Preoccupied with Occupy

The recent one-year anniversary of the start of the Occupy Wall Street uprising has me preoccupied with occupy. Here’s what I’ve been mulling over.

First, so we’re on the same page (even if, maybe, with differing opinions), I don’t think of Occupy as a broad based social movement. I know that’s not a popular idea with Occupy activists, but I just don’t, and as a matter of respect, I’m putting it out there.

Instead, I think of Occupy as a cultural uprising rooted in a very specific and limited experience of economic injustice of a particular group. I know that where that group is concerned there are many exceptions, but I’m addressing the norm here, so hang in with me.

This was first made evident to me by seeing Occupy activists in Hawai’i, a place in the midst of a major struggle over the U.S. occupation of the Hawaiian nation. What I saw was an almost entirely white group on the island of Hawai’i holding signs saying “Occupy Hawai’i.” That, I think, is a bright red flag indicating that particular Occupy faction’s cultural isolation.

Regardless, I was then and am still, a fan. Occupy opened up space on the left of the political spectrum for a discussion of economic injustice that had for too long been marginalized. Good for them. Good for us. All around, a very good deal. As an uprising, that is.

It’s as an aspiring movement that I find them problematic. That’s what’s been eating at me lately.

I believe that a truly transformative movement must originate from the imaginations and needs of those on the bottom of the global economy. When people on the bottom stand up, all of us are lifted. And, at the bottom of the global economy, people of color are disproportionately represented, just as we were disproportionately unrepresented in the Occupy uprising.

Occupy is, at its core, an uprising of marginally middle class, downwardly mobile white people, many of whose hopes for upward mobility were riding atop the bubble that burst as the economy crashed in 2008. The rage they express, though righteous, is, I believe, as much about feeling cheated out of a status to which they feel entitled as it is about anger over the arrogance of elites. And that sense of entitlement is something most people of color know nothing of.

African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, were already suffering in a decades long recession before the crash affected white folks. And government inaction, horrible exploitation, and the arrogance of elites is nothing new to us. It is, in fact, the normative experience for most people of color.

For instance, the African American unemployment rate actually went down to 8% from a pretty steady rate of 8.4% in 2007. Before that, it held steady at about double the unemployment rate of whites for 4 years. The  unemployment rate among Native Americans was 7.7 percent in the first half of 2007. By 2010, it rose to 15.2%. Latinos have also historically suffered a higher rate of unemployment than whites. Even Asians, the so-called model minority, are suffering more from long-term unemployment since the crash than white people.

And when it comes to the mortgage crisis Black and Latino households were especially hard hit, and many long before middle class families were impacted. It ain’t right but it makes sense when you consider that the subprime mortgage market was created in order to exploit the lack of mortgage opportunities for African Americans resulting from red-lining, racial exclusion from prime real estate markets, and, for many, bad credit incurred in what has always been a bad economy for Blacks.

Where was Occupy then? And what does their silence pre-crash indicate about how the core of the uprising defines their collective self-interest? All of this nothing to do with the morality or earnest good intentions of occupiers as individuals, but much to do with how white privilege distorts the ability of white folks to define their self-interest in broad terms.

In this instance, that self-interest is far too bound by the color line. You know, that line marking self-interest that runs behind whites people’s heels and in front of other folks toes? I know they don’t have eyes behind their heads, but they could just turn around, that is, if they’re not too distracted by the prizes or problems they see in front of them; prizes and problem made all the more distracting in times of economic hardship.

I’m not suggesting we shun Occupy or deny them our support as one in a broad range of tactics employed by the movement we will, I hope, create with them. People of color and the very poor are no more moral or just than Occupy. We’re just positioned such that when we move, fewer people are left behind. And, because of how we’re positioned within the structural inequities of the U.S. and the world, the solutions we create have the most far reaching and positive stimulative effect, both on our economy and on our political culture.

It’s time for people of color, especially those of us advocating for the poorest among us, to start telling our stories and  leading uprisings around our needs. We can’t expect Occupy to do it for us. If we don’t, our radical politics will be hemmed in by white rage on the right, and white rage on the left, and the spectacle being created on both sides will contribute further to our invisibility.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

6 replies on “Preoccupied with Occupy”

Regardless, I was then and am still, a fan.

Yes, I too am a fan. I see this as at least a partial response to the tea party domination of news coverage that preceded it.

Occupy is, at its core, an uprising of marginally middle class, downwardly mobile white people, many of whose hopes for upward mobility were riding atop the bubble that burst as the economy crashed in 2008.

I don’t agree with that. I think it came from higher up in the middle class than you suggest. And perhaps it had to come from there. That is where most successful social movements originate.

The rage they express, though righteous, is, I believe, as much about feeling cheated out of a status to which they feel entitled as it is about anger over the arrogance of elites.

