Word versus Action

The main event at yesterday’s first ever 2pm GA was the “decolonize” proposal—anyone who was in the plaza between 3 and 6 knows that much. But the story of who was right, wrong, too loud, or too disrespectful is probably more complicated than that immediately reveals. I know I eventually went off the grid—you’ll note in my recording of the GA that there’s no clear end to the spectacle. I’m not sure I made it to the end. My mic was kicked over all through the day as well, for some reason. First time that’s ever happened. To be honest, I’ll take a step out there and suggest that was due to the over all feeling of disrespect that some people were encouraged to bring.

From my own perspective, I have very complicated feelings about the idea of occupation. In the first place, the term is a legal construct that came into wide circulation after World War 1 and has been used in various capacities to obscure colonization. Colonizers, in turn, before the second decade of the 20th century, were never shy about what they were doing. They colonized, they called it colonization. In later years, the term occupation has become popular in describing the process of colonization in academic circles, because of its resonance with the Palestinian conflict, perhaps. Its a euphemism for the reality of what imperial countries do, part and parcel with the discourse of human rights and humanitarianism that grew up around Wilson’s dogma of the World War 1 era. Because the word does not imply anything sinister in itself, suggests a temporary situation, and a lack of ultimate goals, it is useful in obscuring ethnic cleansing and colonization. It is a word for a transient phenomenon by design, it does NOT mean colonization, any more than invading a country is liberating it.

The rage to me, then, is surprising, given the tame nature of the euphemism, and its multi-faceted usage–from work to describing the human content of a porta potty– and its relatively recent use to obscure colonialism. For my part, though I lived in an occupied country; many of my father’s side of the family live in one; and was even banned for ten years from entering one by the occupier, it never occurred to me that there was any connection between the words. In my opinion, some groups in the bay area have created a connection between the word “occupy” and racism, despite the fact that various political activists have used it for decades in positive fashion, and they’ve convinced others to assume the dynamic as one to one and inherent. That being the case, of course, it obviously means that anyone who doesn’t see it that way has a “colonized” mind and is a “dupe” as one woman called me. This was the attitude that was brought to the plaza by many of the people who had specifically come to back that proposal, but did not come to discuss the other nine proposals on the agenda that day.

The assumption of the narrative of Occupy = Oppression was made most problematic by the intervention of the “white allies”–their own term. Despite the characterizations, Occupy Oakland is made up of a large poc contingent; many of them are poor, some homeless. Being lectured by white allies of another –and one assumes, ‘superior’–group of color, highlights the utter stupidity of the endeavor placed before the GA. The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was the self-proclaimed “Jewish white woman” who took the stage and used her involvement in pro-Palestinian activism as the connector between her struggle and that of Native Americans—claiming that those involved with the occupy movement couldn’t likewise be involved in Palestinian solidarity.

It was an absurd generalization, one not backed by the Arab students who had brought the AIPAC protest proposal, who said that they had never heard an Arab student voice a problem with the term. To be lectured by a “white ally” on how Arabs and Palestinians should feel about the word “occupation” because of HER experience with the issue was bad enough. Not nearly as bad, though, as the person claiming that the “divisiveness” we were experiencing as a product of disagreeing was a product of colonization. That is–and will stand for some time as–the most senseless, racist and offensive thing I’ve heard at the GA.

I wasn’t the only one who responded to this condescension about anyone who didn’t see the occupy word as a symbol of oppression with increasing anger as the day wore on. A woman who was sitting next to me, who also identified as a Native American, was angry at both that reality, and the fact that the facilitator had told everyone at the beginning of the GA that the last step of the day was “to go home” instead of participating in the 24/7 vigil. She left the GA in disgust.

Running Wolf, a Native American who was one hundred percent down with the proposal on Thursday, when I talked to him about it last, was fuming–stomping around the crowd beseeching new faces to get involved and stop talking. Several other people who’d been on the fence at the beginning of the GA—and one person who assured me she was standing aside—voted against the proposal at the end. A person of color who got up during the con period said it best when he complained about the manipulation that was going on, and that he would not use his ethnicity as a point of argument.

The biggest problem for the incoming group was that they had bought into their own hype about the name, their purity of purpose, and the necessity of their dubious mission. They really did believe that people of color outside of their discourse were turned off by the name and saw it as a barrier to participate in the organization. They really did think that they would encounter an all white privileged group whose ignorance on the subject of imperialism required a stern three hour series of lectures from the group and its “white allies”. They really felt entitled to enter the GA and vote on their first day of participation and change its name. Most importantly, they believed that their perspective on race issues was the only legitimate one. All of these assumptions were based on shaky logic.

