The problem with ‘occupation’ in the occupy movement

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Early indian map
Map of indigenous tribes, cultures and languages produced by the Smithsonian in 1967.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The momentum continues to build over Occupy Wall Street and other regional “Occupy” movements.  People concerned with losing their jobs and homes are converging with others whose interests lie in ending militarism abroad and police brutality at home, protecting the environment, and education.  Even as the movement swells, however, many who have long been at the fore of these struggles are once again alienated by this mass mobilization.

From Lenape land to Dakota to Ohlone – and places in between – the “Occupy” movements of Wall Street, Minnesota and Oakland (respectively) have effectively shut out the engagement of indigenous activists who would otherwise be involved.  While the term “occupy” may hold a sense of claiming liberated space for those who decided on the name, for others invested in the decolonization of indigenous lands it is an indication of the lack of self awareness of the settler mentality leading the movement.

Even while some indigenous activists are involved with the current movement, there are still many others who are alienated by it.  As JohnPaul Montano, Nishnaabe blogger, writes in An Open Letter to the Occupy Wall Street Activists

On September 22nd, with great excitement, I eagerly read your “one demand” statement. Hoping and believing that you enlightened folks fighting for justice and equality and an end to imperialism, etc., etc., 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. 

Montano goes on to describe his disappointment when finding that no such acknowledgement was mentioned in the declaration. 

Similarly, other indigenous writers on the subject have asserted that, by not putting at its fore the politics of de-colonization, the “Occupy” movement is continuing the violence of occupation while posturing the politics of social justice for all. 

Just as the demographic of participation varies based on location, so does the awareness of and dialogue around white supremacy and imperialism.  Albuquerque took a departure from the established norm and uses “(Un)Occupy” as their name, in order to reflect a consciousness of First Nations’ struggles.  On November 18th in Santa Fe, a proposed Statement of Solidarity with Indigenous Peoples was brought to the General Assembly for adoption.  [It is unconfirmed at this time if the statement was ratified].  There is proof on the Chicago discussion forum at that there was concern about the name, but after October 29th there are no further comments.  That these instances of dialogue exist is hopeful; that there is no critical mass to provoke social change around white supremacy and imperialism, troubling. 

Some white activists complain that raising the issues of broken treaties and institutionalized racism is divisive, and deflects from the more “real” concerns of housing, poverty and education.  For indigenous people and people of color in this country, those real concerns are part and parcel of living in a society where economic disparity runs down color lines.  Indigenous people experience the highest rates of poverty, rape, and the lowest life expectancy of any ethnic group. 

If material concerns are placed at the core of a political framework, with racism and genocide seen as mere symptoms, then it becomes clear that the struggle prioritizes the welfare of white people.  This scenario has been played-out time and again: the newly under-privileged seize the reins of a long battle, steer it towards short-term goals, then disembark at the first sign of oasis — leaving the most marginalized to re-gain their footing for the continued struggle.  The question remains: Why, in a moment of global social uprising, do we limit our own impact by maintaining a status quo (read: white supremacy) within our movement?

One conclusion is that problems of internal cohesion in the face of police brutality prevent a framework to emerge that focuses on racism and genocide as systemic issues.  But as Dr. Waziyatawin, Dakota activist, scholar and writer, points out in her address to Occupy Oakland: the barriers to justice we face today are rooted in the brutality of colonialism.  In a graphic recounting of state and civilian violence by Dutch settlers against the Wappinger Confederacy and Hackensack Peoples during the initial occupation of “Wall Street”, she contextualizes for activists the legacy of this flawed system we live under:  “If you feel like you have been dispossessed, if you feel like you have been metaphorically ‘skinned alive’ by an inhumane system, remember that it is indigenous people who experienced that first on these lands”.  We can learn that, despite the day-to-day obstacles of maintaining a mass mobilization, the integrity of the movement – and therefore its success – must address the woes of capitalism via addressing imperialism first.

Montano concludes his article with four suggested demands for the “Occupy” movement to place on the U.S. government, ones that he says would initiate the needed steps towards “fixing” the path this movement is on: 

1) Acknowledge that the U.S. is a colonial country, a country of settlers, built upon the land of indigenous nations; and/or… 

2) Demand immediate freedom for indigenous political prisoner Leonard Peltier; and/or… 

3) Demand that the colonial government of the United States of America honor all treaties signed with all indigenous nations whose lands are now collectively referred to as the “United States of America”; and/or… 

4) Make some kind of mention that you are indeed aware that you are settlers and that you are not intending to repeat the mistakes of all of the settler do-gooders that have come before you. In other words, that you are willing to obtain the consent of indigenous people before you do anything on indigenous land. 

For people active in the Palestine liberation movement – as allies in solidarity or as Palestinians living in Diaspora – who are also engaged with the growing “Occupy” movement, I believe we can deepen our work by heeding this call.  We know that the colonization of Palestine was modeled after that of the U.S. and Canada.  We know that the reservation system here is a prototype for conditions of refugees in camps on the West Bank and the outdoor prison that is Gaza.  Most people versed in the origins of modern political Zionism know that Theodor Herzl was inspired by the methods used against indigenous peoples here. Moreover, it is the same economic and military institutions that enforce continued occupation of indigenous peoples, here and in Palestine. 

It’s easy to draw the connections between the occupation of Palestine and the colonization of lands on this continent, and the parallels seem endless.  Likewise, the continuity is strong when we respond to the 2005 BDS call from Palestinian civil society in conjunction with the demands for justice here.  Because of this, I urge those of us in the Palestine liberation and “Occupy” movements to take this stand: 

Just as we call on Israel to end its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantle the Wall, we too must call for Indigenous sovereignty over ancestral lands of this continent. 

Just as we call on Israel to recognize the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality, we must demand, and work for, the end of institutionalized racism in the U.S. and the end to continued acts of genocide towards indigenous people here. 

Just as we call for the Palestinian Right of Return, we call for the end to the reservation system on this continent – with the acknowledgement of and reparations for the hundreds of treaties broken by the United States government against indigenous nations.   

This moment in time holds the potential for real, systemic change.  With so many peoples’ struggles interconnected, the possibilities are great.  By broadening our scope to include everyone, we are able to hone-in more clearly on our targets: the end of imperialism, the return of lands to sovereign indigenous nations, and a life of health and dignity for all human beings and the planet.

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