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  1. We were sitting on the raised flowerbed along the southern perimeter
  2. of Liberty Plaza, chatting while we finished our meals. The din of the
  3. general assembly meeting could be heard in the background and Harris
  4. was telling me about the punk band he’d been in during the ’80s when
  5. three men came over and interrupted. “This is the guy I was telling you
  6. about, who the police told to come here.” Bob, an old timer who I’ve seen
  7. around at a number of marches and OWS events, had been talking with
  8. us earlier about being homeless in New York. Now he was back with
  9. these two men, one of them apparently from “legal.” They were all eager
  10. to hear Harris’s story about how he’d been sleeping uptown when two
  11. police officers woke him up, told him that there had been a complaint,
  12. and suggested that he “go down to Zuccotti”:
  13. Bob: Hey, Harris, tell them about what happened with the police.
  14. Harris: Well, I’ve been sleeping in the same place for the last ten years
  15. and I have never been bothered by any “complaints.” But these two police
  16. officers come over and wake me up . . . They made sure that I got up
  17. to leave, but I didn’t come down here. I just went to another one of my
  18. spots.
  19. Harris talked about how he knew everyone in the neighborhood and has
  20. never caused any trouble, and how it seemed impossible that someone
  21. would all of a sudden raise a complaint. The man from legal then interjected: “So, then it’s confirmed. The police are actually doing this.” There
  22. was a pause and then he looked directly at Harris and said sternly: “Go back uptown".
  23.  
  24. It took a moment to register that this was an act of banishment. The
  25. silence was broken by Bob, supplicating awkwardly, “But wait, no, Harris
  26. is actually a good guy. Like I was saying . . .” But Harris was quick with a
  27. response that dissolved the tension. “I’m not sleeping here.” He went on
  28. to talk about how he had been distributing chocolate throughout the day.
  29. Having momentarily placated his adversary, he continued, “The problem
  30. with these other homeless people who are coming down here is that they
  31. are not contributing.”
  32. Now reconciled, the conversation turned to why “contributing” should
  33. be the basic criteria for whether the homeless should be allowed to stay.
  34. The legal attaché waxed political about how freeloaders were bad for the
  35. movement, but that homeless who are willing to contribute could be an
  36. asset. Then the two men asked Harris if he would make a proposal to
  37. the general assembly summing up their conversation. Harris declined,
  38. but they persuaded him to dictate a message that they could read on his
  39. behalf. I was appointed scribe and wrote down his declaration:
  40. If you are not contributing to the movement, then why are you
  41. here? If you do not go on marches, why are you here? This
  42. is a society of people who have come together to protest. If
  43. you are not protesting, why are you here? This is not a place
  44. for free food or free cigarettes. If you live in New York,
  45. go home. If you are homeless in New York, there are plenty
  46. of places to be homeless. Go there. Feel free to visit, maybe
  47. even eat some free food, occasionally. But don’t stay here.
  48. Don’t cause trouble. This society gives us enough trouble.
  49. This encounter conveys the challenges that lie ahead in relations between
  50. the Occupy Movement and chronically homeless, who have been present
  51. since its inception. Based on our observations, it appears that the general
  52. exclusion of the homeless from public life has already begun to take root
  53. in the Occupy Movement as a way of establishing legitimate occupation movement as vagrant and lawless, putting pressure on municipal authorities to crack down. Indeed, the largest risk seems to lie in this politics
  54. of representation, through which municipal governments might convert
  55. the question of occupation from a political right of protest to a question
  56. of “public health and safety”—the classic premise used against homeless
  57. encampments for decades.
  58. Reframing the Homeless Question
  59. Through these representations of the homeless, both in the media and
  60. at times within the movement itself, the homeless question has become
  61. framed as an informal calculus of the costs and benefits of including or
  62. excluding the most brutally impoverished. At this critical moment in the
  63. progress of the movement, the homeless question has become a question
  64. of exclusion, legitimacy, and belonging.
  65. There are a series of problems involved in conflating the right to camp
  66. with a responsibility to contribute. First, the question of “contribution”
  67. and demanding proof of support for the cause is discriminatory; it is a
  68. burden faced only by those who “appear homeless.” Those who can pass
  69. for “real protesters” in their dress, disposition, and discussion are considered assets in their mere presence and rarely questioned. Second, it is
  70. important to remember that many of the occupy camps have co-opted
  71. public spaces that had long been occupied by the homeless, and in some
  72. cases have even displaced these populations. In some cases, the protests
  73. have even inadvertently drawn violence towards these rough sleepers.
