Hena Ashraf is an independent filmmaker based in New York City. This piece, originally posted at HenaAshraf.com, documents the experiences of her South Asian collective at the Occupy Wall Street protests on September 29, 2011. It can also be read on the group's new blog In Front and Center.
Once again, it is Thursday night, and once again, I am writing this because I think it needs to be documented and shared. And once again, this is about mass actions taking place in NYC. Once again, please feel free to share this.
The following is from my perspective:
Tonight was my 4th time down at Occupy Wall Street. I felt drawn to the protests, like I needed to be there, and I guess I was meant to be, as well as the people I ended up with.
At the general assembly a document was introduced called "The Declaration of the Occupation of New York City." To my understanding, this document has been worked on for many days, by many people, in a working group. It was announced that this document would be disseminated to the media, to the Internet, to everyone who planned to occupy other cities in the country. Basically -- this document is REALLY IMPORTANT, and the audience is meant to be everyone, we were told.
The general assembly read the document together, line by line. The GA has grown a lot in the past few days and has noticeably (finally?) gotten slightly more diverse. For me, reading the document together was a very powerful and moving moment, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Immediately after this I turned around and joined my friends Thanu and Sonny, who were with Manissa and Natasha. They had all just come back from the first local meeting for South Asians for Justice.
Without knowing we had spontaneously formed a bloc of South Asians present at the General Assembly. While it continued, we began to discuss the document amongst ourselves, specifically the second paragraph, and our issues with it. We weren’t the only ones who had concerns; numerous people spoke up and requested changes to the document. The facilitators kept wanting to go back to agenda items, but I personally felt if people wanted to discuss this document, right here, right now, let’s do it, instead of pushing something else. To be heard, a person would shout “mic check!”, said a few words at a time, the crowd repeated their words, and so this process continued until the person’s message was finished.
I, Thanu, Sonny, Manissa, and Natasha felt that some language needed to be urgently changed. Please keep in mind that this document is a living, working document, and is unpublished, and is being changed as I type with the (as they are called) "friendly amendments" that were proposed. The line was: "As one people, formerly divided by the color of our skin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or lack thereof, political party and cultural background, we acknowledge the reality: that there is only one race, the human race, and our survival requires the cooperation of its members…"
The first major concern amongst us was that the phrase "formerly divided by" was unrealistic, and erased histories of oppression that marginalized communities have suffered. The second concern was that the "human race" language also felt very out of touch.
We debated amongst ourselves whether to speak up about this. As I mentioned, individual people were airing their concerns about the document, even though the facilitators had requested to email any changes to them, or to speak to them later. I felt though, that our thoughts needed to be shared with the general assembly, and not just to a few over email. I was urged by our impromptu bloc to be the one to speak up. So I did.
I started shouting “mic check!”, got the crowd’s attention, and said that we did not agree with the phrase "formerly divided by" and instead felt it could perhaps be "despite", and said that the original phrasing erased histories of oppression. Unfortunately, even though about 4 or 5 presumably white people had spoken up before me about changes to the document, I was told that this was a time for questions, not changes to the document -- by a facilitator who was a man of colour. Talk about feeling shut down.
The main facilitator, a white man, said that the document and the paragraph was meant to reflect the future that we wanted, and that “formerly divided by” should stay. I again shouted “mic check!” and our spontaneous Brown Power crew again shouted my words after me – I reiterated again that the phrasing erased much history, and that it was idealistic and unrealistic. I think at this point I looked around and realized everyone was staring at me; it hit me what we were doing, that we had the floor, that we were demanding a change.
The protestors at Occupy Wall Street have been saying that there will be efforts to reach out to people of colour, to have communities of colour engage and be a part of the protests, to help create real change -- because, let’s face it, the protests have been very white and people of colour need to be present, and need to speak up. Well, that’s exactly what we were doing, and I realized that we were helping to make that change happen.