I don’t agree with that, either. I think the movement originated with people who are idealists, and who are appalled at the way that their ideal of what America should be is being stolen by the super rich. So I see a genuine communitarian spirit in the movement.

You are correct, however, that this was a predominantly white movement. In a way, it had to be, in order to be effective. Racism runs very deep in this society, and if this movement were not predominantly white, it would not have received the coverage and general respect that the press gave it.

I appreciate the comments, but, you know, I don’t want people doing for me. That, historically, has not been effective at meeting the needs of people of color. I particularly find it problematic that they locate solutions to the problem in the middle class. It assumes that change can only occur incrementally, and at the behest of middle class white people, for and not necessarily with people of color. That’s the core of my objection.

And you’re right, racism runs deep in this country. That’s why I said what I did about white rage and entitlement. One only need look at some of the protests that have been taped by occupiers, to hear the chants, to get a sense of where this anger is rooted. In the words of one occupier, “There’s the rich, there’s the poor, and then there was us. And the rich are stepping on our necks and they’re trying to squash us down, but this is called an uprising and we’re taking back what is ours!” I get the feeling “what is ours,” doesn’t include, for example, what is due to Blacks and Native Americans, some of which I think is including in that entitlement called “ours.”

I really think you gotta name the problem, out of respect for people’s ability to engage in the dialogue, in order to move to a place where “us and them” isn’t the definitive way in which the white middle class and and people of color relate to one another. As demographics change, those white middle class folks are going to need us if they want their fair share.

Such an insightful post on the Occupy movements. I wrote something about it awhile ago, but didn’t mention anything about the exclusion / absence of people of color in the movement. Thinking back, I don’t know how I could have missed that. I was focusing on the criticism of Occupy as a “leaderless” movement, I think. My argument was one that Ella Baker, who ran SNCC, made. She said that “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” I did say in my post that in a “participatory democracy,” people “throughout society” are to be involved–common people are participating in changing their own fate–which prohibits a situation where the privileged make decisions on the behalf of working people without their consent. If Occupy is truly to be practicing participatory democracy–which it is, in some ways, the intersections of class and race must be recognized. But how does that happen? Also, how big a part does cynicism play in our views about socio-political change now? So many people say that Occupy doesn’t “do anything.” The question is, what are you looking for it to do? What makes a movement a failure? What makes it a success? Movement implies action, motion, stepping, stirring. When you move, I think, you act, you engage. I think a lot of us subscribe to this notion that you have to part seas and stand on podiums at monuments to ensure change…maybe I am philosophizing a bit too much here. I recognize that people want to see laws or regulations passed to address injustice, not protests or pretty speeches. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve been in the academic ivory tower too long or something, but, you know, we’re still reading about famous addresses from hundreds of years ago and discussing famous marches and boycotts…so doesn’t that mean something? I mean, it has to, right? I think you need art and discussion as well as legislation. I guess that’s what a lot of people say, though. And do you really? I’m thinking about the Civil Rights Movement, though. Rosa Parks and the boycott was a calculated move, Lawyers and others had been working on securing civil rights for a while, and they had “auditioned” a few people for Parks’s part. (I’m not trying to belittle the movement by saying “part,” by the way). What I’m trying to get at here (in a roundabout way) is that the movement–what we saw and what was practiced behind the scenes to dismantle Jim Crow were different things–operating together. Speech and protest + legal shifts. I think maybe I’ll summarize: (1) Occupy, in my view, isn’t less potent because of it leaderlessness; in fact, I believe that participatory democracy is working there.
(2) The dismissal and/or denial of race in the movement is of course very problematic and I think the point you made about some lower middle class Whites feeling uncomfortable with their waning privilege is important–that sentiment is present on a national scale as well, with working class Whites.
(3) The idea that the Occupy movement “doesn’t work” is sort of an amorphous assertion. Historically, protest and policy have worked together–sometimes protest comes first, sometimes policy doesn’t follow, but protest, in my mind always has a purpose, even if all it does is energize and inspire–that means a lot to me. look at the Black Power movement. Some argued that that movement failed–but this notion of self-education and free lunch for school children–that didn’t fail. Thanks for this post–it made me think of Occupy a little differently.

I have NEVER been a fan of this whole ‘occupy’ bulls**t and a lot of it has to do with what you said. Many poor working class and truly middle class people don’t have time to spend idly whing like 8 year-olds and stinking up public parks. They have a REAL world to deal with and that’s something not present among the mostly white and mostly upperwardly mobile crowd. It reminds me of the white students bitching at Berkley during the Nam war they weren’t doing it because they cared about the boys from poor neighborhoods risking their lives it’s because THEY didn’t want to have to go fight. It’s always about ‘certain’ people and those annoying little POCs are just an afterthought

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