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Occupy Wall Street: The power of words

Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.
~ Toni Morrison

Occupy Wall Street is a fast growing movement that is “fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations”.  While inspirational, dare I say hopeful in spirit, this movement, as with previous movements, is not without problems.  For a start there’s the concept of occupying.  Words like this are not just words, and to raise an objection ain’t as simple as arguing over semantics.  Words have contexts and histories.  Like holocaust.  Or nigger, for example.  It pays to be aware of what you’re pulling in, and on, when you use such language.  Others have critiqued the terminology far more articulately than I could, such as the startling observation of occupation made several weeks ago: THE UNITED STATES IS ALREADY BEING OCCUPIED. THIS IS INDIGENOUS LAND.  A real clanger – obvious once stated, and uncomfortable in the way overlooked (ignored) truths often are.  Native American activist JohnPaul Montano expands in his Open Letter to the Occupy Wall Street Activists  :

I hope you would make mention of the fact that the very land upon which you are protesting does not belong to you – that you are guests upon that stolen indigenous land … I had hoped that you would address the centuries-long history that we indigenous peoples of this continent have endured being subject to the countless ‘-isms’ of do-gooders claiming to be building a “more just society,” a “better world,” a “land of freedom” on top of our indigenous societies, on our indigenous lands, while destroying and/or ignoring our ways of life. I had hoped that you would acknowledge that, since you are settlers on indigenous land, you need and want our indigenous consent to your building anything on our land – never mind an entire society.

Native peoples around the world would respond with a collective ‘Amen’, or here in Aotearoa ‘Amine’, and several have written as such including leading Māori academic Dr Leonie Pihama here.  So occupation – even for political purposes (challenging power) in the context of histories of marginally acknowledged occupation that characterised the spread of European empire, is problematic.

I wish to take issue with the concept of occupation from a different viewpoint.  To consider the occupation of a metaphorical space coinciding (but not coincidentally) with that same colonial history.  Unsurprising given that colonisation of the ‘other’ in Africa, India, the North Americas, Australia and New Zealand was rationalised on the basis of ‘racial’ inferiority – a racist ideology.  So how does the concept of occupying apply?  My argument is that the majority of Wall Street protestors already occupy, perhaps without comprehension, an important ideological space – the space of what, and who counts.  Let me elaborate with an image.

From 'The Real Art of Protest'

The above picture appeared on a protest site that has been vocal in its support of Occupy Wall Street.  The image and its ‘one love’ logo are symbolic of the movement and as such is used on a number of photographs taken of the various demonstrations that have occurred.  The response I had on seeing it was a visceral one, and these are the words, in the comments beneath the image, that went with it:

Nope. Don’t like it at all. It upholds a notion of individualism that not only is not shared by a good percentage of the world’s population (i.e. its a uniquely Western and relatively recent invention), but is also a part of the sickness behind many of the current crises we currently face.  Or to put it plainly; its idealistic, colonial nonsense. I see none of me, or my people, in that.

The response was deafening.  *crickets* … I wondered – perhaps they didn’t get it?  Maybe when I invoked my people I appeared to be demonstrating what is considered problematic to this utopian vision?  One love.  Down with posses and tribes and stuff.  Problem is my people hold dear to the concept of affiliation.  Of our intimate connection to our maunga (mountains), awa (rivers), hapū and iwi (nations).  These relationships are central to our identity, our wellbeing; as evidenced in cultural practices around identification – pepeha.  So let me state my objection to the image and its words again.  The denigration of affiliation that is apparent is not a universal right way of being; it is a culturally specific idea.  It upholds the primacy of the individual who can join with other individuals in a global feel-good hug that obliterates difference.  It promotes the elision of painful and long histories of colonial rampage and exploitation that have wreaked havoc on the lives of those colonised/enslaved both historically and in the present.  It is really just ‘the melting pot’ in drag; circa 2011.

In raising the objection, I’m talking to those who have begun and still dominate this particular movement.  Western, white people.  Living in the US of A.  In doing so I aggregate the diverse realities that inhabit whiteness without due attention to other aspects of marginalisation around gender, class, sexual orientation and so on, but I hope you’ll grant me some lee-way in aid of the overall point.  Listen up white folk – too often the ‘one love’ you call ‘us’ to is one characterised by your own predilections.  A call blind to the mere existence of other orientations, let alone demonstrating a will to embrace them.  Your occupation of the space that is normal and what/who matters.  Its an occupation that has to end, if there’s ever going to be a common ground upon which we can meet.  In effect what LOOKS inclusive on the surface, actually hides an informing ideology that is most definitely EXclusive.  Seriously, you gotta cut this shit out.  That is if you hope to build a movement with the strength of numbers.

Or, and here’s a really radical idea, you could join in the multiple movements that have been running globally for quite some time now.  By indigenous peoples.  By ‘3rd World’ peoples.  By impoverished, racialised, incarcerated blacks and Latinos in the US.  Its just until recently they’ve been beyond (beneath?) your comprehension.  A warning though, if you were to join in/get alongside existing movements you may have to give up some power.  Stop being in charge of things.  Have some humility that ‘others’ may know some stuff about struggle that is useful to the cause.  Now that’s the consensus-based participatory democracy you talk about; time to put it into action.  In the broader relations of (over)developed/under-developed (ugh, objectionable terms in and of themselves) nations; you are still privileged- economically and ideologically – you matter!  When journalists start bemoaning the presence of the privileged at protest sites, as Cord Jefferson does here of Kanye West, the hypocrisy is gob-smacking.

