Speaking Up and Listening: From Wall Street to New Orleans

by Amy Wolfe

In the past few days and for the first time in my life, I simultaneously lost and found my voice. I’ve never had laryngitis before. Usually it is hard to hear what I’m saying, because I’ve got a low, mumbly voice, and when I stand up in front of people and talk, I start blushing fast and my hands shake. Counter to this, I am also a very argumentative and opinionated person. The past few days I’ve had occasion to do several things that scare me in front of a whole lot of people, and there’s something about having a raspy, scratchy, squeaky voice that has made it so much easier. Last night I told my roommates, “I feel tougher! Like, this is how I actually sound on the inside!”

And the past few days have felt like months. Occupy Wall Street is gathering supporters faster than anyone can believe, and here in New Orleans we’re just starting up. I write this on Friday, October 7th, 2011, the eve of Yom Kippur. Five days ago was the first general meeting to start up Occupy NOLA. I knew something important must be going on, because it drew two hundred people to a sunny park at noon during a Saints game. Yesterday was the first march, and the beginning of the Occupation in Duncan Plaza, across from City Hall. This feels like déjà vu to a lot of us; in 2007, a group of people fighting for public housing and homeless rights occupied Duncan Plaza for about a year before they were forcibly removed by the police. In that time, what began as maybe six tents, became three or four hundred people. The plaza is beautiful, in a very city-specific way. It has a huge gazebo in the middle, winding paths all around, and several rolling green hills. It is between the city hall, the large public library, and Tulane Avenue, all within the shadow of the locked and empty Charity Hospital, where all of New Orleans’ un-insured and under-insured got their healthcare Pre-Katrina. The plaza is often full of all sorts of characters and law enforcement types, like most city parks I’ve known.

This time, I cycled through the emotions of planning a political action (excitement, criticism, panic, despair, doom, resolve, hope) faster than anyone has reason to. It was clear to me early on that, as in NYC and other cities with an Occupy movement, no one reached out to street medics or other medical support to make sure someone is on top of keeping people safe. I’m certainly no expert, seasoned medic, but I have training and lots of experience in healthcare and in organizing, and this lack of planning rattled me. The values of street medicine are as strong to me as are antiracist principles- for the first, do no harm, know your limits, always have a buddy, get consent first, fight the power, and don’t depend on the health system unless you have to. For the second, learn from history, listen when people of color tell you about their lived experiences, believe them, be accountable and do what you say you’re going to do, think about the actual impact much more than the intention of your actions, fight racism in person and in public.

A young woman I recently met said to me the other day, “Life starts at the edge of your comfort zone, baby!” I have to admit that she’s right. As terrifying as it was to take on organizing a health and safety training before a big protest where we had every reason to expect police violence (given the recent history of the NOPD and what’s been happening in other cities), it was powerful. I really don’t like to be in the spotlight, for several reasons: I’m a woman and I’m scared of getting shut down for being visible, I’m white and I’m used to being able to be invisible when I want to, and I’m just plain shy, as well. From the hindsight of a couple days, I can see that it was important to stand up for what I believe in, which is creating a culture where as many of us as possible take responsibility for taking care of each other, without waiting for someone else to do it.

And I never would have expected to speak up in front of the several hundred people gathered for the first real General Assembly last night. It was starting to be twilight, the crickets were loud, and mysteriously, in a classically New Orleans manner, the long grassy hill on which we all sat was the only place in the park where the streets lights didn’t work. Ambulances, sirens wailing, went back and forth every few minutes from University Hospital to the rest of the city. The facilitator was a man who had just flown in the night before from NYC to visit his family in the South, and to help get the process rolling in New Orleans. As the meeting started he explained to us about all these newfangled activist hand signs to keep things orderly. The fingers wiggling up, the fingers wiggling down, the thumbs and index fingers steepled, and then some sort of an index finger point-and-swirl that I’m still unclear about. Just for pizzazz? Anyway, he taught us about the process of “people’s mic.” It is incredible to experience in person. When people want to speak, they stand up if they’re able to, and say about three words. The people nearby repeat them, and then the speaker says another three words, and so on. It feels so incredible, because in a funny way, the words are out there in the world and you’re acting as a microphone to say them, so it doesn’t matter if you agree or disagree. You own those words. By extension, you are responsible for the person who says them– it becomes much harder to distance yourself from the human emotions and opinions that you’re repeating. At least until someone says something that makes you really mad, and you stand up, and then you have to hear your own scratchy voice amplified by two hundred people.

What made me mad enough to stand up last night occurred during a discussion about non-violence and how we would like to identify our movement. We talked about internal and external violence and about the use of self-defense. When someone from the crowd asked, “Are we considering property destruction violence?” the facilitator from NYC responded, “For the purposes of this discussion, yes.” Y’all, I’m not out there lighting cop cars on fire, (though I am full of huge compassion for the anger and frustration of the people who are), but it made me mad because one thing I can’t stand is when facilitators, who have a responsibility to guide the process of collective decision-making, get confused and think their responsibility is to call the shots. It’s an easy mistake: you’re up there, in front of a lot of people, with almost everyone listening to every single thing you say, and following your directions. I understand that it can be confusing. So I stood up and said, with my voice shaky and my face all red in the dark, “So, if we’re going to stick to this process: when someone asks a question, like, ‘Do we consider property destruction violence?’ it’s not appropriate for a facilitator to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. This is a group decision about definitions, and it’s really important.”

