As the second month of Occupy Wall Street got off the ground, artist Jasiri X and director Paradise Gray set powerful images to a hip hop beat—bringing a familiar tone to a movement some people of color are tuning out. It's easy to look at images of predominately White protestors taking to the streets and reports of missteps and wonder whether Occupy Wall Street is really welcoming or relevant to Black people.
Challenging our financial system may be a new rally call for some of OWS participants, but Black folks can point to generations of intimate experiences with economic injustice and a deep knowledge of movement building. Can the movement channel this knowledge?
We Shall Not be Moved
The Black experience in this country is full of the type of efforts taking place across the world today in solidarity with OWS. As mass mobilizers, the Greensboro Four galvanized nearly 70,000 Blacks to participate in sit-ins across the South. The platform of economic opportunity and access to employment led the Black Panther Party’s ten-point plan, arguing that “the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living." Even in the years before Twitter and Facebook, transnational networks were powerful and central to the movement to end Apartheid in South Africa, connecting the African Diaspora through struggles for self-determination.
We are all frustrated (#understatements) with financial institutions in the wake of the economic crisis, and the gap between the rich and the poor is deplorable. African-American oppression is directly wed to the accumulation of wealth in this country. In its origins, the American economic structure was a system designed with African bondage in mind. This memory fresh in their minds, generations of Black activists have challenged our nation’s economic configuration.
The nature of OWS makes its direction almost impossible to predict, but the contributions of Black voices to this type of direct, populist action has been invaluable. So what does meaningful participation by people of color look like, given our historical expertise in direct action and movement building? People have begun to weigh in on this conversation and opinions are bound to vary, especially given that the fight for economic justice is one we know better than most.