Word versus Action

Posted on December 5, 2011


The main event at yesterday’s first ever 2pm GA was the “decolonize” proposal—anyone who was in the plaza between 3 and 6 knows that much. But the story of who was right, wrong, too loud, or too disrespectful is probably more complicated than that immediately reveals. I know I eventually went off the grid—you’ll note in my recording of the GA that there’s no clear end to the spectacle. I’m not sure I made it to the end. My mic was kicked over all through the day as well, for some reason. First time that’s ever happened. To be honest, I’ll take a step out there and suggest that was due to the over all feeling of disrespect that some people were encouraged to bring.

From my own perspective, I have very complicated feelings about the idea of occupation. In the first place, the term is a legal construct that came into wide circulation after World War 1 and has been used in various capacities to obscure colonization. Colonizers, in turn, before the second decade of the 20th century, were never shy about what they were doing. They colonized, they called it colonization. In later years, the term occupation has become popular in describing the process of colonization in academic circles, because of its resonance with the Palestinian conflict, perhaps. Its a euphemism for the reality of what imperial countries do, part and parcel with the discourse of human rights and humanitarianism that grew up around Wilson’s dogma of the World War 1 era. Because the word does not imply anything sinister in itself, suggests a temporary situation, and a lack of ultimate goals, it is useful in obscuring ethnic cleansing and colonization. It is a word for a transient phenomenon by design, it does NOT mean colonization, any more than invading a country is liberating it.

The rage to me, then, is surprising, given the tame nature of the euphemism, and its multi-faceted usage–from work to describing the human content of a porta potty– and its relatively recent use to obscure colonialism. For my part, though I lived in an occupied country; many of my father’s side of the family live in one; and was even banned for ten years from entering one by the occupier, it never occurred to me that there was any connection between the words. In my opinion, some groups in the bay area have created a connection between the word “occupy” and racism, despite the fact that various political activists have used it for decades in positive fashion, and they’ve convinced others to assume the dynamic as one to one and inherent. That being the case, of course, it obviously means that anyone who doesn’t see it that way has a “colonized” mind and is a “dupe” as one woman called me. This was the attitude that was brought to the plaza by many of the people who had specifically come to back that proposal, but did not come to discuss the other nine proposals on the agenda that day.

The assumption of the narrative of Occupy = Oppression was made most problematic by the intervention of the “white allies”–their own term. Despite the characterizations, Occupy Oakland is made up of a large poc contingent; many of them are poor, some homeless. Being lectured by white allies of another –and one assumes, ‘superior’–group of color, highlights the utter stupidity of the endeavor placed before the GA. The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was the self-proclaimed “Jewish white woman” who took the stage and used her involvement in pro-Palestinian activism as the connector between her struggle and that of Native Americans—claiming that those involved with the occupy movement couldn’t likewise be involved in Palestinian solidarity.

It was an absurd generalization, one not backed by the Arab students who had brought the AIPAC protest proposal, who said that they had never heard an Arab student voice a problem with the term. To be lectured by a “white ally” on how Arabs and Palestinians should feel about the word “occupation” because of HER experience with the issue was bad enough. Not nearly as bad, though, as the person claiming that the “divisiveness” we were experiencing as a product of disagreeing was a product of colonization. That is–and will stand for some time as–the most senseless, racist and offensive thing I’ve heard at the GA.

I wasn’t the only one who responded to this condescension about anyone who didn’t see the occupy word as a symbol of oppression with increasing anger as the day wore on. A woman who was sitting next to me, who also identified as a Native American, was angry at both that reality, and the fact that the facilitator had told everyone at the beginning of the GA that the last step of the day was “to go home” instead of participating in the 24/7 vigil. She left the GA in disgust.

Running Wolf, a Native American who was one hundred percent down with the proposal on Thursday, when I talked to him about it last, was fuming–stomping around the crowd beseeching new faces to get involved and stop talking. Several other people who’d been on the fence at the beginning of the GA—and one person who assured me she was standing aside—voted against the proposal at the end. A person of color who got up during the con period said it best when he complained about the manipulation that was going on, and that he would not use his ethnicity as a point of argument.

The biggest problem for the incoming group was that they had bought into their own hype about the name, their purity of purpose, and the necessity of their dubious mission. They really did believe that people of color outside of their discourse were turned off by the name and saw it as a barrier to participate in the organization. They really did think that they would encounter an all white privileged group whose ignorance on the subject of imperialism required a stern three hour series of lectures from the group and its “white allies”. They really felt entitled to enter the GA and vote on their first day of participation and change its name. Most importantly, they believed that their perspective on race issues was the only legitimate one. All of these assumptions were based on shaky logic.

Occupy Oakland could be more diverse, of course–but it is nevertheless quite diverse. And many people of color in the group have no interest in this discussion. Indeed, I talked to three self-described Native Americans in the last three days who weren’t bothered by the word at all. Another Palestinian American who has been involved in the Occupy movement confided in me that he thought the resistance was a product of thinking about that one issue too long.

On the issue of their goal to strike at colonization and become more inclusive, the actual events were even more comically ironic when juxtaposed against the rhetoric. Three young African American men held up their Occupy Oakland sign, upset that they were being told that they had colonized minds for backing the movement. This was the same sign they affixed to their brief occupation at 18th and Linden. They were roundly chastised; incredibly some members of a Native American group tried to block them with their own banner, though the name of the organization was still Occupy Oakland at the time. I already mentioned the fact that the “decolonize” contingent was given a choice about whether to hear a short proposal on shutting down AIPAC on Monday, and they declined to let it be heard. That seemed to be the theme of the day—a group of people so enchanted with their own discourse about words, that they were unable to see how their discussion was preventing actions meant to achieve the very goals they claimed to be backing with their efforts.

The issue of whether the word Occupy means one thing or another, outside of the dictates of academic discourse, really is one of personal taste. But the issue of whether changing the name would make the movement more diverse and/or radical is an easy one to answer. Occupy Oakland shut down the port, and is preparing to shut it down again. The movement has suggested to mainstream people that they they don’t have to pay attention to police when told to get back on the sidewalk. Its demonstrated that a group of people can hold on to a space for months, even when told what they are doing is illegal. Occupy Oakland bucked the trend of other occupy movements, inviting homeless people into participate as fully fledged members—most of these, of course, people of color. No name change necessary on that one.

The beauty of the camp that I have described in my writing for months now, was in its open nature. It was open to any person, but the people that accepted that invitation most readily were poor and homeless people of color—including indigenous people, African Americans and Latinos–who make up a good deal of the participants still today. They weren’t people who ever cared about the occupation vs. decolonization debate, unfortunately, so they apparently don’t count when we talk about opening up the movement.