I'm on a number of listservs across the activist spectrum, and have noticed an increasing tendency toward what might be termed “ideological opportunism” on the part of some sectors that ostensibly stand in support of the Occupy Movement. The hallmarks are conveyed in broad claims such as: “The movement must act in this manner…” or “These people are ruining the movement for the rest of us…” or “Why don’t they just leave and find their own movement…” History clearly shows how easy it is for movements to fracture along a number of these sorts of interrelated fault lines, as well as how readily those who wish to derail movements will exacerbate such tensions — and the increasing display of these sentiments plays right into that eventuality.
I would suggest instead that we consider what it means to build a movement, and more broadly a society, for everyone without exception. The idea that certain segments — most viscerally the derogatory and divisive tropes of the “freeloading homeless” or the “violent anarchists” — don’t belong in the movement and should be excised due to their conduct and/or status is offensive, shortsighted, and ultimately contradictory to the aims of the movement. Achieving the liberation of only those who already “get it” or who are capable of comporting themselves with someone else’s version of what a movement space should look like is simply more of the same “us versus them” thinking that has fomented this moment of global crisis in the first place.
This doesn’t mean that anything goes. People need to work together to establish expectations and evolve mutual understandings about behavior within encampments and out in the streets. Those who contravene these expectations should not, however, hastily be cast aside as “mentally ill” or “violent thugs,” but rather should be viewed as equivalent recipients of the ministrations of the culture of violence (both of the physical and mental varieties) in which we’ve all been inculcated. This understanding is one of the basic overarching principles of “restorative justice,” namely that offenders are also victims, and that in almost all cases (with rare exceptions where deeper interventions such as banishment are required) people can be redeemed and reintegrated as constructive participants in a healthy society.
More broadly, the aim is to build a world in which the impetus to commit violence, engage in theft, or act in other socially unproductive ways is greatly diminished if not altogether abandoned. The drivers of the vast majority of antisocial behaviors are attributable in large measure to the pervasiveness of social inequality, lack of opportunity, mistreatment of ailments, punitive rather than restorative justice, processes of dehumanization, and loss of access to therapeutic outlets including nature experiences. The larger cultural narrative of “individual pathology” as the cause of crime and deviance in society is primarily a self-fulfilling prophecy — and it further excuses the truly pathological behaviors of those in power who set the terms and conditions of acceptable conduct, immunizing their own while demonizing that of others.
The existence of this self-insulating elitism gets to the essence of the claims being asserted by the Occupy Movement. The very concept of a General Assembly based on consensus decision-making means that we don’t have the luxury of excluding those with whom we disagree. The aim should be to find points of collaboration wherever possible, and strategies of healthy remediation where further interventions are required. But recent emerging calls to establish a movement orthodoxy, to blame certain sectors for “hijacking” the movement, or to imply that official repression is the fault of these segments, are blatantly ahistorical and eminently divisive. Simply put, it is the way of the 1 percent, and not that of the 99 percent.
Let me focus on two areas in particular to illustrate this situation further. Increasingly, these have both emerged as points of contention and potential fracture for the movement. Yet having worked within both of these milieus for many years, I believe they also represent opportunities to strengthen the movement and to develop capacities for creating a world premised on diversity, equality, mutuality, restoration, cooperation, and interconnection. This is the aim, but we won’t get there by practicing inconsistent means that merely replicate the “out of sight, out of mind” approach of mainstream society. In this sense, the call to banish those who display problematic behaviors is nonsensical. Where else will they go? If we can’t help them, who will? At the end of the day, what we desire is a world where everyone is “at home” and welcome to exist.
Trope #1: The freeloading, drug-addicted, mentally ill homeless person
A recent description of Occupy Portland as a “street people magnet” contains this assessment of the impact that the homeless have had on the encampment there:
“As one of my students and a devoted Occupy worker put it, ‘What street person WOULDN’T be attracted to free food, no serious rules and at least some temporary protection from police?’ That sums up a situation that may seem delightful to those who romanticize street folk but the reports are coming in from many Occupy encampments of police starting to raid tents and find meth, other drugs, inevitable incidents of schizophrenic breaks, fist-fighting and so forth. Street people suffer the hardest, but they also spread their suffering around. This is not their fault, but a movement that cannot handle this influx cannot pass muster with the general public.”
