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U.S.: Who is the 99 Percent? – Part 2

WASHINGTON, Oct 31 2011 (IPS) - While the Occupy movements sweeping the U.S. have become almost synonymous with democracy, consensus-based processes, human microphones and other symbols of unity, many populations in the country have felt isolated by the language and tactics of the movement.

Demonstrators with the Occupy Seattle Movement march through downtown, ending with a rally in front of the Bank of America headquarters.  Credit:  Tyler Stringfellow/IPS

Demonstrators with the Occupy Seattle Movement march through downtown, ending with a rally in front of the Bank of America headquarters. Credit: Tyler Stringfellow/IPS

Immigrants have struggled to participate, since the occupations have taken place almost exclusively in urban centres, while huge swathes of immigrants work in rural, agricultural locations.

However, Erik Nicholson, a spokesperson for United Farm Workers, a union representing 27,000 workers, told IPS that there was still widespread support for the movement among the immigrant community.

“We’re by definition a transnational organisation, since the overwhelming majority of our members out in the fields are immigrants who were forced to flee the devastating impacts of the same economic policies that the occupied movement is protesting here in the U.S.,” Nicholson told IPS.

“Policies like NAFTA caused a huge exodus of corn farmers from Mexico in the 1990s, who came to the U.S. in search of jobs. Now these workers are labouring in appalling conditions.”

A Forgotten Occupation

The use of the word "occupation" has been deeply troubling to native Hawaiians, many of whom are fighting for an end to the ongoing U.S. military occupation of the islands.

Lanakila Manguil, a public school Hawaiian studies teacher in Honoka'a who is known on the Big Island as a community speaker and chanter, told IPS, "The 'Occupy' movement is looking for equal opportunities for the Western world – but our fight as indigenous people is to get away from the Western world."

"Our ancestors didn't want this lifestyle," he added. "They didn't want this world of money. That's why almost 95 percent of native Hawaiians voted against the annexation of their lands, because we saw how money came down to controlling land and resources."

"We are fighting for independence because this Western way of life is actually killing us. Here in Hawaii our homeless rates are skyrocketing – close to 75 percent of the state's homeless are native Hawaiian families," he added.

"The U.S. government is spending millions to maintain the military occupation, while schools and after school programs are closing."

Manguil called attention to the Mauna Kea Movement, a native struggle to prevent the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) Corporation from building a 34,000 square foot, 18-stories-tall telescope on sacred Hawaiian land.

According to KAHEA, the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, "Mauna Kea is ceded land – part of the 1.8 million acres of the Hawaiian Kingdom transferred to the U.S. after its annexation."

In 1968, the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) leased all Mauna Kea land above 9,200 feet to the University of Hawaii, which sub-leases it to telescope companies and observatories, despite the fact that the summit is revered by indigenous groups. Not only Hawaiians but many peoples of the Pacific call this peak the "pinnacle of prayer". It is considered to be a meeting place of the gods and is home to extremely rare and endangered species, besides being the only tropical alpine desert in the world.

Despite months of staunch opposition by native activists and environmentalists, in February the BLNR granted TMT the necessary approval to build the gigantic telescope – the second largest in the world – atop the peak.

"This is what happens under occupation," Manguil told IPS. "This project, which totally disrespects the ancestry and beliefs of our peoples, has been driven entirely by greed. It is disgusting that it has been allowed to happen."

"So this is our struggle. I can only agree with the other Natives who are going down to Wall Street and reminding people that this is already occupied land," he said.

“California has seen at least two more deaths in the fields this year. Growers fail to provide workers with shade or water, and they are literally dropping dead from the heat,” he added. “But these tragedies happening out in the field are not disconnected from Wall Street. Unprecedented amounts of venture capital are being poured into U.S. agriculture with impossible promises on returns in a highly volatile industry.”

