Occupy Oakland and Rapper Boots Riley

Riley (with megaphone) leading a march on the ‘general strike’ day

As I’ve reported previously, Oakland seems to be the epicentre of the Occupy movement, far surpassing the work of the original Wall Street campers. Ever since a ferocious police assault on the camp climaxed in a near-fatal injury to former Marine Scott Olsen, class consciousness in Oakland has apparently been way ahead of the global Occupations. In early November, a ‘general strike’ succeeded in shutting down one the USA’s busiest ports. Today, Occupy Oakland plans to help homeless locals reclaim their foreclosed homes.

Since the early 1990s, Oakland resident Boots Riley has been at the forefront of The Coup – an extremely underappreciated ‘conscious’ rap group. Though The Coup’s early recordings exhibited a kind of post-Maoist focus on the problems facing the “nigger class”, later albums have shown a more traditionally Marxist analysis of class structures with overlayered special oppressions. Now showcasing his remarkable talent alongside Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine in the Street Sweeper Social Club, Riley combines great political savvy with warmth and humour.

Riley had felt alienated from activism for many years, but the rise of Occupy has convinced him that radical political change can be brought about by the current generation. He has thrown himself into Occupy Oakland with great enthusiasm, and seems to have become an important figure, using his small but nevertheless significant media profile to get the Occupy message across to the mainstream media. Inevitably, this has led to some tensions within a movement which is so resolutely non-hierarchical.

Over the past couple of days, a debate on a possible name change has taken place within Occupy Oakland, with some people of colour pushing for it to be relabeled ‘Decolonize Oakland’. Riley was an outspoken opponent of this proposal, and this seems to have won him some flak from those who see him as a pivotal member of the collective. Below is an exchange between Riley and a long term fan, who now believes that his analysis “stinks” of internalised colonisation. The emails are a fascinating insight both into internal contradictions which “the 99%” will have to reconcile, and the challenges facing ‘celebrities’ who wish to engage with social movements in an egalitarian way.

Dear Boots,

When I first heard your music, almost two decades ago, I swooned at the political insight, at the beats, at beauty of seeing Black people using the mic to check white power, corporate capitalism, and misogynist shenanigans. You and Pam the Funkstress created a space for me in hip hop at time when I felt sidelined in that movement.

When I first started coming to the encampment at Ogawa/Grant Plaza, I felt a similar sense of excitement. Here was a brother who was making sure that the table was long and wide, welcoming of everyone and especially those of us at the margins of the 99% in Oakland. You made me hopeful that together we were capable of turning that table into barricade against police violence and a platform for liberation, pure and sweet and real. Hearing your comments at the General Assembly last night as we were debating the name change – Occupy Oakland to Decolonize/Liberate Oakland – made me sad and angry; I felt like you stole the table, rearranged the seating charts, and left me at the door.

This is my mic check of a different kind, an open email letter.

When you spoke last night, you mentioned that the name of The Coup doesn’t alienate people from your message. Even though coups are associated with right-wing paramilitary movements, you noted, The Coup is not. There is no confusion over your name, no ambiguity about your message. You then chided supporters of the proposal for the name change for confusing words with deeds and emphasized your support for the name Occupy Oakland.

Boots, your comparison stinks. It overlooks people like me who want a name that better reflects the movement of the 99% as it exists in Oakland. It ignores the voices of the Chochenyo Ohlone and native sisters like Krea Gomez and Morning Star Gali who assert that the name Occupy Oakland replicates the violence of colonialism. It turns the phrase the 99% into an empty sales pitch, and I’m not buying it. Your comparison cuts the movement down to size, recentering white entitlement to the “seats of power.” As if that’s the goal. I didn’t come to this movement to sit down. I came to rise up and decolonize Oakland.

“Life is a challenge, and you gotta team up.
If you play house pretend the man clean up.
You too busy with the other things you gotta do.
When you start something, now remember, follow through.”
– The Coup, 2001

Clean your draws, Boots.

Love, Darshan

My response:

To start, I’m gonna try to ignore the offensive sign off remark.

When AIM took over Alcatraz in the 70s, they said- “We are Occupying Alcatraz”. The same word was used at Wounded Knee, I believe. Throughout Mexico, Central America, and South America- when movements take over a space- they “occupy” it. The word is used in very revolutionary ways. It’s obviously not just about the word.

I honestly believe that even POC movements of the last 30 years in the bay area especially- of which I feel like I’ve been a part of- has been very isolated from communities of color and don’t have their finger on the pulse of what will involve them. The reasons have to do with the campaigns we’ve embarked on and the style that we’ve approached them. The focus on this word is indicative of that.

I’m all about decolonizing.
I’m all about fighting capitalism.

I have only no songs, since 1994 that use the word “capitalism”. I have only 1 song since then that uses the word “communist”. However, everyone knows that I’m a communist and that I want to destroy capitalism. This is because I talk about what we need to do and what’s wrong with this system without using the same terminology.

Most folks of color have no idea what the term decolonize means. It is not a liberating term to most, it is simply another term that academics use. Similarly, most don’t even have the political connotation with the word Occupy as it relates to colonialism.

Also, the debate over the name change hasn’t been POC on one side and white folks on the other. There were both POC and White folks voting for the name change, and POC and White folks voting against. Your view about the name change doesn’t make you somehow more on the side of people of color than I am.

Like I said, Saturday, I canvassed door-to-door in West Oakland. ACCE has been canvassing door-to-door in East Oakland since just after Nov 2. What I hear from the response from folks at ACCE and from my own interactions with folks of color that I know in Oakland, is that people are excited by OO, if a little confused on the ultimate goal, the name is the identifier, and they feel that it is connected to the larger movement and that it actually has the ability to change things through direct action. One of the reasons people feel its connected to the larger movement is the name.

Of course, the MAIN thing against it that people of color voice- particularly the Black folks I talk to- is “Oh, you mean all the White folks downtown?”

That doesn’t change with the name.
It will only change through involving ourselves in campaigns that people feel have the power to affect their material condition in their daily life. This is something that even POC movements in my lifetime have failed to do.

The real problems of race and racism in this and any movement don’t begin to get solved with a name change. They begin with a movement that actually addresses the material needs of people of color and one which makes space for people of color. Let’s talk about the remedies to those problems.

Although you say my comparison stinks, you did not negate it’s analogical validity.

My opinion doesn’t overlook your, or anyone’s opinion. It disagrees with yours.

Please don’t come at me disrespectfully with comments like “Clean your draws, Boots”.

Thank you.

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