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Occupy and the Homeless

Tragedy in Vermont

by RON JACOBS

In an incident that can only be described as tragic, a man took his life inside a tent at the Burlington, VT Occupy camp the afternoon of November 10, 2011.  Like every Occupy camp, the one in Burlington, VT. has a fair share of men and women without homes living there.  This man Josh was one of them.  He was also a vet.  In a statement released to the press, Occupy Vermont-Burlington wrote:  “Despite our best efforts to provide care and support to all our members of the (Occupy) community, occupations are not equipped with the infrastructure and resources needed to care for the most vulnerable members of our community….  This tragedy draws attention to the gross inequalities within our system.”

The location of the camp in Burlington is in a small city park adjacent to the City Hall building.  This park has been a traditional gathering spot for some of the homeless, transient and out-of-work population of the city for decades.  After Occupy moved in, some police and city officials attempted to blame the long-term situation of the homeless in the park on the presence of the Occupy tents.  Years of alcohol abuse by a few individuals and accompanying crude remarks, arguments and the occasional fight were suddenly blamed on the Occupy camp.  Police told the local Gannett media outlet that these folks and the incidents they created were only occurring because the occupiers had set up their camp.  Of course, this was nonsense and was quickly rejected by the bulk of Burlington’s residents.  However, the issues associated with a few of the park’s more-or-less permanent denizens remain for the Occupy encampment to deal with.

In economic terms, the homeless represent the ultimate failing of the capitalist model, especially its neoliberal form.  Those that lost their homes in the housing/credit default crash of 2008 are but the most recent examples of what’s wrong with this model of finance capital.  However, even those that social service agencies label as hard core homeless are homeless because monopoly capitalism has failed them.  Perhaps they lost their job when the corporation moved overseas.  Perhaps they served in the military fighting some war for capital that destroyed their ability to function without drugs and alcohol. Perhaps they are mentally ill and have no support system beyond the SSI check they get (if they get one at all).  This latter can be seen as an exaggerated form of what Marx termed social alienation.  In other words, that process exacerbated by the emphasis that capitalism places on individualism as the agent that drives history and society, whereby people become foreign to the world they are living in.

The presence of the homeless in the camps is eye-opening for many of the occupiers that have a place indoors to return to.  For many, it is an exercise in reversing the “otherness” of the homeless.  No longer are they men and women one might have crossed the street to avoid or dropped a coin in their cup.  Nor are they mere demographic statistics or anecdotal people that shore up one’s theories of government policy and its shortcomings.  In the camps, the homeless become people with whom one must figure out a way to get along with.  For those very few that just don’t want to get along, other avenues of dealing with them must be made apparent.  Key to this process is forgetting the label and seeing the persons.

Other media reports about the Occupy movement seem to work overly hard at separating the long term homeless from the occupiers.  These “real” homeless, state these articles, resent the presence of the occupation while acknowledging that the tents in the park make it easier for them to exist without police harassment.  In other words, this type of press represents an attempt to create class divisions between those whom the neoliberal economy has already discarded with those that are fighting to prevent that economy from destroying more lives.  This reportage is nothing new.  In fact, the mainstream media has long represented those without homes in the capitalist world as creatures whose existence deserves at best pity and the occasional meal.  For those with less compassion than your average member of the church social justice committee, the homeless deserve nothing.  Not even dignity.  Then again, handouts that demand access to one’s soul (like those provided by Salvation Army and many other faith-based organizations) don’t leave one with much dignity either.  My anecdotal evidence suggests that most of the homeless involved with Occupy are glad for the camp not only because it makes it easier for them to survive on the streets, but because it gives them something meaningful to do beyond mere survival.

In occupations I was involved with in the past–most notably at Berkeley’s People’s Park in 1979–it was the homeless that protected the space from police and other ne’er-do-wells.  Unafraid of the violence they knew the police and their unofficial allies (usually right wing frat boys in the case of Berkeley) to be capable of, these men and women stayed in the camp for weeks.  They excised threats of physical violence with words, intimidation and the occasional fist.  When fellow campers stepped out of line regarding women or fighting, the occupiers chosen by the rest of us to enforce certain levels of respect did so.

It seems rougher on the streets now then back in 1979.  Times have changed and issues are somewhat different.  Generally speaking, the men and women without homes who are with the Occupy movement are not symbols to be romanticized nor individuals to be ostracized.  Besides being witness to the harm capitalism can do to a person’s livelihood, they are allies and, like the rest of us, come with their own suppositions, hopes and problems.  While we try to effect change in the world we can also effect change in ourselves and those we occupy with.

Ron Jacobs is the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.