The 2011 Occupy/DeColonize Moment

Categories: Reflections

The 2011 Occupy/Decolonize Moment. John Hayakawa Torok, Oct. 16, 2011.

Occupy Wall Street (“OWS”) is a social movement begun September 17, 2011 by a handful of protestors who encamped at “Liberty Square” in lower Manhattan. In a month it has spread to over a thousand actions across the United States.  It is also denominated as the 99% as against the 1% of the wealthiest and highest earning Americans who, along with finance capital, are perceived as having excess power over U.S. and global governance. This 1% is identified as the source of the misery of the global majority.

Since its inception I have followed the uprising through social media and also in what she who shall not be named calls the lamestream media. I have observed a general meeting or two at the Oakland and San Francisco, California, Occupy/Decolonize encampments. I have also visited the Berkeley encampment. This writing is solely my own reading based on these observations and others’ writings.

AdBusters and author/activist David Graeber are credited with providing the spark for the uprising. The movement draws inspiration from other recent people’s rebellions like those of the Arab Spring particularly in Tunisia and Egypt, against austerity in Greece and France and the U.K., and Chile and Spain’s Indignados. Connections are also made to the global justice protests at Seattle, Toronto and elsewhere in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Solidarity statements and actions for OWS have already come from players in U.S. organized labor and the broader U.S. left. Demonstrations of solidarity with OWS also occurred on October 15-16 in Lahore, Seoul, Madrid, London, Hong Kong, Rome, and elsewhere. Another global day of action is apparently being planned for October 29 to precede the next G20 summit scheduled at Cannes.

The ethos at the encampments I have visited and have seen described is radically egalitarian, participatory, and cooperative. They are open, evolving communities committed to non-violence because they are quite aware of the state’s repressive power. They are also sites for deep conversation, “free schools,” cultural performance and production, and even for dancing in the streets.

The carnival aspect does not derogate from these encampments’ projects of self-rule based on consensus, or at least an aspiration to that process of decision-making. To varying degrees Occupy/Decolonize encampments assert autonomy from the state and thus eschew police presence and protection. In the U.S., the violence that has occurred has come from police repression.

Communications, like the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, September 29, 2011, are also adopted through the consensus process. They receive wide distribution through social media networks nationally and globally. See, What other communiqués will emerge, and from where, remains open.

The decolonization critique of OWS has two components. The first is stated in the slogan, “Take Back Wall Street: Occupied Since 1625.” The major premise is that the economic and social development of the present U.S. order originates in white settler colonization. A minor premise is that the invention of racism served as ideological justification for both conquest and enslavement and that racism still prevails in Occupied America.

The second component is based on experiences, and criticism based on those experiences, by people of color participants in the Occupy general assemblies. This part of the critique centers how male, heterosexual, class, and especially white racial privilege exclude the histories and experiences of women and queer people of color in articulating the uprising’s politics.

Thus, a call to “Occupy America” obscures the histories of colonization and resistance that U.S. indigenous and people of color communities often carry with them. The slogan “Occupy Everywhere” also unfortunately evokes colonialist projects. The phrase “Occupy Together” – used by an unofficial online coordination project –avoids this danger by inviting everyone’s participation.

Participatory democracy and consensus-based decision-making require significant leisure. That leisure can come from wealth, or student status, or unemployment. Most with jobs or families – unless they are homeless and living in poverty – will find it difficult either to follow or to participate in the on-site Occupy/Decolonize conversations. That does not render the conversations unimportant.

By claiming to be the dispossessed and disenfranchised 99% – a claim that hundreds of thousands around the world have found compelling enough to find ways to support the movement and its physical articulation as local encampments including financially – the participants have clearly struck a nerve.

The opportunity that the Occupy/Decolonize encampments provide is for people from diverse racial backgrounds and class positions to learn together and articulate a new democratic politics to transform society.  It is this potential unleashed by OWS for the liberatory imagination to work and to transform our world that has captured so many imaginations not only in the U.S. but in other countries as well.

John Hayakawa Torok is a critical race theorist and card-carrying member of the U.S.A. Green Party.

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