A month after Occupy Wall Street started, our reporter Hannah Olivennes looks at the involvement of the Black community in the protest.
Two weeks after the Occupy Wall Street movement started, Malik Rashaan, a 39-year-old Black man from South Jamaica, Queens, made his first trip to Zuccotti Park.
“The first thing I noticed,” he says, “was that there weren’t any Black people.”
Even now, a month after the protest began– and even as the movement gains followers and attention nationwide – one group has been conspicuous in its absence: African Americans.
Why? Is this a result of more pressing matters – work, looking for a job, or, as some say, fear of a police response? Or, does their absence say something about the movement itself?
Rashaan is not alone in suggesting that people with jobs can’t afford to skip work to join in the protest. But then, of course, there are many Black people without jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate for Blacks has averaged 16 percent since January 2011, seven points above the national average.
In the view of Kenyon Farrow, a writer and activist, the protesters do not speak to the concerns of African-Americans. Rather, he writes in The American Prospect, they are “actually appealing to an imagined white (re)public.”
And some argue that the fear of police prevents African-Americans from participating. A rational fear if you look back at the past, says Reverend Dr. Gary Simpson of the Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Bedford-Stuyuvesant. “Looking at the data in history, we can say that some of the police have been harsher with Black people,” he says, “mostly because the only time that these young, anxious and white officers deal with Black people is when they arrest them.”
Still, some of those in Zuccotti Park have tried to find common cause with African-Americans. On Monday, October 24, protestors travelled north to Harlem to join in a rally against the targeting of Black and Hispanic men in stop-and-frisk searches.
Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, some of the borough’s most prominent Black pastors are spreading the word about the protesters. “Every week, I tell my congregation that we cannot let this be a white people’s struggle,” says Reverend Dr. Gary Simpson. And at nearby Bethany Baptist Church, Reverend Dr. David Hampton, also encourages his parishioners to join the movement. Rev. Simpson says if the crowd becomes more diverse it will have a better effect. “It has become a class issue, not a race issue,” he said, “and there is nothing that scares the rich more than the poor uniting beyond race.”
Yet both pastors believe that African-Americans don’t feel the urge to join a battle they have already lost so many times. Rev. Simpson sees the protests as a call to a economic struggles that African-Americans have been fighting for decades.
In Rev. Hampton’s view, there are similarities between the protests and the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s. “If you analyze Martin Luther King’s message, a lot of his action was through economics,” he says.
“Black people have been on board with this movement for a while,” says Rev. Hampton. “A lot of us feel that this is what we’ve been saying for a long time but we’ve never been listened to.” He’s glad that Occupy Wall Street originated as a white people’s cause. He hopes that if white people say it, people will listen.
But back at Zuccotti Park, Rashaan still believes that Black people feel alienated from the movement. “It seems to me that a lot of Black people are feeling bitter about the movement,” he says. “They don’t understand why they should take part in this now, when they’ve been talking about it for a long time,” he says. That is how he felt when he first heard of the protests. “It’s hard for us to want to jump on the train, when that train has already passed us so many times.”
So Rashaan has devised his own way to take part. Along with Ife Johari Uhuru, he has founded Occupy The Hood, to “try and create a dialogue with the inner city, too.” They have drawn more than 8,000 members and followers both on Facebook and Twitter, and have branches in 20 states.
Although Occupy The Hood stands in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, Rashaan wants his group to remain separate. “We have outer borough issues that need to be addressed that are different to those of the Wall Street protesters,” he says. There are, he adds, differences between the Black and White poor: “White people are trying to avoid poverty. Black people are trying to get out of poverty.”