Perspectives on Occupy Atlanta from Revolutionary Voices

This piece was written by one of our members and her comrades in Atlanta, who have been taking part of Occupy Atlanta since day one.

A public, revolutionary perspective of the ongoing occupations across the nation has been lacking. There is much talk within radical communities, organizations, and blogs about the occupations, but few written declarations have been made from those within the occupations themselves. This is our small attempt to address this problem.

We do not represent the voices of every occupier, but we also recognize that our own voices must be heard. We followed the Occupy Wall Street movement when it was just several hundred people in New York City, and we watched, thrilled, as it spread across the nation. We were ecstatic to find out that folks, here, in Atlanta were starting to organize our very own Occupy. But we were also cautious—cautious because we knew there were very serious critiques of the racial, class, gendered, and political makeup of the occupations that we largely agreed with and didn’t want to see replicated in our own city.

Last Friday was the first night of Occupy Atlanta. At six pm, the scheduled time for the first General Assembly, over 500 people gathered in Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta. It was exciting to see so many people come out to something that had been planned so quickly. It was a testament to the excitement and rage in the air. At the same time, there were lots of problems from the start. White men moderated the entire three hour discussion, spoke almost the whole time, and made it very difficult for anyone else to speak because of the “process” of the meeting. Many of us had to wait almost twenty minutes, several times, to say one word even though no one else was on stack. The meeting was at times boring, tedious, and incredibly frustrating. Yet, it was also an exercise in democracy, and the biggest collective decision making body most of us had ever witnessed.

During the GA, Congressman John Lewis, the celebrated civil rights leader, showed up in expectation of addressing the crowd. We were informed that he wanted to address the crowd at that very moment, and were not told until far later that he had a prior engagement and thus could not wait until later to speak. Hundreds of people were in the midst of a critical meeting and knew that there was a place at the end of the agenda for people to address the crowd. Furthermore, recognizing that one of the central values of the Occupy movement is the belief that no individual or group of individuals is more valuable than any other person—particularly those already over-valued and over-represented in the very governmental institution we are opposing—many folks in the crowd felt that the meeting should not be interrupted for an “important” figure. The folks asking Lewis to wait until the scheduled speaking time were not only white folks, as has been suggested by some, but a diverse group of people, and ultimately made up the majority. Those asking Lewis to wait wanted Lewis to speak—they recognized his legacy, his importance, and his value for many of us, especially to the black community—but they also wanted him and every other individual to respect the process of a democratic meeting.

Yet, this collective ask prompted a handful of black folks to leave the crowd, telling some individuals they felt alienated and upset by what had happened. One woman of color was in tears on the phone, speaking to a friend, saying that those who claimed to speak for her were unaware of what she needed—John Lewis was a radical man whom empowered his community, and here was a mostly white crowd shooing him away. This was so upsetting to witness for many of the radicals in the crowd, as we were already concerned about the racial dynamics and did not want the decision to ask Lewis to wait to be construed as a rejection of such a prominent black leader, and therefore, as a major affront to POC and the black community. In the days that have followed, the John Lewis story has not died down, but rather gained steam and turned into something it absolutely was not. So let us be clear, as witnesses—John Lewis was asked to wait until the specified time for speakers to address the crowd. He did not stay; he had to leave for an appointment. He expressed absolutely no ill will towards us, publicly.

What happened is unfortunate. But those of us writing this document must be clear—if we have to rely on the presence of Lewis to attract and retain folks from the black community at a protest, something is fundamentally wrong. The situation should raise an altogether different question—why were only white men speaking and moderating? If a black woman had been on the bullhorn and had been the one to say Lewis needed to wait until the end, how would things have been interpreted differently? On the one hand, we need not to fetishize the democratic process. On the other hand, we need to recognize the influence of an individual like Lewis in the hearts of so many. However, the solution and discussion shouldn’t be limited to letting Lewis speak or making him wait. Again, if there were more women, more POC, more queer folks, up at the front of the crowd, and if they were the ones telling Lewis he needed to wait, what then would there action from the crowd have been? We ask this question because we are adamantly against the privilege baiting that has gone on in regards to the Lewis debacle. Far too often, these privilege politics (you are white and thus you have no right to ask Lewis to wait) are often masking political beliefs of individuals that are deeply imbedded within the non-profit industrial complex and black capitalist class which is nowhere more prominent than in Atlanta. Additionally, the privilege baiting attempts to erase the countless voices of women and people of color that also voted for Lewis to wait.

