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My mind is pre-occupied with racism in ‘Occupy’

November 4, 2011

by Jeremy Miller

“Please go online and get me money from Oprah. Tell her it’s so she (self-referential) don’t get killed on the streets of San Francisco.” – Mrs. Bowie

San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic John King wrote on Oct. 31 that “the Occupy SF village is enlivening the long dormant and depressing Harry Bridges Park – the 10-year-old strip of grass between the Hotel Vitale and Justin Herman Plaza that doesn't get used much by anyone except the homeless.” This photo was taken from 37 floors up. – Photo: Steve Rhodes
The majesty of the elder Black woman’s face was marred by bruises from minutes earlier and the tears of 75 years as a second class citizen in the United Capitalist Prison States of America. Mrs. Bowie (pronounced Boowy) is a homeless woman and one of the original residents of Occupy San Francisco, where tonight she had been attacked.

In my capacity as a local housing justice advocate and police accountability community worker, I have taken to visiting the encampment at Justin Herman Plaza to observe the conditions of life there and more specifically keep tabs on the interactions that the Occupiers have with various enforcement agencies. On the evening of Thursday, Oct. 27, I arrived to the south end of the camp with an activist videographer around 9 p.m. after leaving the Bayview Hunters Point Violence Prevention Summit.

Upon our arrival, the videographer and I observed two police cars parked in the south lot adjacent to the camp. Channel 7 News had a van in the same lot parked a little to the east of the cops and was setting up for a broadcast. By and large the scene was calm with various small groups of Occupiers scattered conversing, eating, smoking – in short, occupying.

No one out of the roughly 90 people present – 99 percent young and white – seemed to notice what to me was an obvious discrepancy from the rather placid scene, that of Mrs. Bowie sobbing amidst her completely broken down tent and disarrayed personal belongings. Alarmed, I approached her and inquired as to what happened. Her story was shocking.

“My head hit the cement right there,” Mrs. Bowie said, pointing out a spot just east of the wreckage that was moments earlier her home. “They’re all the same – the Klan, the police. The police gonna beat me anyway.” After a few moments of speaking with Mrs. Bowie, she was able to calm down just enough to give account of what had happened.

She said she had been attacked by a white supremacist faction of Occupiers and then subsequently attacked by the police. During the course of the original altercation, her tent had been torn down, feces had been thrown on it, racial epithets – nigger, nigger, nigger etc. – had been bandied about, and she had been thrown to the cement.

At some point the police entered the struggle and subsequently had a physical interaction with Mrs. Bowie as well. The particular officers involved were reported to be in squad car 43 and were driving away just as Mrs. Bowie was relaying this part of the story.

She said she had been attacked by a white supremacist faction of Occupiers and then subsequently attacked by the police. During the course of the original altercation, her tent had been torn down, feces had been thrown on it, racial epithets – nigger, nigger, nigger etc. – had been bandied about, and she had been thrown to the cement.

Astonishingly, there was not one arrest. “It’s the Chinatown effect,” Mrs. Bowie lamented. “They let you fight, and then they take the last man standing.” Our conversation was interrupted multiple times as people would curiously walk by us and Mrs. Bowie would panic, raising her cane, saying, “That’s one! Get the fuck away from me!”

It became obvious to me early in the conversation that Mrs. Bowie was suffering severe PTSD from the attacks, and that this was giving her difficulty in correctly identifying her assailants. Despite her terror and disgust, though, Mrs. Bowie was cogent and coherent and after speaking to a couple of occupiers that she indicated were involved, I was able to corroborate most of her story and piece together a timeline.

“She’s crazy. She started yelling about the Klan and swinging her cane around,” said one white occupier. Another occupier, this one Black, chimed in with a less pejorative tone, “Yeah, man, I think she has mental health issues.”

I was not dissuaded by these caveats and I proceeded to ask if there was anyone at camp with experience addressing mental health needs. They shrugged. Their nonchalance was maddening. I asked if there had been white power issues at the camp and was met by a reluctance to broach the topic that was echoed by the next half dozen people I would speak to. Every occupier I spoke to got quiet on this point but a few made silent or cryptic affirmations that this phenomenon was occurring, and the apprehensive look in the eyes of every single one I spoke to betrayed the truth of the allegations.

Occupy SF in late October – Photo: Thomas Webb, SF Chronicle
At this point in my investigation, the first person who accused Mrs. Bowie of being crazy inquired as to whether I was a journalist. I told him that a journalist was one of my hats but that I had originally come down to check the scene with the police. He became more cautious with me, but not before giving me an amazing show.

“Well, I did have this mask,” he said as he donned a self-styled hood. This roughly 6-foot man with ruddy white skin and dirty blond Viking locks pulled a triangular black cloth mask down over his face that looked virtually identical to a Klan mask outside of being the wrong color.

Further interviews conducted by myself and the videographer who I introduced to Mrs. Bowie established that the following scenario occurred. The man with the black Klan mask had approached Mrs. Bowie, scaring her half to death. She responded in self-defense by swinging her cane around.

