Occupy Wall Street's Message Doesn't Resonate with All of the 99%

Saturday, November 05, 2011

The Spanish Information booth, Zuccotti Park. (Janet Babin/WNYC)

Occupy Wall Street protesters say they represent the 99 percent of the population that’s not wealthy. It’s a big percentage, and includes all kinds of people and income levels. But while Occupy Wall Street may have sparked a global protest, the message has failed to resonate in some of New York’s poorest communities.

Tanya Rodriguez, 17, lives in public housing on Avenue D in Manhattan, just a few miles away from Wall Street.  Still, for her, the protests feel far away.

“Not to sound racial, but white people, they’re high class, they have money, they got good jobs, and they’re the ones fighting for more money,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t understand why more African Americans and Latinos are not there.”

Rodriguez also avoided Zuccotti Park because she’d heard it’s not a safe place for teenage girls to be. Still, she connects with issues like finding money for college and then getting a good job after graduation.

She said many of her neighbors stay away in part, because they don’t speak English. But you do hear Spanish spoken at the protests. There’s even a Spanish information desk. It’s headed up most days by volunteer Pablo Benson. He works as an adjunct professor at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University. Benson said he has been at Occupy Wall Street since the second day. While he says their numbers are growing, he does find a disconnect between protesters in Zuccotti Park, and members of the Latino community. Some Latinos see too many white faces in the crowd, and have shrugged off the protests as something for young white kids.

“One thing I think has kept the Spanish community away from the park is miscommunication,” Benson said. “A lot of people unfortunately are undocumented or are in a nebulous legal area and they fear police reprisal.”

For poor and working class people, the issue may be finding the time to protest. Juan Haro is the director of Movement for Justice in El Barrio. The group helps East Harlem residents with landlord and tenant issues. “Our community is extremely impoverished. On average our members earn $10-thousand dollars a year,” Haro said. He said when people finish a long working day, they want to spend time with their families, and don’t have time to go protest, or stay overnight. Haro said that’s a big barrier to participation in the protests.

That’s the explanation East Harlem resident Maria Mercardo offered for not spending more time at Occupy Wall Street. Mercardo is a single mother with two kids, ages 15 and 12. She also cares for her ailing 82-year-old mother who lives with Mercardo.  In addition to her family responsibilities, Mercardo works three part-time jobs to make ends meet for her family. She works the lunch room at a public school on 96th street, gives pedicures to people in their homes and she cleans other people’s houses. Mercardo said family responsibilities and her various jobs have kept her from spending more time at the protests. She said she would like to talk to them though, “to explain to them the sacrifices I make for my family,” she said.  Mercardo said then protesters would have a better idea of what they are fighting for.

Other low income communities are preoccupied with keeping neighborhoods safe from shootings and drug dealers. They don’t have time to be as concerned with economics.

Assemblywoman Vanessa Gibson, whose district is part of the 16th congressional district, which is the poorest in the nation, according to recent U.S. Census figures. She said Zuccotti Park protesters need more diversity in their ranks. “There are not enough people of color and people from lower class families there. And the reality is that many of these families need to survive, so they don’t have time to invest in remaining down there.” Gibson said.

(Photo: Assemblywoman Gibson, wearing a red shawl, and others at a peace vigil in the Bronx./Janet Babin for WNYC)

Her district had four shootings, in September alone, that destroyed a number of families. A peace vigil held earlier this week was meant to raise awareness and attract more police officers to the area.   People in communities such as this have mentioned the large police presence in Lower Manhattan in contrast to their neighborhoods.

Occupy Wall Street protesters may have just discovered societal inequities they rail against, but they’ve been everyday occurrences in minority communities for decades. Columbia University Professor Ted Shaw, a former chief of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said, “The kind of unemployment rates that now the entire country is facing have been commonplace in the black community so in many respects people have become inoculated to it in black and brown communities.”

There have been a few attempts to identify the makeup of the protesters in Zuccotti Park. One study from Baruch College instructor Hector R. Cordero-Guzman, Pd.D., questioned visitors to the Occupy Wall Street website. It concluded that a diverse group of Americans backs the protest. But the study did not consider who is participating in the protests.

The makeup of the protesters could change in the next few days anyway. The Occupy Wall Street has planned a number of events in coming days to reach out to poor people and people of color. A group of protesters will meet with Latinos in East Harlem on Monday, to listen to the community. Also on Monday, Black and Latino community members plan to complete an 11-mile march through Manhattan. They say the march will showcase the places where the 99 percent live, and help to bridge the gap between the two entities.

Janet Babin/WNYC
The Spanish information desk at Zuccotti Park.
Janet Babin/WNYC
Pablo Benson mans the Spanish information desk at Zuccotti Park.
Janet Babin/WNYC
The Spanish Information booth, Zuccotti Park.
Janet Babin/WNYC
Bronx residents at peace rally on Sedgwick Avenue
Janet Babin/WNYC
Saundra Blakeney at Bronx peace vigil.
Janet Babin
Assemblywoman Vanessa Gibson at peace vigil in the Bronx.


