Occupy the Hood’s national effort coordinated by Ife Johari Uhuru, Detroit single mom

by Janelle Ross

On Monday, Ife Johari Uhuru lifted the hood of one of her shop’s high-intensity hair dryers and asked her client to take a seat. As soon as the woman was comfortable, Uhuru grabbed the laptop computer sitting nearby. Uhuru, a Detroit hairstylist and burgeoning activist, had other work to do.

Uhuru, 35, is one of two core coordinators behind Occupy the Hood, a group that aims to bring the concerns of people of color to the global Occupy Wall Street movement. On Monday, she needed to add a few palliative posts to a debate raging on Occupy the Hood’s Facebook page about which issues the group should rally around. She needed to design and print a new flyer for Occupy the Hood’s ongoing food and clothing drive for Detroit’s poor. She needed to convince a few more businesses around town to serve as collection points for the goods. And, in about 20 minutes, Uhuru’s client’s hair would require her full attention. The woman was there to have her dreadlocks washed, deep conditioned and re-twisted.

“I’m a single mom, a small business owner, a daughter, a neighbor. I have a lot of obligations,” said Uhuru, who is Black and lives in Novi, a community about 30 minutes northwest of downtown Detroit. “But trying to foster something where people who look like me, who have the same concerns as me are seen and heard? Doing that, I’ve discovered a whole new kind of busy.”

Uhuru is one of thousands of people across the country long concerned about the rising tide of poverty and household debt who have found both inspiration and cause for action in the Occupy Wall Street movement. The protests have transformed Uhuru: Before, she was a suburban single mom who occasionally shared her political views with her wide circle of Facebook friends and volunteered for community projects, and now she is at the center of a developing national organization focused on economic issues that deeply effect communities of color.

Occupy the Hood was founded by Malik Rahsaan, a New York-based substance abuse counselor and Occupy Wall Street protester. When Occupy Wall Street was just beginning to take shape in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan in September, Rahsaan started spending time there. He discovered a community of people who shared his outrage about rising income inequality, student loan debt and foreclosures, but who didn’t have a lot of personal experience with economic distress or the long-term effects of poverty. The protesters gathered in the park were driven and sincere – and almost all white, he said.

“I know this economy has been hard on a lot of folk,” said Rahsaan, who is Black, in an October interview about Occupy the Hood’s origins. “But I really know how it has savaged and sabotaged so many people of color. This is going to make some people squirm, but when I looked around and saw that we weren’t there, I just really felt like something had to be done.”

“I know this economy has been hard on a lot of folk,” said Rahsaan. “But I really know how it has savaged and sabotaged so many people of color. This is going to make some people squirm, but when I looked around and saw that we weren’t there, I just really felt like something had to be done.”

In late September, Rahsaan decided he was going to bring more people of color to the protest in New York and the occupations across the country. He gave the recruiting effort a name that he thought would capture Black attention: Occupy the Hood. And he put up a Facebook page. A few days later, he got an online message from Uhuru. She had been watching the news out of Zuccotti Park and hearing about plans for an occupation in downtown Detroit.

After that first conversation, Rahsaan was impressed enough to hand over Occupy the Hood’s Facebook and Twitter passwords to Uhuru. She got to work, contacting her 4,000 Facebook friends and started sending out tweets.

Within two weeks, there were thousands of people who had expressed their support for Occupy the Hood and Occupy Wall Street’s core concerns about economic inequality. Groups in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia and several other cities began organizing under Occupy the Hood’s banner. Most of the group’s initial supporters appeared to be Black, Uhuru said.

But the decision to talk openly about race and limited diversity in a movement that describes itself as rejecting the country’s traditional divisions and hierarchies has not gone uncriticized.

Stories written about Occupy the Hood have generated a wave of reader comments online. Some critics assert that race is a non-issue and an undue obsession for Black Americans. Others say Occupy the Hood is an example of the type of divisive activity that has stymied progress toward racial harmony in the United States. Some stories about young people of color organizing through Occupy the Hood have elicited comments that suggest that the only issue in which the group might be interested is expanded access to welfare aid. And others still have declared the occupations around the country sufficiently “diverse” and therefore undeserving of Uhuru and Rahsaan’s critique.

Even long-time Detroit civil and workers’ rights advocate Grace Lee Boggs has questioned the idea that Occupy Wall Street’s success can or should be evaluated by the presence of people of color in the movement. Boggs, 96, is Asian and moved to Detroit with her African-American husband, James Boggs, in the 1950s to organize workers and advocate for a range of left-leaning causes.

