Occupy the Hood: Why OWS Needs to Focus on Communities Like Harlem


Occupy Wall Street has ignored New York’s neediest in its fight against inequality. 

The faces of stark economic injustice are not downtown in Zuccotti Park, but uptown, stranded on Harlem’s street corners. Harlem's voices are not chanting against Wall Street, but are lulled into silence among fellow desperate men at unemployment centers.

Although New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s recent attempt to trample the OWS camp at Zuccotti Park sparked outrage among protesters, scenes of quiet desperation from outside the park show that dismantling the encampment is a necessary evil in order to push the movement to tap the bottom half of the 99%. As the park was overturned by the NYPD, the encampment's kitchen, phone-charging station, and comfort station filled with supplies showed that OWS protesters were simply pampered middle class workers play-acting poverty. Moving forward, OWS needs to not only mobilize the middle class in their protests, but also lower income communities as well. 

Within the Harlem community, OWS’ fight against inequality resonates with many, but after enduring a lifetime of poverty, it is hard to see how a two-month old movement could destabilize an age-old system. 

“You know what [Wall Street’s] doing? They’ve been doing it for years, and it’s criminal,” Asmar Ramson, an American Airlines worker who spends much of his time in Harlem between commutes said. “But it takes more than a few months or even a year of protesting [… ] to create change.”

Meanwhile, street vendor Mustaqeem Abdul-Azeem, who has been selling his wares in West Harlem for over a decade and is also a supporter of OWS, emphasized the fact that the Harlem community sympathizes with many of the financial issues at the core of the Occupy movement.

“Unemployment within the African American community is much higher than in other communities,” he said. However, this has been a fact of life for so long that he feels much of the community cannot muster the idealism to fight against it. “People feel that it doesn’t really affect them. They’re complacent,” he said. 

Beyond economics however, Abdul-Azeem asserted that Harlem’s lack of participation stemmed from social stigmas.

“As a black male, you know you really want to avoid the police,” he said. Unlike other Caucasian protesters, “If we get arrested, we won’t get released the next day.”

In fact, Ramson highlighted that social, not economic, issues were a top concern for the Harlem community. He explained that because many people had been dulled to the economic inequities, many are more concerned about persistent racial inequality. And although Ramson supports the basic premise of OWS protests, he admits that as a full-time worker, he simply cannot find the time to go down and support the protest.

“I work almost six days a week, 10 hours a day,” he said. “More than anything else, that’s what keeps me from going down there.”

There is no doubt that the Occupy Movement has the potential to enact long lasting change. But will it just be a reactionary movement for the middle class, awakening to a sudden realization of inequality? Or will it be a transformative movement that will inspire those mired in a broken system to join in the discussion? The middle class has historically been the primary agent of reform and change throughout U.S. history, from the 1920s progressive era reform movements to the 1960s anti-war movements. However, especially with Middle America shrinking dramatically in recent years, this modern economic reform movement may have to share the burden with those struggling most in society in order to continue to be a force in our political dialogue.

And the first step to doing exactly that is moving away from fetishizing Zuccotti Park, and instead spreading the principles of Occupy Wall Street to inspire people too disillusioned to fuel the revolution. For many of Harlem’s neediest it was not a question of support of the movement, but access to information about the movement.

“I’m not going down there, well, because I was born and raised here in Harlem. I don’t know what’s going on down there,” Warren Webb, a lifelong Harlem resident, said.

As Abdul-Azeem proclaimed, “We need to bring the movement here, and show people what we’re fighting for.”

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