The facilitators asked if our issue was an ethical concern -- if it was, then it would have to be addressed. I said, yes it was, meaning, we were blocking the document in order for this ethical concern to be addressed. Manissa then read out what we felt the change should be to the phrase, after thanking the crowd and facilitators for working with us. The change was instead of “formerly divided by” to have it be “despite” or “despite the divisions of … etc.”.
The change was accepted by the general assembly. Our impromptu crew/bloc turned to each other to discuss what just happened, and people listened in and expressed their agreement with what we did. We still felt however that the paragraph as a whole needed to be changed, and Sonny pointed out that the language left invisible or attempted to erase the dynamics of power. An Iranian man who had been at Occupy Wall Street for a number of days remarked that as a group we were conspicuous. Sonny noted that as a group of 5 brown people, with a hijabi and one wearing a turban, of course we grabbed attention in this still-mostly white crowd, and “How real can you get?”
The GA finished and we immediately proceeded to the impromptu meeting being held to address the document. Note, our proposed changes about the language to the sentence I mentioned above had already been accepted, but we still felt the document did not address or ignored issues of power. This is extremely important because a document being shared by Occupy Wall Street to the so-called 99% should not be ignoring or erasing issues of power. We found the guy who had been the main facilitator (and who also had been visibly frustrated with us) and started to discuss the paragraph.
Unfortunately though, there were many who tried to cut us off, and as we sat down on the ground, with Thanu bringing out her laptop, these people gathered nearby, pointed fingers at us, and made me feel very uncomfortable, as if we weren’t welcome. They clearly didn’t like what we were doing, but what we were doing was participating and engaging with Occupy Wall Street, and making ourselves heard -- after all, isn’t that what the organizers want? The facilitator who had earlier attempted to shut us down, came and said we should come back the next day to finish our discussion. We said no, let’s do this right here and now, and hammer it out in 10 minutes, which we did. A white woman came up to me and asked why didn’t we leave the main facilitator alone? I told her he wanted to listen to us and chose to sit down here with us, we didn’t force him. These were the unfortunate distractions and disruptions we had to deal with. I realized that change on the ground is hard, messy, and painful, and we could feel all of this.
This discussion was around the wording of the 2nd paragraph, which I won’t quote here, because like I said, this document is being changed and is unpublished as of right now. We didn’t like the language of how we are all one human race. The facilitator said that that is scientific fact, that we are all one race. We agreed, but had to explain that socially, there is inequality. It was highly problematic that we had to break down systems of oppression to this man who seemed to have the final say on this document, this document that will be shared with the world, that is supposed to represent Occupy Wall Street, as well as supposedly the 99%. Manissa had to explain that he as a white man had more power and privilege than her as a woman of colour. That racism isn’t about feelings, as he thought, but about power and oppression, as Sonny and Thanu explained. It boggled our minds that we were discussing power and privilege while at the same time we could feel this man’s power and privilege over us, and that he is a facilitator/organizer for Occupy Wall Street! Clearly there needs to be a lot of self-education workshops at Liberty Plaza.
Long story short, we got the paragraph changed to adequately address our concerns that it reflect issues around dynamics of power and privilege that marginalized people feel every single day. This was a very hard discussion to have, and it felt so real, it hurt. It hurt that it had to happen, it hurt that we had to explain what is really behind racism to this man, and the people around him, it hurt that so many tried to disrupt us. But at the same time, we were meant to be there, meant to be heard, to make this happen, to make these changes occur. And there were a lot of people sitting there and listening in and contributing constructively. We walked away realizing what we had just done -- spontaneously come together, demand change, and create it, in a movement that we are in solidarity with, but also feel a need for constructive criticism.
This document, "The Declaration of the Occupation of New York City" will be shared with the world soon, and the five or so of us were able to come together, indeed we had to come together, to make sure this document didn’t reflect the ideals of a few people unaware of their power and privilege, but instead could reflect more of the reality of the 99%.
Thank you for reading.
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The previous issue of Hyphen is available in its entirety for your perusing pleasure. Almost as good as having it right in your hands!