“To ask, ‘Where are the people of color?’ I think, is to look at the wrong idea,” Boggs said. “That is a question of the past. I think the question we need to be asking ourselves, which the occupy movement has raised, is: what are our obligations to each other and to the world? How inclusive are our institutions, and if they are not, why not? And why is it that the worst things do appear to be open to all? These are questions that were not on the agenda for most people until the Occupy movement began.”

At her hair salon, Uhuru sometimes accommodates clients well into the evening and on days such as Monday, when other salons are typically closed. The shop is an essential part of the formula that’s helped Uhuru support her two sons, who are 13 and 8. The rest comes from her mother and neighbors, who sometimes feed the boys dinner, shuttle them to after-school activities and check their homework.

“I have a great village,” Uhuru said, in reference to the African proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child. “I couldn’t do half the things that I do without them.”

Occupy the Hood’s main Facebook page, which Uhuru controls, had garnered 11,318 fans as of Thursday. But there hasn’t been the kind of rabid real-world support for Occupy the Hood that Uhuru had hoped. When the group tried to raise funds for needed supplies and for Detroit events dedicated to collecting food and clothing for the poor, just $80 in online donations materialized.

“It’s been eye opening,” she said.

Rakiba Brown, 59, is a long-time Detroit activist who is deeply involved with Occupy Detroit, the Motor City’s response to Occupy Wall Street. She met Uhuru at an Occupy Detroit meeting in October and has witnessed the limited results of Uhuru’s efforts, so far, to get more people of color involved in Detroit’s occupation.

“I think she hopes to be that bridge that can help people understand that the things we are talking about at these occupations, at the general assemblies, are the things that are destroying the communities where people of color do live,” said Brown, who is Black. “I just don’t see a lot of people who have walked across that bridge yet.”

But Brown insists that both Occupy Detroit and Occupy the Hood are too young to be assessed. And she says she supports Uhuru’s efforts.

“I think she is like a lot of these young, first-time activists,” said Brown. “She has some things to learn and some things to teach. And at this point there are so few people who really understand the kind of paradigm shift that we are after that I don’t think people can really understand what the occupations have done. This is just something really new.”

Uhuru and Rahsaan – who met in person for the first time in October, when Rahsaan accompanied a group of Occupy Wall Street protesters from New York to Detroit – insist that attempting to start a movement in two different cities is not a huge challenge because of the Internet. The two have begun working to trademark the Occupy the Hood name.

They have also decided that Occupy the Hood should be more than a recruiting effort or arm of Occupy Wall Street. They will soon begin to work with the coordinators of Occupy the Hood groups in other cities to develop a national agenda. That platform will likely include issues such as protesting foreclosures and cuts to social safety net programs, supporting efforts to help ex-convicts find work once released from prison and advocating for public spending on transportation and public schools, among other issues, Uhuru said.

The Occupy the Hood platform will likely include issues such as protesting foreclosures and cuts to social safety net programs, supporting efforts to help ex-convicts find work once released from prison and advocating for public spending on transportation and public schools, among other issues, Uhuru said.

In late October, Occupy the Hood members helped to get heat and electricity restored to a Harlem, New York, apartment building, Rahsaan said (story reposted below). Several protesters occupied the building’s boiler room and refused to leave until the building’s owners agreed to make repairs. After some debate, Occupy Wall Street protesters based in New York’s Zuccotti Park decided to donate about $3,000 toward the effort, Rahsaan said.

The ongoing food and clothing drive is Occupy the Hood’s first public activity in Detroit, outside of participating in meetings at the Detroit occupation itself. A core group is discussing what sort of activism might push area schools to reduce class sizes and force changes inside the child welfare system, Uhuru said. One Detroit school, forced to cut teachers because of budget cuts, is operating classrooms of 50 children, she said. Other food and clothing drives are being planned for other cities.

“I think that we’ve decided that the twinkling fingers and all of that may not be for us,” said Uhuru, referring to the way that Occupy protesters express approval for ideas and proposals at meetings. “We remain in solidarity. But we want to be able to speak and then act autonomously and really get involved in grassroots causes.”

Janelle Ross can be reached at Janell.Ross@huffingtonpost.com. This story first appeared on the Huffington Post.

