Anti-Oppression Workshop@ Occupy Boston
Dewey Square, 10/16/11
Never have I been so happy to be outside in the cold and dark sitting on the wet ground illegally. There I was shooting video with a dying battery and inadequate light, contemplating my whiteness in a crowd of 250 people. I don’t even like crowds of 25, and I certainly don’t feel comfortable contemplating my race. I’m drawing a distinction here between comfort and joy. What I felt last night was pure joy within the inevitable discomfort.
Yes Occupy Boston, it’s high time to get deep and dirty in this movement. I set out to write an article about who is participating in the Occupy Boston Movement and who is excluded. “It looks like Bonnaroo without the music” a classmate said two weeks ago, “I want to participate, but I work two jobs and I can’t .” “Actually, oftentimes there is music” I replied. “Is it time for the college kids to go back to their dorms?” a friend said after the early morning raid and mass arrest on October 11.
Contrast this cynicism from the outside with the comment a participant made as I entered the camp on Saturday. “Do you see this?” he said “It reminds me of a shanty town, in some third world country” he was beaming. I assume it was pride that made him smile so widely, but I didn’t ask. I looked down and moved away while thinking “Third World, huh? I believe you mean the Two Thirds World (haven’t read much Malcolm X?)and obviously you’ve never taken the time to visit one because “shantytowns” are not created out of NorthFace tents and so sparsely populated by such self-assured, well-fed, safe adult people.” I could’ve continued contrasting Occupy Boston to a so-called shantytown, but I don’t enjoy bitterness so I let it go.
If I had written this article Saturday, Friday, Thursday or Wednesday, I would’ve had to write about these criticisms and the many manifestations of such throughout the movement. However, I saw a sign that said Sunday there would be an Anti-Racism/Anti-Oppression Training from 7-9pm. Knowing this is the standard time of the General Assembly, I assumed that it was a protest of the protest. I was down for that. I wondered what space the workshop would take and how loud it would be.
It wasn’t until I showed up that I realized the General Assembly had voted by majority (a problem we’ll have to put aside for now is that if the majority is “ruling” the minority in voting we still have a form of dominance) to actually hold the workshop on the main stage in place of the normal General Assembly. That was when I started to take heart.
At 7pm a participant took the people’s mike. “We will be using race as a lens through which to view the way oppression works. In future discussions and in break outs tonight, we can also think of ways in which other forms of oppression are present in our broader society and within Occupy Boston. We are hoping that coming out of this we can begin to practice working together in ways that do not oppress or exclude people from historically oppressed groups and communities.”
The next facilitator explained some rules, and why they are important, “The “step up, step back rule” means that those people who talk more will use this opportunity to practice listening, and those people who tend to shy away from speaking publicly will find it in themselves to share their perspectives with us, we think that only this way will we begin to surface what this entire community feels.”
She also explained that someone on a computer was keeping notes from tonight so that we can share them back with you and we can plan our next steps. “We are committed to making the notes from tonight public” she said. You can see them at http://occupyboston.wikispaces.com/Anti-Oppression+Workshop+Notes+-+October+16,+2011
Steve Schnopp, from United for A Fair Economy took the stage. He spoke his gratitude for being in the company of wonderful people. He then introduced a five minute movie clip to be projected on the wall behind him, and led a basic anti-oppression exercise.
When the crowd heard that the movie clip was from May 1, there were cheers. May 1, is a movie depicting a strike of mainly Appalachian workers. The coal company owners try to break the strike by importing other workers from other places in the country. They bring in African Americans from deeper in the south and Italian immigrants. This particular scene is a clandestine meeting of Union organizers that one of the African American Coal miners comes into, and there’s an outside organizer. The most memorable line is when this outside organizer says something like “ A Union that doesn’t let every worker in is no Union. It’s a club.”
After the screening he explained the exercise, and asked for volunteers. He didn’t name it, but the exercise was introduced to me as the Line of Privilege, I’ve also heard it called the Walk of Privilege. It’s very simple. Everyone starts out shoulder to shoulder. In front is the space that represents wealth.
“There is the top 1% and the other 99% but the other 99% is not homogenous.” he said. The brave group of about twenty took the stage, listened and moved as he read out statements.
If your ancestors;
lost land to the conquest by the US government take a step back.
got land in grants from the US government take a step forward.
took advantage of the Homestead Act take a step forward.
gained assets through the Slave Trade take a step forward.
were brought here in chains to be slaved take a step back.
were restricted to living in ethnic communities because of their race or ethnicity take a step back.
could live anywhere they wanted to take a step forward.
had a right to go to the public school of their choice take a step forward.
after becoming citizens had to sue for a public education take a step back.
If your ancestors or you;
were admitted to college on a legacy admission take a step forward.
lost property due to internment after WWII take a step back.
worked in jobs that provided health or retirement benefits take a step forward.
were denied health or retirement benefits take a step back.
arrived as an immigrant from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa or Asia.
were banned from Union Membership take a step back.
were members of a Union take a step forward.
If you or your family;
were denied a mortgage because your neighborhood was redlined take a step back.
were offered a subprime mortgage and ended up in foreclosure or eviction take a step back.
were able to get a mortgage in the neighborhood of your choice take a step forward.
At some points we stopped for clarification. What is the Homestead Act? Were people really excluded from Social Security? and so on. If you want details check out the footage on Occupy Boston’s website.
I think anyone could guess from these questions how the group of volunteers ended up. Mr. Schnopp then asked us to turn to our neighbors to discuss the following questions.
“What meaning do you draw from this that you want to apply to the movement you are building”?
“What do you see here that applies to your own behavior in Occupy Boston”?
“What is the meaning of this for you and for the movement”?
We had a few minutes to talk with our neighbors.
won’t go into too much detail about the remainder of the evening. It was similar in quality and tone. A short presentation on the definition and ways of Oppression was shared by facilitators and volunteers holding signs. “Oppression is when prejudice+power combine to form systems that privilege some at the expense of others”. The Iceberg model was shared, along with the four I’s of oppression which are internalized, ideological, institutional,and interpersonal. The group named different forms of oppression aside from racism, that operate in the same way. Classism, fat phobia, sexism and many others were named. Then we took a brief census of the meeting to get a sense of the demographics.
As a visual check would tell, and as has been noted, the group was not actually representative of the 99%. Comparing the results of the internal census with the statistics of Boston, Occupy Boston is more privileged than the population. It would seem to exclusive. This is confusing since virtually the only agreement is that everyone is committed to social justice for all, nonviolently of course. All the notes and the full results are available online on the Occupy Boston website if you want to check them out. http://occupyboston.wikispaces.com/Anti-Oppression+Workshop+Notes+-+October+16,+2011Then we broke out into groups of 10 with 1 facilitator. We spoke about our own encounters with racism, from a first person perspective.
Next we came back to the group and people shared “popcorn style” what they would like to see happen to address what has started to be discussed. We also filled out index cards with a response and contact info if we are interested in further anti-oppression work in this style.
“I want to see less talk about college debt and more talk about kids not graduating high school” one participant said to cheers. There were many other suggestions. The crowd seemed a bit dazed by the pain of such introspection. Anti-oppression training has been offered not just locally but across the country. I think the participants took the workshop seriously. I expect it will take some time for the experience to be processed. This is an exciting development within Occupy. Cross-movement organization is necessary if the folks at Dewey Square really want to represent the 99%. Anti-oppression training has been offered not just locally but across the country.