When I first read out about Occupy Wall Street this past September I remember thinking, “oh that’s cute.”
That was my actual response to seeing the pictures of, at the time, hundreds of young, white protesters converge on the New York’s financial district. I read the article online and moved on to the next news item unmoved. A few days or weeks later as the movement began to grow, like most people, I became more interested in what was happening. I read through the articles and watched video clips trying to better understand what the goals of this growing movement were and how they connected to some of the deeper concerns I have about my community. I was unsuccessful. I read a number of articles that cited the outrage that the group, like many people in this country, had about the bailouts on Wall St. and the general pilfering of our economy that was happening from the “1%” of the people and corporations (since they are one and the same) in this nation. I read about how a Canadian group started an internet campaign that grew into an action campaign that was now spreading like wildfire across the country, but I still didn’t read about what these “occupiers” wanted to happen as a result of their efforts.
I felt torn.
On one hand, I had a growing sense of excitement about the idea of a movement – of any kind – that was a counter to the visible activity on the other side of the fence from racist, imperialist, deeply divisive groups like the Tea Party and Americans for Prosperity. Before the “occupy” protests began it was starting to seem like people, of any race, who had beliefs opposite of these aforementioned groups were voiceless in the media and powerless against the cultural hegemony that was happening right before our eyes. On the heels of Arab Spring the fervor felt from the massive collection of protesters, with their rallying cry: “We are the 99%” was invigorating at best and reminiscent of U.S. resistance movements of the past…kinda. On the other hand, what I was seeing day after day watching the occupy movement didn’t speak to the greatest of my concerns as an African American, working-class, single mother living and working in a country where “the 35%” or the percentage of the population that are People of Color are consistently under-served and overburdened. For organizers this group didn’t come across as very organized. As the movement crept from one major city to the next the underlying question was like the elephant in the room: “what’s the point?”
It was about this time when I came across this video of Occupy Atlanta:
In the video, which is about 7 minutes long, Congressman John Lewis of Atlanta is attempting to address a group of protesters and is completely shut down. The group, which uses this cumbersome complete consensus/call and response process to speak and make decisions, doesn’t fully agree to allow the congressman to speak and therefore he is turned away. The majority of the crowd clearly is in favor of him making remarks, but there are at least two or three who do not and one man who speaks out against it directly. This one man’s point is NOT about the fact that Rep. Lewis has made some questionable decisions during his tenure as a public official like endorsing Hillary Clinton or voting for the war in Libya – but more about his status as Congressman not making him any more important than other protesters. John Lewis, a hero of the United States Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, was not there to speak as a politician though. He was there to lend words of encouragement and enlightenment to the group based on his years of experience as a movement leader. According to him, he was there to say, “I understand your cause, I support what you are doing and I believe in non-violent protest as a means to an end.” Now, as much as I have been dissatisfied with some of the decisions that former Civil Rights Movement leaders-turned-politicians/pundits/”professional profiteers” have made. I have nothing but the utmost respect for these elders for the courage, tenacity and commitment they showed during their fight for our rights in this country – especially John Lewis.
Lewis, who became active in social justice work while in college in Tennessee, was at the forefront of some of the greatest strategical movement work coming out of the civil rights movement of the 60s. Under the tutelage of the great professor Jim Lawson, Lewis along with other great movement minds like Rev. C.T. Vivian and Diane Nash, helped organize the student movement the spread across the South in the early 60s. Along with Nash, Lewis was one of the founders of SNCC or the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee – one of the greatest youth led social justice organizations of our time. And, John Lewis was one of the chief organizers of what has been called one of the most significant movements in modern American history: the Voting Rights Movement.
In other words, if Atlanta was serious about building a movement then they had something to learn from him.
This video spoke to the heart of what my issues with the whole Occupy movement were. There was no unified message, there was no discernible strategy, there was no leadership and it was too broad. Everything I have learned about the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, The Labor Movement, and the Liberation Movements in Africa were unified by these three things at least: message, strategy, and leadership. I was also deeply troubled by the lack of color in the faces splashed across newspapers and television screens every day. In fact until the protests hit Oakland and got live I didn’t feel represented in any way by “occupiers” in any other state. The students I work with and even my own child also felt disconnected from what they saw because they didn’t see ‘us’ and they didn’t see how sitting in a tent for days on end would get them a better education or jobs or stop police from harassing them. While I agree that we need a massive movement in this country and the Occupy movement was maybe a start – it is not the answer. The least of these, that 35% referenced earlier are going to have to stand up and get organized in a more visible way. Because we have always been the ones on the bottom – we have continually been organizing and protesting, but not in a way that engages the masses and embeds itself into popular culture. The difference between the social justice work that is heavily led by people of color like anti-police brutality, economic justice, reproductive justice, voting rights, and political prisoner work and the Occupy Wall Street movement is that numbers are sexy and white folk matter more in the media. That’s just the truth. However, there was a time when we did have the numbers. There was a time when we had a unified message, strategy and leadership that translated into results. There was a point in our collective history, black and brown, that we put away differences and focused on a common goal – and we can’t lose sight of that.
