What was the role of Latinos and immigrants during Occupy Wall Street? What role did immigration issues play as part of the demands of the occupiers? Participants, scholars, and journalists reconstruct the influence of Latinos and immigrants on Occupy.
This article originally appeared in Spanish. Lea la versión en español aquí.
On Sept. 17, a decade ago, Occupy Wall Street brought together locals, tourists, teachers, professors, high school and college students, people with experience as political organizers, and others who had only recently begun to join the ranks of protestors.
Among those first hundreds of participants who dared to gather in Zuccotti Park was Pablo Benson-Silva, who was at the time a Puerto Rican college student. “At first, when I received the notification I was skeptical of the ability to grow,” says Benson-Silva by phone, recalling that in the early days, few media outlets reported on Occupy Wall Street (OWS).
Mariano Muñoz Elías, who at the time already had some experience working with grassroots organizations, says that he knew something was being planned in the park but did not join immediately. The fear of being arrested or detained while he was not a citizen made him hesitate. So he preferred to wait, paying attention to what was going on, and two weeks later he joined.
According to Nathan Schneider, journalist and author of the book Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse, OWS was in many ways a school of politically-minded community organizing that evolved over time.
“Early on it was pretty narrowly focused on Wall Street and too often centered a white perspective—one in which the betrayal of the political system was recent, not ongoing. But over time that really changed, and many more diverse voices were present,” he said.
On this point about diversification, Benson-Silva agrees, although he points out that from the beginning, there were many contributions from foreigners. For example, a group of both Spanish university students and tourists with experience in the 15-M Movement (or Movimiento de los indignados), brought in the idea of organizing and developing a General Assembly, and activists from the Zapatista movement doing work in East Harlem also joined in, he recalled.
“In three days they were already there,” said Benson-Silva, who added that the Chilean student movement and the Arab Spring were other important sources of inspiration. The groups used the structure of an assembly, through which everyone helps make decisions without leaders or hierarchy in order to seek a sort of consensus.
During the first weeks of the Occupy gatherings, Spanish-speaking activists played an important role in the formation of the different groups and soon a Spanish-speaking table was set up, led first by Spaniards and then by Latin Americans. Soon an assembly was formed for Spanish speakers.
When Muñoz Elías joined, there was already a table for Spanish speakers and because of his experience working as an interpreter, he joined without a problem.
“It is important to emphasize that many of these activists, with their hearts in the right place, could be differentiated by class,” said Rosanna Rodríguez, co-executive director of the Laundry Workers Center. “From the beginning, the involvement of those activists came out of the Latino working class, who in many cases were university students.”
Ruth Milkman, who has studied both immigration and Latino political participation and unionization, says that despite not having studied in detail the participation and influence of Latinos and immigrants in Occupy Wall Street, in 2013 she found, along with Stephanie Luce and Penny Lewis, that “people of color were underrepresented among Occupy activists, who were largely white, college-educated and affluent.”
It was in mid-October 2011 that activists and organizers representing immigrants and organizing low-income workers came together and began holding meetings to expand the ranks and increase the participation of immigrant workers, “who suffered directly on a daily basis the consequences of the capitalist system from exclusion to labor exploitation,” Rodríguez explained.
Thus, she recalls, the Immigrant Justice Working Group was born. “The first demonstration organized by this group took place on Dec. 18, 2011, in celebration of Immigrant Day,” she said.
Milkman attended some of these meetings and for Schneider, they were also his first impressions. “For instance, my first time attending an immigration hearing was with Occupy activists,” he said.
Latinos and Latinas championed different causes, says Rodríguez: the right to human dignity; elimination of corporate investment in the prison system; labor rights; women’s rights; rights for undocumented immigrants such as regularization; rights for indigenous peoples inside and outsisde the U.S.; access to housing.
Rodríguez believes the contribution of the Latino and immigrant community was critical in energizing the movement, broadening their demands, and giving it an inclusive perspective that connected with the reality of millions of people.
“For example, the participation of workers from restaurants, warehouses, laundromats, supermarkets, and other industries helped many of the activists understand what those workers go through on a daily basis,” says Rodriguez, and Schneider agrees. “What I remember at first was most connected with labor rights, and then over time, as the Occupy vision expanded, it became easier to understand immigrant rights more broadly within it.”
OWS attracted immigrants, said Benson-Silva, because it was a space where the problems brought by globalization on multiple levels were at the center of the table, with talks on issues such as the implementation of the NAFTA agreement, the concentration of financial capital in the world and the erosion of democratic participation.
Milkman, however, believes that “immigrant rights was on the list of issues animating Occupy activists—but not a top priority.” Schneider agrees to a certain extent. “I think it [the immigration issue] wasn’t a top priority at first, but that thankfully changed. Those who fought to keep Occupy alive in 2012, in particular, came to deeply associate their struggle with the struggles of immigrants, and many of them were immigrants themselves.”
Rodríguez y Muñoz also believe that as more activists and people from the Latino and immigrant community became involved, the stronger the connection and demands for their rights became within the multiple groups, who at that time established a clear call for an amnesty for immigrants within Occupy.
The first iteration of OWS, which attracted thousands of people, came to an end on Nov. 15 when the New York Police Department evicted the Zuccotti Park residents’ encampments. In 2012 Occupy activists came out again to support an immigrant-led labor campaign led by the Laundry Workers Center. “By the end of that year , and [to a greater extent] by 2012, we could see the influence of that community,” Rodriguez says, referring to Latinos and immigrants.
On May 1, 2012, for example, Occupy supporters, labor unions and immigrant rights groups called thousands of supporters to a large congregation in Manhattan’s Union Square and a march to Wall Street.
Moreover, for those who occupied Wall Street, there was a relationship, “a kind of symbiosis” Muñoz called it, between Occupy and other demands that were brewing at the same time in the nation in terms of immigration issues.
“An added impact that had repercussions, in the local ID for undocumented people push; the Dreamers decision and the court-sanctioned DAPA [Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents] decision. The movement gave vigor or energy to an immigrant struggle movement that had been going on for many years and we saw that with concrete policies such as the ones mentioned,” said Rodríguez.
Milkman has studied the role of the Millennial generation, the political strategies and organizational forms of Occupy and Dreamer participants, but not the influence one may have had on the other. Among those who camped near Wall Street, however, there is a clear influence.
In retrospect, OWS mutated later and continued to generate new initiatives and other occupy actions in various parts of the city such as Occupy Sandy, Occupy Faith, Occupy Universities and Occupy Sunset Park, which supported a rent strike by a group of mostly immigrant tenants.
For Schneider, Occupy is best understood as global solidarity rather than just a local movement.
“People from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America were present at those early meetings, connecting their efforts to movements around the world.”
Ultimately, he said, “many people who might have entered with a white/U.S. citizen frame came to recognize that there is no economic justice without immigrant justice.”