This analysis concludes that “when the armed agents of the state come, they will do so with the full approval of most of the citizens” due to the display of antisocial, violent, drug-addled behaviors in the encampments. The Trojan horse of “public health and safety” concerns as a pretext for sweeping camps has already been advanced in many locales, but as we saw in Oakland it is largely a fabrication that it is quite paradoxical since the agents of the state are a far greater health and safety threat. Moreover, homeless people have been at the leading edge of such arguments and policies for decades, experiencing overt repression and constant official harassment in cities around the world. True concerns about health and safety would include the needs of the homeless rather than coming through policies of denigration that only feed back into the problem. And if violence and drugs are excuses for shutting things down, then let’s close the whole culture.
Further, homeless people have actually set up inspiring examples of encampments that could serve to inform and educate the Occupy Movement — including Dignity Village in Portland, OR and the 1980s experiment called Justiceville in Los Angeles. These spaces were constructed and facilitated by homeless people as egalitarian, self-managed, autonomous communities; while the latter was mercilessly decimated by city officials, the former has lasted for more than a decade. Even outside of such formal encampments, homeless people often have created street communities based on resource sharing and other forms of solidarity. And many are informal experts in navigating the sorts of public laws (e.g., urban camping, sit-lie ordinances, trespassing) that Occupy encampments confront. There is much to be schooled on from these experiences.
Rather than pushing them away based on stereotypical characterizations, movements should embrace and learn from the homeless. Again, it doesn’t mean that anything goes — in fact, Dignity Village itself has “rules” about violence and drugs — but you don’t move to extirpate people as a class at the first signs of trouble. Are there bad apples? Of course: but we are all imprinted with the scars of an unhealthy, brutalizing culture, and incidences of deviant behavior are equivalently distributed across every demographic. Instead, let’s develop and implement practices of mediation, conflict resolution, nonviolent intervention, facilitation, dialogue, and community engagement to address individual behaviors that transgress consensed norms and expectations. Indeed, to borrow an overplayed movement catchphrase, this is what democracy looks like when practiced.
A recent article by Rania Khalek documents four Occupy camps in particular that have embraced the homeless as part of the overall “social equality” aims of the movement. In Portland, the camp has sought to “self-police” problematic behaviors, even as the city and strapped organizations may be sending homeless people there in numbers beyond the capacity to absorb them. “This is why we’re out here in the first place, and they are also the 99 percent,” said one organizer. As another participant observed, “They’re here not just because of the resources. They’re here also because for the first time a silent population is here to be given a voice.” A New York Times article likewise chronicles the growing homeless presence in the camps, depicting it as equal parts challenge and opportunity, but noting that “the economic deprivation they suffer might symbolize the grievance at the heart of this protest.” In Atlanta, as the report further describes, when Occupy demonstrators were removed from a public park, they were given space on the upper floors of a local homeless shelter “in a full-scale embrace of the cause of the 600 residents who live below them.”
Similarly, at Occupy Nashville challenges have emerged but, as an organizer noted, “I can’t paint the whole homeless community with one brush, because we have a lot of homeless folks that have hunkered down and been there far more days than not and are filling responsible roles within the encampment and helping out a tremendous amount, even to the point of acting as impromptu liaisons with homeless folks who maybe are confused or drunk or mentally not in charge of their faculties.” Occupy Phoenix has a sizable and active “homeless demographic” involved, according to the local media, with one of the homeless participants stating, “The organization of this has been like a blessing. I’ve been able to feel like I’m committed to a cause.” One Phoenix volunteer, in apost for Salon, poignantly concluded that “it is the most powerless, the most voiceless of our population who has the biggest stake in this movement. They are the ones who’ve lost the most: their homes, their livelihoods and their families. And they must battle every day to maintain their self respect. It is only fitting that they are the ones who have stepped forward and assumed these roles in our own little corner of the Occupy movement.” Occupy Philly may well have the most evolved apparatus for integrating homeless people, resulting in a situation where, according to local organizer Ivan Boothe in an email message, “probably a third of the folks actively involved in working groups were homeless prior to Occupy Philly. There’s been strategy from the beginning about trying to build a movement with the homeless folks who were already calling the grounds around City Hall (where Occupy Philly is) their home.”
