Why we didn’t let Larry Gossett speak at Decolonize/Occupy Seattle

A first hand account of a confrontation between liberal and radical organizers at Occupy Seattle, reposted from The Black Orchid Collective:

Workers in Madison led bold wildcat strikes and an occupation of their State Capitol, only to have their movement co-opted by liberal union leadership and the Democratic Party, resulting in a total failure of the people to reclaim their collective bargaining rights.

The Decolonize/ Occupy movements have taken us all by storm. What had previously been pain, anger and frustration individualized and experienced in isolation, is finding expression through mass public settings, among large numbers of people. It is this first step toward solidarity and community building, that will be the building blocks of a deeper struggle against the oppressive forces of white supremacy and capitalism.

It is however, precisely the uncontrollable and mass nature of this upsurge that strikes fear in the hearts of Democrat and Republican party politicians. Obama’s Democrat party has shown that it is on the side of big capital, the banks and the mortgage firms — willing to use tax payer money to bail them out, to fight imperialist wars, and then impose intensive austerity measures on the rest of us. The banks, rather than the people, are too big to fail. It is no surprise that the Non Profit Industrial Complex, the birth child of the Democrat party, and the career activists who tow their line, also plays the same role. Election year is coming up, and everyone wants a slice of the Decolonize/Occupy pie to boost their vote counts.

On Saturday, Oct 22nd 2011, myself and another queer person of color, both who have been active in the Decolonize/Occupy Seattle movement, experienced first hand the authoritarianism of activists who are tied to the Left wing of the Democratic party. My comrade who share similar thoughts as myself will be collaborating with other womyn of color on a more extensive letter. I name the individuals concerned because it is important for accountability and transparency reasons. The individuals involved in the incident today have far greater resources than me and my comrades do. There is already a power differential, and transparency is our best defence.

There have been attempts within the activist circle to downplay what happened as merely personal beef. However, the events that went down then have important political lessons that the grassroots Decolonize/Occupy movement in Seattle needs to learn from if it is to maintain an independent poll that does not collapse into the Democratic Party 2012 electoral machinery. Attributing what happened simply to individual personality traits misses that point.

The Oct 22nd rally had primarily been organized by the People Of Color (POC) caucus and Hip Hop Occupies. Some of our members had reached out to groups like El Comite and the Martin Luther King Jr Celebration Committee because we hoped to have people of color community members join us. Many of us had been active in the Decolonize/Occupy Seattle actions since the beginning and had been frustrated by the racism and sexism that we experienced. Organizing this rally on the Oct 22nd National Day Against Police Brutality, was aimed at making sure Decolonize/Occupy Seattle also had a strong message and presence against police brutality that had disproportionately terrorized communities of color. However, we were shocked to realize that we faced a battle on two fronts. One against clueless, white liberal racism, and another against movement elders who condescendingly disrespected our work.

Shortly before the Decolonize/Occupy Seattle rally at 12pm, I was told that Juan Jose Bocanegra, a prominent member of the activist community, was going to emcee the rally. It is unclear how this was decided. However, because he is a member of the MLK Celebration Committee, which among other groups had sponsored the rally, I did not think twice of it. I would find out that this was a mistake.

I was told shortly after, that Mr. Bocanegra had asked Larry Gossett, King County Council member and Democrat politician, to speak at the rally. With other members of the POC caucus, I approached Mr. Bocanegra to let him know that Decolonize/Occupy actions were not spaces where politicians could speak at. It is part of a broader principle of not wanting to be coopted into being a Democratic party front. This is one of the defining features of the Occupy movements across the country. In fact, the People of Color caucus, which the organizers were a part of, had then been working on a statement explicitly stating that. Besides, the speaker list was already full and it would be unfair to bump someone off the speakers list to let a politician speak.

Juan Jose Bocanegra proceeded to question my intentions. He insisted that Larry Gossett was a well-known civil rights activist, former Black Panther Party member, and a huge advocate for the Black Community. In fact, he said that our refusal to let him speak at the Decolonize/Occupy event, was a “disgrace to the Black community.”

I responded saying that our refusal to let him speak was not aimed at disrespecting the Black community or the MLK Celebrating Committee. I asked if there were other members in the group who could speak instead of Larry Gossett. I also pointed out to him that there were several dedicated Black activists that are a part of the Decolonize/Occupy Seattle movement and building the occupation everyday. Many of them are also involved in Hip Hop Occupies. They are prominent grassroots activists, and none of them are Democrat party politicians or individuals tied to the establishment. Mr. Bocanegra’s convenient attacks on us simply because we refused to let Larry Gosset speak, was opportunistic and unprincipled.

