#Occupy Wall Street & the Language of Resistance

As the #OccupyWallStreet protest enters it’s third week, I was finally able to head down to Zuccotti Park aka Liberty Plaza to get a first hand sense of what was happening.

I will admit to feeling somewhat ambivalent about the #OccupyWallStreet actions. Not because I don’t believe that Wall Street is fucked up – I temped at a big investment bank for a number of years and witnessed first hand the manipulation of other people’s money and other people’s governments. My lack of full support is not because I don’t think the economy is jacked up – no one needs to tell me how hard it is for people to pay bills, keep roofs over their heads and feed themselves. These are issues I struggle with daily – as do most of my neighbors. My guarded enthusiasm comes from a concern with the messaging – which is critical in any action that claims to be resisting existing power structures. So I went to witness and to feel the messaging, not just by reading words on signs but by seeing who are the participants and who are they representing.

When I arrived in downtown Manhattan on Saturday afternoon, the marchers were already being trapped and arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge (for record, I believe they were trapped – I have seen it happen by NYPD before). The area in front of the stock exchange was a maze of metal barricades with tourists snapping pictures of the stone faced cops, and were there a lot of cops. They surrounded Zuccotti Park (a space owned by a Canadian Company by the way and “occupied” with permission) and seemed ready at any point to enter the park.

Inside the plaza I searched for families and people of color, which were there but in small numbers. Some children ere painting signs. Others were blowing bubbles. There was the required drum circle, dancing, a library, and a food area where people could get meals.

What I didn’t see or hear was a self-challenge among the participants regarding the language they chose to use. “Occupation” does not sit well with me. As a woman whose country has been occupied by the United States for hundreds of years hearing white men hand out fliers, inviting people to “celebrate the occupation” made me cringe. In a conversation I has with a friend and her friend, I asked if they had heard any discussion of the language used in any of the general assemblies or anywhere really. It was clear that to some (many?) there is no sense of why using the language of occupation is a problem, how it could alienate the very people who are most impacted by the corporate/government policies.

“I saw a sign that said “occupy Wall Street not Palestine,” I was told, as if that was enough. It didn’t feel that way.

I also saw a lot of signs based in the idea of privilege and the bullshit notion of who deserves what. Young people held signs lamenting not being able to pay their student loans and how having gone to college didn’t bring the jobs and success they expected. I thought about the high Latino high school drop out rates and my own lack of a college degree. Were we included in this dialogue/narrative or even within this “movement” were there some who weren’t worth fighting for – some who don’t deserve the “American Dream” because of not following the prescribed order of things.

I didn’t see one sign about immigration. I didn’t see one sign about people of color and the prison pipeline. I didn’t see one sign in any other language except English.

I’m not saying they weren’t there – I’m saying I didn’t see them.

Yes, I was there for only a few hours out of the weeks of this sleep-in – but I saw nothing that spoke to my communities.

As I walked towards Brooklyn Bridge, I will admit it was amazing to see the bridge shut down, police blocking the entrance.

Excuse me while I sound like an old lady for a moment, but I remember in the 1990′s when mostly young people of color shut down bridges and tunnels, some in the name of saving access to CUNY, some in the name against prisons and policing policies that were killing our brothers and sisters, and continue to do so.

I’m wondering where is that language? Where is the place for the struggle of decolonizing Puerto Rico or even the very land that the campers are “occupying”?
Do I think this is an important historical moment? Probably.
Do I feel like I am the 1 percent people are talking about – those without access to adequate food, housing, healthcare?

Not really.

It’s hard for me to fight for “an America” that has made clear that it’s success is to come at my domination – my erasure.

I challenge those who are so strongly supporting this movement hold themselves accountable for the language and framework they put their struggle in. It can’t all be about fighting the powers that be without the acknowledgement of how we be those powers.

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29 comments on “#Occupy Wall Street & the Language of Resistance
  1. Thank you for your right-on analysis. You’ve articulated some of the feelings that have been gnawing at me about this action. Thank you thank you thank you for taking the time to clearly articulate these issues.

    China pointed me to a blogpost that gives the history of Wall Street (named for the wall that the Dutch built in 1653 to keep the Lenape, other Native nations, and the English from attacking “their” settlement) as a site of colonization and theft: http://tequilasovereign.blogspot.com/2011/10/manna-hata.html?spref=fb

  2. Always nice to see your name here Vikki. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

    It’s really complicated because critiquing is simplified to “hating” or as I was told in a very interesting convo I had on twitter this morning, acting like poc are the only ones who can struggle.

    Also thank you for returning the the historic root of the place called Wall Street.

  3. If you want your issues represented, then go out there yourself. Don’t expect middle and upper middle class white people to understand all of your issues and speak for you.

    As for the word “occupation” it’s exactly the right word for this protest because they are trying to take back Wall St and by extension the power they have over our government and country.

  4. Great observation and well timed! I really cannot add more as I totally agree with your sentiments I must admit that I do feel resentment of the lack of representation of people of color. The protesters choice of language indicates who was not at the table. I hope others like us express this more loudly and some healthy dialogue can start.

