that some of the members "took over" a General Assembly one time to "force everyone to talk about power and privilege."

The other men sitting around us agreed that while power and privilege are important things to consider, their examination may not be appropriate in a setting such as a General Assembly, where "other things need to get done."

I was a little unsure how to approach the subject, as issues of power and privilege do indeed affect the goings-on at OccupyNOLA, even within so-called progressive organizing circles.  It seems that the work of an anti-racism group would be important, and even necessary, to help all OccupyNOLA participants examine the injustices that they personally may be complicit in furthering.  That is, just because someone commits themselves to camping out in opposition to police brutality, corporatocracy, or even capitalism at large, doesn't mean that individual has been able to acknowledge personal privilege that has the potential to exploit or silence others.  This is especially evident when Occupiers disrespect each other at different events, including General Assemblies, by interrupting, talking over one another, and committing other acts of repression.

Accordingly, I experienced this particular conversation with the young men by feeling a bit dismissed in my projected view that the things that actually "need to get done" should include deep and introspective inquiry into privilege, specifically pertaining to whiteness and maleness.  I had suggested that maybe the reason people were being turned off to the encampment had to do not only with the real threat of physical violence - however tempered by the internal security patrols - but also with the manifestation of structural and systemic violence against certain groups, including women and racial minorities.  The men I was talking to seemed mildly receptive to what I was saying, but there's clearly more work to be done as far as consciousness-raising goes.

Luckily, I had the fortune to meet up with another white female activist on my way out of the encampment, who agreed that OccupyNOLA should work towards establishing safe spaces for women on-site, much like the Occupy Wall Street organizers have done.

So there is plenty of room for progress at OccupyNOLA.  If participants can manage to have these tough conversations and really digest what's being presented, we may be able to collectively realize that overcoming issues of power and privilege doesn't distract form the "real work," it IS the real work to be done.

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