I know this is what I said because I read it in the meeting minutes this morning. Otherwise I really wouldn’t be sure; I was that nervous. If you’re an extrovert, it might sound like a small thing. For me it was a big thing, because I really, really don’t like to get up in front of people and do anything. And if I had a hard time speaking, I can only imagine the alienation people would feel who have had their voices shut down and their realities dismissed for much of their lives. A little while later, once we moved to a part of the park with the lights on, the facilitator apologized and said that he thought we might do things differently in New Orleans, but he would step back so we could do things the way we needed to do them. After that, three women co-facilitated the rest of the GA. Would that have happened as easily if a group of radical South Asian activists in NYC hadn’t fought to get language in a central document changed, and then hadn’t written about it publicly? I think that we’re seeing the ripple effects of them holding the NYC process accountable for history and language, and I think we in New Orleans can take that and run with it.

Because, if we are tearing down this system and building something better, we really need to be careful about who’s speaking for us, and who’s deciding what we represent. This process is a lot of things: boring, painful, silencing, alienating, exhilarating, creative, new, and totally wild… but whatever happens, it has to come from us.

All this is to say, we are already in a position in New Orleans to learn from Occupy Wall Street, after less than three weeks. Because of how fast this thing is taking off, and how many new cities are getting involved every day, there are already lessons we can learn: Lessons about planning for medical support as soon as the idea to organize something big leaves your mouth and goes to the ear of another fired-up person. Lessons about not ignoring the concerns of people of color, because all of a sudden it “Holds up the process.” (Seriously? The most time-consuming process in the entire world is consensus, but when someone wants to call out the racism in a collective document, moving on in a new and important “timely manner” is more urgent?) Lessons about police infiltration, police violence, and taking ourselves, our collective power, and the threat we pose to the system seriously enough to be ready for whatever happens. And lessons about how, when the issues at hand are relevant to enough people’s lives, and when the resistance feels life-giving and fun, people will show up by the thousands.

When I moved here from my home of NYC in early 2006 to help with the post-Katrina relief effort, I never expected to stay. But there were so many new challenges in organizing for justice here, and for the first time in my life, there were so many people willing to teach me. Because of what’s happened here and what we’ve learned from it, many people in this city know how to transform sexist and racist group dynamics that shut so many people down, and that keep our campaigns small and ineffective. Many people in the city know how to handle charismatic, disorganizing activist leaders. Once I reached out, medics in other parts of the country offered advice and resources to pull things together quickly for effective training. People of color here have created alliances between communities, from undocumented Latino workers to Black New Orleanians to Vietnamese youth, on all kinds of issues, from workers’ rights to LGBT justice to police brutality to fighting environmental racism. My intergenerational, white antiracist community has been responsive, supportive, and critical in the best way, and has truly been showing up to help each other do this work and stay engaged.

So I want to see this be a movement where, instead of someone saying, “How can we acquire more diversity?” almost everyone is saying, “Who isn’t here? Who doesn’t have a voice in this movement? And if they’re not making decisions with the rest of us, are we fighting for their rights as hard as we’re fighting for our own?” We need to talk about racism and antiracism, not in a way that centers whiteness, not in a way that’s about activist street-cred, not in a way where whoever is more critical wins, but in a way that makes the Occupy movement as relevant as it should be.

In New Orleans, this could be the movement that reinvigorates the struggle for the right to return of folks still displaced more than six years after Katrina, the right to public and affordable housing; the struggle that undoes the gutting of the public education system, that adds supporters to the fight to end to the highest incarceration rate in the world and one of the most brutal police forces documented, and that builds the kind of healthcare that actually addresses health disparities and helps people and communities get better. I want to see us acknowledge that systemic racism is real, that even if our economics look the same, our lived experiences can be so different, and I want us to stop letting our wish for sameness erase the voices that can tell us how to fight.

So tonight, at a synagogue in uptown New Orleans, I was struck once again, as I am so often, by the radical content of a central prayer in Judaism. The Amidah literally means “standing”, and it offers praise to God for supporting those who are falling, healing those who are sick, freeing those who are bound, and keeping the faith with all those who sleep in the dust. These are the rights that we’re fighting for. This is why we need to redistribute the wealth in this country so badly. To do all of these things, you need to be able to hear it when someone tells you they’re suffering, that their life is different from yours. Right now in Occupy NOLA we are just at the very beginning. We know what we’re fighting against, but we’re only just starting to articulate what we’re fighting for. We have so much potential, and I hope we can keep our minds and hearts wide open for the long haul.