Insight News

Feb 06th

“Occupy Wall Street” is No Civil Rights Movement

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Occupy Wall Street protesters seem to be wrestling with America’s hypocrisy. I am old enough to have been bussed across town for integration sake. The n-word is not foreign to me; it was spewed in my face and written on my locker in high school. This was not the 1950s or 1960s. I have often written about Black people who placed their lives and livelihoods in jeopardy for civil rights. I remain shaken by the criminal cases left unsolved involving those who had “forgotten their place.” When I talked to protesters at the now defunct Occupy Wall Street village in Zuccotti Park I came to understand what was so different between them and protesters in the Civil Rights Movement. The Occupiers had suddenly discovered what most African-Americans already knew – this country is unfair.

At Zuccotti Park, I heard shouting about the homeless. Read signs about student loan debt. Anti-war buttons were sold. I bought t-shirts deriding invasion of privacy with caricatures of Uncle Sam. One tourist from France asked, “Why are you here?” A young man with a bull horn, tan skin, and curly brown hair, stood on a short stone wall, and shouted this nonsensical line, “The fact that the government does not want us here is reason enough to be here.” My business in the Wall Street area that day was simple. I was to be a guest on a radio show, WBAI, a Pacifica station, later that afternoon, discussing discrimination in the New York City Fire Department. A federal judge had found the test and post-test process to be unfair to Black and Latino applicants resulting in people of color being only 2% of the entire FDNY force. I thought of those plaintiffs as I walked around Zuccotti Park closely examining the cacophony of complaints of mostly white people there.

The Occupiers are angry that the coffers are bare. Theirs is the rage of one who has been betrayed, cheated by the 1%. They were silently promised an America where college diplomas brought good jobs. Salaries purchase nice homes. Children attend good schools. These young white people felt hoodwinked. There was no place reserved for them at America’s table. I have never heard my parents speak of an American promise of a good life, with limited problems. Yet, white people from across the country knew of the promise and its betrayal. I witnessed the lone Occupy Cleveland tent. Occupy Oakland is now legendary. Had I missed something?

Yes, student loan debt undermines a better life. College degrees no longer guarantee jobs. The police, protectors of white property owners, turned against landless students and parent-bound young adults. Outside of the power based on income and social bearing, Occupiers find they are also outside of police protection.  Police, like the sheriffs of the Jim Crow era, respond to power. Occupiers, though white, are powerless strangers in their own country. In this hard-scrabble economy, being white in the 99% bears little weight to politicians relying on big donations. The police swing clubs and pepper spray peaceful protesters. It is unfair. However, unfairness did not begin with Occupy Wall Street. Those Black and Latino firefighters expected a fair test and fair hiring procedure. Their favorable judgment in October of 2011, like so many lawsuits brought by Black people seeking justice, was years in the making. Unfairness thwarted every step of litigation. Recalcitrance continues to impede progress. The difference is, of course, a matter of expectation.  

Occupy Wall Street protesters, in their months-long campaign, have not experienced the depraved attacks suffered by Blacks in the Civil Rights Movement or farm-workers or union organizers. That does not mean Occupiers should suffer trial by fire before they can claim to be a legitimate movement. They are self-legitimized anyway, and therefore, unfazed by the civil rights, unions, and social justice groups joining their cause. U.S. Representative John Lewis, respected civil rights icon, was rejected from the podium of Occupy Atlanta, and labeled part of the problem. I wondered then if these young people understood that John Lewis had been severely beaten protesting for voting rights in Alabama. Lewis, a believer in nonviolence, was spat upon by White Tea Party members for supporting the President’s Healthcare Legislation. Or did they even care? 

Occupiers made history in their quest for importance. But, American history is easily made and forgotten. Occupiers expected their pursuit of happiness, undermined by financial debacles, to receive national attention. When no one seemed to care they fought until attention was given. Now what? Civil rights protesters had a plan to achieve rights under law for all. That struggle continues. Like the hippies of the 1960s, Occupiers seek a life better than their parents. They have the right to protest. Just don’t call it a Civil Rights Movement. 

Gloria J. Browne-Marshall is an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, Director/Founder of The Law and Policy Group, Inc., and author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present.”      


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