Baltimore, Race and the Occupy Movement
Editors of the book â€œWe Are Manyâ€ discuss how the Occupy Movement can overcome the racial divide
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
It’s one year since Occupy began in New York. And now joining us to discuss what Occupy has achieved and what it might go next are three activists based in Baltimore.
First of all, joining us is Kate Khatib. She’s coeditor of a new book, We Are Many. She’s a founding member of Red Emma’s collective and a collective member at AK Press. And she currently teaches politics at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Also joining us and also an editor of the same book, We Are Many, is Mike McGuire. He’s a construction builder, an organizer with a background in labor, Latin America, and creative protest. He’s been working with the Occupy movement since its birth on September 17, 2011, in Zuccotti Park. And he’s also helping us build the new headquarters of The Real News Network.
And Lester Spence. Lester is a contributor to the book We Are Many. He’s an associate professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University, where he specializes in racial politics, urban politics, and American political thought. And he’s the author of the book Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-Hop and Black Politics. Thanks. Thank you all for joining.
ALL: Thanks for having us.
JAY: So when Occupy was going on in Baltimore, I was talking to different black activists, young people, and I was asking, are you going down, are you part of it, and it was sort of, “Yeah.” And when I kind of pushed them, it was, well, it’s good, we’re happy it’s happening, but it’s kind of a white thing. And there was a little bit of, well, we’ve been activists in Baltimore for a long time and we’ve been fighting on all these issues, and now all of a sudden these guys show up and they’re getting all the attention, and no one has ever cared a damn about what we’ve been doing, and we’ve been at it for so long. And I guess there’s some truth to all of that. But then there also is a kind of racial divide to some extent within left progressive politics in Baltimore. So talk about that and that in relationship to Occupy.
LESTER SPENCE, CONTRIBUTOR, WE ARE ONE: There is this long history, both at the level of the country, and then if you look at individual cities or regions, of tension between those on the black left, black liberal left, and then those on white liberal left. And I apologize for making it a stark white/black thing, so I’d probably better articulate it as a white/nonwhite thing, right?
And what it really boils downâ€”it boils down to a few matters. One is: is there serious resource differentials? Right? So in general, white activists tend to have more resources than nonwhite activists do. There’s also a kind of aâ€”.
JAY: Resources because some of them are professionals and have money or what?
SPENCE: Oh. So there’s a number of ways to think about it. They have more time to organize, they have more money, they haveâ€”they’re better plugged into networks that have time and money, they’re more skilled, or they’re not necessarily more skilled, but there are certain skills that they have more ofâ€”the skills they have, they have more of, right, than those who are nonwhite. And their interests are actually different. Right? They have different political interests. So they may have the same general goal of promoting social justice, but what that looks like on the ground is going to differ.
JAY: Like what? Give an example.
SPENCE: One example is like onâ€”I’ll take an example that we’re dealing with now, like the student debt. Right? So there are a number of people who are interested in student debt, right? And student debt actually is a serious problem, and everybody actually deals with it. But if you were to place issues important to black communities in Rust Belt cities like Baltimore, if you were to place them on a hierarchy, you know, if you were to number them 1Â toÂ 5, what’s your most important issue, student debt is in there, but it probably wouldn’t actually make the top five. It’s important. You know, black people go to school just like everybody else. You know, black people have the same type of debt burdens, and actually in some cases more debt burdens.
But the most important issue would probably be criminal justice. Right? It would probably be the relationships with the police and relationships with the state that are deeplyâ€”that you could actually call terroristic in a number of different ways, right? Whereas with otherâ€”whereas white populations, who tend to beâ€”white activist populations, who tend to be but are not solely middle-class, they tend to be interested in different types of concerns.
So both are interested in social justice, but what it actually means are different, where it’s deployed is different. Right? So you’re talking about neighborhood activism, where people are really concerned with their neighborhoods, whereas in the case of white activists, they may be concerned more globally and less specifically concerned with neighborhoods in general and black neighborhoods specifically.
JAY: So you find, then, that the white activist groups in Baltimore don’t get as involved in what you see as the local issues facing the people here. I mean, do you think that’s a fair critique?
SPENCE: Facing black people.
JAY: Yeah, facing black people, which in Baltimore is the majority of the city.
MIKE MCGUIRE, COEDITOR, WE ARE MANY: I think there’s something to that critique, but I don’t think that’s everything. Like, we’re talking about an explosive moment, first of all.
