Why My Black Friends Are Ignoring the Occupy Movement: Three Important Lessons

by Dax-Devlon Ross

Faithful Boardwalk Empire viewers are familiar with the story line: violence, corruption and greed in a Prohibition era port city. One of the subconflicts to emerge this season centers around the series’ lone black lead, Chalky White (played by Michael Kenneth Williams) and the show’s centerpiece, the ever duplicitous Nucky Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi). They are, in a sense, business partners. Nucky supplies Chalky with access to liquor and protection; Chalky supplies Nucky with easy access to the black electorate. As season 2 begins, White, the de facto Mayor of black Atlantic City, and his bootlegging associates are ambushed by the KKK. Chalky is effectively put out of business, though not before fatally shooting a Klansman, which in turn incites a mob of angry whites to seek revenge. In order to protect his associate and/or his interests, Nucky is forced to arrange Chalky’s arrest. Once released, Nucky prevails upon an enraged and humiliated Chalky to lay low. Nucky can’t be bothered to explain the finer details to Chalky but nonetheless expects his loyalty and trust. Chalky senses Nucky’s insincerity and resents his paternalism, but restrains himself — for the time being at least — because Nucky is his meal ticket and Nucky has the power to dispose of him at his leisure.

I thought about the Chalky-Nucky dilemma after speaking with three African-American friends  who, on separate occasions, made essentially the same appraisal of Occupy Wall Street: ‘No, thank you. It’s not my fight.’

One holds a leadership position at a diversity non profit, the other is getting a doctorate in the social sciences and has worked extensively in urban education, the third is a trained political scientist who has spent his career working with young black males.  They’re all aware of and passionate about social justice issues. They’re all sophisticated New Yorkers in their twenties and early thirties. On paper at least they should all be in support of the Occupation. In fact, not one of them had even stepped foot in Zuccotti Park.

When I pressed each of them for an explanation, a reason why they wouldn’t want to get out there and fight for the 99%, I got the same basic response. We’ve been taken before, they all said. Not this time.

In as much as there are Occupiers working to organize a black voice  in the movement and build community across racial lines,  the dubious history of cross-racial alliances can’t be overlooked. Whether it was Voting Rights, Labor Rights, Women’s Rights,  or Gay Rights, somehow, someway people of color always find their issues weigh stationed, their voices marginalized and their rights delayed for the sake of the “larger cause.” Even now, as the Occupy Movement drips into the mainstream discourse, the celebrity endorsers from the Left who are being called upon to voice their opinions and observations routinely cast the Occupation as leaderless and populist even though its image is decidedly white and its voice increasingly middle to upper-middle class. Absent are the calls for the end to the death penalty that jump-started the movement and AWOL are the demands  for criminal justice reform. Both issues have long had a crippling effect African American communities and carry considerable heft among concerned blacks. The popular outcry of the movement is now solely against corporate capitalism and the uneven distribution of wealth.

This is the first lesson the Occupiers should understand about black people like the ones  I’ve spoken to. It’s not that they aren’t sympathetic or supportive; it’s that, like Chalky White, they’re weary of being used when necessary only to be sold out when convenient. And it’s this deeply felt resentment of past betrayals coupled with a distrust of  fly-by-night white progressives dating back to the the Communist Party’s heyday — not a fear of police retaliation that’s keeping this movement from branching into black communities.

When Barack Obama  first appeared on the national scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention white and black Americans reacted to him differently. A significant slice  of white America fell instantly in love with the eloquent elocutionist.  In contrast, many black people, myself included, didn’t immediately jump on the Obama bandwagon. There were questions. Where did he come from? Who’s pushing him into the limelight? Why him? Even after he announced his candidacy for the presidency in early 2007, black Americans across class lines had questions. There was a kind of distrust then, too. Many resented the perception that they would vote for him simply because he was black. It took the emergence of Michelle, the historic Selma march, a resounding race speech and a host of other factors, plus plain old roll-up-your-sleeves work, to win black America’s heart. But once he won it, he had it. And still does.

This is the second lesson the Occupiers might heed. Black support and loyalty doesn’t come easy and cheap. Folks have been through too much. The wounds of racism are still too raw. The evidence of economic inequality is still too visible. They’ve been betrayed too many times. Their American travails have endowed black people with a discernment and discretion that has enabled their survival amid so much uncertainty. Of course, the danger of that discretion is that it can lead to apathy. But, when black folks do commit — and I believe that the longer the Occupy Movement lasts the greater the likelihood — history tells us they will give everything and then some.

After the third friend told me the Occupy Movement wasn’t their fight, I went back to Zuccotti Park. I wanted to look at the movement through their eyes. As I walked through the park I started to understand something that’s not easy to admit. I felt like an outsider. The Occupy Movement here in New York has a definite crunchy culture and hippy aesthetic that I  don’t identify with or fit in to. When I think about the movements that have defined the black resistance struggles here in the states —  Marcus Garvey’s Back-to-Africa Movement, the Montgomery Bus Boycotters, the Black Panthers, and the Nation of Islam to name a few — I think of style. I think of grandeur.  I think of audacious self representation. Whatever flaws those movements had, and there were many, they understood black people’s desire to associate with something noble. As insignificant as it may seem, anyone who has ever sought the support of black America has not only made a political statement, but a fashion statement as well.

The third and final lesson I would share with the Occupation Movement is that style matters to black people. For better and for worse, black folks are drawn to a vision of a better life. Notwithstanding the flashy lifestyle  you may see on t.v., that “better life” isn’t and historically hasn’t been wed to materialism. All people want to feel uplifted and inspired. Style is and has always been one of the ways black Americans express their dignity and power. Once black folks like my friends start seeing more people they can identify with not only in the mix but at the forefront, I’m willing to be they’ll start to tune in and show up.

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