OccuList: Push for diversity spurs internal ‘Occupy Wall Street’ conflicts

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The progressive organizers of the Occupy Wall Street protest have spurred furious internal protest over the role of nonwhite protesters and women, and over the significance of non-economic political goals in the movement, a cache of internal emails released Monday shows.

The disputes are driven, in part, by organizers’ desire to boost “marginal voices,” marking a shift from older liberal movements which tried to reach their ideal of equal wealth without resorting to racial identity politics.

In New York City, protesters’ daily “General Assembly” meetings allow “marginalized voices” to skip past a line of other waiting speakers, organizer Jesse Myerson told The Daily Caller. When the attendees gather, those “marginalized voices are able to jump the stack (that is, if there are 10 men slated to speak and a woman wishes to join the queue, she is granted a position toward the front of the line, for example),” he wrote to TheDC. (RELATED: OccuList leader excludes white ally to gain union support)

This deliberate promotion of people in one ethnic group or gender over other people reflects the progressives’ criticism of mainstream U.S. society, and their strategy of attracting disparate ethnic, sexual, racial and religious groups to their movement.

“We live day to day in the dismissive culture of american chauvinism, we face insidious forms of outright and silenced discrimination, we are struggling to participate in this occupation so that issues of race, immigration, gender are not sidelined but part of the center core practice of decolonizing wall street,” said a Oct. 5 mailing list message from one of the most vocal organizers, Shaista Husain, a woman who has repeatedly pushed the group to address racial issues and the U.S. war against Islamists.

But there’s pushback from some organizers who want Occupy Wall Street to reach out to non-white demographic groups while also keeping their political focus on banks and other economic drivers.

One organizer who calls herself “Mae” scorned the group’s insistence on enforced diversity and group representation. “I am a nonwhite person (Puerto Rican) who never fills out surveys that ask me to specify my ethnicity,” she wrote on Oct. 8. “There are people in the world who could give a crap abt reporting their race/ethnicity, or who deem it something to pay attention to. I am here to make a change for everyone.”

The group’s insistence on diversity has also caused some organizers to complain that the growing movement will lose focus as its goals are broadened.

“I have argued that we could make the one demand – get corporate money out of politics – and many of the other issues would, and should, be resolved in a real democracy according to what the majority of the people want v. what will profit the plutocracy greatest,” said a Oct. 4 e-mail from organizer Gail Zawacki. “However there is quite a bit of resistance to boiling it all down to one demand on the part of some of the most active and passionate occupiers,” she added.

The organizers have argued over ethnic politics, imagery in promotional posters, Israel, the tea party, the percentage of white people in protests, the role of hard-core groups — which are overwhelmingly white — and the value of a non-white subcommittee, immigration, the ideology of diversity and much else.

“Occupy Wall Street is officially committed to the right of marginalized voices to be heard (as well as the right of those of us with privilege to hear those voices — a right which I prize very dearly),” Myerson wrote to TheDC. “The population at Liberty Plaza Park is refreshingly and inspiringly diverse: people of all ethnicities, ages, gender-identities, sexual orientations, political points of view (from End the Fed to Pull the Lever to Pass The Bill to Abolish the System), and it won’t do for us to be complicit in the tendency that arises to put straight, white males in the spotlight,” he wrote.

Myerson declined to explain or define the concept of “diversity,” or how diversity can be promoted without simultaneously restricting some people’s freedom of speech or assembly.

Still, enforced diversity is a top concern for “Occupy” organizers.

An increasing emphasis on non-mainstream concerns has already broadened the groups’ goals beyond economic issues. On Oct. 3, for example, an organizer named Cesar who goes by the alias “wintersiroco” online, persuaded fellow organizers to change the group’s “Principles of Solidarity.” That document, he wrote, “was about to omit specific mention to immigration, racism, etc. … and it would have been quite a flawed document without it.”

This suspicion of mainstream ideas or groups also extends to white protesters. On Oct. 9, organizer and New York activist Rob Hollander complained on Occupy Wall Street’s restricted email list that New York protesters were “at least 80 % white.” That high percentage, he said, “reflects its source base: the [General Assemblies] I attended in August were closer to 90% white and 0% black.”

But diversity advocate Shaista Husain immediately contested Hollander’s estimate as inadequate. “Your claims on whiteness are highly problematic,” she responded. “Actually a large part of those categorized incorrectly labelled white are spanish, arabs, international, diverse internationals.”

Husain then pressed Hollander to ensure greater participation by nonwhites in the movement: “You provide no solutions to bring more diversity, maybe ROB you should come to the people of color meeting today, and help us form a way to remedy this.”

The “people of color” meeting is a subgroup of “Occupy” organizers in lower Manhattan who identify themselves as belonging to racial minority groups.

On Oct. 7 Husain railed against a promotional poster showing a powerful, tall woman striding across New York City. “Can you put some dreadlocks on her, does every female the represents [sic] this movement have to be visibly white?” she demanded. “PERHAPS and now im [sic] begging you comrades, its [sic] so real it fucking hurts, can we get some people of color visibility.. ATLEAST [sic] ONE poster that reflects this? I bet you it will be so celebrated!!! Perhaps an indigenous woman? PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE> [sic] folks.. Thanks!!!”

In an email to TheDC, Husain said “people of color … live in an alienated society full of racial and ethnic hatred–people who have power, our dictators, establish a system of greed based on systemic racism and discrimination” The dictators, she said, “have become manless drones playing video games with innocent peoples lives and every human being who can sit on TV to watch this montrosity and not get up and remove these warmongers from their seat of barbaric madness.”

Protesters’ emphasis on enforced diversity also drew in a truck-mounted art display of work from “Spain, Canada, South Korea and all over USA [sic],” said a September 29 email to the mailing list, also disclosed Monday.

The art group’s leaders cited their emphasis on diversity in declining to exercise any artistic judgement, or to favor artwork of high quality. “We aim to show and promote new work … providing anyone and everyone the opportunity to have their work seen,” said an email from the display’s organizer, Marlene Frontera. “No one’s work was turned down based on aesthetic biases.”

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