Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Unrepresentative and Fluid Samples at Occupy Protests

I met "Bob" at Occupy DC and he gave me a rundown of the racial makeup of both the city and the occupation. He's not a camper.  He's got a job at a market in the area and he lives in his mom's basement. That's a pretty happy situation for him so he's not going to be sleeping in any tent in McPherson Square.  But he does come by whenever he can. One day he worked eight hours in the medical tent. Pretty boring, he said. Most of the time you do nothing. And then you help someone with a scrape or something.  Dullsville.  He doesn't want to waste his time in the medical tent again.

We talked for a long time. As always, I was trying to figure out what the people at Occupy want. Bob seemed to think they are simply unhappy with a number of things. Like bank bailouts. He is totally against bailing out the banks. I told Bob he was sounding like a conservative on that issue! But he pointed out that while it has recently (really?) become fashionable for conservatives to say they are against bailouts, that the progressives have always (really?) been against  bailing out banks. For all time.

In addition to who wants crony capitalism for financial institutions, Bob and I  disagreed on other issues facts too. I had just attended the nightly general assembly. We counted off into three groups. My group had sixteen people in it.  So I figured there were some 48 to 50 people attending the general assembly that evening. I specifically counted minority participation. Back when I was reading coverage of the TeaParties, it was clear that one of the major goals of journalism was to count blacks in attendance at any protest. I figured since I want to be a good journalist, I had better get counting!  There were four black men and one black woman attending the General Assembly. There were no people appearing to be Hispanic, and none appearing to be Chinese or Japanese or Thai, but there was one Indian gentleman in my group. So that makes 48 to 50 people total. Five blacks, one Asian. Ten percent black. About ten percent "people of color".

When Bob suggested to me that DC itself it just about all black,  I told him of my count and said this DC Occupy movement crowd was a pretty unrepresentative sample of the city the protest is occupying. But he told me I was wrong. You'd be surprised, he said. Thirty percent of the people at Occupy DC are black. So in his opinion,  Occupy DC is a very good representation.  I don't know how he got that figure. I had counted, and he did not care. He preferred to use his "estimate". He did mention that part of the problem, is that you can't always tell what race someone is. That is certainly true, but he had also told me that he had attended racial sensitivity training and that this had changed his life.  So on the one hand, he is saying race is such an obvious thing, that it can put people at a disadvantage. And on the other hand, he is saying that race is not always so obvious that people are actually aware of it. Which leads to the question, how can you oppress someone for being of a different race from you, if you don't even know they are of a different race?

Recent figures show that DC is about 50% black. So even if Bob's estimate was correct, the black makeup of the Occupy DC crowd would have to be 66% higher to approximate a reflection of the actual population of the city. With my count, the crowd would have to have five times as many black participating.

But consider this. Occupiers don't stay put! As I roamed the grounds, I kept doing a double take, because one of these guys on the site looked so familiar. Turns out I had met and had spoken to the same guy two weeks ago in Boston! I met multiple people who had been staying at more than one occupation. These people clearly move from one protest to the other very fluidly.  The man from Boston has been "occupying" for weeks. Between Boston and DC, he had spent a week at Zuccotti Park.  Next he will be moving south and will go to Tennessee for awhile......and at the new year, he plans to be occupying in Tampa/St Pete. This, he wanted me to know, is because they have put out the call. They desperately need people down there at the Tampa occupation. Call me nuts, but I have my suspicions that perhaps he just wants to be in Florida in January*. A facilitator I spoke with,  had just arrived from Zuccotti Park. She had quit her job in order "occupy" at the start of the movement, and now was camping and sharing her knowledge in DC. An anarchist I chatted with had been occupying Philadelphia, before arriving in DC.  So I met a bunch of campers who were not DC area residents. And I met a bunch of DC residents who were not campers. And Occupy DC is almost all white. (Except for the very large number of homeless people who hang out there because there is free hot food and because with all the activity, they feel safer than ever.)

And except for the people Jesse Jackson brings in when he sweeps through with his entourage. Sometimes the news seems to say that some of these movements are growing. But now I know that you can't tell if a particular occupation is attracting newcomers, or if a vanload of people from another occupation has just arrived. And I question just how representative Occupy DC is.

* Spoiler Alert: Don't be surprised as we go into the cold days of winter and snow,  if we see the occupations down south swelling, and the northern ones getting smaller.

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