Letter to the Editor: African Americans and the Occupy Movement

To the Editor - Washington Post: I was disappointed by the simplistic and shallow approach to an important issue in “Occupy isn’t black America’s fight,” by Stacey Patton (Washington Post Outlook section, November 27, 2011).  First, it is premature for her to state definitively that a movement barely two months old has nothing to offer African Americans. The petulant query, “Why should they (blacks) ally with whites who are just now experiencing the hardships that blacks have known for generations?” suggests that that African Americans cannot move beyond this puerile level of analysis. Clinging to the past consigns us to political irrelevance in the future.  
Patton’s apparent glee that increasing numbers of white Americans experiencing homelessness and poverty are now “paying a psychic price” is, quite simply, race baiting; it is inhumane and counter-productive. Its only discernible purpose is to drive a wedge between groups of people who can, and should, find common ground regardless of race.  Patton betrays her ignorance of the Occupy Movement’s crosscutting message: concentrated wealth and power prevents equality and a healthy society and environment. These are not issues belonging to one race or another.
Patton recites the many failings of black churches, elected officials, and hip-hop artists for abandoning the “black masses.” While this may be true, it is not a failing that the Occupy movement generated. Likewise, the choice of quoted sources, none of which seem to have either personal experience or expertise in Occupy organizing, displays a shaky knowledge of history. One source, a comedian, makes the astonishing statement that “civil disobedience will only further the public perception that black people like to cause trouble.” What would our world be like today if all those young black and (white) Freedom Riders who put their bodies on the line for a cause they believed in had worried people might think they liked to cause trouble?
Finally, Patton ignores that the many Occupy encampments across the country are not monolithic – they are intensely local, and reflect local issues and demographics. For instance, in DC, some in the Occupy groups moved temporarily into a closed shelter to demand that the public building be restored to the use of the local homeless population – many of which are black. In the boroughs of New York City, with their multiracial and multicultural mix, the emphasis is on supporting those facing foreclosure. How can these actions be seen as not relevant to people of color, or indeed to any of our fellow citizens in need?
I am excited and elated at the political and social opening the Occupy movement represents, imperfect and unformed though it is at this stage. As a black American, I reject the exclusionary vision this article offers. I expect better from the Washington Post than Stacey Patton’s hasty and ill-conceived screed.

Gerri Williams is part of a local interfaith support group for the Occupy movements in DC.

(This letter to the Editor was sent to the Washington Post on November 28, 2011. It was never published.)