Sikhs Occupying Wall Street

In October I wrote a piece about Sikhs and the Occupy Wall Street movement, stating, “I havent seen one other person who was easily identifiable as a Sikh. Im sure other Sikhs have come through at different times, but to be sure, this is no significant Sikh presence.” I am glad to report that this has most definitely changed. I see Singhs and Kaurs at Zuccotti Park aka Liberty Square almost every time I am down there (which is quite often!). In fact, one day last week, there were six turbans in Liberty Square at one time. Needless to say, I was pretty excited, and proud.

"Occupy Yoga" at Liberty Square

In my last post, I made an argument for why Sikhs should be supportive of the Occupy Together movements from a Sikh philosophical perspective, discussing the Khalsa revolution’s “plebian mission,” as Jagjit Singh calls it, and our Gurus’ calls to stand with the poor, the “lowest of the low.”

This time I want to focus less on the ideology and more on the process of Occupy Wall Street, on what is actually happening there.

The primary decision-making body at Occupy Wall Street (and most of the other Occupy movements) is the General Assembly, which is a large gathering run by consensus process (technically modified consensus where a 9/10 vote is needed to pass a proposal if consensus cannot be reached). In NYC’s Occupy Wall Street movement, we have just adopted an additional consensus-based model for decision-making called a spokes council, where each working group or caucus will have a “spoke” in the large wheel of the movement, and each group will have to rotate its spoke for each meeting to ensure collectivity and prevent hierarchies.

This movement is structured radically different than our system of representative democracy here in the US (and most other parts of the so-called “free world”). It’s clear that those who are building this movement have little faith our system of “democracy,” where political participation means casting a vote every couple of years and then entrusting our leaders to do whatever they please. I wouldn’t argue that Occupy Wall Street is leaderless, as many state, but that it has a structure where we are all empowered to be leaders.

The way this movement is coming together to make decisions and build is not unlike the way the Khalsa has come together for the last several hundred years through the Sarbat Khalsa. The first Sarbat Khalsa was convened by Guru Gobind Singh before his death in 1708, and has been used as an ongoing consensus-based process where the Panth has come together in times of struggle and hardship.

1986 Sarbat Khalsa in Amritsar

The last major Sarbat Khalsa was in 1986 when tens of thousands of Sikhs came together and agreed to declare their independence in the form of Khalistan. While I am sure the Sarbat Khalsa process has had its contradictions and challenges and has likely been very male-dominated in the past, I take great inspiration from our community’s history of direct democracy. I’m not exactly sure what it would take to revitalize this process today for the Sikh Quom, but in the mean time, perhaps we will see some of our history reflected in the form of general assemblies throughout North America (and elsewhere) in the Occupy movements.

Another parallel is the centrality of the community kitchen at Occupy Wall Street, which of course mirrors our Sikh institution of langar. The Kitchen Working Group has been serving free meals to 2000 to 4000 people, three meals a day. Most of the food is purchased with money that is donated to the movement, while some come through in-kind donations from all over the world. Anyone who approaches the make-shift kitchen area at Liberty Square is given free food, no questions asked. The food, most of which is locally-sourced and organic, is being prepared at an industrial kitchen in Brooklyn and delivered to the park several times a day.

Last night, I was at a meeting of the People of Color Caucus at OWS, and a member of the Kitchen Working Group informed us that they want to support the activities, events, and occupations happening in the outer-boroughs (largely inhabited by people of color) by offering free food deliveries at those sites. The young man stated, “We want to use food to bring people together.”

We Sikhs are no strangers to how food brings community and sangat together, as langar halls are always bustling with energy, activity and conversation. Nor are we strangers to the powerful act of seva of preparing and serving a meal for thousands of people.

There has been some talk about a group of Sikhs in NYC coming together to make langar for Occupy Wall Street, but no progress on that front yet. Although I know a group of desis who have been regularly doing chai seva for the occupiers, in what they call the Chai Party Movement.

So whether in the form of playing dhol at marches (in my case), participating in general assemblies, serving food, or even teaching yoga (as a group of 3HO Sikhs do daily at the park), there is an important role for Sikhs in this movement– a role that is very much in line with the Sikh way of life.



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12 Responses to “Sikhs Occupying Wall Street”

  1. jkaur says:

    A wonderful article!

  2. T> M Singh says:

    Like the write up !

    TM Singh

  3. Blighty Singh says:

    But what exactly are you occupying Wall Street for brooklynwala ? If you're looking for tighter regulation of the fat cats there then shouldn't you be occupying Washington instead ? Either way… as a New Yorker will be the biggest loser. New York has already lost out to London as the financial centre of the world. Any tighter regulation and even Frankfurt will overtake you.
    Having said that….from watching tv images of the occupation of both wall street and St. Pauls in the city of London….the New York occupation does indeed seem to be a much more multi-cultural…multi-religious affair. The London occupation…..despite being in the most multi-cultural city on earth….is 100% pale white middle class leftie hippie in character.
    Basically, hippies that like to go camping in tents.
    The only thing remotely 'sikh' about the occupations in both cities is the mass of 'V' for Vendetta Guy Fawkes masks. Not only the black beard and moustache but also the fact that he was willing to fight for and die for his persecuted religion ; Catholicism. A few dozen or hundreds of protestors in those masks is nothing but a waste of time. To be anything meaningfull you need hundreds of thousands of people there. Lets face it mate, that ain't gonna happen. Waste of time. Fortunately for hippies though….they have no concept of time. Given that they still dress like its 1969.

  4. Jodha says:

    Dreaming of #occupypunjab – what would take to start #occupyamritsar #occupyludhiana #occupychandigarh #occupybhatinda #occupyjalandhar etc. etc. ?

  5. brooklynwala says:

    just saw this article in the washington post which highlights the seva of a Sikh in Occupy DC:
    "Khalsa, 29, has no experience in professional kitchens. About a month ago, he took a break from his job as a trucker to attend the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial; he hasn’t left yet. A previous gig as an inventory analyst with Coca-Cola, he says, gave him the skills to pinpoint problems on the spot. He works 16 to 17 hours a day and doesn’t suffer fools who dare bog down his operation.

    If you ask why Khalsa volunteers for this thankless work, he won’t invoke any slow-food ideals of shared meals and sharing knowledge about sustainability. Instead, he’ll invoke his religion, Sikhism. “I like to help people,” says the turbaned Khalsa, who embodies both authority and the collective. He’s the master of his kitchen and the servant of the hungry."

  6. […] to be a rather slow week for me and the fellow langa(w)riters. Maybe we’re at #occupywallstreet, or preparing for Fauja Singh’s appearance at SikhLens this weekend in Los Angeles, or who […]