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Comments [14]

Sujatha Fernandes from New York

I think that this article is very myopic and ignores the important and exciting OWS organizing taking place all over Harlem. See my recent article in the Huffington Post on why poor and working class people in Harlem see OWS as relevant to them:

Nov. 14 2011 08:55 PM
jbk from nyc

I can't count the ways this article offends me. Makes me sorry that I just signed up as a member. The disconnect between the head and the body of the article... the suggestion that OWS' is recklessly requiring NYPD to neglect the Bronx in order to babysit spoiled white kids. Being white does not mean you come from an advantaged home anymore than being black means you're a criminal. "Some Latinos see too many white faces in the crowd"? Please tell me that it's the reporter who's bigoted, and not the latinos.
I don't really care if OWS doesn't rep the 99%, and I don't think it matters.

Nov. 06 2011 02:22 PM
Nick from 11232

I think this piece misses the mark somewhat as others have mentioned. In many ways the OWS protests are geared toward middle and upper-middle class concerns. It is not surprising that issues such as student loan debt or the corporate tax code do not resonate with a lot of people here in NYC.

Nov. 06 2011 02:00 PM
bill from NYS

While I sympathize and agree with some---I say "some" of the issues the protesters present I have to add that there is no focus and, frankly, all the comments seem to be almost programmed by rote to disagree with any comments by the writer. One can find fault with these protesters for many reasons---to list a few---lack of focus, alienating neighborhoods (here and in other cities) by their constant noise and marching (disrupting working people's transits) and other such things that are encouraging an entire bevy of free loaders for free food. Short and pointed protests usually do the job more effectively----and, frankly, if you believe in Capitalism you have to work through it and with it---if not, well, you surely are encouraged to change the system. We can do that in this society unlike others.

Nov. 05 2011 07:05 PM
Hector from East Harlem

It does not sound to me that this reporter read the study that she cites or made any efforts to try to think about the complex issues involved and try to write about the in a thoughful way. And the headline is extremely misleading as has been pointed out. I agree with many of the commenters who expect a lot ore from WNYC. THis is an example of really bad "journalism." Shame on you!

Nov. 05 2011 06:09 PM
Bill from Brooklyn

Very misleading headline. There's a big difference between "Message Doesn't Resonate with All of the 99%" and looking at the racial and ethnic makeup of the protestors. No one interviewed in this article said they disagreed with the message. They did acknowledge barriers to protesting, from not feeling included to not being able to afford the time. Those are issues, but they're not the same as saying the message doesn't resonate.

I expect more from WNYC.

Nov. 05 2011 05:22 PM

Hmm....So, Janet Babin, finds a 17-year old teenager living in public housing, a few miles from Zuccotti Park. Then, Janet Babin gets a few quotes from the teenage girl to make the story for her article that claims Occupy Wall Street's "message has failed to resonate in some of New York’s poorest communities." Monday morning, if Janet Babin's article is read by the Wall Street elites, I have a sense they'll enjoy it. Any press that tries to show a division or weakness in the ranks of the 99% is sweet music to the ears of the 1%.

Nov. 05 2011 05:08 PM

Good examples of how prejudice works both ways and can be used as an excuse for inaction. Even if work precludes presence at these demos, there is no reason to withhold interest and moral support for what is in all of our interests. This plays right into the hands of the powers that be, who have successfully exploited racial and religious divisions to fragment the people and block real change in this country.

Nov. 05 2011 02:21 PM
Alfred Hankell

It is something cultural...people moving to USA from a Latin american country do not automatically absorb the culture...Latin american countries have a High-level Power Distance...authority is highly respected...check how they demand from their children that authority from women...etc. For generations they have learned not to question authority and not demonstrate independent thinking. Check Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions.

Nov. 05 2011 09:30 AM
k Webster from nyc

As translations are made and people get to learn what OWS is (and isn't) directly from the people engaged in the occupation it will probably gather more members of communities who don't communicate primarily in English. Chinatown (right near by) is holding two events today: one in Columbus Park and the other in Seward High School. But I don't think anyone needs to be here, in a way the occupiers are stand-ins for all the rest of us.
Communities targeted by racism and poverty have understood what has been happening in the US for a very long time. They fight everyday for their communities. They have become the experts on how to survive despite.
OWS in alliance with other already established communities can get the message out more widely, bring fresh viewpoints and ideas, share skills, and prevent racism from dividing working people.

Nov. 05 2011 09:17 AM

Mark - don't be so snarky. I dare any of us to walk 3 inches in the shoes of someone like Tanya Rodriguez. What is really striking to me is that if you travel a mile down the road from East Harlem - there are residents that pay $10,000 a month in coop fees!
G.L. - I think minorities are speaking up so that they are appropriately represented - especially since they are the most in need, these families send their children to school early every morning just to get a 'healthy meal'. It is a bit stark to see so little diversity in the protesters; particularly in NYC.

Nov. 05 2011 07:52 AM

Movement For Justice In El Barrio are professional leftists that are just mad they're not getting to skim off the donations pouring into Zucotti Park. It was only a matter of time before the local NYC lefty cranks tried to muscle in on OWS.

Nov. 05 2011 05:10 AM
G.L. from Singapore

Does it matter that there's only a mild degree of racial representation in OWS, so long as the needs of minorities are being represented?

U.S. income disparity has widened in the past thirty years, and that's the kind of fact that affects everyone, but it's also the kind of fact that doesn't necessarily rile up people who are too busy working just to meet the month's rent.

Just saying. And thanks—enjoyed the article. Visit and comment:

Nov. 05 2011 04:09 AM
Solomon Kleinsmith from Omaha, NE

I just HAVE to point out how amusingly fitting the stereotype it is for the one picture of the Spanish info desk to have a spanish version of a Karl Marx book on it.

Nov. 05 2011 12:43 AM

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