Tensions over race in Occupy Chicago

From the September-October 2012 issue of News & Letters:

Tensions over race in Occupy Chicago

Occupy Chicago May Day march. Photo by Occupy Bartlett (Illinois).

Occupy Chicago May Day march. Photo by Occupy Bartlett (Illinois).

Chicago—Tensions over race came to a boiling point within Occupy Chicago (OC) in August. A working group making plans for four days of protests at President Obama’s campaign headquarters here, to coincide with the Democratic Party convention in North Carolina, included in the plans the burning of voter registration cards. This was opposed by a majority of people at more than one General Assembly (GA), with a number of people—Black, Latino, and white—invoking the bloody struggles that it took to win the vote. To many of us it was shocking that anyone would propose this. Yet the proponents were intransigent and it was described as approved by OC. We have also heard that Occupies in some other cities are going to do the same thing.

Agreeing with all aspects of the protests except for the voter card burning, Occupy the South Side called for a counter-protest, declaring, “This action comes only after People of Color and White supporters of People of Color voiced great concern in regards to the message that the OC ‘endorsed’ action will send….

“We are not Obama-ites, quite the contrary…. We are people who believe that the people who risked so much to gain this right deserve better….

“This is a Movement that is supposed to include ALL of the 99% but has done a poor job….This action is practically guaranteed to undo the progress that those who are in the streets have been fighting for almost a year.

“This country has a history deep in the terror and Hell thousands of African-Americans, women, and others had to suffer to get this right for all! A voter card burning is NOT a light matter!

“Please join us as we give Occupy Chicago a history lesson and proclaim: HELL NO WE WILL NOT BURN OUR VOTERS CARD!”

The issue was debated at several more GAs, sometimes way past the usual end time. Unfortunately, the real ideas at stake were obscured by personal remarks, misinterpretations, misrepresentations, and a totally abstract, ahistorical way of posing revolution vs. reform.

The reality is that the Republicans are working very hard to deprive people of color of the right to vote. This is not just about the two main capitalist parties competing for offices. It is about driving the politics of this country in a counter-revolutionary direction. It is about smashing Occupy, labor unions, abortion rights, contraception, and all freedom movements. Yet some of the “revolutionaries” actually hope for a Romney victory in much the same way the Stalinists in 1930s Germany hoped for a Nazi political victory as the pathway to Stalinist power—”after Hitler, us.”

The “more revolutionary than thou” spout dogmatic abstractions: “voting makes no difference”; “elections were foisted on the people to fool them”; “voting props up this racist and sexist system.” At least one anarchist said that if everyone stopped voting the system would collapse and we could create a new one. Someone even said that “Minorities, as a whole, could change everything in a second if THEY DIDN’T VOTE!” What lies behind these absurd fantasies?

There is a segment of Occupy so desperate for a shortcut to revolution that they totally separate it from the actual history of revolutions and mass movements, taking refuge in abstract revolutionism. What limited democracy we have was not handed down from above to dupe the masses, but was won in struggle, from the revolution in the War of Independence, to the second revolution of the Civil War, to women’s suffrage, to the Black revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. The narrowing of democracy was counter-revolutionary, from the enshrinement of slavery in the Constitution to the betrayal of Reconstruction, to the last few decades’ explosion of imprisonment and disenfranchisement. Black masses have ever been the vanguard of U.S. freedom struggles.

Disconnection from this history goes hand in hand with being overwhelmed by the power of the ruling class and its state. Thus, some activists are looking for revolution from out of their heads—how else do you explain such fantasies as that people not voting would somehow overturn the power structure?

We need to see that the Black dimension is testing the Occupy Movement. It’s not too late for the abstract revolutionists to correct their mistake, but it has to start with some listening.

—Occupier

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