The 99% Isn’t Me: Being the Minority in the 99%


Been wanting to talk about being “Black in the Revolution”, I figured it would be good to start with the most obvious and most visible political moment and space we have today which would be the Occupy Movement. This movement was birth as an American manifestation of the spirit that gave rise to the Arab Spring that overthrew the Egyptian and Tunisian dictatorships (I still have questions about Syria and Libya…ya’ll already know my stance on that one)  that sought to bring the pro-democracy spirit to America in its own way. The main slogans of the Occupy Movement are things like “Occupy Everything” and “We are the 99%”. These slogans manifested themselves quite literally in the hundreds of occupations of public parks, buildings, and central spaces across America, the rest of the western hemisphere, and even in parts of Europe and Asia that are going on as we speak.  They organize without leaders, using consensus democratic processes in most places, and seek to create the basis for equalizing the wealth of this nation between ALL its citizens.

Now the obvious question that’s probably being levied at me right now in your head is “why would you be against this?” I will say this: I support the goals and ideas of the Occupy movement but I think the movement is on weak foundation and further I believe as an African I have little in common with the occupiers and their movement in terms of tactics, goals, and organizational methods.  I’m splitting my criticisms into 3 sections: issues with the message of the “99%”, issues with the idea of occupying stuff, and issues with having our voices heard. I’m going to try to be specific to my criticisms from an African perspective and while I do have more generalized criticisms of the movement I will try and leave them other to expand upon or I may do it myself in another article.

“We are the 99%!” “Who me? Nah I’m just black”

As a sociologist who specializes in social inequality and the dynamics of the movements that seek to redress said inequalities, I was extremely interested in the Occupy movement right from when my activist best friend, Clifford Cawthon first mentioned it over this past summer. I became much less interested when I heard the 99% slogan and the idea that “we are all part of the 99%”. First off, studying inequality it’s not the 1% vs the 99% it’s really the top 10-20% vs everyone else. Including that top 10% in with the movement lacks accuracy of description (which one can say isn’t the most important thing in the world) and of whom the enemy is. That top 10% that largely manages the system for the superrich aka the 1% are almost more responsible for the current situation than they are. These are the stock brokers, banker assistants, and politicians / lobbyists, who chose, in full knowledge of what damage they were doing cooked books, cheated homeowners, and chose to keep their jobs doing dirt rather than give it up to do the right thing. The same goes for the cops, until you take off that uniform you are just as responsible for clubbing a student with the stick as the mayor who ordered you to do it.

Another issue I have with the 99% concept is that it smacks of the rhetoric we black and brown people heard from the Left back in the 70’s, that we’re all just people and we need to be colorblind, and that we are all being oppressed by the same people and on and on… Those thoughts are valid, kind of if you ignore much of American history. My oppression as a black man in America is very, very different from that of a poor white person. Yes we both ended up poor and without food or a job but he doesn’t get called a nigger or have to deal with the very real reality of racism. Although the white middle class who’s central to the Occupy movement are right about Wall Street and politicians they fail to see that the struggle is different if you’re a woman, gay, Black, Latino, Native American, etc. Many of the aforementioned groups have been in the gutter for…. Um… ever. Actually yea really forever since this nation was created many of us have been at the bottom of the pile. With that said I think it’s a serious problem when someone tells me that my struggles are the same as theirs and I should get behind a movement that I had little part in creating. This is what the relationship (especially in places like my hometown of Buffalo) between the occupation and oppressed minorities has been since the beginning.  It smacks of the reductionism that we have seen from the likes of the 10’s-40’s communist / socialist movement and its dealings with black people and how the movement has almost always dealt with women (aka sexism as a secondary issue).

Related to this idea we have to question the veracity of the 99% when many in the 99% are oppressors themselves. The kindly white people from the suburbs of Buffalo that has joined our occupation don’t realize that they had a lot to do with (due to apathy and ignorance) why black and latino people in Buffalo are so bad off today. Men don’t realize we oppress women and promote rape culture every day, often without even realizing it. The list goes on, but the point is that from our perspectives as oppressed people for those who otherwise wouldn’t give a crap about our issues or persons asking us to join their movement only after they start feeling what we have dealt with for years seem really disingenuous. The idea of the 99% is nice and catchy but it doesn’t exist. I have an independent identity as an African man who grew up in America which warrants a different approach and appreciation for me and my people’s circumstances. Same goes for women and especially Native Americans who have barely been even included in the Occupy movement as spectators. If I can speak for others, the moral of the story is that everyone is not in the same boat and by virtue of that uniqueness we wish the dominant classes of society would begin to deal with us on our own terms not theirs.

