Real Talk Q&A: Jeff Johnson Talks Occupy Movement and Black Folks
Does the Occupy Movement have our best interest at heart?
Protestors might have been evicted from New York City’s Zuccotti Park last week, but participants in the Occupy Movement are still making noise all over the world, from Oakland to Washington DC to Cape Town. While on the street accounts say that many of the occupations are short on a Black presence, a poll from NBC News/Wall Street Journal/TheGriot.com found that we support the movement more than the general population; 45% of Blacks have a positive view of the protests, versus 32% of all Americans. But does the Occupy Movement have our best interest at heart? We asked expert organizer Jeff Johnson, Chairman and CEO of the Jeff Johnson Institute for Urban Development, in this, the first of our Real Talk Q&As:
Loop 21: What is the mission of the Occupy Movement as you understand it?
Jeff Johnson: The mission of the Occupy Movement, as I see it, is for regular citizens, those that view themselves as people that want the best America possible, for the most amount of people possible, are protesting what they view to be control of not only the economy and finances, but power in many cases by the 1%.
Loop 21: How does this mission account for the needs of the African-American community?
Johnson: I think in a general way, those that are occupying fundamentally and symbolically represent fighting against a power structure that rules over most of us. And so if we were to say that African Americas are part of most of American people, I think we would say yes. I think in a more specific way, there isn’t a direct benefit for African Americans. But that’s only because I don’t think Occupy has been very specific with what they want to change. And until that happens, until there is a fundamental pragmatic and focused outcome that they’re fighting for, we won’t really know who Occupy is actually benefiting. And I think that there are those that want that sooner, rather than later, and I think I was initially was one of those people, but in hindsight, I think that the Occupy Movement, whether it’s Occupy Wall Street, or whether it’s Occupy Oakland, or whether it’s Occupy Minneapolis, has provided a space for people to become part of a movement that’s yet to be defined. And I think the potential in that is great, because right now, there’s nothing for these folks to argue about. They’re all there under the guise that we know that there is a power structure in place that is holding the majority of the American people in a place of oppression. And that’s what folks are agreeing upon. So I think that until there is a defined goal, a defined target, a defined strategy and a defined mission, we can’t begin to say who the Occupy Movement is really helping.
Loop 21: Do you think the needs of the white 99% are different from those of the Black 99%? If so, how?
Johnson: Well, I think that we are living in a day and time where trying to define issues solely along race is dangerous because I know wealthy Black folks, and I know poor Black folks, and I know middle-class Black folks, and all of them don’t want t he same things. So there is not this monolithic group of Black folks that are all sitting around wanting the same things. There is a pretty diverse African American Diaspora that has a very diverse set of goals. So I think there are things that would help poor Black folks that some wealthy Black folks aren’t interested in fighting for.
Loop 21: And when you say wealthy, you’re talking about the wealthy who still fall within the 99%, obviously, because the 1% is ridiculously exclusive.
Johnson: Well, sure, the 1% is ridiculously exclusive, however, when you start talking about the haves and have-nots, we would do ourselves a disservice if we were solely focusing on just the 1%. There are those who have huge access to wealth and resources that are not part of the 1%, but would side with the 1% before they sided with the 99%.
Loop 21: Let’s be the devil’s advocate: What would the mission need to look like in order to meet the needs of a large portion of that Black 99%?
Johnson: I’m not looking for the Occupy Movement to be the end all, be all to Progressives, to Black folks, to anybody. I think it’s one piece on the table, and we would do ourselves a disservice to stop looking for the flavor of the month movement to be the movement for everybody. We gotta play chess, not checkers, so there’s gotta be more than one piece on the table. So even as the Occupy Movement begins to define its focus is, it’s still not gonna be everything to everybody. It’s not gonna be everything to the 99%. It’s not gonna be everything to Black folks. It’s not gonna be everything to Progressives. It’s not gonna be everything to left-leaning Democrats. It is gonna be one piece on the table, that I think could be a pretty powerful piece if it’s organized and mobilized properly. But there are still other mechanisms, other organizations, other vehicles, other ideologies that have to be employed if at the end of the day, people that are disenfranchised wanna have what they need to be empowered.