So, like, Kate and Iâ€”I’m the white guy here, but Kate and I and a bunch of other folks have been working in support of the same organizations that you were talking to. They were saying, you know, Occupy is cool and we kind of like it and support it. So we’ve been working with them for years. And it’s not an issue of whether or not these relationships exist. It’s that they are separate organizations, they’re separate issues, they’re separate foci. And we’re all working together on it.
But with Occupy, you have this explosion. And it is precisely what Lester was talking about. Like, there’s all of a sudden a flood of resources, both media attention, media outreach, wealth. You know, Occupy Baltimore still has money that we have because we raised more money than we could use and we don’t have a method for spending it. Occupy Wall Street raisedâ€”in, like, the first month, month and a half that it existed, it raised a half million dollars. So all these resourcesâ€”human resources, financial resourcesâ€”all flowed in. And it became, you know, a target, because it was what people were talking about.
But on the racial tip, like, as we were organizing in Baltimore, there was a bunch of stuff. First, to be fair, you know, I’ve been organizing in Baltimore for, I guess, over 20 years now, and this was some of the easiest organizing that I’ve done, but it was also the most multiracial organizing that I’ve done. When Iâ€”I’m talking about, like, an instantaneous thing. Like, I work with organizations that represent Baltimore and are people of color. But in terms of, like, this coming together of people, I’ve never seen something so diverse in Baltimore.
JAY: As Occupy.
MCGUIRE: Yeah. And this isâ€”and it’s kind of interesting. It’s probably, as Lester and I have talked aboutâ€”talked this stuff through in the piece that we were writing, the numbers are, in Baltimore and elsewhere, probably about inverse to the proportions of society. So Baltimore is 65Â percent black. Occupy Baltimore was probably 65Â percent white and then 35Â percent people of color. And it was similar in Detroit, it was similar in other cities.
But, you know, we were doing outreach, and there are different kinds of outreach. Like, when we were going around knocking on doorsâ€”and I’ll say this: me, as a white guy, when I was going around knocking on doors in black communities in Baltimore, I was better received than any other doorknocking that I’ve ever done. And that wasâ€”like, in the past, people looked at me like I was a space alien, like, you’re not from my community, you’re here because you want something from me. And on this occasion, it was kind of the first occasion that I’ve just been going around knocking on every door on the street where that didn’t happen.
JAY: Because they had heard of Occupy, they knew this wasâ€”they’d gotten their head around 1Â percent and 99Â percent?
MCGUIRE: Yeah. And some folks that I was meeting knocking on doors over in East Baltimore, near where they’re building this youth jail, some folks were like, oh, yeah, man, I brought bread down to y’all, folks that I had never seen, but they swung bread down to donate to the encampment. And so there’s that.
But then there’s also the organized black left, and that was a lot harder to work with. So, you know, there is the black community, and then there’s the organized black left. And there’sâ€”as Lester was noting, there’s a trend towards black nationalism.
And, you know, Kate and I were doing organizing around this new youth jail. It’s an issue that has been addressed in Baltimore for a while, and it’s been led by a coalition ofâ€”actually, a coalition mostly composed of black youth themselves. And there are elements in the black community that were looking at us and saying, how dare you come in like colonial conquerors and occupy our issue, how dare you take this issue away from us, and what business do you have talking about this. And we had to address this. Like, we had an organization that was demanding a list of names, racial identities, and affiliations of everybody who was involved in the organizing.
JAY: This is a left, black organization.
MCGUIRE: Yeah. Yeah.
JAY: Right. So how did you deal with this, Kate?
KHATIB: We had to really ask ourselves what our motivations were. We had to make sure that as an organizing group we were actually really doing something that we believed in. But, you know, in the particular action that Mike is talking about, before we even undertook it, we actually spent a lot of time reaching out to the organizations that had been working around the issue of halting the construction of the youth jail, largely organizations that are led by black youth in Baltimore, and saying, you know, Occupy is interested in being involved, Occupy has access to media, access to strategy, access to ideas and creative potential, and we really want to put that in the service of this particular struggle, is that something that you’ll work on with us.
JAY: And just to remind everybodyâ€”I guess if you’ve watched The Real News regularly, you’d know what we’re talking about, but this was governor of Maryland wants to build a $100Â million new youth prison in Baltimore, and there’s quite a opposition movement grew up against it, which is going on, what, for more than a year now? Or two years?