“Go Occupy Your Own %$#@”

This issue stems very much from the last paragraph and that has to do with message and who it caters to. The occupy movement was started by the professional left and the white middle class (men in particular). That is a fact (which people are very uncomfortable with) that has shaped the rest of the events that have transpired in the movement. One of the consequences of having the middle class at the front aside from the 99% slogan is the idea of occupying stuff. The thesis behind it is that we as the 99% built this nation and do most of the work yet the 1% hordes the wealth and power for themselves. Therefore what we should do is occupy real and political space and take back what rightfully belongs to us.

The problem is that none of this stuff is ours. And by none of it I mean NONE of it. This nation is an example of what some call settler colonialism. Basically it’s: See nice land with people—kill all the people/ enslave them—move in on land—claim that this is now your homeland. That’s America’s history in a line a nation of genociders, poor people who were exploited, ex slaves, and the survivors of the slaughter. If the movement really wants to be inclusive they need to acknowledge this history. The slogan “Decolonize the Occupation” has been going around for a while among the native community in response to the occupation and basically the message is that yes we understand your goals and stand behind them but this is our land, stolen from us, just for you ought to be dependent on justice for our people too. How can you occupy something that is stolen?

The other major issue that comes up here is that the middle class (and Americans in general) is lamenting the loss of their livelihoods and lifestyles but they fail to remember that all they got is stolen from other people. There is no taking back blood money or recouping losses due to illegal activity. For black people many of us ask why you would even want this back. From the land, to the “government” to the wealth I want none of it aside from the labor of our ancestors. This nation has always been morally and politically bankrupt from the perspective of the oppressed and to want to actually own any of the spoils of imperialism would be tantamount to the Jews wanting to take over the institutions of the Nazi state. Added to that, most of the oppressed want to see this joint burn. American capitalism is clear on what it want to do and only by flipping the script will we have some hope for change so for me and people who think like me occupying anything as principle has a bad rhetorical and material basis for legitimacy.

“Stop It! That’s Divisive!”

The above line is the almost automatic response to almost anyone who has brought up race or gender or class (between middle and working class people) issues in the occupation. To many people the Occupy movement is strictly about economic inequalities and Wall Street not about race, gender, or class although they have no problem welcoming black people, women, or the unemployed as supporters.  It’s indicative of a lack of recognition of race, gender, or class (and other issues) in the occupation (and its connection to capitalism and economics) and any felt need for the creation of spaces to deal with these issues in any real way.

A very good instance of this was when an older black woman at Occupy Buffalo during one of the first GA’s brought up a proposal to boycott the Buffalo news establishment (the Buffalo News, Channel 2, 4, and 7 and other outlets) because of the years of racism, classism, and suburban bias that all these institutions have exhibited. Now for anyone who’s black in Buffalo the Buffalo News is worth little to nothing because of how bad it is at reporting on issues in the city and portraying our community in particular in a very negative light while ignoring much of the corruption and nefarious activity that goes on in City Hall or in the suburbs. After making the proposal there was a few blocks that came up and when the facilitator asked one of the women why she blocked the proposal she said “I understand why this is an issue for you but since the news is reporting on the occupation nicely and not slandering us it would hurt the movement to go along with this” aka I don’t really give a hoot since the movement is more important than that issue.

Another local instance was when O Buffalo hosted a Police Appreciation Day to celebrate peaceful police and give the BPD a pat on the back for not arresting them or harassing the occupation.  Problem: why they were patting them on the back the BPD was elsewhere in the city like they have always been doing harassing black and brown and poor people. Then when I and others brought up the issue we were derided as bring divisive and too radical.

The point of telling these two stories is to say that the occupation is unfriendly to those who don’t wholly invest in the ideas of the 99% and all that comes with it. Consensus democracy makes sure that the minority, whether it is black people, women or other’s voices and goals stay in the background and like mentioned above the goals of movement falls outside the point of view of many of the people who the movement seeks to recruit. The problem is that these are institutional problems that have yet to be solved on a large-scale aside from resolutions that say minorities need to be included and POC and Women working groups sprouting up in some occupations. If we don’t feel welcomed to make our issues, which are unique to us, known without being called whatever why would we want to come down to the occupations? Many locals wonder why they are so white, or male, or whatever much of the problem is that your movement is organized to cater to white middle class men who can afford to camp outside 24/7 and have the political and material resources to stay there. It’s not catered in any way to say a single Latina women with children and it’s unlikely that she would ever show up to a general assembly because of that.