Loop 21: So, if it were to meet its full potential, what would it look like in your eyes?
Johnson: No idea. And I say that only because, I think the power of this movement has been the organic nature of those that have occupied. I think that as the Occupy Movement begins to crystallize and become a little less ambiguous, the question will be, how many people that are African American and have a vision for African-American communities are at that table. And that will determine if that agenda, if that focus, if that strategy is going to benefit a portion or the masses of Black disenfranchised folks. At some point, there will be leadership. At some point, there will be a democratic process, at some point there will be infrastructure. It may be very unrigid, and continue to be very organic, but it will be there. And that will be the place where Black folks, or those that care about Black folks, are gonna have to be at the table in order for that movement to ultimately benefit our community.
Loop 21: What happens if we’re not at the table?
Johnson: Then we don’t benefit. And I think that it can be viewed as a missed opportunity, or it can be viewed as a catalyst for certain Black folks. And let’s be honest. Let’s throw something else out there. If we’re gonna be terribly honest, we have to admit that there have been plenty of left-leaning, Progressive-leaning movements movements that didn’t give a damn about Black people. And they’re brought together under the guise of this kumbaya, rainbow coalition that loves everybody, but at the end of the day, Black folks often get used as foot soldiers, but are never included in the overall mission of what needs to be accomplished. And so my hope would be that that doesn’t happen with this Occupy Movement. My hope would be that there are those that are conscientious enough to understand that if you’re truly fighting for the 99%, the 99% should be represented in the development of an agenda, and if it does happen, then we can use that as one of the pieces on our chess board to be able to mobilize folks in communities all over the country for change. If it doesn’t happen, then I hope it’s still used as a motivating factor that says, wait a minute, here’s another potential methodology of how to organize, and if we can’t occupy with other folks, we can occupy the hood ourselves.
Loop 21: You spoke to the fact that there have been other movements where it was clear that the needs of African Americans haven’t necessarily been considered. Can you discus a couple of those specifically? And how do you think our community was adversely affected?
Johnson: I think you can look at everything from suffrage to gay rights. There were women—Black women—that did not benefit from the suffrage movement. There are African American homosexuals, gay, lesbians, transgender people, that have not necessarily benefited from the vast resources of the larger LGBT community. Now, I think that suffrage is the better example. If we were looking for something that is a little bit more current, I don’t think that the entire gay rights movement is the best example. But I do think that if you use the HIV and AIDS movement, that the broader gay community has done a pretty good job of being able to ensure resources and to be able to ensure education within the broader gay community, and that has not necessarily filtered specifically to the Black gay community.
Loop 21: And in that case, I would venture to say that has adversely affected us, because when you look at the HIV infection rates, you have African-American women contracting this disease at a greater rate than anyone.
Johnson: Um-hmm. But I do think that if we’re going to be responsible, the question then becomes when do we have responsibility for our own movement? And we as a community can say that there have been some areas within the HIV-AIDS movement where we got comfortable. And as a result of that, how do you quantify which has been more detrimental? Has it been us being left out of the broader LGBT movement, or has it been us being less diligent than we should be in developing our own?
Loop 21: We very often use the phrase within the Black community about someone “letting us” do something. At what point do we stop waiting for somebody to let us do something and do it on our own?
Johnson: Now. It frustrates me, traveling around the country looking at brilliant, visionary, bright, aggressive young people and college students who are waiting for somebody else to give them a movement. And they’re pissed off about stuff. They’re angry about how schools look, what the prison industrial complex looks like, the flaws in the electoral political system, you name it, there’s an issue that they are concerned about. But seldom, or I should say there’s too few times, that I’ve seen us as a community looking to build a movement. And then when I do see us looking to actually address an issue, we’re more interested in it being a socially conscious weekend than we are a movement. And so it becomes a campaign where we can where t-shirts and show up at events and change our Facebook avatar, but not really entrench ourselves within a strategy that’s connected to institutional infrastructure that’s sustainable.
Loop 21: How can Blacks get more involved in this movement and tailor it to fit our needs? Or if you don’t think we should, then speak to how we should do it on our own.
