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Occupy Wall Street: Radical Inclusiveness

January 17, 2012

On December 17th, we tried to re-establish our physical camp at another vastly underused public/private space downtown, Duarte Park.  When the police starting arresting hundreds of us at Duarte, we dispersed into spontaneous marches at various locations throughout the city.  In the evening the word went out: reassemble at the atrium at 60 Wall Street, where most of our working group meetings are held.

Problem was, the cops got word too.  By the time my group got there, the atrium was “closed for cleaning”.  Of course, they usually never closed the place for cleaning at that time.  We knew what they meant.  We knew what they were trying to say about us.

We continued walking to different spaces and doing impromptu rallies, letting the police chase us around town–a waste of taxpayer money, yes.  But the decision to waste money was the NYPD’s, not ours.  They weren’t preventing crimes–the Occupy movement has always been, and continues to be, non-violent.  But we were visible, our suffering and our anger and our love for each other all on full display.  Especially when the tents were up at Zuccotti and we were giving all those homeless people free food and shelter.  If there’s one thing city government hates, it’s visible homeless people.

(So then why don’t they solve the problem permanently by giving the homeless places to live?  More on that later.)

On January 12th, I attended a meeting for a new project called “Adopt An Occupier”, or “Host An Occupier”.  The idea is to match up occupiers needing housing with people who want to host them.  The problem, as with our current shelter arrangement with the churches, was to make sure the most vulnerable weren’t excluded a priori.  The churches offering shelter to occupiers had no accommodations to make their spaces accessible for people with physical disabilities or PTSD.  The “Adopt An Occupier” initial setup was worse.  It involved an “eyeball screening” by a nurse for things like scabies and mental “instability”, followed by a questionnaire that included questions about age, education and work experience.  There was also the ambiguous question, “Will you walk a dog?” which could mean, “Do you have a dog?” or could mean, “Will you walk someone else’s dog in exchange for housing?”  Razor spoke about how such exchanges open the door to an exploitative situation often faced by homeless people and illegal immigrants, where the “guest” has to do all kinds of jobs for the “host” for no pay or be forced back onto the street.  I talked about how the screenings by nurses provided an avenue for discrimination based on health status, and proposed to not bother with a third-person screening process: just let the “hosts” post ads and “guests” answer them, and everyone can decide for themselves who they want to share space with.

The mood at the meeting was not good.  Razor said about the questionnaire: “I just want to go on record as having stated that I oppose this.”  That’s the kind of position people take when they have no power, or think they have no power.  I wasn’t much better, phrasing my proposal as “I think we should…” rather than “Can we all agree to…?”  This kind of learned helplessness has become habitual for 99% of Americans.  The very first item on Occupy Wall Street’s agenda is to unlearn it.  Thus: the direct democracy structure of the General Assemblies, the “progressive stack” system where members of more-helpless groups speak first, etc.  But the movement’s failing to live up to its standards of inclusiveness in this one meeting does not mean the standards are set too high, or that inclusiveness is a lost cause.  To think that way is short-sighted and defeatist.  I can’t be in New York enough days right now to have a hand in the entire “Host An Occupier” process, but Razor can, and I’m staying in touch with him.  Others at the meeting seconded our push against a prior screening process for occupiers needing housing, and they may take up the issue more actively as well.

Saturday’s General Assembly was more productive.  A proposal was brought for a spending freeze.  Over four hours of discussion in freezing cold Zuccotti Park, with more than one loud interruption from outside, the original proposal for a complete spending freeze was modified again and again.  In the end the consensus was that we did need to curb wasteful spending, but unlike Congress, we were not willing to balance the budget on the backs of our needy.  The spending freeze passed, but with exceptions carved out for spending on housing, food, transportation and medical needs, as well as previously made spending commitments like our website hosting agreement.  We also agreed to hold a “financial assembly” early next week, where the entire budget would be hashed out in depth.

These issues matter, and not just for the obvious reason: human beings in immediate need of shelter.  The way I see it, there are two overarching goals to the Occupy movement.  One is to force the powers that be to effect change.  It’s this goal that motivates projects like Occupy the SEC, a careful slog through legislative documents to find out and call out loopholes.  It’s this goal that motivates the endless round of public protests, like Saturday’s rally protesting Nigeria’s fuel subsidy cuts and ongoing corruption, or the MLK Day marches calling for an end to the Federal Reserve’s discount loans to criminal banks, for a big WPA-style public works program hiring the unemployed at union wages, for Cablevision to stop trying prevent its workers from unionizing.

The other goal of Occupy is to serve as a model for the future, to show what a society could look like where every human being is treated with dignity.  And it’s this goal, and the actions that flow from it, that make Occupy radically different from most of the social justice movements that have preceded it in this country.  A.N.S.W.E.R. and United for Peace and Justice, the main organizers of anti-war rallies in the past two decades, aren’t run democratically.  You can’t walk into one of their meetings and help make decisions on finances; you probably don’t even know when and where those meetings are.  The groups that try to get progressive politicians into office don’t feed and house people in the here-and-now.  “Be the change you wish to see in the world”, Gandhi’s old saw, is found on a lot of buttons and bumper stickers but much more rarely put into practice by political groups.  Those who do tend to be the more radical ones: the Black Panthers with their free school breakfasts and health clinics (and much more), the anarchists in Food Not Bombs with their free vegetarian community meals, the squatter movement.  It’s the difference, I guess, between those who want to tweak around the edges of our current world and those who want to create a new one wholesale.  It’s also a class difference.  Movements with a lot of poor people know that covering the cost of transportation or childcare can make the difference between a drop-out and a dedicated organizer.  They tend to be more oriented towards self-help rather than altruism, and therefore more likely to have members decide democratically which issues to focus on.

As occupiers, our vision of what a just society should look like is most severely tested when we deal with those who don’t play by the rules.  The way Occupy Wall Street handles these situations is still flawed and evolving, but this should not make us discount the ways in which Occupy’s response is much better than the mainstream’s.  Example: Saturday’s General Assembly was interrupted by a guy yelling about the “derelicts and drug addicts” at the churches that shelter occupiers, and yelling that the movement was “full of lies and deceit”.  Four people, including one who knew him personally, came forward to talk him down.  Several cops moved in, ready to arrest him for yelling (and possibly for general homelessness–his clothes had that look), but our mediators stopped them.  He left, no one was arrested, and the General Assembly went on with barely a pause.

To live out Occupy’s principle of treating every human being with dignity means fighting against the tendency, so prevalent in the larger society, to find a marginalized group, stereotype them, and blame them for everything bad.  This tendency pits oppressed people against each other and benefits those who already have money and power.  The “homeless mentally ill” stereotype supports the pharmaceutical industry and a small army of doctors and social workers, and allows greedy landlords sitting on warehoused vacant properties to demonize squatters far more effectively than they ever could by relying on abstract arguments about property rights.  It also allows those in city government to continue to not solve the homelessness problem, which benefits them because solving it would require either spending lots of taxpayer dollars, or (horrors!) taking actions that piss off the big real estate developers who contribute heavily to their election campaigns.  It’s the same principle that fuels Republican “welfare queen” myths: why give the needy what they need, when it’s so much easier and cheaper to pretend they don’t deserve it?

I see my job in the Occupy movement as making sure that the interests of the 99%’s most vulnerable are not set aside.  My experience is that of being demonized as mentally ill, so I primarily talk about that.  I want us to do it right this time.  Right now 99% of us are getting screwed by the system, but if that figure moved to 80% or 49% or even 1%, for me that would not be enough.  I want to see a world where nobody gets screwed.  The Occupy movement is about bringing that world into being.

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