It is also important to add that Juan Jose Bocanegra’s presentation of Larry Gosset was one-sided. Many of the Black activists who had put in a lot of energy into the Decolonize/Occupy Seattle movement, had experienced Gosset through the incidents that took place around the African-American Heritage Museum back in the 1990s. Gossett and several grassroots Black activists had had disagreements and run-ins around the project. Their tension had led to an evacuation of the militants who had occupied a school for the purposes of building the museum and a radical Black community center. Mr. Bocanegra’s negation of the experiences of the many Black activists who had experienced state violence under Gosset’s leadership, willingness to cover up Gossett’s role in this important incident by simply dismissing their experiences, was shocking.

We asked Mr. Bocanegra to simply respect the efforts of a grassroots movement that was trying to be independent of party politics. Mr. Bocanegra responded with anger, contempt and condescension. He claimed that our movement building efforts were pointless without the endorsements and involvement of people like Larry Gossett. He also tried to make it seem as if we had allowed the Mayor to speak at previous rallies, and was being racist by not allowing Larry Gossett to speak. We responded saying that the Mayor had been at Westlake, but had not been invited to speak. We had both been consistent and fervent in our opposition to allow the Mayor to coopt this movement. We had also been outspoken about our critiques against the gentrification efforts and displacement of people of color by the Mayor’s policies.

Subsequently, Mr. Bocanegra told us, in front of many witnesses, that if Larry Gossett was unable to speak at the rally, then no one would be able to speak at the rally. Then, we were unsure about what he meant. We would find out in an awful, shocking way.

It tuned out that the individual, Bob Barnes, who was responsible for the sound system of the day at Decolonize/Occupy Seattle, is a friend of Juan Jose Bocanegra. He, like Mr. Bocanegra, insisted that if Larry Gossett was unable to speak, then he would shut down the sound system for the rally and prevent Hip Hop Occupies from performing. The event was already delayed at this point because of the drama and confusion.

This was unprincipled behavior. How is it that these two individuals, who claim to be for grassroots movement building, would sacrifice a public action and rally, just so a Democrat party politician and King County Council member could speak?

This came as an extreme shock to all of us and left us confused and demoralized.

Eventually, after a 45 min delay, Mr. Bocanegra got on stage, and asked Mr. Barnes to turn it on. He started off with a diatribe criticizing the principle to not ally ourselves with specific parties and politicians. He clearly did not understand that what had built this movement so far has been its ability to prevent itself from simply becoming a political electioneering platform, and that it expressed peoples’ genuine discontent and frustration with the system. He had nothing much more than that to say about this emerging Decolonize/Occupy movement.

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It is important to publicly address this incident. First, because my version of what happened would be distorted given the power and social standing of the people whom we are confronting. Myself and others stuck up for what we believed are the basic principles of the Decolonize/Occupy movement, which is that our mobilization and organizing cannot be coopted into the hands of Democratic Party politicians given that they have, once again betrayed the interests of the working class. The mobilization of so many thousands of people around the country now emerges from a need for an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans, both of which are mechanisms that banks, corporations have used to oppress us, especially communities of color.

We believe that this movement has the ability to shift and realign the political terrain in this country if it gains power and strength. For this reason, Democrat party politicians will try to coopt this struggle. When they are unable to, they will send individuals from the Non Profit Industrial Complex, the very institutions whose livelihoods depend on the continual functioning of the capitalist system. Their goal is to reform this system, not to fundamentally change it. Rather than grassroots activists, they are career activists. To maintain their positions, they are willing to sacrifice and put on hold, the inspirations and potentials of the rest of us who want deeper, further changes.

For many activists, it may be shocking to see a movement elder use such authoritarianism to silence our emerging movement. However, it is not unusual for several leaders from the 1960s movement who currently work in the government, or for non-profits, to use their movement credentials to try to control and contain movements of our generation. They, like the state, fear our potential to displace them when we too, shift the political paradigms of our generation. If we believe that the Decolonize/Occupy movement will continue to grow, or that new upsurges will emerge and thrive in the ebb and flow of struggle, then it’s time we get used to challenging this sort of movement policing behavior.

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