Occupy Oakland could be more diverse, of course–but it is nevertheless quite diverse. And many people of color in the group have no interest in this discussion. Indeed, I talked to three self-described Native Americans in the last three days who weren’t bothered by the word at all. Another Palestinian American who has been involved in the Occupy movement confided in me that he thought the resistance was a product of thinking about that one issue too long.

On the issue of their goal to strike at colonization and become more inclusive, the actual events were even more comically ironic when juxtaposed against the rhetoric. Three young African American men held up their Occupy Oakland sign, upset that they were being told that they had colonized minds for backing the movement. This was the same sign they affixed to their brief occupation at 18th and Linden. They were roundly chastised; incredibly some members of a Native American group tried to block them with their own banner, though the name of the organization was still Occupy Oakland at the time. I already mentioned the fact that the “decolonize” contingent was given a choice about whether to hear a short proposal on shutting down AIPAC on Monday, and they declined to let it be heard. That seemed to be the theme of the day—a group of people so enchanted with their own discourse about words, that they were unable to see how their discussion was preventing actions meant to achieve the very goals they claimed to be backing with their efforts.

The issue of whether the word Occupy means one thing or another, outside of the dictates of academic discourse, really is one of personal taste. But the issue of whether changing the name would make the movement more diverse and/or radical is an easy one to answer. Occupy Oakland shut down the port, and is preparing to shut it down again. The movement has suggested to mainstream people that they they don’t have to pay attention to police when told to get back on the sidewalk. Its demonstrated that a group of people can hold on to a space for months, even when told what they are doing is illegal. Occupy Oakland bucked the trend of other occupy movements, inviting homeless people into participate as fully fledged members—most of these, of course, people of color. No name change necessary on that one.

The beauty of the camp that I have described in my writing for months now, was in its open nature. It was open to any person, but the people that accepted that invitation most readily were poor and homeless people of color—including indigenous people, African Americans and Latinos–who make up a good deal of the participants still today. They weren’t people who ever cared about the occupation vs. decolonization debate, unfortunately, so they apparently don’t count when we talk about opening up the movement.


25 thoughts on “Word versus Action

  1. Thanks for writing this, it echos what a lot of people were feeling yesterday.

    There were a number of things that really bothered me about yesterday’s GA:

    1) Folks on both sides using “I was here first” arguments. Day-1 occupiers vs long-time activists (who, to me, seemed a bit jealous of Occupy’s sudden attention.)
    2) People not respecting process. Among many other instances, there was zero reason for this to be “emergency” and supersede 2 actually time-sensitive proposals. There were people disregarding time limits, supporters jumping stack right in front of me and telling everyone else to “deal with it”, etc.
    3) The “Listen to your elders or get smacked” comment mirroring the state’s threats of violence against noncompliance.
    4) The extremely divisive rhetoric. People yelling over action announcements to form their own movement called Decolonize Oakland and have their own GA’s. After that, those involved lost any claim to inclusivity or movement-building at that point. With allies like these, who the fuck needs COINTELPRO?

    Personally, I came out yesterday to support the Occupied Oakland Tribune funding prop. I was planning to stand aside on the name change, as I felt it was somewhat of a distraction, but if it was important to other people they could have their say about it. After discussing it with people during the forum, I had changed my mind and was in support of it; if people felt it was a huge barrier to entry for some, then fine, let’s do it and see if it helps. But by the time it came to vote, I was so turned off by the rhetoric and tone of the supporters, that I was completely against it. Yet I still voted for it, as a show of solidarity, and to give it a chance at amendments (hopefully a compromise of some sort to use both names).

    I don’t understand why some folks can’t understand how to reach consensus. You don’t reach it by browbeating people, guilt-tripping them, or shaming them. You don’t get it by shouting loud, angry polemics to get people fired up like a rally. You can’t do it by talking at people or shouting them down. These tactics may work in a simple majority to gain a few supporters to push your side over the edge (though even the US congress is increasingly showing otherwise), but they’re not going to work at all when you’re trying get (nearly) everyone to agree. They’re just going to polarize, to push both sides further apart. Consensus is reached through discussion, listening to each other, and discourse.

