Occupy Harlem: 'Occupy Wall Street Is Not A White Thing'

10/31/2011 04:52 pm ET | Updated Dec 31, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street movement went Uptown on Friday night, as more than 100 people filled the second-floor sanctuary at St. Philip's Church in Harlem for the first general meeting of Occupy Harlem.

Unlike their downtown comrades, those in attendance were mostly black and Latino, save for a handful of whites who sat and listened intently, a few lifting their fists to shouts of "Power to the People."

This was a group of veteran activists and young turks alike, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement. And it was a moment decades in the making for veteran Harlem activists, like Nellie Hester Bailey, who have fought and protested and rallied for fair wages, tenants' rights and against police brutality here for years.

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"Occupy Wall Street is not a quote-unquote white thing. It is a white thing that the 1 percent and the bankers are representing white oligarchy and white plutocrats for the most part," Bailey said. "But this is an organic movement from the bottom up. Now we have to take advantage, seize the time and the moment ... and it is time that we become part of this landscape so we can begin to highlight our issues."

As Occupy Wall Street has spread to cities across the country and the world, the collective face of the movement has remained largely white and youthful, at times shunning or crowding out old-school activists and civil rights leaders. But as the movement has continued to grow, more people of color have gotten involved. There is Occupy The Hood, started by a single mother in Detroit and a substance abuse counselor from Queens. Rappers and entertainers have joined Occupy protests in New York, Oakland, Chicago and Houston.

On October 21, more than 30 people, including the scholar and activist Cornel West, were arrested in Harlem while protesting the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy, a practice that critics and community activists say unfairly targets blacks and Latinos. Many of the protesters made their way uptown from Zuccotti park.

According to a recent New York Civil Liberties Union report, about 3 million innocent New Yorkers were subjected to police stops and street interrogations between 2004 and 2010, the overwhelming majority of those stopped and frisked being black or Latino. For organizers and protesters in Harlem, social issues such as police brutality, incarceration, housing needs and various social issues seem to be the focus, in addition to the economic issues at the heart of Occupy Wall Street.

"There is just something in the air now around standing up," said Carl Dix, a representative of the Revolutionary Communist Party in New York. Dix has been deeply involved in planning the protests and was one of those arrested during the protests in Harlem.

Dix said that Occupy Wall Street captured the media's attention after New York Police officers were filmed pepper spraying white, female protesters, and public outcry intensified. These experiences seem to have opened up some common ground between the young white protesters and their more experienced black counterparts.

"We saw that and figured you guys got a taste of this, but these things happen all the time in black and Latino communities," said Dix. "So we went down to the park and did a few mic checks [used the human microphone system] and really shared with that crowd. You know, what is going on is illegal, unconstitutional and intolerable, and we are going to stop it. You should join us."

"I am not of the mind, 'Damn, why are they getting attention?'" Dix added. "I'm more of the 'Let's make this something that can't be ignored.'"

Occupy actions have also spread to minority communities in Brooklyn and the Bronx. In Zuccotti Park, the staging ground for Occupy Wall Street, a people of color working group has been formed. (Organizers of Occupy Harlem have said an encampment would be discussed at subsequent meetings.)

"People of color should be at the crux of this movement," said Jon Stray, 39, who said he comes from a long line of "revolutionaries" and activists. "We are disproportionately affected by the 1 percent you hear everyone talking about now."

Stray said he is a member of the people of color working group at Occupy Wall Street and that the existence of the group within the larger campaign is in itself a "symbol of marginalization," but a way for minorities to get their issues to the forefront.

But Occupy Harlem appears different in more than just its complexion. While corporate corruption and the greed of the 1 percent are dominant themes at OWS, those in Harlem also spoke of the social issues that affect communities of color, including the privatization of public housing and youth violence. There also seem to be clear generational differences, with many of those in attendance being seasoned veterans. Only a handful of young black men attended Friday's meeting in Harlem.

As speakers took to the lectern to blast government waste, President Obama's alleged collusion with Wall Street villains and the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy, many of the elders clapped their hands loudly while the younger people snapped or wiggled their fingers in approval. But there seemed, at times, an uncomfortable tension between the moderator, Bailey, and some of the younger participants who seemed more accustomed to the organizational style of Occupy Wall Street. Many grimaced as their hand signs and gestures went unreciprocated or unacknowledged by Bailey.

"There is a gap in a way they want to organize themselves. Youth seem to be less top down while the vanguard is staunchly top down. That produces somewhat of an organizational stalemate that slows down the process," said Craig Schley, executive director of Voice Of The Everyday People (or VOTE People), a Harlem-based community advocacy group. Schley said the depth of disenfranchisement in the black community and generational gaps in leadership have kept many blacks from participating in Occupy Wall Street and other recent protest movements.

Schley, a former congressional candidate, said that those who would naturally lead or embody a movement that represents the concerns of African Americans would need to be young men and women of color. Many of them are hampered by a number of social factors that go well beyond corporate greed, not the least of which is a history of black protests beaten back with force by the police.

"Our problem in northern Manhattan is moral and principled and not purely financial or financially driven," Schley said. "We don't occupy Wall Street because we occupy prisons. Once the protestors in Zuccotti Park get jobs, the protest ends."

"That's a different paradigm entirely," Schley said. "And if we are going to step out and occupy Harlem, we need to make sure we're going to occupy the needs of this community. And let's make it clear: You can't do it unabashed. When African Americans step out there, things tend to get hostile."

(In mid-October, in a somewhat snarky aside, the Village Voice published a commentary on why so few blacks showed up for the Occupy Wall Street protests. "Thanks to our overwhelming no-show of numbers," writer Greg Tate, wrote, "49,000 shots haven't been fired at OWS yet.")

Nellie Hester Bailey, co-founder of the Harlem Tenants' Council, said that Occupy Harlem stands in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, a movement she said is less about those "young white people" and more about the spotlight they shine on banks and economic greed and inequality. She added though that Occupy Wall Street should serve as a guide, but communities should determine for themselves what issues are important and what strategies could have the most impact.

"I think what is so exciting about this movement is that it is peopled deciding to come together collectively to see what needs to be done, and taking that synergy to come up with long-term strategic planning that is sustainable so that it's not a one-shot deal."

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