This piece was written by one of our members and her comrades in Atlanta, who have been taking part of Occupy Atlanta since day one.
A public, revolutionary perspective of the ongoing occupations across the nation has been lacking. There is much talk within radical communities, organizations, and blogs about the occupations, but few written declarations have been made from those within the occupations themselves. This is our small attempt to address this problem.
We do not represent the voices of every occupier, but we also recognize that our own voices must be heard. We followed the Occupy Wall Street movement when it was just several hundred people in New York City, and we watched, thrilled, as it spread across the nation. We were ecstatic to find out that folks, here, in Atlanta were starting to organize our very own Occupy. But we were also cautious—cautious because we knew there were very serious critiques of the racial, class, gendered, and political makeup of the occupations that we largely agreed with and didn’t want to see replicated in our own city.
Last Friday was the first night of Occupy Atlanta. At six pm, the scheduled time for the first General Assembly, over 500 people gathered in Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta. It was exciting to see so many people come out to something that had been planned so quickly. It was a testament to the excitement and rage in the air. At the same time, there were lots of problems from the start. White men moderated the entire three hour discussion, spoke almost the whole time, and made it very difficult for anyone else to speak because of the “process” of the meeting. Many of us had to wait almost twenty minutes, several times, to say one word even though no one else was on stack. The meeting was at times boring, tedious, and incredibly frustrating. Yet, it was also an exercise in democracy, and the biggest collective decision making body most of us had ever witnessed.
During the GA, Congressman John Lewis, the celebrated civil rights leader, showed up in expectation of addressing the crowd. We were informed that he wanted to address the crowd at that very moment, and were not told until far later that he had a prior engagement and thus could not wait until later to speak. Hundreds of people were in the midst of a critical meeting and knew that there was a place at the end of the agenda for people to address the crowd. Furthermore, recognizing that one of the central values of the Occupy movement is the belief that no individual or group of individuals is more valuable than any other person—particularly those already over-valued and over-represented in the very governmental institution we are opposing—many folks in the crowd felt that the meeting should not be interrupted for an “important” figure. The folks asking Lewis to wait until the scheduled speaking time were not only white folks, as has been suggested by some, but a diverse group of people, and ultimately made up the majority. Those asking Lewis to wait wanted Lewis to speak—they recognized his legacy, his importance, and his value for many of us, especially to the black community—but they also wanted him and every other individual to respect the process of a democratic meeting.
Yet, this collective ask prompted a handful of black folks to leave the crowd, telling some individuals they felt alienated and upset by what had happened. One woman of color was in tears on the phone, speaking to a friend, saying that those who claimed to speak for her were unaware of what she needed—John Lewis was a radical man whom empowered his community, and here was a mostly white crowd shooing him away. This was so upsetting to witness for many of the radicals in the crowd, as we were already concerned about the racial dynamics and did not want the decision to ask Lewis to wait to be construed as a rejection of such a prominent black leader, and therefore, as a major affront to POC and the black community. In the days that have followed, the John Lewis story has not died down, but rather gained steam and turned into something it absolutely was not. So let us be clear, as witnesses—John Lewis was asked to wait until the specified time for speakers to address the crowd. He did not stay; he had to leave for an appointment. He expressed absolutely no ill will towards us, publicly.
What happened is unfortunate. But those of us writing this document must be clear—if we have to rely on the presence of Lewis to attract and retain folks from the black community at a protest, something is fundamentally wrong. The situation should raise an altogether different question—why were only white men speaking and moderating? If a black woman had been on the bullhorn and had been the one to say Lewis needed to wait until the end, how would things have been interpreted differently? On the one hand, we need not to fetishize the democratic process. On the other hand, we need to recognize the influence of an individual like Lewis in the hearts of so many. However, the solution and discussion shouldn’t be limited to letting Lewis speak or making him wait. Again, if there were more women, more POC, more queer folks, up at the front of the crowd, and if they were the ones telling Lewis he needed to wait, what then would there action from the crowd have been? We ask this question because we are adamantly against the privilege baiting that has gone on in regards to the Lewis debacle. Far too often, these privilege politics (you are white and thus you have no right to ask Lewis to wait) are often masking political beliefs of individuals that are deeply imbedded within the non-profit industrial complex and black capitalist class which is nowhere more prominent than in Atlanta. Additionally, the privilege baiting attempts to erase the countless voices of women and people of color that also voted for Lewis to wait.
