Saturday, December 20, 2014

Dispatches from Indigenous People’s Day at OccupyMN

Populism, Race, and the Messy Process of Learning

Occupiers, October 7, 2011. Photo by Will Anderson.
Occupiers, October 7, 2011. Photo by Will Anderson.

Unless you’ve been living under a very large and WiFi-less rock, you’ve probably heard tell of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Almost a month ago, 1,000 people descended upon New York City’s Liberty Park (formerly known as Zuccotti Park), setting up camp in the stomping grounds of stock traders and tourists alike. The Wall St. contingent has since issued a Declaration, a tentative list of demands, and logistical and linguistic guidelines for their storied General Assemblies. As of this writing, spin-off occupations are occurring in almost 1,000 cities around the world — with more beginning every day.It seems passé at this point, but seeing all of those white men — and at the beginning, they were the most visible — attempt to speak for the disenfranchised “99%” scared me. And I could tell that many people who attended or followed along noticed the same thing. I feel very strongly aligned with this movement’s raison d’être on a basic level, but I was really, truly anxious about going out and being honest about my beliefs and love and convictions with a bunch of white people. Already, there have been fissures exposed: a New York SlutWalker’s sign with a racist slur; the Black Out! at Occupy Philadelphia; and a walk-out protesting the exclusion of Rep. John Lewis from speaking at Occupy Atlanta.

Would the occupiers be self-reflexive enough to identify the ways in which racism and privilege intersect and complicate their cause? Would they cede space for voices that they may not want or be patient enough to hear? How would the Minneapolis side of the movement acknowledge and support the local activism among poor communities that’s already underway? I wondered about all of these things. And I swallowed my fear and showed up on Columbus Day.

OccupyMN spread the word that they’d dedicate the day to an indigenous rights rally at the People’s Plaza (the protestors’ name for the site of the occupation). When I arrived at 3:30 p.m., a diverse crowd sat on the steps of Government Center attending a teach-in with Ken Pentel, a gubernatorial candidate with the Ecology Democracy Party. As the teach-in concluded, AIM (American Indian Movement) activists and their families began to trickle into the Plaza: some in dance costumes, some in AIM sweatshirts, some bearing heaping trays of fresh frybread.

The Minneapolis-based Danza Mexica Cuauhtemoc de Minnesota and Ketzal Coatlicue dance troupes began to dance under a shroud of drizzle at the base of Government Center. They entreated everyone to join them in prayer, and the few hundred people present faced the cardinal directions in unison with the dancers.

As the evening wore on, and the dancing continued, we were informed by various volunteers that the General Assembly would be convening on the other side of the building in 10 minutes. Since the dancing and short speeches by AIM activists didn’t seem to be ending any time soon, I had a sneaking suspicion that there would be very few indigenous people at this meeting. I walked over to the assembly to see how they would address that.

On the other side of the plaza, 30 people had already gathered to wait for the facilitators. As we waited, I heard an African American woman speaking on her cell phone, and I gathered that she had been calling multiple people. She was exhorting her black friends and colleagues to join her at the occupation, telling them that it had the potential to be a place where real ideological work could be done. She told them that, at the occupation, they could create their own space and, perhaps for once in their lives, be heard. “I stood up and spoke,” she said, “and all of those white people heard me.”

With the committee delegates all present, the General Assembly was all set to proceed until a young white man marched into the center of the circle. He bellowed at the crowd, calling them out on the disrespectful gesture of holding the GA during the dance. A few people in the crowd twinkled in agreement, while others urged him to calm down. Another white man yelled back, “Shut the fuck up, white guy!”

Then, a self-identified Ojibwe woman addressed the GA, requesting that they move to rejoin the AIM activists on the other side of the building. Most of the crowd assented, though the delegates objected to having a decision made without the proper consensus procedures. So a vote was called in favor of moving, and the GA dispersed and rejoined the indigenous people on the Plaza. Who were, of course, still dancing.

Jackie Bird, a hoop dancer from South Dakota, led the entire Plaza into a huge line of dancers. She asked us all to hold hands, and the line encircled the fountain at the center. I’ll admit that at first glance it seemed like a crazy Kumbaya moment. But as I danced around Government Plaza with a couple hundred strangers, I began to understand it all a little bit more.

Mike Forcia, an AIM chairman and local chef, asked the occupiers: “We’ve been fighting for a very long time. What took you so long? We’ve been waiting for you. We need your help. And you need ours.”

I began my day with a conventional teach-in, led by a white man. The AIM rally was, at its core, a massive teach-in. Their dancing was their take on an occupation; after all, it was the sharpest defense they had against cultural annihilation. The day’s huge faux pas, while regrettable, taught everyone present a lesson about the true length of the road ahead. There is still so much to learn, if OccupyMN truly wishes to know how the 99% actually live.

At the moment, the Occupy movement is developing into a worldwide laboratory for developing truly participatory democracies. It’s going to be messy, as I saw on Monday. And it’s definitely going to have to grapple with some uncomfortable realities and questions, for those within as well as without.

Perhaps OccupyMN should reach out to more minority groups to take over their programming and conduct similar teach-ins. To hear from North Minneapolis about the true scope of police brutality and racial profiling. To talk to the Vietnamese about something more than their food. To find out what sex workers experience in their day-to-day lives. To expand the discussion from one that just centers on money. To just watch and learn and shut up once in a while.