We are living in an historical moment where every American is faced with poverty. This is the fate awaiting the 99 percent, whether students dragged down by enormous bank loans, families with underwater mortgages, or seniors whose Social Security may go the way of their savings. No longer can poverty be identified with a particular age or racial group. Alliances can and must be built across class and racial lines to demand economic justice for all and to resist the consequences of impoverishment – evictions, unemployment, and police harassment.
Occupy Wall Street has shown the potential for building just this kind of inclusive movement. An African-American pastor in Brooklyn, Dr. Gary Simpson, declared that the Occupy movement’s struggle “has become a class issue, not a race issue, and there is nothing that scares the rich more than the poor uniting beyond race.”
The same message was given by Cornel West, when speaking to Occupy LA in October: “It’s just not right that 42% of our present children of all colors are living in or near poverty in the richest nation in the history of the world. That’s a moral disgrace. That’s obscenity. It’s ethical abomination. … Let us be very clear that this is not anti-America, it is anti-injustice in America. … we are all classes, we are all civilizations, we are all genders, we are all sexual orientations. Why? Because justice is something bigger than each and every one of us.”
The inclusive narrative of OWS, which seeks justice for all the 99 percent, finds itself wrestling against an ideology of white privilege as well as a complementary ideology of black exceptionalism. The latter was articulated in an article in Friday’s Washington Post headlined “Why African-Americans aren’t embracing OWS.” It repeats the argument that although minority and African-American communities have been hardest hit by unemployment and bank foreclosures, they have not joined the occupations in large numbers.
The writer, Stacey Patton, interviewed a New York radio host, Nathalie Thandiwe, who said: “Occupy Wall Street was started by whites and is about their concern with their plight. Now that capitalism isn’t working for ‘everybody,’ some are protesting.” Patton continues: “Beyond a lack of leaders to inspire them to join the Occupy fold, blacks are not seeing anything new for themselves in the movement. Why should they ally with whites who are just now experiencing the hardships that blacks have known for generations? … Black America’s fight for income equality is not on Wall Street, but is a matter of day-to-day survival. The more pressing battles are against tenant evictions, police brutality and street crime. This group doesn’t see a reason to join the amorphous Occupiers.”
Insofar as poverty has been racialized in America for the last 200 plus years, they are right. The marginalization and demoralization of African-American and Latino communities has attempted to exclude them from the social compact—an attempt that leaders such as César Chávez, Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement denounced. It is imperative to recognize, as Professor West and Dr. Simpson point out, however, that our current reality exceeds this narrative. Bankers, financiers, and their governmental minions have pluralized poverty. Todos nosotros—all of us—face the precarity that comes with declining living standards and the privatization of our common wealth. Building alliances across racial and class lines is the strategy that will achieve a reversal of the neoliberal agenda: the Occupy movement is not just a white people’s cause.
For example, in Springfield, Mass, a genuine multiracial movement against bank foreclosures succeeded in getting the City Council to pass an ordinance in August, creating a mandatory mediation program between banks and homeowners and establishing a $10,000 bond to secure and maintain residential vacant foreclosed properties. Days after the ordinance was passed, the Massachusetts Bankers Association challenged its language and legality. Bank of America is a major member of the Association and has more foreclosed properties in Springfield than any other bank. In response, inspired by the Occupy movement, the “Springfield No One Leaves/Nadie Se Mude” Association occupied Bank of America’s downtown Springfield office in November, demanding an end to no-fault evictions and real loan modifications with principal reduction. 15 were arrested.
These opportunities are discounted by arguments like those of Kenyon Farrow, writing in the American Prospect. He takes issue with OWS’s rhetoric: “… when the New York Police Department began to act violently against the mostly white protesters on Wall Street, many of the videos posted by OWS attendees on YouTube made the point that protesters were arrested, beaten, or pepper-sprayed ‘just for asking the police a question’ or for ‘just exercising their right to protest.’ In contrast, many nonwhites assume the worst in any interaction with police, and if the worst doesn’t occur, we often consider that the exception, not the rule.”
The difference in the assumptions Farrow describes is the result of internalization of police intimidation of black communities. But it is wrong for the police to arrest any American or undocumented person without cause. The motivating force of the Civil Rights movement was to refuse to accept intimidation by police enforcing Jim Crow laws in the South, which took supreme moral courage to stand up to beatings and shootings. Both blacks and whites stood up against those beatings.
Against a massive collapse of living standards, the ideology of white privilege and racialized poverty is unsustainable. We face an historic opportunity to build alliances across racial divisions in the U.S. It is an important achievement of the Occupy movement to have shifted the political debate away from the racialization of poverty to the pluralization of poverty. All Americans need to be part of a movement that will challenge the power of capital and denounce injustice.