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Hippies Pitch Tents, Mayors Pitch Fits

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I hadn’t realized how much hope I’d lost. For the first couple week of Occupy Wall Street, I watched with relatively little interest from the sidelines. Most of my updates came from the constant badgering of sometime Street Sheet writer Carol Harvey, who was hip to the importance of the movement weeks before I was. I just had to go down, she would tell me. This is what we’ve all been waiting for. I think I found some polite way to say: Carol, I am one hell of a busy man. I don’t have time to go camping. Besides which, the whole point of our work at the Coalition on Homelessness is that sleeping on urban streets sucks, and no one should have to do it. Doing this on purpose in October is stu– counterintuitive.

Following this, I had a few salty conversations with my housemates about the occupiers. Mostly, we were confused. One housemate who had happened to be in New York to check out Zucotti Park: I was like, “So you’re going to try to get all of poor, working, and middle class America onto your side by hanging out in the park in a drum circle. Good luck with that.” But it looks like I was wrong. I was maybe a bit more curmudgeonly: Who were these people?

Where had they come from? Why were they only plugging into economic justice now, when it had become this suddenly hip thing? Where had they been when we were fighting against the sit/lie law? Or for a housing fund? Or against the criminalization of Black and Latino youth for being in public in their own communities? Subsequent conversations have led me to believe that that grumpiness—which might possibly include the tiniest element of jealousy—is something I held in common with many other community and union organizers.

When I did finally go down to OccupySF, it didn’t take me long to fall in love. A week later, I moved in. OccupySF is a complicated, messy place where a couple hundred people are putting their all into developing a new society where democracy is meaningful, and where there is greater economic equality. There’s so much that’s new, that’s beautiful, that’s creative.

But much is also familiar.

On October 17, over 80 police officers in riot gear came to the camp to remove all tents and tarps. In the process, they arrested five of our campmates for peacefully resisting the theft of their belongings. Members of the camp and supporters from around San Francisco gathered to sit in protest in front of the DPW truck and the paddy wagon. Officers beat some of us, dragged others of us out of the way, threw people from one part of the street to others. But after the two vehicles left, the SFPD officers milled about for an hour—apparently lacking any further instructions—and then left. Before they were gone, our first tarp was back up. Campers still had enough of their belongings that a new camp was up by sunrise.

Among those who were new to such actions—including many of the college students, the disaffected middle class, the uncategorizable potpourri of San Franciscans who had been inspired by the Occupy movement, and the few homeless people who had been successful at avoiding police attention up until that point—SFPD’s actions were confusing. Why bully us, but leave enough of us, with enough belongings, that we could keep on camping?

The presence of riot gear indicates that SFDP knew that there was something new, here, something big. But their tactics indicate that they were still thinking of OccupySF—halfway appropriately—as a homeless people’s encampment.

It’s rational, if you are forced to live outside, to try to live in groups. There are serious elements of both safety and convenience. Unfortunately, San Francisco, like many cities, has determined that witnessing the magnitude of poverty in our country is bad for society, and that encampments should thus be busted up. It is not rational, if you live outside and are woefully outnumbered and entirely unarmed, to try to hold a patch of dirt against armed police. Thus, when cops bust up homeless encampments, they don’t have to arrest or beat everyone: All they need to do is destroy or confiscate a couple people’s belongings and assault or arrest a couple others. Everyone else would be crazy to hang around to be the next in line for this treatment.

Homelessness in the US really grew out of the economic policies of the later Carter and the Reagan eras. By the end of the 1980s, homelessness had become a serious political issue in most urban areas of the country. In San Francisco, a camp grew in Civic Center Plaza, across from City Hall, of dozens and then hundreds of homeless people who chose to live with each other for safety. Camp Agnos, as it was called, was a media nightmare for its mayoral namesake. After two years of working on developing a woefully inadequate shelter program that could house only a fifth of the number of people reported to stay in the camp, Mayor Art Agnos had SFPD invade the camp, using force and arrest to scatter its inhabitants. There was no attempt to reclaim the camp, and that one-night raid in the summer of 1990 was enough to put an end to Camp Agnos.

It was this tactic which SFPD tried to use against OccupySF on October 17. But it didn’t work.

This is how OccupySF is very different from any other homeless encampment. We’re not just trying to survive. We’re recognizing that holding onto ground right in the face of the most oppressive 1% of society is the means that we have right now to fight back, and to take back the country that they have stolen.

The more heavy-handed tactic of the Oakland Police Department a week later—and which Mayor Lee still threatens to implement in San Francisco—have been no more successful. Occupy Oakland is already back in Oscar Grant Plaza—along, it should be added, with the dozens of homeless people who are part of that camp. Our local governments, entrenched as they are in their ways, are finally beginning to realize that their traditional tools of driving poor people and people of color out of public discourse are simply not working this time around.

But that doesn’t mean that OccupySF isn’t a homeless encampment. Progressive observers of the Occupy Wall Street movement such as Barbara Ehrenreich have recognized that the occupants are facing many of the same challenges that homeless people have known for decades: they are on the wrong side of the law, and are constantly harassed by police and other city agencies. They have a hell of a time finding legal places to attend to Nature’s call. Hygiene and santitation are a constant challenge.

This is a story in which the mainstream media seems to be a little ahead of progressive media: The occupiers aren’t just people who are experiencing some fraction of what it’s like to be homeless—many of the occupiers are homeless. And the story, as told in the media, makes sense, and has some truth: The camps are safer than isolation on the street. There’s not enough free food, but there’s free food. And there’s a culture of acceptance which turns no one away. Certainly, many homeless San Franciscans have joined OccupySF for precisely these reasons.

But this story falls short, because it fails to recognize that homeless people might actually be politicized. Homeless people have been part of OccupySF since the beginning. I hope that this is obvious, but a hint just in case: Homeless people are part of the x%, where x is a number that has two digits. The financial sector created the real estate market in which poor people can no longer afford market-rate housing. The financial sector pushed for the tax cuts which made it easier for the Federal government to stop constructing and to start closing down public housing. The financial sector has been far and away the biggest backer of laws such as sit/lie (nearly 90% of the funding for the sit/lie law came from venture capitalists and the Silicon Valley businesses they fund), that make it a crime to be homeless in public places. They took our homes, they priced us out of any other homes, and then they made it a crime for the poorest of us to exist at all: The 1% has been no friend to homeless people.

While some housed occupiers fall into classist thinking that sees homeless people as being somehow different from the camp (usually ignoring people’s actual housing status in order to create this false distinction in their minds), others fully get it. We have work to do as a camp, and dissolving this distinction is one of them.

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Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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