“Well, I did have this mask,” he said, a triangular black cloth mask that looked virtually identical to a Klan mask outside of being the wrong color. The man with the black Klan mask had approached Mrs. Bowie, scaring her half to death.

Others, who had been tormenting Mrs. Bowie for over a month, walking over her artwork and allowing their dogs to piss and shit on her camp while hurling slurs, jumped in to defend their “brother.” “The lead one – I took my cane and hit him in the ass and balls,” Mrs. Bowie defiantly proclaimed.

In the course of the commotion, the police had been called over, and they took the stereotypical approach of automatically assuming the premise of “crazy Black woman.” They physically restrained her but seemed to be smugly satisfied that when the crowd dispersed they had done their job and that there was nothing wrong with having the only Black elder woman I saw – one of only about five Black people among about 10 people of color in the entire camp – injured, her home destroyed, left shaking and sobbing, a victim of multiple hate crimes in what has been publicly touted as one of the most progressive movements in decades. “They did this to us in 1959,” Mrs. Bowie said with a look of heartbreaking disappointment.

They seemed to be smugly satisfied that there was nothing wrong with having the only Black elder woman I saw in the entire camp injured, her home destroyed, left shaking and sobbing, a victim of multiple hate crimes in what has been publicly touted as one of the most progressive movements in decades.

The particular individuals engaged in the hate crimes have not been positively identified. The kkkorporate media “didn’t see anything.” Mrs. Bowie claimed that there were nine men and three women. Further investigation, which takes into consideration other people’s accounts and the fact that the traumatic nature of Mrs. Bowie’s treatment may have engendered inaccurate associations based on fear, place the number at around four or five hard core abusive white supremacists.

These particular people are alleged to have left the camp at this point in time. Mrs. Bowie has six friends that look out for her at camp: Sly, Stephanie, Aaron, Wolf, Huey and Trent. Of the six, at least one had never even given Mrs. Bowie a thought until the videographer introduced the two and reported the attack.

There are those who advised me not to report on this. I was told that I would be attacking a still nascent movement. I would be sowing the seeds of dissent.

I feel that I have an obligation to do so. Mythology has got to be combated on these grounds. Just as it is a myth that Oprah will be able to solve the problems of all Black folk, it is a myth that Black women who have been abused are “crazy.”

It is a myth that police are here to ensure “safety.” It is a myth that you are not racist if you are not one of the minority that acts out its position with overt violence.

It is a myth that there is a 99 percent homogeneous group of people if there is a failure to acknowledge that racism is at the bedrock of U.S. capitalism and has created violent schisms and utterly different living conditions for various groups of people during the course of over half a millennium. More optimistically, it is a myth that nothing can be done to combat this.

It is a myth that there is a 99 percent homogeneous group of people if there is a failure to acknowledge that racism is at the bedrock of U.S. capitalism and has created violent schisms and utterly different living conditions for various groups of people during the course of over half a millennium.

This is not a hit piece on Occupy SF. This is absolutely not a call for state intervention. It is a call to people of color and Black folk in particular to enter the fray.

This is not a hit piece on Occupy SF. This is absolutely not a call for state intervention.

In the grand tradition of giants like Ella Baker or Ida B. Wells, Mrs. Bowie is a beacon showing us directions for a better future. It is incumbent upon us to engage in numbers and coordinate with the current Occupiers, perhaps through a POC caucus or working group, Occupy the Hood, or some such vehicle to insure that she does not have to struggle alone, to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our people, and to insure that a newly pre-figured world does not re-create the slave chains of the old one.

Jeremy Miller is interviewed on World Homeless Day 2011 during the Homes Not Jails occupations.
Let us hold these truths to be self-evident:

1. White people cannot do this without us!

2. If racism is not confronted and addressed with a courage that forces us into a place of intergenerational existential pain with an eye towards mental and spiritual growth and a shoulder to the physical liberation of our people, there is no consensus!

Occupy together! Occupy everything! End hate crimes! Free the land! All power to the people!

Jeremy Miller, co-director of Education Not Incarceration, Idriss Stelley Foundation, can be reached at djasik87.9@gmail.com.

 

8 thoughts on “My mind is pre-occupied with racism in ‘Occupy’

  1. Bill Peterson

    I have met Mrs Bowie at OccupySF 2 times. I suspect, like the people in your story said, that she has mental health issues.
    I wonder if you might use you skills as a reporter and platform in the paper to see if anything can be done to help her.

    Why I care
    My mother-in-law has schizophrenia and was homeless for a time. It breaks my heart to see anyone not treated with the care and respect all people deserve.

    My experiences with Mrs Bowie
    First time
    The day before the Oakland general strike I was at Occupysf and I saw her yelling something like ‘move along white boy’ at someone. I approached to offer any help I could but she yelled the same thing at me (45 year old white boy) so I moved along as she said so I wouldn’t agitate her more.
    Suspecting that she might have mental health issues and, guessing that she might be homeless when not living at the occupysf site, I called my wife and asked her to look up the phone numbers for the appropriate professionals to contact when you see someone in distress.
    She found numbers for 2 services and I gave them to the head of the camp’s public safety group. I told them that they needed to keep in mind that all people have the right to make their own decisions even if they are not what the rest of us think is in their best interest. I encouraged them to treat her with compassion but if they found that there was an issue that needed to be dealt with they should let people who have had training do it. I told them that while police probably have had more training than they did the police all too often handle mentally ill people poorly.