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  6. Hola Hugo and thanks. I actually did have a great conversation yesterday morning via twitter about this and got to here some more from peeps involved in the general assemblies.

    I think for many people of color who clearly are feeling and have been feeling historically the impact of governmeconomic polices and police violence it’s a complicated space to be in.

  7. Great piece Meagan. Lots of food for thought.

    What do you feel is an acceptable alternative to ‘occupy’? Hugo sent me this and I had the following response:


    Would be really interested to hear your thoughts Maegan. I haven’t at all convinced myself, just pulling off the top right now.

  8. Not sure why it cut all that out…oops

    This was supposed to go where the arrows are….

    ——I feel it. I really like this quote “It can’t all be about fighting the powers that be without the acknowledgement of how we be those powers.”

    That said. The article is missing a suggested alternative to ‘occupy’.

    Occupy is a very powerful word. The most successful social movements in this hemisphere have had the word ‘occupy’ front and centre. Argentinian factory occupations, MST in Brazil occupying and producing the land. Campesinos in Honduras doin the same as we speak.

    Unfortunately. The languages in question here are all colonial (English, Spanish, Portuguese). So, the words that we all understand for direct, militant action, naturally have their roots in the 500-year colonial project that brought the languages here in the first place. But unlike ‘revolution’, ‘revolt’, ‘resistance’, or other words…’occupy’ can’t be understood as being done from home. You can’t ‘occupy’ without affecting business as usual, without being seen, without being dealt with. It implies direct action.

    That’s the power of the word. As has been evidenced by the reaction to these ridiculous online occupations’ that MoveOn.org and others have tried to launch. Most people I know have been like “are you fuckin kidding me?” It’s a word that implies throwing one’s body on the gears. Not clicking.

    I think it’s really shitty that we have the same word for occupying Wall St. as we do for occupying Iraq. I’m not saying that we’re stuck with it, just that I can’t think of an acceptable alternative myself.

    As you know Hugo. I love basketball. And I’m really ‘competitive’. I hate that the same word, ‘competition’, is used to describe both goin hard for a rebound AND competing for control of scarce resources on someone else’s land. But, these are the words that were forced on us. ———

  9. Hola Jesse and thanks for commenting here.

    I think one of the reasons I didn’t include alternatives was because I don’t think it will matter. #occupy language is what is being used and often with people countering with “well people wouldn’t understand other words”.

    as in the poster above – I think decolonize wall street would have been an option

    I know in Ann Arbor that have used the word assembly instead of occupation.

    Why not liberate wall street?

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  12. I definitely like ‘liberate Wall St.’ and ‘decolonize’ is a word that we DEFINITELY need to get into the heads of everyone on this continent.

    The only difference btw those words and ‘occupy’ is that occupy implies going there in the flesh and participating.

    Which really is the beauty of an ‘occupation’ as opposed to an internet forum. Real connection. Other words might be ‘sit-in’ or ‘block party’ or something like that. But all of those describe what you’re supposed to be doing while you’re there. Meanwhile, ‘occupation’ doesn’t do anything of the such. So people can feel free to contribute and participate in whatever way they see fit.

    I thought this piece was particularly interesting. http://www.fairsharecommonheritage.org/2011/10/02/bring-the-noise-can-occupy-wall-street-revive-left-activism/

    Guy was pissed off that they weren’t dealing with ‘ecocide’ issues. So he went down and started talking to people about it and watched it grow. Would be awesome to see someone organize a workshop around the colonial history of the name Wall St. and talk about the word ‘occupy’ and see how people react.

    Thanks agian for the thought-provoking piece!

  13. Privileged kids racked my student loans. sounds familiar. They are just pissed that they were duped by the Wall Streeters, but are very lucky not to be the most affected.

    As far as “liberating” Wall Street, D.C. would need to be liberated as well. The two are linked at the hip. And it also goes beyond just wall street, which is but one major power. How about all of the other special interests? There are big powers out there that look out for number 1, and the majority of the world is not number 1.

    Protests such as this, I’m afraid, are useless.

  14. Hola Jesse and thanks for coming back to comment.

    I know that just a few days ago a POC working group was started and hopefully that will be a space from which those convos and yes teach ins could come from. I’m gonna try and check it out when I can get liberated from work!!!!

  15. Re: “Protests such as this, I’m afraid, are useless.”

    If OWL were useless you wouldn’t see the MSM ridiculing it.

  16. I agree Havlova but I also think we need redefine what “action” is and looks like as it will look different to/for everyone for a number of reasons. Some cannot risk arrest at the public protests. Some cannot take off from work. So I think that if this is really about the 99 percent we need to be real in our analysis of what resistance can/does look like, especially from the multiple communities most impacted by the actions of Wall Street

  17. You are right on about that aspect Maegen. Clearly, people who work many hours each day and then have child care or other obligations when they go home are not in a position to take part in OWS. Nor are those who must remain out of jail and free of a ‘record’ because they are wage-earners in their families.

    And I respect the choice of anyone, who because of a long history of police racism, transphobia, xenophobia, homophobia, et al does not want to put themselves in danger of arrest.

