Place of the Homeless in the Occupy Movement

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Discussion

Arun Gupta:

A third challenge of Occupy’s belief in democracy is whether or not homeless people are a legitimate part of the movement. The instant any occupation set down stakes in an American city or town, it attracted society’s dispossessed in search of food, shelter, medical care and counseling. Many perceived, often unfairly, that the Occupy demonstrators had introduced the drug abuse, violence and mental illness that bedeviled many camps. The occupiers insisted, often correctly, that these social maladies had existed all along, studiously ignored by news organizations and right-wing bloggers. (In fact, as Rebecca Solnit reported, crime in Oakland actually went down 19 percent during Occupy Oakland.)

Nonetheless, the challenge of the homeless for the movement was profound. So-called street people are consummate members of the 99 percent. Their troubled lives are the outcome of decades of public policies calculated to deindustrialize the economy, emaciate cities, ghettoize the poor and minorities, and shred the safety net. But in Occupy camps all across the country the same split emerged between those who felt that the homeless, runaways, train hoppers and itinerants were central to the movement versus those who felt that they drained resources and diverted energy from the task at hand.

This divide played out at Occupy Los Angeles at City Hall, mere blocks from thousands of homeless who bed down every night in the largest skid row in the country. Ruth Fowler, a journalist, screenwriter and member of facilitation team at Occupy Los Angeles, told me via email that “Skid row residents were extremely vigilant in self policing the encampment, and running out the inevitable dealers, thieves and violent individuals who made their way over there.” Of the seven U.S.-based occupations she visited, Fowler said “Occupy L.A. didn’t have any more incidences of drug and alcohol use than other encampments.”

But tensions still surfaced. Fowler saw a conflict between “radicals who believe the worst thing you can ever do to anyone is call the cops on them, given the brutality and corruption of the police and the prison industrial complex, and liberals who would rather call the cops, sweep an issue under the carpet, and focus on legislation reform.” (http://www.salon.com/2012/02/27/occupys_challenge_reinventing_democracy/)