    All of the proposals presented by groups of people who have been mostly uninvolved so far, telling occupiers what not to do have been incredibly divisive: “Don’t be aggressive”, “Don’t occupy 19th & Telegraph”, “Don’t use the word ‘occupy'”. If people are doing things in way you don’t agree with, telling them to agree not to do them that way is not going to work. And bringing your friends to try to stack the vote is not going to work either. Do the math. If there are 100+ people regularly at the GA, you’d need to bring one thousand people *at minimum* in order to accomplish that. Honestly, I’d love to see that. Consider it a challenge! Bring one thousand people you know to the GA’s regularly and get them involved.

    Furthermore, if there are internal, contentious issues within the group that need to be brought up, the space for them is not a GA proposal consensus vote. By definition, if they are internally contentious there’s no way that they will get a consensus decision. Voting on them just becomes alienating for both sides. We all need to understand this before bringing up proposals to vote. If the proposal is controversial, then announce it and start discussions about it (during the GA forum or online, or wherever), but don’t bring it up for a vote until you’re confident that almost everyone agrees with it.

    I think the Tactical Action Committee has the right approach. Go out and DO SOMETHING. Then come to the GA and get endorsement and let people know how they can plug in. But most importantly DO SOMETHING.

    • Great comment. I meant to mention the woman who claimed discourse was slap-worthy. Seemed to be a recurring theme on this issue.

  2. Thanks for writing this, Omar.
    When the conversation regarding the name change started, I was dead-set on tossing a big old sideways thumb or simply not voting at all. A few times during the discussion, my thumb started gravitating upwards… there was so much passion and there were several moving soliloquies on the power of language and progressive signifiers. My thumb didn’t know what the hell to do with the white woman who claimed she was a person of color trapped in her white skin… (i paraphrase and don’t have access to headphones as I am at work, so I can’t listen to your audio archive). But, I’ll tell you what convinced me to vote, and what made my wavering thumb stand tall and proud at the end of the discussion: I left at one point during the mayhem to take a breather and seek respite by the teepee, a place where I have been spending my days and nights since Tuesday when it first went up, and I listened to the discussion that was happening over there amongst the folks that have also been at the teepee since Tuesday… that have been there since the first raid… the second raid… the third raid… and the last three and a half weeks tree sitting and providing support to the tree sitting community. The conversation by the teepee felt similarly emotional and there was a sense of urgency to the tone, but the discussion was very different than the discussion over at the GA. Similar to the crowd gathered at the GA, there were people of all colors, people with disabilities, people who don’t have housing, people who do have housing… But the big difference was that all the faces were familiar to me and everyone had reached consensus: they wanted the name to stay Occupy Oakland. For me, it was a sort of King Solomon moment. I still saw both sides of the argument, and the merits of the discussion, but there was no way in hell I was going to cut the child in half once I remembered who had been mothering the movement, once I saw the faces and heard the voices of the folks that are STILL IN OSCAR GRANT PLAZA, the folks who won’t be “going home” when the agenda strikes #10, the folks who will go get each other coffee at 6 in the morning after staying awake all night to stand vigil over the structure that still stands in OGP, the folks who have been tree sitting for over three weeks and the folks that have been supporting them every day and every night.
    After being by the teepee for a while, I went back over to the GA to vote. My thoughts on the discussion of the name change as a discussion of signifiers qua signifiers were still flip-flopping worse than Kerry’s ever could. But that didn’t seem to matter any more. That didn’t seem to be what the vote was even about anymore, frankly I didn’t know what the vote was about anymore. But, I felt like I knew who the name-change mattered to most. I am not suggesting I am King Solomon by any means (I don’t look good in robes), but I felt like I knew where my thumb belonged, and I feel proud that I voted.

    • Right on. That’s a great comment. You don’t have to tell me which way you voted, but I wanted to point out to you that it wasn’t clear. It doesn’t matter to me, but respond if you like with the direction your thumb stood if you want others to know.

      • Ahh…. you raise a great point Omar. Again, the shame! Especially with the “stand tall and proud” language… confusion abounds…. (similar to my inappropriate use of ellipses). I voted “no”, meaning I voted against changing the name to De-Colonize Oakland.

    • “Similar to the crowd gathered at the GA, there were people of all colors, people with disabilities, people who don’t have housing, people who do have housing…”

      You reminded me of another great point. When one woman spoke at the GA and said something like “Look at this crowd! Don’t you want every day at Occupy Oakland to look this diverse?” it made it clear that she had not been around Occupy Oakland very much, if at all. The diversity of Occupy Oakland was what drew me to it from the beginning (compared to, say, OccupySF), the camp and GAs were full of people of color, queer folk, women, people of all ages and abilities. It was radically inclusive, welcoming homeless and people struggling with mental issues, helping and encouraging them to be part of the process and the movement, compared to almost all other Occupys which see them as a nuisance.* That’s why it bothers me so much that now we’re getting all divided over issues like this and what happened on Friday night.

