Washington Heights Residents Challenge Occupy’s Reputation as a “White-Led” Movement

Washington Heights residents marched 11 miles to Wall Street, challenging occupy's reputation as a “white-led” movement.

On a beautifully warm Monday in early November, several hundred protesters and I gathered in front of an abandoned building at 181st Street and St. Nicholas Avenue in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood. At 10:30 AM, we set out on an 11-mile, six- and-a-half-hour journey to Occupy Wall Street. Daunting length notwithstanding, nothing could have prevented me from joining the march from the neighborhood where I was born and raised (and where I still live) to the spiritual center of the movement to which I have devoted my life for the last seven weeks. The march accumulated people throughout, in Harlem, on the Upper West Side, in Midtown, in Chelsea, in Greenwich Village and in Soho. But in order to go, as the organizers advertised, “end to end for the 99 percent,” it had to start in Washington Heights.

Washington Heights was once home to New York City's German-Jewish population. George Washington High School graduated, among other luminaries, Henry Kissinger and Alan Greenspan. By the 1980s, the neighborhood held the second-largest concentration of Dominicans in the world outside of Santo Domingo – hence, the neighborhood's affectionate nickname: Quisqueyana Heights. Manny Ramirez has replaced Kissinger and Greenspan as the hometown hero, and I take some comfort in steroid abuse's relative innocuousness compared to war crimes and financial malfeasance.

During the 1980S, Washington Heights was the epicenter of the East Coast's crack trade – Yayo's syndicate, the Red Top Gang, operated here – earning the neighborhood the less-than-affectionate monicker “Crack City” in the right-wing tabloids. As a consequence, my generation of kids grew up largely fatherless, a huge number of adult males having been incarcerated as part of a “war on drugs” that all but ensures generational poverty in America's ghettos. Other consequences of the “war on drugs” include 1) the wholesale disenfranchisement of millions of ex-cons who, deprived of the right to vote, cannot meaningfully be said to live in a democracy, and, of course, 2) enormous windfall profits for the many corporate beneficiaries of the pristinely maintained prison-industrial complex, which subjects prisoners to slave labor and hands out contracts for construction and provisions to whichever firms have the most well-placed lobbyists.

I'm bringing all this up because critical to understanding Occupy Wall Street is understanding that, in the United States, the kind or degree of democracy available to people is largely determined by which class they belong to, and the urban poor are among the least empowered. America is right to fret and moan about 9 percent unemployment, but, in real terms, it's probably more than twice that, and the rates among the black and Latin populations climb even higher, and considerably so. Numbers regarding poverty are even more outrageous: between 8 and 9 percent of white Americans live in poverty, while between 23 and 25 percent of black and Latino Americans do.

State Sen. Adriano Espaillat (D-Manhattan/Bronx) highlighted this point. “We feel what Occupy Wall Street feels. We understand what their claims are. We want jobs. We want better education. We want decent rent and housing. We haven't had that for decades here, so we identify. We're marching to show solidarity.” He continued: “This is about communities that have been left behind for decades and decades and decades. Even during the economic prosperity in this country, this neighborhood has been left back.”

More than 70,000 people receive food stamps in the region overseen by Manhattan's Community Board 12 (which comprises Washington Heights and its northern excrescence, Inwood), a far greater number than any other neighborhood on the island. The people of Washington Heights have essentially been living in a state of permanent recession for 30 years and, for almost as long, in a state of permanent austerity, as budget cutbacks consistently deprive them of social services that would go a long way, as anyone who has spent time here will tell you. And, especially since former mayor Rudy Giuliani's initiative to “clean up” New York City began, the people of Washington Heights have had to deal with the type of police surveillance, harassment and violence which the Wall Street occupiers have only barely tasted.

The march hit Broadway at 170th Street and didn't stray from it until it reached Liberty Plaza Park, stopping occasionally for people's-mic-based pep talks from the man at the head of the march, my City Council member, Ydanis Rodriguez or, more frequently, for spontaneous dance parties thrown by the march's drum corps, which rang out meringue and revolt in neighborhoods accustomed to neither.

“It has to be that people stand up for themselves,” says Chet Whye of the community organization Harlem4 Center for Change. “That they take some pride in who they are, whether it's through demonstrations, confronting elected officials, or confronting the police department. What we're seeing at Occupy Wall Street is what happens when power descends upon a people or an action that they see as a threat. And we go through a lot of this all the time. But we have persevered, and we want everyone down at Occupy Wall Street to know that they have to stick with this thing.”

“Nosotros somos el 99 percent!” chanted the marchers to bourgeois couples sidewalk dining on the Upper West Side. “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido!” (The people united will never be defeated!) they chanted to Chelsea shoppers, emerging from boutiques with bags filled with high fashion items. Columbia students took video on their smartphones, transit workers joined the march in Harlem, assorted city officials participated for stretches of the trip, and, at the end, all I could think was, “Your move, Flushing, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Grand Concourse Avenue.”