Again, the issue from the onset is not about Lewis being asked to wait; it is that people of color, queer folk, women—those upon whose backs capitalism was built and perpetuates its oppression—were not adequately reached out to in the preparatory stages of Occupy Atlanta, and were not actively included once it began. Using Facebook and word of mouth to spread information about an occupation, or any movement for that matter, is insufficient. These forms of communications rest on friendship ties, and friendship ties in this case were predominantly between those already existing in the progressive Atlanta community (which is very white). The Atlanta occupation, and those all across the country, have been planned, dominated, and frequented by mostly white, middle class, young men and women. This is the true issue at the forefront of these occupations, and many social movements. It is the sharp contrast between those speaking and those needing to speak that must be brought up, discussed, and publicly addressed by radicals, lest we fall into the same paradigms of non-profits, whom claim to speak for the disenfranchised, but in reality, rob and maim the voices of the oppressed classes.

Yet, we found ourselves questioning, why despite all of these problems, do we remain occupying? This is our answer: We remain occupying precisely because of these problems. We are revolutionaries, and the job of revolutionaries is not to ignore a mass movement of people breaking out just because it has problems, but to insert ourselves directly into the movement to raise, critique, and help fix the problems. We must stay here so we can bring up these non-coincidental issues of color, class, and gender-orientation representation and strive to change them. We must stay here so that we can raise the revolutionary character of these movements, challenge the participants to think and act differently, and incorporate the voices of those that have thus far been absent.

The authors of this document, along with countless others occupying cities across the nation, stand against capitalism, patriarchy, and racism. We recognize that capitalism would not be possible without the original, and ongoing, oppression of women, queer folk, and people of color. Capitalism was built upon our backs. This economic crisis has been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years for queers, people of color, and women—it is nothing new. These communities have also been fighting back since the beginning of their oppression—resistance is also not new. We recognize that it is only when the homes of white, middle class Americans get taken away, when their jobs are lost, when they begin to suffer, when they begin to fight back, that the media and the politicians begin to pay attention.

But we also think there is a space to recognize and critique these factors from within the current occupation movement. We refuse to abstain from the largest mass activity that any of us have seen in our lifetimes, just because there are problems.

The authors of this document believe that the occupy movement reflects the biggest self-organization of the people that we have seen in decades. People are joining together to address the problems they face. But we also recognize that full realization of the demands that occupiers are making, such as putting people over profit, are impossible under the capitalist society in which we live. Full victory will never be possible as long as economic relations continue to be driven by the profit imperative. It is only through a revolution, created and led from the bottom up, by the people, for the people, by the 99% that are most affected, that we can move beyond the corruption and corporate rule we are witnessing today.

Yesterday, three women from this document moderated a 100 person general assembly. We are currently working on a workshop on white privilege and male privilege. There are more brown faces at the occupation each day, than the day previous. We renamed Woodruff Park, the park which we are occupying, Troy Davis Park. We are organizing a walk out at our school in which more than 30% of the students are black. There is a workshop on Saturday at Troy Davis Park about free, radical childcare. There is a march on Friday in support of a homeless shelter nearby that is in danger of being forced to close. We have fed hundreds of mouths, many which would have gone to bed hungry without our homemade peanut butter sandwiches and bean burritos.

Here’s the thing: We’re sick of asking for change, and we’re not going to do it anymore. We’re sick of being told to lobby and to vote, and if we just supported Obama a little more, things would be different. We’re sick of being told to join a non-profit, however radical it perceives itself to be. We’re sick of being told that change can happen within the system if we only just participate more. We’re sick of being told we’re racist, or sexist, or classist, for participating in a movement that has problems. We’re sick of sitting on the sidelines and refusing to actually engage in a movement while writing on our blogs and Facebook about how screwed up things are. We’re sick of asking and we’re sick of waiting. The time to act is now, with every ounce of our brown, female, and queer bodies.

  • guest

    This from a comrade who wishes to remain anonymous:

