Tuesday, November 29th
I arrived at OccupySeattle today around lunch time, in fact just minutes after lunch ran out. They don’t have much of a kitchen, partly because there is no running water there and the health dept. has apparently been breathing down their necks about it. A local food kitchen donates scores of hot meals every day, so they serve that till it’s gone, along with daily breakfast and coffee.
Since the food tents are usually where the most people congregate, that is where I went first to get the feel of the camp. Just as the person in front of me was told that the food was gone, a middle-aged couple showed up and asked where to donate blankets and socks and other items. They were directed to the info tent, but not before I grabbed a quick interview. Shortly afterward, I got another story from one of the kitchen crew.
A flyer was circulating about a demonstration this Friday, the date Seattle Central Community College has given OccupySeattle to vacate the school’s front lawn. According to the OccupySeattle website, the school last week passed an emergency resolution allowing them to evict the camp. The counter argument is that tents and a 24-hour presence is the signature feature of this movement’s free-speech right. The guy who handed me the flyer mentioned that they might be going to a new location.
Like OccupyBellingham and OccupyTacoma yesterday, many people were still down at OccupyOlympia, participating in sit-ins (and getting arrested) at the capitol. That meant that there weren’t many people to talk to. I tried to strike up casual conversations with a number of people who seemed to not want to be bothered (and one guy who was clearly nuts), but ended up mostly talking with a young woman who is strong supporter of Occupy and a student at Seattle Central Community College, on whose lawn the occupation is taking place. We talked about many of the issues facing Occupy at the moment, particularly the problem of the homeless and those with mental health problems who often end up at encampments out of desperation.
“Problem” is actually not the right term, since the presence of anyone, regardless of housing or mental health status, should be welcomed. Conflicts surface when unstable people engage in disruptive behavior or when the media chooses to focus on them or street people as the face of the Occupy movement. Both serve to alienate potential supporters who are a bit more mainstream or conventional in outlook and lifestyle. Since the working and middle-class are Occupy’s largest support base, this is significant.
We’re not a poor country. We just handed over trillions of dollars to the wealthiest 1% to bail out their bad financial decisions while ignoring the people on the bottom, for whom a cheap room and basic food or mental and physical health care could be provided at pennies on the Wall Street bailout dollar. In my opinion, the challenge is to convey the idea that the presence of so many street people flocking to Occupy camps does not discredit Occupy, but indicts the very systemic inequality that Occupy is protesting. Homeless people are the most visible example of the system’s grossly out-of-wack priorities. It is crucial that we not continue to “invisibilize” them.
The homeless are not the problem, they are the symptom. I think most occupiers would fully agree with that statement, but the challenge remains about how to incorporate them into the movement that they are very legitimately part of without the negative impacts and without Occupy camps becoming de facto homeless shelters, something we’re not really equipped to be. Ultimately, it comes down the the question of rewriting and owning the narrative, the story that we’re telling the world about who we are. The crazies, addicts, drunks and chronically poor are the ones first in line for the sharp end of the bankers’ stick. It is our job to turn that relationship around, to change the story so that the homeless and mentally ill, become a visible excoriation of the system of greed.
Parking in that area of Seattle is a hassle, not to mention expensive. By 3:30pm, I had to rush back to avoid a ticket. I got there with six minutes to spare, had a late burrito lunch, warmed up and went back out in the fading light. The camp had by then become more lively. I’m finding that getting conversations going only requires finding one person who will chat, because within seconds, you’ll have a small impromptu discussion group. At that point it is easy to pick out someone who has a story I like and ask if they want to be recorded. I uploaded one more story, before needing to go back and move the truck again. By this time, it was dark and a cold, light rain had begun to fall. I decided to call it a day and go meet up with a filmmaker friend at a local bar before heading back to his house for the evening.
In the morning, I’ll be having breakfast with an old climbing buddy from nearly thirty years ago whom I reconnected with on Facebook. From there, I’ll make a quick stop at OccupyTacoma and then continue to see what shenanigans OccupyOlympia cooks up at the capitol. If you’re on Twitter, follow the events there at #OccupyOlympia and #OccupyTheCapitol or check out their website at http://occupyolympia.org