      *This isn’t to say that individuals don’t raise issues over “who’s a part of this movement”, which definitely need to be discussed and made as inclusive as possible. What happened Friday seemed as important as the name change, so I wanted to thank you, Jaime, for speaking up on that as well.

  3. nice assessment. I, too was in favor of the proposal, but when supporters tried to cover the TAC sign, all bets were off (the TAC kids disrupted BK today by offering freed food! they also tirelessly protect the 24/7ers from police harassment – and their harassment tactics amount to an astonishing, jaw-dropping and hilarious piece of performance art).

    three sessions’ worth of proposals have been pushed back due to a failure to reach quorum, and suddenly there are 300 people in attendance? Worse, the decolonize proposal was the only one addressed, and when the proposal was tabled, those in support of it left, rather than stay to complete the agenda.

    will the proposal supporters attend tonight’s GA? i hope so: it guarantees quorum and finally GA can get things done.

    Decolonize supporters are scheduling Native teach-ins for the coming week. I eagerly look forward to these, however they should have taken place last month, before the proposal was raised.

    2/3 of the group showed up to vote on that one proposal, thus, “Decolonize Occupy” was my favorite dissenting peoples’ mic refrain.

  4. “That seemed to be the theme of the day—a group of people so enchanted with their own discourse about words, that they were unable to see how their discussion was preventing actions meant to achieve the very goals they claimed to be backing with their efforts.”
    I’ve watched this very same idiotic drift away from action and into linguistic analysis going down in left movements since 1968. And historically, it’s always the death knell. The only thing I’ve learned in all that time is that it is a mistake to assume blindness on the part of groups who agitate in this fashion. As another commenter observed: “With allies like these, who the fuck needs COINTELPRO?”

  5. Great examination. This debate has significance to the actually occupied Hawaii, where I live. It was an issue that came up almost immediately as we have active Hawaiian sovereignty groups. “Un-occupy” colonized Hawaii holds great appeal to many of all the facets here. “Liberate” always was the better word, but there is benefit to continuity. Lesson: In planning, initial branding is important to achieving full potential.

    • And this is an important point to make. Its not the word, its the timing, placement and momentum the movement already has. I’d be following this if it had been called Beany Magoo, because at this point Beany Magoo would have its own meaning in context of what the movement has accomplished–would be synonymous with bad ass.

  6. “Running Wolf, a Native American who was one hundred percent down with the proposal on Thursday, when I talked to him about it last, was fuming–stomping around the crowd beseeching new faces to get involved and stop talking.”

    This part is unclear- what do you mean?

    • Doubt he would have voted in any case; he’s very adamant that the GA is a waste of time, but he no longer supported the proposal in theory either. He was angry that the people had come to debate over language, rather than help with the vigil and his tree sit.

    • Normally, I’m very free with letting people use my blog to advertise their own position on an issue that I oppose. But you and a small minority of others backing this proposal have acted with malicious intent and dishonesty.

  7. I was actually for teh name change when I first heard about the idea.
    However I encountered such acidic language targeting “middle class whites” that I quickly re-evaluated my position.
    I was not able to attend Sunday, but from all reports I am kind of glad I missed it. Sadly, there are a few POC I have not seen since that GA. Rhianna?

    • There’s a lot of misplaced anger being directed at OO, and its promoted some rank dishonesty. A youtube video is floating around showing only two white people speaking out against the prop. I know for a fact that Boots Riley, Khalid, someone who’s name I don’t know, but see at the vigils and other POCs spoke out against the proposal. The tactical action committee was holding up the Occupy Oakland sign. Its incredible how some people in this group readily make us invisible if we don’t agree with them, and how their “white allies” so easily succumb to the actual colonial mind-set they think they’re fighting to silence us.

  8. One of those who made the proposal to change the name told me that they did not expect the proposal to pass, they rather wanted to promote a productive discussion relating to the history and status of Native Americans, and how that fits in to our current situation and struggle. What they got, instead, was a very divisive fight that weakened the movement, and prevented the group from doing important work. Some people left as a result of the dispute, I doubt if anyone had been kept away because they took offense at the word “occupy” Rather than try to make a large group come to consensus on an esoteric concept, I wish the proposers had put this discussion forward as an open forum topic on a non general assembly night. We could have had the thought provoking discussion they said they wanted, without the setback we suffered as a result.

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