On Being A Part of the 99%
I’ve been thinking of this notion of being a part of the 99% in this entire Occupation phenomenon that’s been spreading throughout our nation (and the rest of the world) since the Wall Street event began last month.
When I see images and videos of the participants and I read the variety of philosophies and motives behind the movement in newspaper articles and blogs, though I can appreciate and even agree with the framing and meaning behind these “occupations,” I can clearly see the discrepancies behind the experiences of these white middle class demonstrators and my own. And though their message is supposed to also encompass my struggles as part of the underprivileged 99%, I can’t help but feel that my experiences as an undocumented Latino are completely in the margins, lost amid chaotic chants for economic justice.
First and foremost, the organizers of these events chose a word that has such a deep and traumatic history for people of color. Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Los Angeles. “Occupy.” I’m genuinely concerned that there really hasn’t been a discussion behind the significance of such a loaded word. In our world, an occupation has always meant terrible consequences. It has signified the conquering of a foreign (or domestic) territory for the purpose of transforming their culture through violent means with catastrophic results. In many cases, it has meant the annihilation of indigenous populations and the enslavement of the survivors, both in the physical and psychological sense. To occupy is to conquer and to spread the political theology of the victors, and the pillaging of the occupied territories for whatever resources they had. In other words, occupation is imperialism.
The United States is absolutely guilty of imperialistic tendencies and terrible atrocities as a result, be they blatant campaigns (such as the current Iraqi occupation) or more covert political campaigns (the occupation of Central and South America through political and financial manipulation and terrorism). Through history, the United States has time and again shown complete disregard for the autonomy of other nations.
Hence, communities of color know what it is to have roots in the trauma that comes from being occupied. How can these middle class white participants understand the pain and suffering that comes from having governments in our home countries toppled by C.I.A. operatives and the installation of blood-thirsty dictators? How can they understand what it is to have the American military train death squads in the School of the Americas that then disappeared entire villages of our people into mass graves in the jungles of Central America? How can they possibly comprehend what it’s like to read newspaper clippings on the War on Drugs and the thousands of bodies it has left hanging off of bridges, hung there by the cartels that bought automatic weapons from the American government with drug money?
And even in today’s society, communities of color continue to burden the experience of an occupation by our own government. Members of the Latino and Muslim communities could just as easily be lost in the prison system set up for undocumented immigrants (our government calls them “detention centers”, but they are clearly run as federal prisons) where torture, human degradation, and death is as common place as prisons setup abroad for suspected terrorists. This War on Terrorism has become an institution with deep implications for our communities, for whether we’re documented or not, we will always be suspects. Our own government sold us out to private corporations who build prisons to incarcerate thousands of us, and the executive branch of our government plays a major role in filling the beds at all of these prisons. Whether or not we’re guilty of any crime is irrelevant.
The black and brown communities are very familiar with police tactics, and we live our lives knowing full well that at any time and any place, we could be stopped, detained, and arrested for a variety of reasons that could then be made up in the paperwork. To us, police officers are relentless hungry and angry tentacles of an overburdened justice department, which serve to capture and bring in defenseless people for a legal shake-down. They act as preliminary judges out on the street, and physical impressions are what marks one as guilty; if you’re black or brown, you’re going down. To us, the justice department is a corridor of cashier windows where the state extorts money from hardworking folks to keep this entire corrupt system running.
So now we have white middle class folks up in arms, demanding justice and responsibility from our government, and they want to “occupy” all of these different cities and demonstrate the might of the 99%, when all along, communities of color have been screaming about our oppressive situations and the occupation of our people. And though the economic situation has made our experience all the more desperate, there’s no way that the top 33% can comprehend the situation of the bottom 33%, which is mainly comprised of our disenfranchised communities. This is one of those situations where the bottom 33% get to taunt the flabbergasted top 33% with a “Welcome To The Club” chant.
So we have these new movements propping up throughout our nation, with middle class folks organizing themselves and scheduling in time in their lives to fight this oncoming revolution, while approaching our communities and asking us to shift our gears and resources to get these Occupations popping off. Our communities barely have any resources with which to fight and conquer all the problems that plague us, and now we’re supposed to strut our issues alongside them as part of the 99% because all of a sudden, now it’s important to have our voices heard?
We live in a country sold out to corporations and to the wealthy, there’s no doubt about it. But our government permitted these auctions, gambling the well-being of the American people for free-market profit margins. The experience of your typical hard-working American-Dream-having citizen has been lost amid all the corruption. Case in point? When Steve Jobs died, President Obama issued a statement about how our nation had lost a creative genius. When Troy Davis was executed unjustly, our President kept his thoughts to himself and refused to issue a statement about the entire spectacle. Steve Jobs > Troy Davis. Not everybody gets to live out a dream like Steve Jobs, but us people of color can certainly suffer the same fate as Troy Davis. Our government makes sure of this.
So really, what is this Occupation madness all about? Is it about reform? Is about revolution? Is this about white middle class folks who have finally woken up to the realization that, regardless of the upward mobility situations that are often offered to them, they will in fact never become a part of the top 1%?
Personally, I can’t help but feel excited, as I see all the potential this movement has to offer. But the priority that should be on the mind of all organizers of these events is to create the space and opportunities for these frank and painful discussions. The 99% need to be decolonized and educated.
The centerpiece of this Occupation Movement should be education. Once we know what we’re fighting against, we’ll have a clearer idea of what we’re fighting for.
(This piece was inspired by the discussions I’ve had these past few days with the attendees of the Blue Mountain residency.)