Broward News

Occupy Is Dead. Long Live Occupy! Or, How Homeless Phobia Is Marginalizing Everything

Happy new year! You may remember one of the more original social phenomena of 2011. It was called "the Occupy movement." A couple of guys got together and put out a call through Adbusters magazine for disenfranchised folks to sit around and draw attention to the highfalutin few who systematically pillaged our collective way of life.

Oh, last year. Some cities' occupations imploded with raids -- Oakland, Portland, New York a couple of times -- but Occupy Fort Lauderdale, once it found a safe space outside City Hall, sort of just diminished.

On Christmas Day, the group sent out a dire message on its Facebook page:

The 24/7 Occupation at City Hall is in danger. We currently have no Occupiers, but two, that are affiliated with Occupy Fort Lauderdale. The other 25 are all homeless, who have participated in fights across the street and are now seeking sanctuary at our Occupation. A decision was made at last week's GA to discuss removing the Occupation because of these very problems. 

No good tidings for the movement that once drew hundreds to Las Olas and Huizenga Plaza (protesters had resurrected the unpleasant name "Bubier Park," as New Yorkers had restored the name of "Liberty Plaza," perhaps shying away from association with one of the most ruthless rich people in South Florida). 

The death bells had already been ringing for some time. Before the original New York campsite was raided, Occupy "founders" Kalle Lasn and Micah White were planning an occupation-free "Stage II."

But down here, and maybe everywhere, the movement had run into a more sinister trend that seems to forecast general apathy. Occupy had once gained credence from the fact that people like you were taking part. Low-level businessmen were stopping by on their days off; the unemployed and the employed could come together in mutual recognition that they were both being screwed, essentially. It was truly a popular movement, for a while there. It excited us (well, me at least) because it seemed like what we had all envisioned when we heard of Tahrir Square -- ordinarily comfortable people, awoken to action by a critical mass of oppression or forgotten hope.

Nothing will sour that mood like the notion that it's "charity" or a "homeless camp" or another one of the myriad ways we invent to sweep the permanently poor under the rug. While the 99 percent thought about breaking its chains, still unexamined was a deeper order, the prejudice of the oppressed that inclines one to hate those who are even more oppressed.

We, in America, cannot talk rationally about homelessness. It is wrapped up with the fact that people find homelessness disgusting. In my earliest reporting days, I was a little dumbfounded by the opportunity to talk to homeless people and realize, embarrassingly, that they are people. They have the same brains and bodies and human impulses as we do and no reasonable way to cultivate those things into human decency. Whatever the reasons -- family or drink or drugs or fate -- they sit on the margins of society, being always talked about or "helped" or pitied but never invited to the party. And to those who always camp outside, the 99 percent probably looks like a pretty amazing party.

So when the campout was diminished to those who would have camped out anyway, the scorn set in. The lost relevancy of our movement and the alarm voiced by occupiers that homeless people were taking over the camp are not coincidental. In an emperor's-new-clothes announcement, Occupy said, "Look over here!" 

To most, homelessness says, "Look away."

I encountered the same tragic anxiety when reporting on Food Not Bombs. In the 1980s, Keith McHenry and his Cambridge colleagues started feeding people for free in Harvard Square. They weren't doing "charity" -- McHenry still rightly recoils at that term -- but staging a revolutionary act: Regular people, who would have otherwise gone out and paid for lunch, could get one for free, alongside anarchists and activists and anyone else (homeless or not) who wanted to. This was a sheer rejection of the capitalist system, and it was so out of place in the busy marketplace that it served to draw attention to McHenry's thesis: that the world's too messed up to be distributing bombs instead of food.

One day as we drove from Cape Coral to Orlando, McHenry and I talked about the notion of "charity." He said that passing out food to the poor, then going home feeling good about yourself, only strengthens the idea that everything is OK. That the system is going according to plan, and that plan includes some people who will always need a handout.

Food Not Bombs rejects that idea. They say the whole system is broken and we might as well fix it. They reject the idea of "helping the homeless" because they don't think it should matter, when one comes to the dinner table, where he lives. Some of the Food Not Bombs volunteers I met in Broward were homeless; many others were not. But the goal, the pinnacle of the experience, was when everyone just stood around and talked and ate the same stuff. 

Kind of like what Occupy used to be.

I'm not writing this to be alarmist or to (permanently) piss off the scores of people who have poured their hearts, time, and money into making the Occupy movement stick for a while in South Florida's Teflon political sphere. If alt-weekly reporters tended to be divided into either fawning admirers or artificially jaded critics of Occupy, I would have counted myself in the first camp. I, like the movement's founders, would be incredibly titillated by some next phase of action. 

But growing, as any therapist or self-help book will tell you, is a matter of examining the definitions of the things we cling to, especially those that bring us pain. If seeing a homeless person -- or 25 -- in front of City Hall makes you recoil (or just walk by a little faster)? It's worth thinking about whether the forces that made that person homeless are the same ones that separate the 99 percent from the 1.

Or maybe you think it's their fault, that they are indeed a different animal. That they'll infect any worthwhile attempt at change. That it's worth risking a little discord if you can keep a distrustful eye on those who have even less than you do.

You certainly wouldn't be the first.

Stefan Kamph: Twitter | Facebook | Email
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Stefan Kamph
Contact: Stefan Kamph