Blog post

Sujatha Fernandes: "West Harlem has caught the OWS fever"

Francisco Salas14 November 2011

Sujatha Fernandes, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Queens College and author of Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation, blogs for the Huffington Post about the growth of the occupation movement in communities of color around New York City. She stresses that, while Occupy Wall Street has brought much attention to protesters and activists in downtown Manhattan, the movement has deep roots and a history of militant escalation in Harlem, Washington Heights, Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn:

The predominantly African-American and Latino communities of the West Harlem area have long been struggling to fight unemployment, predatory lenders, gentrification, police brutality, and poor access to education and health services. These issues are now being highlighted more broadly as OWS moves into cities and neighborhoods across the globe. And slogans such as the 99% are producing new lines of solidarity that might bring together these different issues and help build connections between existing groups.

OWS is often discredited by claiming that its members are white, middle- and upper-class discontents whose goals and methods are divorced from the lived reality of the poorest and most oppressed communities in the United States. Skeptics scoff at practices like twinkling, the people's mic, and other practices perceived as bizarre or affected. Concensus is roundly condemned as impractical and "unscalable." Yet these methods have a long history in the movement; they have been used by student, community, and workplace organizers for years.

Occupy Wall Street has only popularized these tools, making them available for people with the desire to organize their communities but without the experience or practical resources to do so. Facilitation and Direct Action trainings, held regularly at Liberty Park, are helping to change this situation.

Democratic procedure is at the core of the vision of the diverse West Harlem organizing collective, who have been inspired by the horizontal democracy techniques they are learning at OWS. Colby Hopkins, an unemployed 32-year-old community worker attended several of the facilitation trainings downtown and helped bring those to the group. "The principles of horizontal democracy are so fundamental to the movement," he said. "It's important to spread the concepts and processes and let people figure out how best to use them and adapt them."

As for the notion that antiauthoritarianism, direct democracy, and horizontal organization are somehow alien concepts for people of color, Fernandes highlights groups that have longstanding presences in both New York City and around the global south:

Movement for Justice in El Barrio -- a northeastern neighborhood of Harlem -- held an evening of dialogue with OWS. Building alliances between OWS and organizations such as this with its strong membership of Mexican immigrants is crucial, particularly given the low presence in OWS of immigrants who had mobilized in large numbers in recent years. Speakers at the event focused on the commonalities between their organization and OWS, most notably the fight against the 1%, which they referred to as "capitalism."

The Movement has close ties to the Zapatista liberation movement in southern Mexico, and works with the tools of horizontal democracy key to both movements. The centrality of direct democracy techniques in the everyday work of the Movement for Justice in El Barrio should caution us against thinking that democratic methods are simply being brought from downtown to uptown. Rather, it reminds us that horizontal democracy as being practiced in OWS is influenced by the techniques forged in Zapatista village assemblies and neighborhood meetings in places like Argentina.

The misunderstandings and impasses between communities is a sign of the heterogeneity of the movement, says Fernandes, and issues like race, class, and gender, must be worked through consistently and democratically for the movement to move forward. Yet thus far, the power of people to imagine better a better world for themselves, and to imagine the means to bring it about, constitute a vital unifying force, both in the city and around the country.

Visit the Huffington Post to read the article in full.