OCCUPY MOVEMENT FAILS TO CONNECT WITH BLACKS
By Joe Garofoli
Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School is just a few blocks from the former Occupy Oakland encampment in Frank Ogawa Plaza and not far from Occupy demonstrations at the Port of Oakland.
But to King parents like Charlene Adams, the Occupy movement couldn't be farther away from her West Oakland neighborhood. And the reasons behind that distance help explain a disconnect between the larger Occupy Wall Street movement and the African American community.
Adams and other King parents who stop by the school on Fridays for doughnuts and coffee sympathize with the core premise of the Occupy movement - that the American dream is slipping away because of the nation's wealth inequality - but they don't plan to join it. That crisis point, which drove Occupiers to the streets this fall, has been a part of the West Oakland residents' lives as long as they can remember.
Few Bay Area neighborhoods feel the impact of that inequality more those who live in this predominantly African American neighborhood in the shadow of the downtown skyscrapers.
"Why don't people come out here and Occupy about the violence in our neighborhood?" said Adams, a 44-year-old project manager at a substance-abuse clinic. Every Saturday, she and other members of her church stand on street corners and hold signs asking people to "Stop the Violence."
The unemployment rate among blacks in California is double the rate among whites in the state. At the 285-student King Elementary, 76 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches because their family income is so low. Only 25 percent of students there are performing at least proficiently in English on statewide standardized tests. Street violence is a constant threat.
King parents such as Markel Abram say their kids are afraid to leave their homes lately. They're worried about somebody coming through their neighborhood to retaliate for a Nov. 28 shooting that killed 1-year-old Hiram Lawrence and wounded six others. A rally they held recently was a vigil for Hiram and the others.
WHAT'S IT ACCOMPLISH?
Abram, who often works construction jobs, doesn't understand how shutting down the city's port hurts the wealthiest 1 percent in this country.
"But shutting down the port for a day, you're just hurting all the people who work there the most," Abram said.
"There's no debate about what the 1 percent is all about," said Njelela Kwamilele, the PTA president at King Elementary. "But what I disagree with are the tactics" of the Occupy movement.
She criticized the anarchist-led vandalism after several Occupy events in Oakland that has led in part to the city spending at least $1.1 million extra in police costs.
"Why don't you stop destroying our city? That $1 million could have been a jobs program," Kwamilele said.
There have been few demographic studies of the Occupy movement, which varies by city and whose membership is fluid. A Fordham University survey in October of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators in New York City's Zuccotti Park found that 68 percent were white and 10 percent were African American. A Fast Company study of visitors to the online hub occupywallst.org found only 1 percent to be black.
Boots Riley, one of the more prominent Occupy Oakland organizers, is African American, and Occupy events in West Oakland and other predominantly black communities have been focused around foreclosure issues.
That aside, said James Taylor, associate professor of political science at the University of San Francisco and an expert on African American studies, there is "a disconnect" between the larger black community and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
For African Americans, the response to the Occupy movement is " 'Where have you been all this time when we've been in crisis? And now you feel the pain that has been routinized for us. And now you want us to form alliances with you?' " said Taylor.
That disconnect, Taylor said, "undermines its longevity and its sincerity."
Part of the gap may be based on perceptions. A study of "Americans and Race in the Age of Obama," released Monday by Berkeley's Greenlining Institute, found that 16 percent of whites "believe that there is a lot of discrimination in America today" compared with 56 percent of blacks and 26 percent of Latinos.
A DIFFERENT FOCUS
There have been some efforts to bridge the gap. In Chicago, New York and elsewhere, a fledgling Occupy the Hood movement is calling attention to problems in the African American community.
Occupiers could attract more African Americans by organizing around different issues, said Phillip Jackson, who has chronicled Occupy the Hood events in Chicago and other cities.
"If they'd talk about" low-performing schools in black neighborhoods, Jackson said, black people would say, " 'Wow, now they're talking to us.' "
"But if you're saying, 'Wall Street hasn't been fair to us' - most African American folks are going to say, 'What does that mean to us?' " Jackson said.
Taylor offered another idea: "When the next drive-by happens in East Oakland, will the mostly white-led Occupy movement march down to East Oakland at the spot of the violence?
"If you had 150 young white kids go down to 82nd and MacArthur and put their tents there," Taylor said, "that would truly be a transformative moment for the community and the movement."
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