Conclusion: “Let’s Do Our Own Thing”

When I started following the occupation I was amazed at the organization, goals, and spirit of those involved until I began to talk to people and get involved myself. When I began to do that I realized that much like how the 99% slogan seeks to meld everyone into a united, American people’s front the occupation is a reflection of all that is good and bad about American society. That includes racism, sexism, homophobia, aversion to radical politics and the like. Because of the presence of these elements at large and the lack of organized redress of these issues many have decided to abandon the occupations and strike out on their own. I have decided to do the same and call on other people of African descent to do the same. I say this not out of bitterness but out of recognition of the history of black people and other minorities in movements and institutions dominated by middle class whites. They support freedom and change as long as they lose nothing and we don’t force them to question their own morality or privilege. This has been an endemic issue on the Left that needs to be addressed if there is ever going to be a truly united revolutionary movement in America.

Looking at how Africans in the past dealt with white Leftists and revolutionaries they always took the stance that we as oppressed people need our own space to articulate our struggle and push our struggle forward. The place of whites in that case is to make change within their communities and make sure we don’t get slaughtered fighting for our freedom.  The first and most important problem with the occupy movement that leads to all that I have written about is that they sought to speak for everyone in America without really knowing what we want and how we want to go about getting what we want. Until white/ male liberals and leftists take the time to understand the oppressed on their own terms vs. always trying to bring them behind their movements or ideas the Left will never be able to mount any real offensive against capital that won’t collapse under its own contradictions.

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7 thoughts on “The 99% Isn’t Me: Being the Minority in the 99%

  1. You make it sound as if it is impossible to find common ground among the various peoples involved in Occupy. I agree that is looks like a mostly white male movement, but as a movement it is still fluid not monolithic. People of color, women, native people must participate in whatever way they can, whether it be directly with the folks camping out and calling themselves Occupiers or by forming their own side groups and unifying with the others on common issues, which there are plenty. And you point the finger at the middle class as though this is some kind of homogenous group, which is as wrong as saying that all people of color or all women are the same and have the same goals and values. Describing “the kindly white people from the suburbs” as oppressors doesn’t include the many kindly black people who are moving to the suburbs? This piece seems to be all about blame, stereotyping (the white middle class AND POC and Women) and lack of vision. Where’s the positive leadership here?

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  2. I’m not saying it’s impossible to find common ground, I’m saying that the basis of the occupations are built on ideas and institutions that are foreign and in many ways hostile to many people in the black community and other groups too. In many places we have sought to create working groups as I have mentioned but they still deal with this mantra that whatever you come up with better be somehow still under the “Occupy” set of ideas. The problem is that if we’re really honest with ourselves this isn’t likely to happen simply due to the different experiences we have versus the mainstream and what we eventually want to see out of any justice movement. Too considering we’re (as in women, blacks, latinos, etc) are the ones suffering the most shouldn’t the movement come to us and put us in place to contribute versus us having to shoehorn our stuff to their? It’s their movement not ours and if they want it to become our’s too they are going to have to move towards us.

    I made the kindly white people comment very deliberately in that most white people truly don’t understand the basis on which their wealth was created and to try and fight to get it back is in many ways macabre to me. I did fail to mention black middle class people partly because most of them (at least in my experiences) still have the same basis of thought as inner city black people (aka they don’t believe and think like a middle class person) and would probably still run into many of the same problems in the occupations as the rest of us. On the other hand there are people in the black middle class who’s totally bought into the middle class, pro-American ideology and thus they would end up in the same boat as middle class whites when this discussion is concerned.

    I’m sorry if it seems like I’m playing the blame game but there are the things that are felt my alot of the people who interact and observe the movement, nothing more. It’s unfortunate that these issues even arise but they are far from being stereotyping and having lack of vision when examples of all these problems I cite are happening in occupations across the country.

    Lastly this piece wasn’t really meant to give “positive leadership” in the sense that I assume your talking about. It was meant to be an critical piece and space to make observations about the Occupy movement not necessarily provide direction. I refrained from giving that direction because I’m a socialist, Nkrumah- Toureist in particular who respects any movement like Occupy but devotes the majority of my energy to the unification of Africa against capitalism as a whole. My real advice would be for Africans to leave the occupation to our white brothers and sisters and focus on getting our own land and people organized. They may win back their nation but America was never our home and nor should we seek to make it so considering what this home is made out of. Now if we flip the script and we talk about rebuilding then maybe, but as long as America as is remains I want no part in it.

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