When you talk about loss of jobs, homes, healthcare, we feel ya, really.  Only too many of us have been living that existence for quite some time now, centuries in fact.  When OWS participants state “We’re not going to accept society the way it is” it is difficult to bite back the retort – “well it seemed to be ok with you up until now!”  It is important to know what is hidden within the espoused 99%.  Understand that while the economic marginalisation might be shared (now), our experiences past and present are not.  And it would be a good idea to stop giving ‘us’ the job of pointing that out to you.  As Occupy Wall Street protestor Manissa Maharawal points out-

Let me tell you what it feels like to stand in front of a white man and explain privilege to him. It hurts. It makes you tired. Sometimes it makes you want to cry. … I get angry that I have to do this, that this is my job, and that it shouldn’t be my job.

In other words: Payattentiontothegapstheunspokentheinvisible.  See what happens when you don’t?  The message gets confusing. And exclusionary.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kia ora,
    “Well it seemed okay with ya up till now”….. that about sums it up.
    As an American I was taught and had hammered into me the beauty of “our” founding documents, and the possibilities they represented. Which in ways were true, as long as you were a land owning white male. That part was always pretty much overlooked. I was taught that the American Dream was a story like my grandfather, an immigrant from Sweden who came to this new land, took shit from the Irish, Germans, and other mass immigrants who were further up the ladder than he was. Yet he worked hard, made a good life, and “made” something of himself. He was the American Dream. Yet, again, we were not told even my lovely grandfather got boosted three rungs up the ladder merely because he was white. Indians, African Americans, and women got their shoulders bruised and battered as everyone stepped above them. It is real hard to admit that, as it seems to imply that my grandfather cheated somehow, and on an individual level I see it everyday in the responses of Americans, and New Zealanders, to the uncomfortable realities of racism. “I worked hard for everything I have”, “We all have the same opportunities”, “they shouldn’t borrow money if they can’t pay it back”, and on and on.
    My point is that it seems to me now because the bottom of the ladder is getting pretty crowded with the privileged folk who used to get put a few steps up straight away, yet they still aren’t really looking down are they? The American Dream is to always Look Up – more is the pity.

    October 23, 2011
    • Bearer of discomfort #

      I feel ya e hoa, it often takes sharing personal histories as you have done to get the message across. And I think your list of defensive responses were spot on. How do we get people to see there own privilege? By explaining it as loss I guess. And by reconnecting with our hearts, which I see you’re off to do in the Ruahine – awesome! x

      October 23, 2011
  2. Woah this weblog is magnificent i love studying your articles. Keep up the great work! You already know, lots of people are looking around for this information, you can help them greatly.

    November 11, 2011
  3. Abducted African #

    I, too, am a member of the “Others” Percent. I knew that I couldn’t have been alone in seeing the irony in the privileged protesting because they wanted “their America” back, much as their right wing counterparts said these very words, that they wanted “their America” back. The ancestral experiences within me boiled & laughed at the same time because just weeks before Thanksgiving & neither of them seemed to even think that maybe, just maybe, the Indigenous Americans had been wanting it back for many centuries.— However, freedom & occupation as well as freedom & slavery has coexisted just fine here for quite some time. It’s the colonial American way. — Indigenous American ppl were raided, raped, slaughtered, dispossessed, etc. African ppl were raided, raped, enslaved,slaughtered, etc. Where is mention of our holocausts? The culprits of these unspeakable crimes against humanity r “heroes”. We who resist dehumanization r “villains”.Freedom has blood on her dollar filled hands. Self determation is our right.

    November 26, 2011
  4. Abducted African #

    (Correction for the last word in my post: self determination.) Also, I read JohnPaul Montano’s open letter. It should be required reading…

    November 26, 2011
  5. In several sections of your post you don’t seem to give people the chance to revise their actions. I think this is a mistake, and forgive me, I say this as a white immigrant to your land.
    You say “it seemed to be ok with you up until now!” referring to OWS ‘occupiers’. First off I’d agree with you in that the term occupier is inconsiderate. However you make a mistake in saying it is almost wrong for people to be protesting now if they weren’t before. What if they were protesting before, or what if they would have been but didn’t because nobody else was? There is often a ‘spiral of silence’ that bars people from expressing what they think simply cause they perceive themselves to be in a minority. Or they cannot see alternatives. It is possible thus that people would have protested in OWS-style before if they had the chance.

    Second, what if somebody thought the system was great until an alternative has been shown to them? If they have now decided that change needs to take place, this should be applauded. They shouldn’t be vilified for past actions.

    Another point, you seem to imply (and this is also due to comments you made on a friends review of a Te Whiti article) that indigenous views are better. They are not, nor are they worse. If we want a solution for all, everyone has to partake in it.

    Do you have any non-white perspectives on Te Whiti I could read through.

    Ka Kite.

    February 22, 2012

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Occupy Wall Street: The power of police | Tūrangawaewae
  2. Occupy Wall Street & Tame Iti: The power of the image | Tūrangawaewae

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