As Barbara Ehrenreich has concluded: “Homelessness is not a side issue unconnected to plutocracy and greed. It’s where we’re all eventually headed — the 99%, or at least the 70%, of us, every debt-loaded college grad, out-of-work school teacher, and impoverished senior — unless this revolution succeeds.” Working with marginalized populations is never easy, but rather than reifying patterns of demonization or seeking to excise troubled actors, the Occupy Movement should strive to embrace and learn from homeless participants. This must be part of the working vision for a new world.
Trope #2: The violent, irresponsible, dangerous anarchist
A recent piece on ZNet effectively summarizes the growing angst over the presence of anarchists in the Occupy Movement, complete with the general descriptors familiar to the milieu: “The so-called anarchists, or black bloc, or whatever they call themselves, are a mixture of ultraleftists, romantically confused adventurers, spoiled brats, police infiltrators and agents provocateurs, immature teen rebels without serious analysis, dedicated but underinformed activists who genuinely believe violence is best, and testosterone-addled young males.” Whenever something goes awry in a movement context, including the breaking of windows or other displays of more confrontational tactics, it’s par for the course for fingers to point in the direction of “the anarchists” as a class, as the Bay Area Anarchist General Assembly recently observed: “We have seen the government, the corporate media, and even some of our comrades within the Occupy Oakland camp make ‘anarchists’ the scapegoats for actions they disagree with, and we’ve heard that ‘anarchists’ take advantage of the Occupy movement without ‘being a part of it.’” In this manner — in addition to certain outward markers of appearance and identity construction, as well as popular notions of being people who exist “outside the law” — anarchists and the homeless often find themselves grouped together vis-à-vis patterns of demonization.
Even from those sympathetic with anarchist practices and positions, there have been calls for a mollification of tactics within the Occupy Movement, including from well-known organizers and activists like Starhawk and Lisa Fithian. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with stating one’s views on how activists ought to comport themselves for maximum effect, the challenge is to do so without adding to the construction of anarchists as problematic, provocateurs, and the like. In arguing for a strategic move to nonviolent direct action, Starhawk et al. call into question the continuing viability of the “diversity of tactics” slogan that movements have generally adopted: “‘Diversity of tactics’ becomes an easy way to avoid wrestling with questions of strategy and accountability. It lets us off the hook from doing the hard work of debating our positions and coming to agreements about how we want to act together. It becomes a code for ‘anything goes,’ and makes it impossible for our movements to hold anyone accountable for their actions.”
In its place, these influential and respected voices call for a framework of transparency, accountability, and mutual agreements within movement settings. In fact, I advocated something similar last summer in the aftermath of the Oscar Grant and G20 demonstrations:“The point of offering this nexus between anarchism and nonviolence at this juncture is simply to suggest that we look for ways to support and bolster both paradigms since they are increasingly coming into contact with one another in the real world of on-the-ground activism and organizing. Rather than repeat useful but by now tired mantras about respecting a ‘diversity of tactics,’ we might consider instead looking to generate a ‘complementarity of tactics’ in which the choices we make are mutually-reinforcing. This is particularly true in an era when provocateurs and propagandists alike can easily exploit the tensions among movement cohorts to denigrate all.”
