Ben Chavis, former National Director of the Million Man March, and current CEO and Co-Chairman of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network held a press conference announcing "Occupy the Dream" designed to create a bridge between the Occupy Movement and African American Leaders. The group has three demands–increasing grants for college education, ending home foreclosures, and a wall street created fund that will deal with pervasive unemployment. Pastor Jamal Bryant (founder of Baltimore's Empowerment Temple) one of the spokespersons, promises a series of events (beginning with protests at federal reserve banks around the country on MLK Day) that will galvanize the country and bring added attention to the issue of inequality.
Call me skeptical.
One way to read this is that it is a natural and real response to the critique that occupies weren't quite inclusive enough. Occupy either can't or won't get access to the black community, and as a result either can't or won't respond to the particular needs of the African American Community. Chavis, Bryant, and others are black leaders. They speak for the black community. They can bring together their constituencies with the constituencies of occupy folk. Everyone wins here. The black community gets its needs met. Occupy expands its reach.
I don't read it this way.
I read it as the attempt by black elites to broker deals for constituencies they care about. And the very act of brokerage will have the impact of increasing their own leverage and political capital. Along these lines such a move should be understood as part of a longer wave of black elite brokerage going back before the civil rights movement. The problem here is that such a move has a few problematic consequences:
1. It further crystallizes the concept of national black leaders outside of elected ones.
Even before the moment black men and women could legitimately vote, we have had the capacity to make political decisions and change ourselves. We've been able to articulate and work through our interests. We've been able to set up organizations in which we can hash these issues out. And every now and then, through political organizing, we can get some of our needs met. The national leaders we require need to be individuals we can elect, there needs to be a structure in place that allows us to see their behaviors, and their needs to be a way we can kick them out. The concept of "national leadership" implied here is NOT that concept. Ben Chavis for example was appointed CEO. The only people he is accountable to is the board of HSAN. Reverend Jamal Bryant is only accountable to his church body.
To the extent blacks and non-whites buy into the concept of Occupy The Dream, they buy into a problematic concept of black leadership we need to toss.
2. It neuters local organizing struggles.
Here in Baltimore there have been at least two responses to Occupy Baltimore lead by people of color. Furthermore the national organization Take Back the Land has begun work on staving off foreclosure eviction in Baltimore, empowering homeowners to take control of their own communities. I don't see how an organization like Occupy the Dream can co-exist alongside these local movements. More likely I see these local movements subsumed at best or dissolved at worst into a national movement, led by unaccountable charismatic male spokespeople. And this neuters the capacity of local development. And this neuters the likelihood that black alternatives to the status quo can be generated and fought for.
3. It similarly neuters direct action.
Pastor Bryant promises a series of events designed to call attention to income inequality. What is the likelihood that national spokespersons, with their own agendas, their own aims, their own issues, would call for something like Occupy the Ports? Would have called for something like Occupy in the first place? Nationally, Chavis was critical in the promotion of the Million Man March. At a local level he was influential in the various HSAN led actions against the Rockefeller Drug Laws. But what were these actions, exactly? The Million Man March was a "permitted event" (that is to say, the Nation of Islam applied for and received a permit) that at its base was a protest NOT against government but against black men (read Minister Louis Farrakhan's speech). HSAN's biggest event was a march in New York City, one that was more critical, but also one that was "permitted". National organizations like Occupy the Dream tend to support an extremely narrow range of tactics, tactics that siphon energy away from local activities and towards the national organization (and leadership) itself. Tactics that generate the appearance of being anti-status quo but have the consequence of reproducing it.
There's more, but hopefully this is food for thought, food for thought we can continue in the conversation thread. If you are involved with Occupy and don't believe it to be inclusive enough on whatever axis (gender, race, sexuality, homeless status) then don't give that responsibility to someone with another agenda. Do the hard work on your own.
With that said though I really want to see what people think about this. Particularly supporters of Pastor Bryant. It's very possible that I am ignoring critical information. And because I tend to be skeptical of charismatic authority in general, it is also possible that my own biases are working against me here.