Sunday, December 11, 2011

Why the Encampments ARE Important: Waiting for Spring

From my current favorite blog We are the 99% on tumblr:
I grew up in a single parent home in a basement apartment. The government has refused to give my family any type of financial help since ‘95. My playgrounds were surrounded by rapists. My schools were filled with drug dealers. My apartment building was taken over by gang-bangers. And many of my friends have been shot/murdered. I am an African-American female. I have been told that I am at ‘the bottom of the list’…as in the government’s list of concerns. My family has never been on vacation and we still can not afford a car. BUT THAT HAS NOT STOPPED US! My mother has been ill for almost 10 years, but that has not stopped her. My brother and I have made it to college because they can’t stop us. Even now, my mother is unemployed and can’t afford our education…but guess what? THAT WILL NOT STOP US! I am 19 and have been denied jobs because my name is Akuabba. I am the 99% looking for change. Until I am able to pay off my mother’s piling medical bills, take care of my tuition bills and take my mother on a two week vacation, I will not stop occupying Chicago.
Now is the winter of our discontent, and I  am often awake too late or too early watching the sometimes violent, sometimes sneaky, sometimes ridiculous attempts of the poorly paid minions of the 1% -- whose growing arsenal of sophisticated weaponry is worth far more than their pension -- to evict the 99% from their encampments.

There has been a lot of thoughtful talk about how the encampments aren't really a necessary part of the Occupy Everything movement, and the compelling case against them lines up like so:

1) Maintaining the encampments takes so much energy and time that the activism they were supposed to supports is harmed, not helped.

2) Many of the encampments are not safe for women.

3) Many of the encampments are not safe for anyone, because in some cases municipal police deliberately populate them with violent or drug addicted citizens. In other cases, people who were already living on the streets are drawn to a place with free food, shelter, warmth and companionship -- which is understandable, and mirrors the fundamental failure of capitalism to care for people that the 99% have been talking about -- until someone gets hit on the head with a hatchet for playing a snare drum at 7am and refusing to stop when asked. A not insignificant footnote to this point is that some of the encampments were and are located in a public space that homeless people were already using.

4) The encampments necessarily look messy, ruin the grass and, for a variety of similar reasons, create a bad impression on fence sitters among the 99%. It hardly needs mentioning that the mainstream media capitalizes on this at every turn. (Remember back in the day when mean cheerleaders grew up to be mad housewives instead of snarky t.v. "news" anchors?)
CNNMoneyTech October 12, 2011
So a typical scenario, in a U.S. big city at least, goes something like this: an encampment springs up for political reasons, it attracts some apolitical people just looking to get their needs met, it becomes somewhat messy in the way of campsites everywhere, it is threatened by authorities on the basis of either crimes that occur there or perceived public health issues, it draws a large crowd of supporters in response to the threat, and it is raided under cover of darkness once the crowd has dwindled.

Repeat cycle, except maybe in the unseasonably warm but still growing chilly northern latitudes.

Sometimes an encampment wins in court, then loses, or vice versa. Sometimes, as in the case of Occupy Augusta, it loses in court and decides to decamp by choice and with dignity, rather than apply for a permit to exercise 1st amendment rights of speech, assembly, and petition for redress of grievances.

But here is why I don't agree with those who argue that encampments are not necessary to continue to grow the movement.

1) While monitoring the Twitter feed as Occupy Boston faced eviction after losing in court, I saw a tweet that said something like The last 20 calls on my phone are from people I didn't even know a month ago. #OccupyBoston.

2) For many teenagers, their closest Occupy site is like Woodstock: something inestimably attractive, shining like a beacon in the distance when one has turned 18 and one's parents can no longer forbid one to go to it.

3) Without continuous presence in public space, how much mainstream media coverage would the grievances of the 99% be getting? Compare with nearly non-existent MSM coverage of large marches, well-attended demonstrations, and small but colorful one-off events speaking truth to power.

I want to elaborate more on reason #1 because I think it is the most important. I am an organizer, and a communications specialist, so people in my area often contact me or read one of my email blasts to find out what's going on. Just yesterday one of the most dedicated long term activists in my state called to discuss something else, and was surprised -- and glad -- to learn of a large rally on Wed. 12/14 at 10am in the Hall of Flags in Augusta to protest the huge cuts to funding for health care and other services about to come down in Maine. I did not organize the rally, nor will I be able to attend, but I help by publicizing it. I do not fault my peaceful friend for not reading all the emails I send him. Who could? Even an information junkie like me often finds it challenging to know what's happening when and where, and to arrange my life so that I can show up and lend a hand. And I'm one of the lucky ones, because I have the resources and time and motivation to be involved, and the contacts to help me.

But as long as there was an encampment in Augusta, or in Bangor, or Portland, or SF, or NYC,  I didn't need any additional information. I didn't need to know anyone or coordinate with anyone if I wanted to support the effort. I just showed up. And so did students, and grandparents, and environmental advocates, and reporters, and infiltrators, and tourists, and....

This is why I think the encampments are important and will endure, sprouting again like mushrooms come spring.

One last bit of anecdotal evidence: In the summer of 2011 my sister and I visited an encampment of occupiers at Glen Cove on the northern edge of the vast waterway that is the San Francisco Bay. Indigenous people and supporters were encamped there for 97 days to block the proposed desecration of a sacred shell mound burial site -- one of the few remaining heritage sites that has not been disturbed for development. Cookie cutter McHouses in pale stucco marched down a hillside toward the bay, but stopped short of the water's edge, where a large field kitchen and many small tents dotted the undeveloped land.

We were greeted warmly at the Glen Cove encampment, and offered food; it was early in the morning, and we asked permission to sit by the side of the water to meditate, which was granted. Afterward we made an offering to the sacred fire that was kept continuously burning, after receiving some instruction about how to respect the space, and were again offered food. We talked with one of the long term campers for a while about their purpose for occupying, and when we departed we took some literature and bought a t-shirt for another family member.
Glen Cove activists. Source: Yes! Magazine
On the day after Thanksgiving (or as the Wampanoag tribe in New England prefers, the National Day of Mourning) we returned with two more people. The four of us were aghast to find bulldozers and chain link fencing, not an encampment. Of course I did some research when I got home. Turns out that the occupiers were successful in negotiating with those developing a park there not to disturb the shell mound portion of the site, or to pave it to put in a parking lot. Activists say they will continue to monitor the land use closely to see that the agreement is honored.

When Occupy Wall St. sprang up this fall I recognized where I had seen this organized, communal approach to outdoor living: at Glen Cove.

With indigenous wisdom on the proper use and care for Mother Earth, I believe the 99% can endure.

(Yes, of course there are a ton of useful, powerful actions to be taken while occupying/not occupying. More on that in my next post. A particularly lively example: the West Coast Port Shutdown plan for Monday 12/12/11. Onward!)

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