“Less than two weeks ago we had a demonstration against Darigold, a large corporation that markets milk at a dairy where workers employed on the dairies endure horrendous treatment,” Nicholson said. “The Occupy Seattle movement joined that protest, which represented a great coming together of two movements.”

“We have to acknowledge the incredible levels of fear within immigrant communities – when they leave their homes in the morning, they have no idea whether they’ll come home at night or get caught up in the dragnet of the draconian new anti-immigration laws in the country,” he added.

“Yet they have still come out in support of the occupy movement because it represents a real moment for mass action, it has brought together such diverse struggles and it’s continuing to grow. We need to keep doing the work we’ve always done, keep moving and keep looking for ways to link up,” he added.

‘All Day, All Week, Decolonise Wall Street’

Days after Occupy Wall Street published its “One Demand” statement, a blogger named JohnPaul Montano wrote an open letter to the occupiers, expressing concern with the language of the 99 percent.

The letter said, “I had hoped that you folks fighting for justice and equality would make mention of the fact that the very land upon which you are protesting does not belong to you – that you are guests upon that stolen indigenous land.”

“I had hoped that you would address the centuries-long history that we indigenous peoples of this continent have endured, while you claim to be building a ‘land of freedom’ on top of our indigenous societies, on our indigenous lands, while destroying and/or ignoring our ways of life,” the blogger added.

A few weeks later, Julian Padilla, currently the point-person for the educational sub-committee of the people of colour working group (POC WG) in New York City, published a flyer detailing the fact that, in 1685, the Dutch West India Company forced enslaved African peoples to build a wall between white traders and Native Americans, who were still fighting for their land from settler colonists, in what is now lower Manhattan.

That wall secured space for traders to buy and sell their shares “until they formalized the practice through the founding of the New York Stock Exchange in 1792.”

On a protest march several days later, Padilla, along with other organisers, attempted to change the crowd’s chant from “All day, all week, occupy Wall Street” to “All day, all week, decolonise Wall Street”, but their efforts were largely in vain.

“Most people don’t want to confront the basic fact that we indigenous peoples were the first victims of all the treachery that’s going on around here (on Wall Street),” Joseph, a member of the American Indian movement, told IPS.

“People don’t want to use the real words associated with this place: genocide, murder, torture, rape, slavery,” he added.

“I hear people talk about Jim Crow, about segregation, how people had to use different doors to get inside cafes. Well let’s not forget that the native Indian people had no doors open to them at all.”

Regardless of his frustration, Joseph is willing to stick it out on Wall Street. His table in Zuccotti Park, stacked with historical and contemporary political literature, receives little attention from the swarming crowd, but he is determined.

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” he told IPS. “If you want to be a part of something, or shape it, you have to jump right in and do it for yourself. It takes time for the grassroots to grow,” he added.

However, the effort to give historical context to the occupy movement is by no means a lost cause.

Earlier this week organisers in Albuquerque decided to rename their protest “(Un)Occupy Albuquerque” out of respect for New Mexico’s active and vocal indigenous population and to connect the dots between capitalist expansion and the movement for land rights in the area.

A sit-in participant in Albuquerque wrote in the Daily Kos last week, “For New Mexico’s indigenous people, ‘Occupy’ means 500 years of forced occupation of their lands, resources, cultures, power, and voices by the imperial powers of both Spain and the United States. A big chunk of the 99 percent has been served pretty well by that arrangement.”

“Occupying space is not inherently bad, it’s all about who and how and why,” Padilla told IPS. “When white colonisers occupy land, they don’t just sleep there over night, they steal and destroy. When indigenous people occupied Alcatraz Island it was (an act of) protest.”

“To occupy means to hold space, and I think a group of anti- capitalists holding space on Wall Street is powerful, but I do wish the NYC movement would change its name to ‘decolonise Wall Street’ to take into account history, indigenous critiques, people of colour and imperialism,” he added.

*This story is the second of a two-part series about the influence of race, colour and class in the U.S. Occupy movements.

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