So while I’m in strategic agreement with the sentiments at play here, I resist the conclusion reached when it comes to the matter of how to deal with those who contravene the premise. Starhawk et al. assert that “anyone urging other courses of action can be reminded of those agreements or rejected” — and it’s this last part that for me is too reminiscent of calls to excise elements that pose challenges to our sensibilities, as articulated by Tom Hastings on ZNet: “If Occupy … cannot understand that it needs to evict anyone failing to sign on to a nonviolent code of conduct for all actions associated with the movement, including an alcohol-and-drug-free encampment, it will sink.” As Rebecca Solnit has opined in arguing for nonviolence within Occupy, “If you wish to do something the great majority of us oppose, do it on your own.” Even more to the point, as reported on AlterNet, one Oakland protestor commented on the instances of vandalism that took place there: “Who are these people? They’re not staying here with us, they’re not participating in the GAs [general assemblies] and as far as I’m concerned, they’re not a part of this movement.”
I don’t doubt the intentions and sincerity of those urging a nonviolent stance, but to reject someone from the open spaces of a movement that is purporting to represent the 99 percent is to consign them to where, exactly? Since they are presumably not part of the 1 percent (hired provocateurs aside), if they are banished from the 99 percent what options does that leave them? When a movement decides to “self-police,” that shouldn’t be confused with adopting the same punitive and illogical methods of the state. We can forge agreements and work by consensus, but that cannot be used as a wedge to weed out and expunge those who contravene our best-laid plans. Rather, the aim should be to create processes based on the best practices of restorative justice, peacekeeping, and personal healing in order to promote points of contact and ongoing dialogue among all who find their way to the movement. We won’t all agree on everything, but surely we can at least maintain a perspective in which our interests are seen as broadly aligned and our common humanity remains intact.
These practices won’t work in every case, yet if we’re serious about building a better world — one that is managed by and for actual people — we would do well to begin learning these skills straight away. Rather than seeing the presence of divergent elements as a threat to movement cohesion or as an exploitable image that the media will seize upon to denigrate us further, Occupy encampments can become models of communities that don’t simply warehouse unpopular or difficult elements, but instead work with them to promote the creation of a society based on mutual respect and the utilization of the productive capacities of all of its members. This isn’t utopian, it’s pragmatic — and it’s essential if we truly desire a world that doesn’t simply replicate the intolerance and injustice embedded in the dominant culture orchestrated by the power elite.
Are we building a movement based on how the media portray us or what Middle America will think of us? To the contrary: we are Middle America, and we are the media. And we can no more disavow homelessness or violence in our ranks than disavow ourselves, since the vast majority of us are in reality homeless (who owns your house, if you still have one?) and since we’re all responsible for and imprinted by the culture of violence in which we’ve been living. The point of the movement is to confront and alter these conditions, creating a world where everyone is at home and in which violence is the aberration rather than the norm. Sweeping these issues under the rug or casting them out altogether misses a profound learning opportunity, and likewise sidesteps a potential “teachable moment” where a contrasting message of inclusivity and solidarity can be communicated through creative, evolutionary practices of transparency and self-management. These are the values missing from Wall Street — and reclaiming them is why people are out in force everywhere.
In conclusion, I would offer the example of the Rainbow Family, who in many ways are the progenitors of the “public space encampment” model appearing everywhere today. Setting up village-like camps in national forests for nearly 40 years — at times with tens of thousands of participants — the workings of the community are managed by processes of consensus and cooperation in the context of a leaderless (i.e., anarchistic) social structure. Commercialism is entirely eschewed in favor of a “free economy” model where no one is turned away; the basic vision is summed up with the oft-heard phrase, “Welcome Home!” It’s not a perfect system and there are problems at times to be sure, but the primary goals are inclusion and reintegration to every extent possible. Certainly no one is categorically excluded by virtue of being homeless or an anarchist. People are treated as individuals, and the group seeks to help them heal from the inherent violence of our society.
If the Occupy Movement can embrace these challenges and opportunities, then it will have achieved something far beyond the status of “movement of the moment” that it presently enjoys. And it will also come to truly represent the 99 percent, with no exceptions.
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association and as Contributing Editor for New Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008), and the co-edited volume Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary Voices of Hope and Action (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).