    My post isn’t talking about these groups of people. I am trying to address smart, analytical, activists who are choosing to wait this movement out to see if every OWS participant has the exact same politics as themselves before they decide to take action. That, in itself, is a privilege — that those of us naturally inclined to social justice and activism feel comfortable enough, employed enough, sufficiently financially secure, that we do not feel our very existence is threatened by the current politico-economic system, and we can just stay home until the politics of OWS are fashionable in *our* communities.

    I’m thinking particularly of this MLK quote, as he was organizing his Poor People’s Campaign:
    “The dispossessed of this nation – the poor, both white and Negro – live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organise against that injustice, not against the lives of persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty. The only real revolutionary, people say, is a man who has nothing to lose. There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.”

  18. I’m committed to making OWS an anti-racist space, and value the work that has made it so. However, like Jesse, I tend to think this critique of “the language of occupation” is just bratty and nonconstructive. I submit for your consideration:

    I feel like there’s some unclear slippage here: “SOME cannot risk arrest at the public protests. Some cannot take off from work. So I think that if this is really about the 99 percent we need to be real in our analysis of what resistance can/does look like, especially from the MULTIPLE COMMUNITIES most impacted by the actions of Wall Street” Every community has some that can’t risk arrest, yes. Having a range of marches/events/locations in marches that are safe from arrest is already being done. But to imply that *some communities* can neither take of from work (any of the 168 hours a week) nor risk arrest is to turn demobilization of these communities into a necessity. No PoC movement has ever succeeded by this formula. It is far from exclusionary of people of color to do so.

  19. Carwil, thank you for commenting and for infantilizing people, not just myself, who have a critique of the language used.

    I am not saying that people shouldn’t participate. I went to check out the scene because I think it is important (if problematic as many “movement” spaces are).

  20. Havlova, you say that your post is not speaking to those that cannot take part in Occupy Wallstreet because of dangers it might pose, and say you are addressing “smart, analytical, activists who are choosing to wait this movement out….
    I know many many folks that fall into both these categories. Frankly, your rallying of ENGAGE to someone being critical in the language use that perpetuates violence and reinforces colonialism is not really addressing the issue.

  21. excellent analysis, Maegan.

    re: the suggestion that Maegan offer an alternative to the word occupy, this quote by another brilliant woman: “It is not the duty of marginalized people to give you non-oppressive words to use so that you do not have to THINK about the language you choose. To the contrary, it is essential that privileged people put the work in to find non-oppressive ways of expressing themselves.”

    Out of curiosity, how can someone be committed to “making an anti-racist space” and then call the critiques of (largely) people of color “bratty?”

    And Havlova, I don’t know if you meant to frame it that way, but you excluded “people who work many hours each day and then have child care or other obligations when they go home,” “those who must remain out of jail and free of a ‘record’ because they are wage-earners in their families,” and “anyone, who because of a long history of police racism, transphobia, xenophobia, homophobia, et al does not want to put themselves in danger of arrest” from the category of “smart, analytical, activists.”

    “If you want your issues represented, then go out there yourself. Don’t expect middle and upper middle class white people to understand all of your issues and speak for you.” Karen, clearly Maegan expects white people to speak for her! That’s why this whole post is about the fact that she DID go out there herself and why she runs this site about the concerns of her various communities.

    I almost feel like this can’t be real, you know. I’m still blown by bratty. Dismissing people of color as childish/unable to develop a real or substantive critique? Damn, be creative! Come up with a new tactic for the 21st century.

  22. Maegan, have you seen this post by Native Appropriations about “decolonizing” wall street? There’s a ton of links to other ndn related posts, and a good critique of that poster… b/c buffalo + eastern woodlands…

  23. Hola Delux (and so nice “seeing” you here btw). I’ve retweeted and been discussing many of the posts in that post but hadn’t seen that specific one. Mil gracias for sharing so I may as well.

  24. Wonderful Piece! I’m from Chicago, and have participated in some of the demonstrations here, albeit sometimes with a sense of uneasiness. Thank you for articulating that sense of uneasiness. To illustrate, at a GA on Sunday night, Fred Hampton Jr, was blocked from speaking, and that was infuriariting, particularly after having sat through white speaker after white speaker during the meeting. Moreover, the celebration of the Chicago Police Department has also been problematic, as accounts from mostly white arrestees tell of “friendly” and “polite” police officers, while other accounts from people of color who were arrested were very different. The “friendly” and “polite” account of the police is the story that is recounted and validated at subsequent GAs. The argument from some “Occupiers” is that coalition-building with police officers is important because they are part of the working class. However, ignoring that (Chicago) police have been, and continue to be, instruments of state violence against people of color is a dangerous move – one that will keep a lot of people away.

  25. Hola Ivee and thanks so much for commenting and sharing some of your experiences. More and more, across the country I am hearing about the things you are talking about- namely popular activists of color being blocked from speaking and yes, what I see as an uneasy collaboration and willingness to be too friendly with police.

    Just the other day there was an article about some of the “new” tactics being used by the NYPD against the Wall Street “occupiers”. Funny thing is that these “new” tactics have been implemented in poc communities for some time.

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