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Is Occupy Toronto a movement for Ethnic Minorities?

26 October 2011 One Comment

The grounds of St. James Park littered with Occupy Toronto signs

By Tendisai Cromwell

A sea of tents housing activists has dominated Toronto’s St. James Park since the dawn of Occupy Toronto on October 15th. This 11-day-old protest is part of a growing wave of opposition to the current economic system accused of favouring the wealthiest 1% of the population.

Leaderless and in many ways lacking clear, well-defined objectives, remarkably the protests have managed to remain highly organized, largely non-violent and democratic in nature. Yet while certain voices within the 99% are finally being heard, others are asking if minority voices remain muted. In the park a clever sign reads, “99% can pay debt with attention”, but is Occupy Toronto paying attention to the concerns of ethnic minorities who are most adversely affected by poor economic policies?

Salmaan Khan, 24, has attended Occupy Toronto protests and believes it’s an exciting time to create real change. However, as a Kenyan of South Asian origin, Khan says that the Occupy Toronto movement fails to adequately address minority issues.

“Unfortunately, voices of marginalized groups, who find themselves at the bottom of the 99% are not given enough space and are unable to raise their specific concerns,” Khan says. “I don’t think this is something that is entirely intentional. I just think that many of the participants in this movement don’t know how to handle their ‘whiteness’ or address their privilege in society.”

A group of musicians play songs of protest. St James Park, Toronto.

Minority protesters in Occupy Wall Street remedied a lack of representation by forming the People of Color working group. This group is tasked with dealing with the varied and unique concerns of ethnic minorities in New York. Khan wishes to see a similar group emerge in Toronto which could strive to eliminate racial profiling, address indigenous issues, tackle affordable housing and challenge immigration policies among other issues.

Jeffery Ford, 28, of Jamaican origin has been to the park seven times since the occupation started. He supports the movement, but also noted a noticeable lack of ethnic minorities particularly among organizers and facilitators.

“I realize it’s predominantly white males and a few females,” Ford says. “Though I have seen people of colour come out and have roles, just not very many.”

However, Ford believes that minorities are not prevented from taking a more active role in the movement. Unlike Khan, he sees no reason to form a race-based group. The movement, Ford says, should remain rallied around economic disparity rather than race.

Adam Slinn, a media representative for Occupy Toronto rejects the claim that there is a lack of representation. Slinn says that the diversity in the movement reflects the ethnic diversity in the city of Toronto.

“We have a large Native presence here as well as people from Pakistan, India, Japan, Africa and just about every country in the world,” Slinn says. “Occupy Toronto is not a white man’s occupation as some media sources have portrayed us.”

Though Slinn says that the movement would embrace the idea of a people of colour group.

“A people of colour working group is one way to ensure everyone’s voice is heard and that everyone feels welcome here. If you are a person who has issues specific to a minority we welcome you to come down and voice your concerns, as many have already done,” Slinn says. “Everyone in the camp is a leader.”

St. James Park, Toronto

Yet Khan says that “many racialized workers work two to three jobs, have children to take care of, and some live with precarious status in this country and cannot afford to drop everything and go sleep in a tent at St. James Park.”

This grassroots effort stretching from New York to Stockholm is an unprecedented show of global solidarity. But to maintain widespread appeal and lasting relevance, particularly among racialized groups, the movement as a whole may need to evolve.

“If this movement wants to succeed and build a broader base of support,” Khan says, “they will need to come up with more creative ideas on how to convey their message that goes beyond simply occupying.”

For more information about Occupy Toronto visit: occupyto.org. Visit New York-based People of Color working group: poccupy.org

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One Comment »

  • Anon said:

    lol “many racialized workers work two to three jobs, have children to take care of, and some live with precarious status in this country and cannot afford to drop everything and go sleep in a tent at St. James Park.”

    As an ‘ethnic’ first generation Torontonian, I can say thats 90% of the problem with ‘ethnic’ individuals, they don’t take the initiative to make changes. You always see white people trynna move up and make changes.

    Maybe its something in our dna. We’re too busy doing the hands on work, being part of the cranks keeping the system in motion, rather than working on things from the top down, trying to make changes.

    If there isn’t enough representation at Occupy Toronto, we only have ourselves to blame. Otherwise, I agree, its not about the colour of the skin of those who are there; its irrelevant. All it is, is basically peaceful protest in numbers, doesn’t matter what pigment their skin has.

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