UPDATE: It appears that Running Wolf is not behind this proposal. Also, one instance of his name in this article was previously incorrect.
Occupy Oakland may be a leaderless movement but few individuals receive as much respect as Native American activist Zachary Running Wolf. His occupation/decolonization of the tree on 14th Street, declaring the space “Ohlone Land” just as Oscar Grant Plaza was on the verge of a police raid, drew enormous support from all of us both for his creativity and resilience.
In an attempt to further raise awareness around the struggle of indigenous people, Running Wolf has submitted a proposal to change the name of Occupy Oakland to “Decolonize and Liberate Oakland.”* Many people will be drawn to support this proposal out of respect for Running Wolf and the issues that he raises. However, while the issues and the proposer deserve our respect, the proposal itself is misguided.
The essential argument, presumably, is that occupations historically have been a tool of imperialists, most notably the European occupation of the Americas as well as other colonial occupations of the Third World. The problem with this argument, as my friend Jaime Omar Yassin has stated, is that the word “occupation” has also been used for years by students “occupying” their schools and workers “occupying” their workplaces. It should also be noted that Bush claimed to “liberate” Iraq and there should be little doubt that colonial occupiers could claim to “decolonize” a piece of land from its indigenous population in order to make way for a colonial occupation. So there is nothing inherently imperialistic or oppressive about the word “occupy”–or superior in the alternatives–and our use of that term does not put us in line with colonial occupations. It also raises the question of whether it is worthwhile to raise the significance of one group of oppressed people–those suffering under colonial occupations–above that of other oppressed groups–African-Americans, women, gays and many others.
But the most serious problem with this proposal is that a substantial amount of work has gone into building the name “Occupy Oakland.” People all over the world are aware of Occupy Oakland and Occupy Wall Street. They know who we are and stand proudly in support of our work. This is not because we chose in advance the name “Occupy Oakland” or the tactic of building an encampment in front of City Hall–on the contrary, those were largely chosen for us by the success of Occupy Wall Street. However, having used this name and tactic, we have created a name for ourselves and rallied millions to our side. Changing our name now would simply confuse our supporters who have never heard of “Decolonize Oakland.”
Some people, inexplicably, are simply running from the name “Occupy” itself. Presumably, goes their argument, everybody in Oakland has been alienated by our actions and wants nothing to do with us. This is the least convincing argument that could be put forward and needs to be rejected. Every march I have been on in the last few weeks has seen tons of support, from people stuck in traffic honking their horns to teachers and postal workers attending our recent labor rally. Running from the name “Occupy” is not only wrong-headed but points to a misunderstanding of the state of our movement and the level of support we continue to have. Changing our name for these reasons would be a huge retreat and needs to be opposed, including by those most concerned about raising the issues of indigenous people.
Finally, there are also bad reasons for opposing the name change. Some would argue that “decolonize” will scare off too many supporters, as though Oakland is filled with little old white ladies clutching their purses every time a person of color walks by and who are terrified at the thought of white people being driven out of their homes by these “decolonizers.” Such simple-minded racists may exist, in some form or another, but they are hardly our base of support and certainly want nothing to do with us anyway. Appealing to these ridiculous attitudes will do nothing to further our movement any more than begging the Chamber of Commerce to raise their own taxes.
Does this mean we should have nothing to do with the struggles of indigenous people? Of course not. We should seek to support the struggles of all oppressed people. But the name change does not help us do that, rather it restricts our ability to support any struggle because it puts aside so much of what we have fought for already.
A better option to changing the name of our movement would be passing a statement opposed to colonial occupations around the world and actively fighting in solidarity with them. We have taken steps to provide solidarity to other struggles, including building support for the Egyptian revolution and participating in Ohlone solidarity actions. There is no reason why these solidarity actions should not continue and expand under Occupy Oakland.
* The specifics of this proposal, the new name, the proposer(s) and the precise motivation remain unclear at this time. However, this article intends to discuss the general views that the proposal seems to advocate and, hopefully, will remain relevant to the argument as the specifics are made clear at the GA.