Johnson: I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition. I think it’s a both/an proposition. I think that there are African-American people who have been involved regardless of the level in some of these Occupy Movements and I thank those people because they were moved to show up, and to stay, they would actively be involved in helping to determine the direction of where the Occupy Movement goes next. But I think there are a lot of people who haven’t occupied that don’t need to be involved in that. And they need to figure out three things: One, what is the thing that really moves them, what is the issue that they care about? Two, what is the area where they want to have impact on that issue? You know, when talking about education, education is huge. Do you care about per-pupil expenditure, do you care about teacher certification, do you care about the buildings that are kids are in, do you care about the curriculum? What’s the area where you want to have impact? And three, what do you have the capacity to do right now. So do you have the capacity to volunteer two hours a month because you’re crazy busy? Do you have the ability to write a $5 check? Do you have the ability to show up at PTA meetings? Do you have the ability to help hold teachers accountable? Do you have the ability to tutor? What do you have the capacity to do right now? And then do that. Because movements are not about some mystical, magical kind of transformation that individual people go to to be able to do stuff that they don’t know how to do right now. It’s regular people being willing to give what they have today and tomorrow and the day after that. And to connect with people that are willing to give what they have to give today, tomorrow and the day after that. And when enough people give what they have today, tomorrow and the day after that collectively, toward an agreed upon mission, that’s a movement. And I guess we need to just demystify that for a lot of people, because I think that they’re just waiting on the next coming of Martin Luther King, or Malcom X, or Medgar Evers, or Elijah Muhammad, or Fannie Lou Hamer or whomever else to come and move them to some emotional space where they believe that there is this reincarnation of the movements of the past, as opposed to in many cases what I think Occupy is doing, which is redefine the image of what kind of movement do we need right now and walk it.
Loop 21: When you’re saying that the people who do what to work with the Occupy Movement need to be a part of coming up with the solution, are you saying they should be trying to get into those leadership roles to shape the mission?
Johnson: No, I think that they have to be involved in whatever the next evolution of that movement is. I think the people that are there who are African Americans need to be engaged enough to be involved in whatever the next evolution of that movement is. And that’s the only way to make sure that their voice is heard. Because my guess is that it’s going to be a very democratic process, and as long as you continue to be involved, you have the ability to be heard. And I think that the only thing that they can do. But I’m not suggesting that Black people go down there and hijack ’em, and try to do a Lord of the Flies up in that piece and grab the conch! I just think that it is to continue to be involved, and continue to have a level of integrity to the spirit of that movement and the individuals that are there. And I think if they do that, then they will organically be involved in the next evolution and what it becomes. I just don’t want to see us imply that the Occupy Movement is the saving grace of everybody.
Loop 21: Is there anything else our readers need to know about the Occupy Movement?
Johnson: Do not allow this to be a movement that goes by without all of us questioning if we’re doing enough. I’ll be very honest, I have not once been moved to spend the night.
Loop 21: Why do you think that is, given your history of social activism?
Johnson: I think that because of my history in social activism, I’ve never been confused that we all have different roles. So I’m not tryna be a rook when I’m a knight. But I damn sure want to support the rooks. And so there are people who I’ve encouraged to go down there because they’ve been searching for what role they want to play. I’m not in a search process; I’m in a work process. And so I’m clear about what my role is right now. And so while I haven’t been moved to go down there, I’ve been inspired by the people that are there. And it inspired me to keep doing my job. And so that’s the thing that I hope that people don’t lose. This isn’t about do we all need to go and occupy. This is: Don’t we all need to be engaged in something? And figure out what that something is for you. Because you know everybody doesn’t have vision for movement, but you can still support it. So are you that person who might not have vision for movement, but you can write a check to fund somebody else that does? Are you a volunteer? Are you a leader? Are you somebody that wants to write for the movement? Are you somebody that wants to donate services? Are you somebody that’s just wiling to pray for somebody? I hope it’s more than that, but whatever it is. Can we at this moment say, while I may not be led to go occupy, I’m inspired by somebody that is willing to? And their inspiration has challenged me to figure out where I need to occupy. Is it the voting booth? Is it my kid’s school? Is it the prison? Is it engaging on some form of legislation? The biggest lost opportunity here would be if we don’t all realize that there’s a call for us to occupy somewhere.
What do you think about the Occupy Movement? Tell us in the comments.