Occupy Wall Street protesters occupy Harlem boiler room, get tenants heat and hot water

by Trymaine Lee

One by one, the Occupy Wall Street protesters trickled in to Queen Mother Dr. Delois Blakely’s second-floor walk-up in Harlem. They sat cross-legged on the floor or leaned in the doorways, passing muffins and listening to Blakely, a veteran activist and former nun, who praised their youth and the virtues of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

But mostly she talked about the tragedy that had befallen her building, which decades earlier had been a haven for struggling mothers and their families. The building, home now mostly to elderly women, has been without heat and hot water off and on for years.

The building’s eight tenants have little neighborly love to spare for each other. Blakely sees the problems with the boiler as part of a campaign by the tenants’ board to force out current tenants in order to charge higher rents to wealthier ones who are moving into the neighborhood, which is a rapidly gentrifying part of Harlem.

As evidence she points to the broken steps that have gone unrepaired for months, the mounting code violations and the non-working boiler, among other things. According to the city’s housing and preservation agency, there are currently 293 open violations at the location, including violations for not providing heat, hot water and not providing ready access to the boiler room.

Blakely claimed the landlord had refused to hand over a key to the boiler room so that maintenance workers could install a new one. That was, until a band of about a dozen Occupy Wall Street protesters last week occupied the building’s basement and refused to leave until the landlord complied with Blakely’s demand that the boiler be replaced.

After an all-day occupation on Halloween and the arrest of one protester, the landlord relented, allowing access to the boiler room. By late Friday evening, workers were clanging and banging away in the basement, dismantling the old clunker and clearing space for a new boiler, provided in part by an emergency order by the city, Blakely said.

Attempts to reach the landlord for comment were not successful.

“I’ve been fighting to keep this building for the community,” Blakely said. “But I’m an old lady. I had no man-power.”

So she said she went down to Zuccotti Park, home base for the Occupy Wall Street protests, and recruited activists.

“I saw all of these young children that had real skill and ability,” she said. “I said to them, ‘We’re done with all the massaging and intellectualizing. What’s next? If you really want to see what’s really going on, [follow me],’” she recalled telling the protesters at a General Assembly. “It’s time for action.”

All hands went up and were wiggling, she said, the sign of agreement at Occupy Wall Street.

Operation Occupy 477 Sugarhill was in full effect. Fliers and emails calling for protesters went out, and volunteers headed uptown. Blakely’s modest apartment became headquarters for the latest operation born of Occupy Wall Street. They arrived with sleeping bags and boundless good will, Blakely said.

On any given day, there are between a dozen and 25 protesters on site, with about 10 core members who stay on the property around the clock, Blakely said.

“This was a situation where we could take direct action and do something right now and help real people,” said one of the protesters, who gave his name only as Semi, a 25-year-old who drove up from North Carolina to join OWS.

Tony Cochran, 25, from Portland, Ore., agreed, chiming in that actions like this “make it a real issue.”

As the young men talked about further actions and working on behalf of the oppressed and the 99 percent of Americans who have been victimized by the rich and greedy, Blakely looked on like a proud mother.

Blakely, a former nun with the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, an order of African-American nuns based in Harlem, said that a group of young people affiliated with the New Future Foundation, a not-for-profit that she founded in the late ‘60s, came across the building in 1978. It was abandoned then, but with the help of volunteers from the community, they turned the place around. She said she worked out a deal with the city to purchase the building for $2,000, which would be paid by shareholders paying $250 each.

She said she canvassed the community and passed out fliers looking for tenants to purchase apartments in the building, particularly women in need. Several of the original tenants still live there today.

But the goodwill has soured over the past few decades. Many of the women whom she helped in the beginning have since turned against her, she said, pushing her aside to move forward with their own plans for the building.

From a big chair in her living room, Blakely spun a tale of backstabbing and deceit, of greed and ill will, of predatory lenders, fake lawyers and a $650,000 mortgage, which she believes was taken out illegally on the building by one of the board members, that has yet to be accounted for.

“I was the dishwasher, the garbage collector, the snow digger, the mopper, the exterminator – I was everything when I first came here,” Blakely said. “I was trying to save the world, but that’s not the reality of the world that I live in,” she said. “Everybody doesn’t think like me. They went from women in need to women in greed.”

Trymaine Lee can be reached at trymaine.lee@huffingtonpost.com. This story first appeared on the Huffington Post.