There is no end to the work we have to do. In order to reach the level of equality and justice that many of us seek we will have to be committed to working towards it everyday, for the rest of our lives, in the ways in which we are anointed to do so. From organizing to teaching to writing to leading it all matters and everyone plays a role. But, in my humble opinion, we have to be completely cognizant of the successes and failures or our elders and ancestors. If those Occupy Atlanta folk really wanted it badly they wouldn’t have turned John Lewis away and been so disrespectful. They would have listened to what advice he had to offer and picked his brain about strategy. They would have asked for detailed accounts of the worst mistakes he made and then discussed ideas for new strategies for a new generation. THEN, they would have found a place to congratulate him on some of the victories he’s had that benefit the “99%” while calling him to task on some of his current policies and practices. That’s how you build and learn. The arrogance that says, “I don’t need to hear what you have to say because I know what I’m doing.” is a losing stance.
There is an Akan (Ghana) symbol from the group of Adinkra symbols called “Sankofa” and its literal translation is “go back and get it.” In African-American culture we reference it as a way to stay connected to our history. It symbolizes the importance of knowing where we came from and the legacy of the people that came before us – our ancestors. Growing up, I was taught that outside of the Gye Name symbol which represents the omnipotence of God, the Sankofa was the most important and valuable. We come from a tradition where we value our elders and uplift the memory of our ancestors. The work we do now is in part to honor them. A lot of black people, particularly those who do movement or justice work, feel a deep connection to Africa. Many of us don’t feel complete until we make a pilgrimage to our mother continent and reconnect physically, mentally and spiritually to our roots. I am one of those people. However, after living and working in Alabama doing both historical research and justice work, I would challenge EVERY person of color, but particularly black people to make a similar pilgrimage to the South. Many of us head south for family reunions or vacations with family, but few of us have made the visit in an effort to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors and elders who shed blood and died for our sake. It’s sacred land. This is not a debate about whether their efforts were in line with your personal or political ideology. It’s about connecting with the spirit of resistance. The south is not just the cradle of our enslavement and oppression it is also the birthplace of our resistance. If you are going to do the work, you have to be prepared and apart of being prepared is being connected. Yes, you can read the books and watch videos of speeches, but the beauty of the modern movements for justice and liberation in this country is that they are so young. Selma was 1965 – that’s 47 years ago. The leaders and participants in the movement were largely young people under 30. That means that there are a number of people only in their mid to late 60s and early 70s who have a wealth of experience to share with us. These movements may have been led by popular figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, but the on the ground fight was happening with everyday folk like you.
You want to understand how to build a movement? Start in Greensboro, NC where the first student sit-ins happened in 1960 and work your way over to Nashville, TN where the foundation for SNCC was laid, then go on through Albany, GA where black girls were at the forefront of the movement and the Freedom Singers were birthed and across to Atlanta where the SCLC was founded and is still housed before crossing the border into Birmingham, AL where hoses were first used on children by Bull Conner and four little girls and one little boy were killed as a result of a church bombing and then to Montgomery, AL where hundreds of black house maids led a boycott that almost bankrupted the Montgomery Bus Co. and catapulted Rev. King to national prominence and then cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma where everyday black folk including students as young as fourteen, led by John Lewis, Hosea Williams, Albert Turner and Bob Mants stood in the face of death and marched anyway and after being tormented, beaten, threatened and even gassed got up a week later and did it all again. Mississippi had some of the cruelest and most brutal incidents of all – but Medgar Evers, Victoria Gray, Bob Moses Fannie Loe Hamer – they stood anyway. We can’t forget that. We have a history. We don’t have to build movements in a vacuum. There is a blueprint and there are lessons. There is a song we used to teach kids to sing in Selma about the movement and the chorus is:
“Someone prayed for you, someone sang for you, someone marched for you
and they didn’t even know you. Someone cried for you, someone suffered and died for you and they didn’t even know your name…”
The history is ever-present – the stories, the faces, the victories, the challenges, the spirit are all there just waiting for us to occupy them.
Every year, Selma is host to the largest commemoration of the Civil Rights Movement in the country. It’s called the Bridge Crossing Jubilee and its the celebration of the right to vote and commemoration of the Selma to Montgomery March and the events leading up to it, including Bloody Sunday. I am putting out a call to all of you (especially those who do justice and liberation work in whatever form) to join me in Selma March 2nd and 3rd. In particular, if you were ever apart of the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, we are calling you to join us for an alumni gathering. For more information about the Jubilee check out their website at: www. selmajubilee.com for more information about the 21st Century gathering email me at email@example.com.
Remember. Return. Renew.
See you in Selma!