Many are questioning the lack of black support for the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) moment. The most clear general answer I can think of is that when black folks in mass are presented with a choice they ain’t about to go sleep in no damn damp park, when for now they still got a roof over their heads. As acts of defiance go, we don’t view it as a visually appealing spectacle. Sleeping in the park is identified as an act of desperation that happens when you are at the end of your economic rope. Sources of income have dried up, you can’t borrow your way out, friends and family members are unable or unwilling to take you in. Shelters are unbearable and what’s left but the inconspicuous public spectacle of making your way in a card board box? Sleeping tents are usually a valuable commodity at this stage. In the Atlanta encampment a few weeks ago, there were plenty of black people in the park, they just were not there by choice, and clearly, at first both groups kept their eerie distance, except as a mutual curiosity piece. It seems that both sides took stock of a possible attempt to engage in a quick hustle. The homeless look to see what the “liberal” park inhabitants would give up, while the OWS folks hope to get some media millage by cozying up to some real poor people.
Most black folk outside of the activist world I know kind of shake their head at the OWS moment. There seems to be general support for the idea, but it strikes many as a Johnny (or Joey) come lately response. Don’t get me wrong, as an activist type I like the gumption of the mostly white rebels as they figure out their demands and next steps and I think it’s important to keep some level of participation. OWS has opened up more space for corporate media to deal with questions of unequal income distribution, free speech issues and now police misconduct. The corporate media learned a long time ago to ignore black protest, as coverage only helped spread the message, in spite of its rigged mostly negative depiction toward black protest and activism. The strategy for the corporate media has been to ignore acts of true dissent until it becomes to obvious to not cover it. Then there is a clear attempt to distort intentions and ideas, as is happening now. However, for black folks the self designated 99ers seem to relish a bit too much in marketing themselves as the Columbus-like discoverers of police brutality, state coordinated repression and the economic un-pleasantries of life under capitalism. Being part of the 99% in mass since about 1619 and struggling since that time for fair treatment, which is a nice way of saying fighting against the horrors of white supremacy, does not lead to a great cheer of oh-wow you get it. It’s more like where have you been.
There is a feeling of “been there done that” circulating amongst older black folks and a question of what changes are they demanding that makes this relevant. Older black folks want to ride out this Obama moment a little longer before making such a public break with the moderate black President. Symbolism for now triumphs over substance. Black folks are still hoping that it’s just that the republicans won’t give him a chance, as opposed to Obama not having the political will to respond to a black economic crises currently taking place.
For younger black people — still under the spell of climbing the hip-hop corporate ladder or just wanting to replenish themselves with some weekend partying and ass sharing before re-starting the grind of life in the 99% — protest politics is a relative non-starter. Ask many 20 to 30 year olds about civil rights/Black Power movements and you get blank stares akin to brain freeze. Individualist thinking of rising to the top outweighs any calls for collective action. Without the overt laws of segregation the Black 1% clearly controls the overall paradigm of thought with few exceptions. Their ability to be barnacles on the much bigger white 1% allows them to help control the messages released to the general black community. That message, again with few exceptions is all about striving for the trappings of nice material things, finding oneself through the purchasing of shiny new possessions, a good yoga class and some self-help books/programs (usually with a touch of spirituality, that’s how we like our self-help messages). Most of us can at least afford the books and a new yoga mat even though we never really get many of the shiny things. Two out of three ain’t bad, maybe that puts us in the 66%.
So the answer to the question is obvious, the Occupy Wall Street moment will not make the black masses move our collective asses. So then what will? See my next posts – “Why Occupy a Park When You Can Occupy a City” for some suggestions.