Again, the issue from the onset is not about Lewis being asked to wait; it is that people of color, queer folk, women—those upon whose backs capitalism was built and perpetuates its oppression—were not adequately reached out to in the preparatory stages of Occupy Atlanta, and were not actively included once it began. Using Facebook and word of mouth to spread information about an occupation, or any movement for that matter, is insufficient. These forms of communications rest on friendship ties, and friendship ties in this case were predominantly between those already existing in the progressive Atlanta community (which is very white). The Atlanta occupation, and those all across the country, have been planned, dominated, and frequented by mostly white, middle class, young men and women. This is the true issue at the forefront of these occupations, and many social movements. It is the sharp contrast between those speaking and those needing to speak that must be brought up, discussed, and publicly addressed by radicals, lest we fall into the same paradigms of non-profits, whom claim to speak for the disenfranchised, but in reality, rob and maim the voices of the oppressed classes.
Yet, we found ourselves questioning, why despite all of these problems, do we remain occupying? This is our answer: We remain occupying precisely because of these problems. We are revolutionaries, and the job of revolutionaries is not to ignore a mass movement of people breaking out just because it has problems, but to insert ourselves directly into the movement to raise, critique, and help fix the problems. We must stay here so we can bring up these non-coincidental issues of color, class, and gender-orientation representation and strive to change them. We must stay here so that we can raise the revolutionary character of these movements, challenge the participants to think and act differently, and incorporate the voices of those that have thus far been absent.
The authors of this document, along with countless others occupying cities across the nation, stand against capitalism, patriarchy, and racism. We recognize that capitalism would not be possible without the original, and ongoing, oppression of women, queer folk, and people of color. Capitalism was built upon our backs. This economic crisis has been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years for queers, people of color, and women—it is nothing new. These communities have also been fighting back since the beginning of their oppression—resistance is also not new. We recognize that it is only when the homes of white, middle class Americans get taken away, when their jobs are lost, when they begin to suffer, when they begin to fight back, that the media and the politicians begin to pay attention.
But we also think there is a space to recognize and critique these factors from within the current occupation movement. We refuse to abstain from the largest mass activity that any of us have seen in our lifetimes, just because there are problems.
The authors of this document believe that the occupy movement reflects the biggest self-organization of the people that we have seen in decades. People are joining together to address the problems they face. But we also recognize that full realization of the demands that occupiers are making, such as putting people over profit, are impossible under the capitalist society in which we live. Full victory will never be possible as long as economic relations continue to be driven by the profit imperative. It is only through a revolution, created and led from the bottom up, by the people, for the people, by the 99% that are most affected, that we can move beyond the corruption and corporate rule we are witnessing today.
Yesterday, three women from this document moderated a 100 person general assembly. We are currently working on a workshop on white privilege and male privilege. There are more brown faces at the occupation each day, than the day previous. We renamed Woodruff Park, the park which we are occupying, Troy Davis Park. We are organizing a walk out at our school in which more than 30% of the students are black. There is a workshop on Saturday at Troy Davis Park about free, radical childcare. There is a march on Friday in support of a homeless shelter nearby that is in danger of being forced to close. We have fed hundreds of mouths, many which would have gone to bed hungry without our homemade peanut butter sandwiches and bean burritos.
Here’s the thing: We’re sick of asking for change, and we’re not going to do it anymore. We’re sick of being told to lobby and to vote, and if we just supported Obama a little more, things would be different. We’re sick of being told to join a non-profit, however radical it perceives itself to be. We’re sick of being told that change can happen within the system if we only just participate more. We’re sick of being told we’re racist, or sexist, or classist, for participating in a movement that has problems. We’re sick of sitting on the sidelines and refusing to actually engage in a movement while writing on our blogs and Facebook about how screwed up things are. We’re sick of asking and we’re sick of waiting. The time to act is now, with every ounce of our brown, female, and queer bodies.