    “I really liked (of course) the remarks about nonprofits (but maybe some more specifics could help?). I wonder if you could link nonprofits and Obama (professional / pragmatic left) — both holding false promise? Also, it seems like we should have something to say about trade union involvement. Most substantively, and critically: I like the point about the need to
    follow imperfect movements of the masses, I like the point about white
    male leadership of occupy, and I like the point about capitalism oppressing women / racial minorities / queer people. But it feels like you make an additional move, especially in tone throughout and implicitly in the last line: saying that women / minorities / queers, because of their identity, are in a privileged position to offer critique (of occupy, of capitalism, etc.). I think that clashes with the very good point earlier about “the black capitalist class” in ATL.
    Movements of the masses are imperfect, and we are imperfect, and each
    identity group is imperfect (indeed, each identity group is a product of
    capital). The agent of revolutionary change is the proletariat, not
    women, not “brown” people, not queer people. The difference between
    revolutionary socialism and identity politics is just that, positioning
    certain groups as privileged agents of radical change rather than addressing identity issues as instrumental, tools to allow the voice of the proletariat to be heard undistorted. (this of course is connected to my point about about the lack of analysis of labor, which is really analysis of the proletariat and its purported representatives, which should be the backbone of any such critique of mass movements). Finally, and this is probably a bigger disagreement about political analysis, I can’t understand at all how “the economic crisis has been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years for queers,” and I don’t buy the equivalence you are making between queers, women, and poc’s. First, I think it’s just factually false that queers have been or are economically disadvantaged overall. I think we should be able to talk about oppression and discrimination, and think of that as separate from economic hardship. This seems really important because it’s the same issue with anti-semitism: that one group was scapegoated, and suffered oppression and discrimination, but in terms of “raw data”
    wealth and income may actually be relatively high. Yes, the oppression
    and discrimination is a product of capitalism, but in a very different
    way than the systematic economic disenfranchisement of women and poc’s.
    In cases of poc’s/women, the disenfranchisement is so widespread and
    long-lasting that one can never “pragmatically” ignore it, but in cases
    like Jews/queers, our political analysis has to be much more context
    specific, and there are times when the right thing to do might be to
    ignore that identity category, or see it as oppressive (e.g., in
    Palestine solidarity work, or in gay marriage debates).”

  • Robert

    Hello. I live in downtown ATL and I am a big fan of the Gathering Forces blog and I agree 100% with what is being said here. I would like to get into contact with the author of this entry. Feel free to email me.

    • Alma

      What’s your email?

      • Robert

        headice @ hotmail . com

  • just ice

    Dear comrades, enjoy this blog and particularly this piece but I tend to agree with the comment made by guess. The greatest threat to the global revolution/liberation is the unseemly fusion of liberalism and radicalism. Which is a trap, in all due respect, I believe you have fallen into.

    While it is undeniably true that women have been discriminated against, it is simply absurd to equate it to class oppression. The rich bourgeois lady may have had valid grievances against her husband and men of her class in general, but it pales in comparison to those of the poor sods who had to labor endless hours for subsistence wages in the factory her family owned.

    Likewise with homosexuals, who were as well represented among the oppressing class as among the working class. If Oscar Wilde is to be believed, even moreso.

    Most objectionable was your phrase which insisted that it was upon the backs of browns, queers, and women that capitalism was built. My first objection is that this is demonstrably false: Capitalism blloomed during the industrial revolution and that occurred first and most acutely in western Europe. The white working class was the first to suffer. Omitting them from your list of people upon whose backs capitalism was built is not only inaccurate but counterrevolutionary. It has the unmistakable, sulfuric odor of liberalism.

    My second objection is that it is unconscionable and divisive. delegitimating/marginalizing the suffering of the white working class is hard to understand coming from people who claim to be anti-capitalists, and it plays directly into the racial divide as it alienates white workers. The history of the labor movement in the US is a history of the ruling class fomenting racial animosity within the working class. It seems that in your case their efforts were not in vain.

    I think the interests of the cause, yours and mine, are best served by refusing to draw distinctions between races, gays and straights, men and women. Solidarity means bringing people together in a common cause, not breaking them up into distinct groups with each insisting upon it own unique set of problems and individual agenda. The problems each group faces will never be solved as long as capitalism prevails.  

     

    • Jonathon

      Actually, in order for capitalism to take hold in Europe the feudal forces first had to scour the earth gathering gold and riches. The peoples of Africa, Asia and the Americas had suffered horribly long before a proletariat even existed anywhere in the world. This is not to say that the poor of Europe did not suffer in precapitalist societies as well, but it is simply not true that the white working class was the first to suffer. By the time proletarians and capitalists came into existence in England tens of millions of Americans and
      Africans had been murdered and enslaved.

      The fact that your analysis can somehow ignore, forget or trivialize such a significant factor in the development of capitalism says volumes about the need for the type of critique offered by the authors here. It is undeniable that white working people suffer and have suffered under this system, but it is equally undeniable that in the  movements for change the voices of women and people of color are silenced, suppressed, ignored, trivialized and attacked. It is also undeniable that this has done an incredible disservice to these movements and the people they are trying to liberate, including working class white men. By refusing to confront racism and sexism, by labeling those who bring it up “unconscionable and divisive”, we help to perpetuate the system that keeps all of us down.

      “Refusing to draw distinctions” amongst ourselves regarding race, gender, etc., only serves to perpetuate the divisions amongst us. Racism and sexism are the two greatest weapons the ruling class uses against us. It is how they rule over us. Without recognizing that we will never win this struggle.

