So, not only have I been out of the news loop as of late, I have also been house bound for a while. Today was the first day I have been in downtown Providence in god knows how long. It was the first time I saw the Occupy Providence encampment. They are all over the news today as the City is considering their offer to break the camp if the City opens a day shelter for the homeless.
I was there to catch a bus. A long bus ride and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was bothering me about the encampment. At first, it was the fact that it was obvious they were getting little help insofar as advice on how one prepares to camp outdoors when the weather turns cold. There were tarps on top of the tent, but none below. Simple, basic camping survival. The park was a mess because of the windstorm from the other night and the City had brought trucks in to help them clean up. All in all, OP has had a decent relationship with the City, they even moved the encampment for a bit so the City could get into the occupied park to winterize the underground sprinkler systems.
There have been issues, of course. Some violence, some drugs, some crime. But that does not so much reflect on the people who are a part of the Occupy movement as it does on natural social group dynamics in this culture. No matter why a group is gathered there will be some who will see it as something to take advantage of or use for their own gain.
The bigger issue was over the presence of the homeless. Burnside Park, where OP is set up, has been the local homeless refuge for decades. Suddenly there are expensive tents, free food, laptops, cell phones etc and so forth. A couple of thefts later and many people wanted the homeless banned from the park. That is a discussion that is plaguing most of the Occupy encampments. They are the 98%, don’t like the 1% that are wealthy but have no idea what to do with the 1% that has been out of the social loop for years. The movement is mostly focused on the idea of people who have lost jobs or are unable to get jobs that are sustaining; the presence of the homeless puts them face to face with a community that is so far down the scale of problems. A job would be nice, but so would food and shelter. The addiction and mental health issues many homeless develop because of their homelessness is something that many of the student occupiers are not equipped to deal with.
I read a great article (and wish I could remember the link) that interviewed several of the Occupy “leaders” and they talked quite openly about the difficulties of trying to resolve all the different approaches (political activism versus drumming and chanting) and trying to figure out where the homeless fit into all of this. As I said, Occupy Providence has made the issue of a day shelter for the homeless a primary and single goal. I have a feeling they might achieve it. One single-minded goal is easier to achieve than 20 or 30 vague statements. That does make me proud of them.
On the bus ride back I figured out what was bothering me. It really has nothing to do with the Occupy people but instead with the reaction of the City and state to them.
Back in 2009, a group of homeless banded together and formed two tent cities. The tent cities were tucked under an overpass, out of the public way fare and the camps were very well organized. They created the camps because there are both not enough shelters to handle all of the homeless here and, many of the homeless do not wish to go to a shelter because they are dangerous and dehumanizing.
It took very little time for the City and state to come down hard on them to break the camps. The state Supreme Court ruled that camping is not allowed on City land and this ruling allowed for the swift eviction of the homeless.
One of the things that is tricky about the Occupy movement is that many are not aware that for some, those who are in the 99% in one arena are in the 1% in another. I have no doubt that the presence of the students in the tents had a great deal to do with the lack of swift action to break the camp. After all, a student in college is usually the product of parents that vote.
The homeless are seen as even lower than animals by most of the authority institutions (including the very ones who are created to “help” them). There was no fervor to provide them with food and blankets and first aid and Wi-Fi and phones and charging stations. They got some community assistance but they did it themselves. The tent cities were the ones who truly started to create a new society, not the Occupy encampment. People in the tent cities stepped out of the mainstream society and began to make their own way and they were absolutely stomped on. People in the Occupy movement climbed onto the back of the mainstream society and are receiving accolades in many forms.
Perhaps the difference is that the tent cities said, “We don’t need you” and occupy has said, “We need you to change.”
It has made me a little angry when I made the connection today. But then again, it is an example of what the problem is – my 1% may not be yours and yours may not be mine. But I do value my integrity and for that reason, I think more lessons can be learned from looking at the various homeless tent cities then the occupy encampments.
Occupy is evolving, into what I don’t think anyone knows. It will be interesting to see what happens in DC on the Occupy Washington Day. Will there be a single goal that all will come behind and achieve? Or will it devolve?
But I will say this; Occupy Providence deserves a pat on the back for calling for that day shelter as a condition for their leaving. I said it once and I will say it again, I am deeply proud of them.
c.2011. Cassandra Tribe. All Rights Reserved.