    Second time
    The day after the general strike I went back down to Occupysf specifically to check on Mrs Bowie. I found her sitting on concrete bench things with 3 other people talking happily. I approached cautiously and as I did not seem to agitate her I sat down and joined the conversation. Everyone was preparing for the coming rain and Mrs Bowie was rearranging her stuff while waiting for a new tent as hers had been damaged the night before. She was charmingly cantankerous and refused almost all of my offers of help, only letting me help her carry the table and chairs she used for her art.
    Many people stopped briefly to check on her and say a few words, including some people I recognized as long-time organizers of the camp. One person brought a plate of food over when lunch was served to make sure she ate and the nurses came over from their tent and checked on her too.
    I left believing that she was not in any want or distress, happy for the company and the care they treated her with, and glad to be contributing to a movement aimed at improving our society.

    It saddens me greatly to read your report of what has happened to her last night.
    I think I heard her say that she has lived in San Francisco her whole life. As a reporter you would probably know better than me how to find out if she has any relatives that could either help her out or at least help her get whatever social services there are available so she doesn’t have to sleep outside.
    My mother-in-law is in an assisted living facility now, there must be some way to get something similar for Mrs Bowie.

    Sorry for rambling on so long.
    Thank you for your reporting.
    Bill Peterson

    Reply
  2. Robert Benson

    Provocative piece! However, you failed to discern the facts from the fiction. Mrs. Bowie constantly yells racist slurrs at all who walk by her, whether white or black, and has broken the hand of our best medic – of course the police did nothing. The black people that I have spoken with about her have expressed their doubt in her mental competency and the evidence is everywhere present. Additionally, you allege that Mrs. Bowie's PTSD is due to some interaction at OccupySF; yet her history and pathology indicates otherwise.

    This malicious piece demonstrates the racist provocation, common with some media outlets with an agenda, and is light years from accurate. Get a clue, before you start libeling whole movements. Cheers

    Reply
  3. GeoffHolden

    In my capacity as an anti-genocide advocate I oppose white genocide:

    Africa for the Africans,Asia for the Asians,white countries for EVERYBODY!

    Everybody says there is this RACE problem. Everybody says this RACE problem will be solved when the third world pours into EVERY white country and ONLY into white countries.

    The Netherlands and Belgium are just as crowded as Japan or Taiwan, but nobody says Japan or Taiwan will solve this RACE problem by bringing in millions of third worlders and quote assimilating unquote with them.

    Everybody says the final solution to this RACE problem is for EVERY white country and ONLY white countries to “assimilate,” i.e., intermarry, with all those non-whites.

    What if I said there was this RACE problem and this RACE problem would be solved only if hundreds of millions of non-blacks were brought into EVERY black country and ONLY into black countries?

    How long would it take anyone to realize I’m not talking about a RACE problem. I am talking about the final solution to the BLACK problem?

    And how long would it take any sane black man to notice this and what kind of psycho black man wouldn’t object to this?

    But if I tell that obvious truth about the ongoing program of genocide against my race, the white race, Liberals and respectable conservatives alike say I am a naziwhowantstokillsixmillionjews.

    They say they are anti-racist. What they are is anti-white.

    Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white.

    Reply
    1. raincloud

      only a racist white trash go around screaming anti-racist code for anti-white and why is that the the only people that complain japan or another Asian country is racist are ONLY whites who expect Asians to kiss their white racist asses? and why is that whites tend to act like clones parroting the same sentences, phrases, cliches, etc

      Reply
    2. Gabriela

      That's funny. I was born in South America….guess what I'm considered white by most. There's a huge mix of cultures in my country of birth….. From Asia, Europe, Africa, India….literally everywhere.

      Reply
    3. seamus

      I have never heard "Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white", except from some "white pride" folks in the 1990s.

      Also, the preamble to your conclusion strongly suggests you do have a race problem because it is all about your perceived race problems.

      That is, you are saying one thing while telling us another.

      Reply
  4. screwutoo

    do all you people say the same things? Is it a screed somewhere, where go and get all your talking points? Please, just express yourself with your very own thoughts. It's hard to take you serious when I've read the same comment from a hundred other WN. "Africa for the Africans,Asia for the Asians,white countries for EVERYBODY!", "They say they are anti-racist. What they are is anti-white.", "Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white."

    Your just a parrot, do you wanna cracker? Pun intended..

    Reply
  5. John Mulligan

    The story is ridiculous. There are so many highly influencial powers that hate the Occupy movement (banks, conservatives, etc.) that a racist faction would never be covered up by any media outlet. If this were true, Fox would be all over it and you know it. The old woman obviously has mental health issues and you, Mr. Miller, have a misguided agenda.

    Reply

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