    • http://aintwhereyafrom.wordpress.com/ Tyler Zimmerman

      Thanks, Alma, for this insightful post.  I appreciate the great work you
      and your comrades are doing in ATL, from budget cuts, to Troy Davis, to
      Occupy.  Keep the fires burning!

      I agree with Jonathon’s counter-critique of just ice above and wanted to add my two cents.

      First, a note on form. I think the comment left by just ice while mainly
      substantive is still flaming and sectarian–things like “sulfuric odor
      of liberalism” I feel is totally unnecessary.  Why not just raise
      the content of your critiques and leave it there without the added red
      herrings?  When you do that, whatever valid content you raise won’t get
      lost in your presentation.

      With that out of the way I want to raise two broadly
      historical/theoretical critiques of this comment.  First, I take issue
      with seeing pre and early capitalist Europe as made up of “white”
      workers.  Second, I find problematic seeing the development of the
      working class as somehow a pure phenomenon where difference and division
      is only a talking point of liberals.

      On the first tip, the pitfall is in reading the social and racial
      categories of this period back into one where they did not yet exist.
      Before there was the expansion of European empires globally, before the
      transatlantic slave trade and the colonization of the Americas,
      whiteness did not and could not exist.  In fact, even after the
      colonization, the first laborers in the British colonies were not “free”
      or “slave” but were indentured servants.  Slavery was introduced later
      as a new method to stratify the working classes into a more effective
      hierarchy of labor powers.   It was only after such that whiteness could
      emerge and be key to the
      stratification of labor powers essential for capital to function.  It is

      important to remember that “free” workers in the colonies weren’t such
      because they
      were white, they were white because they were free workers.

      I highly suggest studying the League of Revolutionary Black Workers
      who tied the development of capitalism to slavery and unwaged labor.  It
      WAS off the backs of unwaged black labor that capital was able to
      invest itself into the infrastructure that would lay the basis of a
      contemporary capitalist economy.  The League linked this historical
      process directly to the factory where blacks were relegated to the most
      dangerous, dirtiest, low-paying jobs which not only benefited the Big
      Three auto companies monetarily but helped to institutionalize a “white”
      working class patronage network called U Ain’t White that was essential
      to holding black workers in their degraded place.  It’s important to
      point out that it was their autonomist reading of Marx’s Capital,
      facilitated by Marty Glaberman who was a part of the Johnson-Forest
      Tendency, that allowed them to contribute that powerful theory (even
      though Glaberman disagreed!).  Ken Lawrence of STO, following in the
      steps of Du Bois, cut to the necessary chase by saying slaves were
      proletarians, American slavery was capitalist, and the Civil War was a
      general strike of unwaged capitalist labor.

      Also, please take a look at Silvia Federici’s “Caliban and the Witch.”
      No where has such a sophisticated and historical case been made by a
      communist for how the development of capitalism was not just a
      concentration of labor and capital but a concentration of divisions and
      difference within the class.  She gives particular treatment to women in
      the primitive accumulation process whose bodies were converted into
      means of production for labor power and whose own unwaged reproductive
      labor is the pivot on which wage labor rests.  Specific and necessary to
      the build up of capital was the witch hunts which broke the back of
      women’s autonomy that stood in the way of surplus value.  Selma James
      argues that
      the wage conceals the unwaged labor in the home without which waged
      labor could not produce. 

      It is true that the categories of race, gender, and sexuality have been
      subsumed into liberal
      politics and academia but they are based in material and historical
      relationships.  just ice, has not class been liberalized as well and, if
      you agree, does that mean we throw out the category of class or that we
      fight to deepen and historicize its content?  In fact, the
      revolutionary Left has done just as much to destroy the real class and
      historical content of race, gender, and sexuality by reducing them to a
      list of
      “oppressions” subordinate to “exploitation” (waged labor) which negates
      the concrete totality of the working class and reduces it to an abstract
      proletariat.

      Lastly, I’d like to just point out that “alienating the white working
      class” is a necessary and fundamental task of revolutionaries; for
      whiteness as a social category holds the white working class by the
      throat and prevents them from uniting with the rest of their class.
      Rather than defending a relationship that was essential to stratifying
      the class, will you take a stand with us in Unity & Struggle to
      oppose white supremacy and advance the demands of working class women,
      people of color, and queers without which no class struggle can be
      waged? 

      I anxiously await your answer.

      Comradely,

      Tyler Z.

    • Rogueproguects

      “Likewise with homosexuals, who were as well represented among the oppressing class as among the working class.”

      Got any statistical data to prove that one? It goes against all the research that I’ve seen – queers are disproportionately pushed to the margins and into poverty.

  • S Nappalos

    super refreshing! yes! glad to see you all posting again