The Campaign to “Decolonize” Oakland: Native Americans Say “Occupy” Terminology Is Offensive

 The Campaign to Decolonize Oakland Native Americans Say Occupy Terminology Is Offensive

A group of protesters at the Occupy Oakland action to shut down the Port of Oakland on December 12, 2011. (Photo: Queena Kim)

The Occupy movement is known internationally for protesting the inequalities of the global financial system, so much so that in four short months, “Occupy” has essentially become a brand known the world over.

But now there's an effort by Native American activists in Oakland to get rid of “Occupy” and replace it with “Decolonize” – as in “Decolonize Oakland.” They say the term “occupy” is offensive in light of the brutal history of occupation by early colonizers and the United States government. Native Americans in Seattle, Albuquerque, Portland and Sedona have launched similar campaigns.

The name change is proving contentious at Occupy Oakland, with some protesters accusing Native Americans of guilt tripping in the name of supporting the oppressed. But cut through the chatter, and the basic point seems to be this: Occupy doesn't want to give up the brand.

“That name change could … alienate Oakland from the wider movement,” wrote John C. Osbourn, who has been reporting on the Occupy movement on his blog the Classist. “The brand recognition if you will.”

The irony of Occupy Oakland being captivated by “branding” isn’t lost on Morning Star Gali, a Native American activist from Oakland who’s helping lead the name change effort. The Occupy movement, in general, shuns the corporatization of society.

More to the point, Gali says that for many Native Americans, especially those who came up in the “Red Power” movement in the 1960s, the term “Occupy” has a lot of baggage.

Native Americans tribes were brutally “occupied” by Spanish and English colonizers. Later, the United States government waged war on the Native American tribes and forced them into camps or reservations. More than 90 percent of North America’s indigenous population was wiped out by “occupiers,” either through war or the spread of disease.

And Bay Area Native American activists believe the occupation continues. In California, many Bay Area tribes are still struggling to gain federal recognition as sovereign nations. In the absence of a treaty, or compensation for their land, Native American activists in the Bay Area say they continue to live under outside rule.

As a Native American, “it’s nauseating to hear the word ‘occupy’ over and over again.'” Gali said. “We need to occupy this, we need to occupy that. It’s the modern day colonial language.”

The controversy highlights a wider criticism buzzing in the blogosphere about the Occupy movement’s use of political language. Some people of color feel that the movement at large is guilty of “linguistic” culture shopping. In other words, that the predominantly white Occupy uses politically charged words to adorn their movement like ornaments on a Christmas tree.

Jared A. Ball, associate professor of communication studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore, has been blogging about the use of slave terminology in the Occupy movement.

“There’s an appropriation of the words of our struggles,” Ball said. “They’re claiming the language for their own political transcendence without any sensitivity to the history of this country.”

The casual use of “slave” terminology among Occupy protesters alienates African-Americans like Earl Black, a retired high school teacher, who drives from his home in Tracy to attend the Occupy Oakland protests.

On one of those drives, Black remembers hearing a radio interview of an Occupy protester who wanted to change the name of Zuccotti Park back to Liberty Park, the name protesters bestowed on their base. (Here's a link to the full debate.)

“He said they need to change the name of the park because 'Zuccotti' is its 'slave name,'” Black said recently at Frank Ogawa Plaza, the home of Occupy Oakland. “That hit me between the eyes. To use 'slavery’ in that fast-and-loose fashion just to get the attention of an audience. I had to turn the radio off.”

Black knows the intent isn’t “malicious.” But as an African-American man in his 70s, he believes that equating financial inequality with our country’s legacy of chattel slavery is ignorant and threatens to push away African-Americans, who have been disproportionately hurt by the current economic downturn.

A younger generation of Occupy protesters have argued that marginalized groups often reclaim once-offensive terms. The gay community took back the derisive term “queer,” and a generation of younger African-Americans has flipped the racial slur “nigger” into a term of endearment, said Davey D, a political blogger who often writes about hip-hop.

“Can that happen with Occupy? Can it be flipped?” Davey D wrote.

Some Native American activists say that question assumes that “occupation” is a remnant of the past that can be dusted off and reintroduced. Instead, they believe Oakland, which is the ancestral home of the Chochenyo Ohlone, is still under occupation because the tribe has been denied federal recognition.

Recently, Native American activists put forward a proposal to change the name to “Decolonize Oakland” in a general assembly meeting that lasted three hours. The proposal received 68 percent of the vote, but failed to get the 90 percent approval needed to pass. Native Americans have been holding teach-ins on the subject and say they'll put the proposal up for a vote again.

“If there was a big sign over Gaza that said, 'Occupy Palestine' how would the Palestinian people feel?” asked Gali. “But somehow it's OK if that happens here” on occupied Chochenyo Ohlone land.

An Open Letter to The “Occupy” Movement: The Decolonization Proposal