SPENCE: Three years.
JAY: Three years.
MCGUIRE: Three years.
JAY: Yeah, and has involved a lot of people in this opposition. So go on.
KHATIB: And I won’t say that everything that happened around the youth jail’s action was perfect or went off perfectly. There certainly was more outreach that could have been done. But I think ultimately we undertook that action in very strong solidarity and with a lot of guidance and co-organizing from some of the organizations that had been organizing around this issue for previous years, for many years. So, you know, it wasn’t really a case of colonization, but it was really easy to kind of see it as that.
And, you know, I think that action in particular is something that Mike and Lester talk about in their essay for this book. The whole question of race in Occupy is something that I talk about in the introduction to the book. And one of the things that I point out or one of the stories that I tell is my experience in Occupy Baltimore as a member of the facilitation team. So at the very first Occupy Baltimore meeting, the facilitation team was me and a room full of white guys. And over the course of Occupy, over the course of the next month, month and a half, six weeks, that facilitation team transformed into primarily women and folks of color. And that was staggering. I mean, it was amazing to be up facilitating these 500-person meetings and look around and be like, wow, this isâ€”like, I’m not the only person of color in thisâ€”you know, what I expected to be a white activist space.
And one of the things that I’ve written about in the introduction to the book and one of the things that has been kind of circulating around the movement is this question of, if we talk about Occupy as a predominantly white movement, do we not devalue the very important work that folks of color have put into the movement, in Baltimore but also nationally. And, in fact, I think it’s really important to recognize that there are folks of color who very much identify with Occupy as a movement that they’ve been helping to drive.
And so we do absolutely have to talk about racial dynamics in social movements. We absolutely have to talk about race and racism and the color lines within Occupy itself. But we also have to be respectful and aware of the fact that there are folks of color who have been participating in the movement from day one and to make sure to not diminish their participation.
JAY: Because I’m new to Baltimore and because I’m a journalist, I get to just ask people questions and I get to talk to lots of different people. So I’ve heard kind of both arguments. I mean, one argument, you know, you hear from some black activistsâ€”and I should say, ’cause we’re talking about some of the organizations that have been involved in the prison protest and kind of the ones that are very active, I’m not talking about them; it’s kind of more other people that I’ve heard at sort of forums and people that have shown up. But thisâ€”one, this idea is that whenever blacks and whites wind up in the same organization, the whites take over or try to take over, true or not true. The second thing is this pushback the other way, which is, you know, this is a black city and this needs to be black politics, and yeah, you guys can be a support group, but, you know, it’s up to the black people to lead, so it’s kind of racial-based leadership not based on ideas, based on, you know, who’s the best leaders.
SPENCE: Anytime you’ve got [incompr.] particularly in citiesâ€”in Baltimoreâ€”it’s important that folks looking at this who aren’t in Baltimore realize that Baltimore’sâ€”actually technically is the South, right? It is the first city to implementâ€”Alabamaâ€”Jackson, Mississippi, wasn’t the first place or Birmingham, Alabama, wasn’t the first place to institute segregation laws; it was Baltimore. Right? So there’s this long and deep history of segregation. And it’s not just about separating white bodies from nonwhite bodies; it’s about resource hoarding, right, serious political, economic, and cultural resources.
So when you’ve got a moment like Occupy, even though it’s the 21st century, even though we’ve had now three black mayors in Baltimore, there’s going to be a great deal of tension at the outset as far as getting people on the same page, as far as creating this kind of democratic space where people feel as if they can contribute. Right?
So there’s this tendency to kind ofâ€”to articulate the racial politics space when you’re talking about black pushback as just these kids who want their or these black folk who want their own stuff because people are trying to take it. No, it’s not really that. It’s really this idea that we have toâ€”that black people need to have a space where they can democratically figure out what’s best for them. And there is this long history of things happening, of these incursions where that’s not able to take place. So that’s reallyâ€”so even as Iâ€”even as I work with Occupy, as I’ve worked with Occupy Baltimore, I consider myself a member of it, it’s like I understand that deep history.
JAY: Okay. Well, in the next segment, we’re going to pick up more on that history, ’cause in 1968 there were thousands of black people on the streets of Baltimore as part of a nationwide protest. And the first Occupy Baltimore was actually from the U.S. military with tanks and guns. And the question is: what happened from ’68 to now in terms of the movement in Baltimore?
So please join us for the next part of this discussion on The Real News Network.
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