Where’s the Color in the Occupy Movement? Wherever We Put It

On a day when the world celebrates the rights of everyday workers, we sat down with activists of color to talk about Occupy Wall Street.

By David Zlutnick, Rinku Sen, Yvonne Yen Liu May 01, 2012

In 1886, 300,000 workers, a great number of them immigrants and anarchists, went on general strike across the United States. That day, they took another step in the long march toward an eight-hour workday that had started in the 1860’s and didn’t end until well into the 20th century. That strike and the Haymarket Massacre that followed days later sparked a global tradition of celebrating unity among all workers, a tradition that never quite took hold in the United States with the same gusto as it did in other countries.

Over the last decade, the immigrant rights movement has revived May Day rallies and marches as a response to the waves of hate hitting immigrants since September 11, 2011. After something of a winter hiatus, Occupiers across the country have added their voices to those of immigrant organizations calling for massive marches and a general strike today. The strike includes no shopping, providing an action for those who can’t skip work or school for whatever reason.

There are also places where a partnership between Occupying and immigrant rights isn’t taking hold. In Los Angeles, there will be two events; a morning march led by immigrant rights groups, as has been true for a decade, and another in the afternoon organized by Occupy L.A. Michael Novick, a spokesperson for Occupy L.A. pulled up a generalist argument for the separation in an interview with CNN. May Day isn’t just about immigrants, he said; "It’s for labor rights, for economic and social justice, for economic equity, and for peace. And we think that will build a strong force downtown to say this is going to be a day that could change the world a little bit and hopefully for the better."

It’s unfortunate that a march led by immigrants with those same messages doesn’t count as broad and inclusive in L.A.; that doesn’t seem to be an issue in New York, for example, where the immigrant rights groups and OWS have merged their major events.

Colorlines.com and our publisher, the Applied Research Center (ARC), continue to explore the relationship between OWS and the racial justice organizations that work to ensure that economic and social justice solutions take root in communities of color. ARC staff has been involved with Occupy Research, a network of academics and independent researchers doing research about and for the movement. We’ve conducted a series of focus groups with youth organizers involved in Occupy in various cities, including Oakland, New York, Portland, Baltimore, and Atlanta, and will be reporting on those later this Spring.

We are reminded daily that the 99 percent isn’t monolithic, and that the mechanisms that cause suffering differ from community to community. Some of the conditions that are new for this generation of the white middle class — the structures that bilk them of their assets or prevent them from acquiring any — are very old indeed, and often function with a particular sharpness, for people of color. That isn’t a coincidence, and economic justice movements would do well to deal with these patterns explicitly and deeply if they hope to solve the problem for everybody. In recent weeks, we’ve talked with Occupiers, activists and big thinkers about the question that will need to be asked as long as the movement carries on: "Where is the color in Occupy Wall Street?" The answer turns out to be: "wherever we put it."

— Rinku Sen and Yvonne Yen Liu