  74.  
  75. One homeless woman we spoke to in Oakland, who had been sleeping
  76. around Oscar Grant Plaza long before the occupation, complained of
  77. being tear-gassed and robbed in the wake of a protest. Third, the dichotomy of “contributing” and “freeloader” mirrors the more general divisive distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor.
  78. We must therefore reframe the homeless question beyond the division into those “dissenting or seeking shelter” (as the New York Times
  79. headline had it). Although some homeless people may be converted to
  80. the goals of dissent, many will not or cannot, and the movement must
  81. take special care not to instrumentalize this precarious group in the way
  82. it seems the NYPD has. At the same time, opposing the survival goals of
  83. the homeless and the political goals of the occupiers has led to discriminatory practices at OWS and elsewhere, such as those of the Zuccotti
  84. kitchen staff who were recently embroiled in accusations of discrimination against those who appeared to be “professionally homeless.”
  85. The “homeless problem” of OWS is not a problem of the movement,
  86. but rather of the economic system at which it is aimed. It is a problem
  87. that society ignores or treats through punishment and exclusion, but
  88. the movement cannot afford to respond to it in this way. The “homeless
  89. question” should be reframed as a question of how dissenters should
  90. treat those seeking food and a safe place to sleep. Rather than supporting a politics of exclusion towards the homeless, some occupations have
  91. explicitly taken up their cause. The kitchens at Occupy Oakland and
  92. Occupy Philadelphia openly aim to feed the city’s homeless. In Atlanta,
  93. protesters are working to save a shelter that is at risk of shutting down,
  94. and in Austin the movement has mobilized to push for more affordable
  95. housing and legalizing tent cities for the homeless.  These efforts point
  96. to what new forms of solidarity and alliance could look like. Although
  97. protesters and the homeless may differ in their use of occupied spaces,
  98. the movement cannot afford to let this difference mask the more relevant question of why both groups have come to share the same ground.
  99.  “Why Are You Here?”
  100. The way Harris used the rhetorical question “Why are you here?” to
  101. shame the “undeserving” resonates with the homeless question currently posed in both in the media and sadly within parts of the movement itself. It is important for the movement to take Harris’ question
  102. seriously and articulate why it is that scores of homeless have flocked to
  103. occupations for relief. Why are the homeless are at these occupations
  104. rather than other public places? In our discussions with the homeless in
  105. New York and Oakland it became apparent that they are simultaneously
  106. being pushed by the punitive edge of the state, directed to the park by
  107. the police, and pulled in by the failure of miserly welfare policies, preferring g to eat in an environment without the demeaning rituals of shelters
  108. and soup kitchens. 
  109. Jane, an African-American woman in her forties who has only recently
  110. become homeless, was staying at a shelter in Richmond until Occupy
  111. Oakland set up camp in Frank Ogawa Plaza. Although she complains
  112. about the colder weather, she prefers her outdoor campsite to the shelter
  113. bed. “That shelter is dangerous, dirty, and the staff treats you like shit.
  114. Here, I feel like I have a voice, and people treat you like a real person.
  115. I can weather this cold for a bit of dignity.” Jim, a homeless man who
  116. has lived on the streets for over a decade and is sympathetic but not contributing to the movement, has been spending more and more time
  117. around Oakland’s encampment. “Cops and businesses give you a hard
  118. time around this city, telling you to move on, its nice to have a space
  119. where you don’t feel threatened.”
  120. In this respect, many occupations are incubating a movement against
  121. the punitive practices of banishment towards the chronically homeless.
  122. These practices are also inherent in what’s left of our degrading welfare
  123. provisions, which observe—with parsimonious strictness—distinctions
  124. between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. At the same time, those
  125. in the movement are understandably concerned that such a strategy
  126. might overwhelm the camps’ capacities and, in becoming the primary
  127. function of the site, obfuscate a cause whose goals are much broader.
  128. As we move forward, grappling with both immediate and long-term
  129. questions about the place of the homeless in this movement, it is essential that we remember the systemic and historical connections that bind
  130. us together. That the history of capitalism is also the history of systemic
  131. social and economic exclusion. And that today we are all at risk of becoming part of the relative surplus population.
  132. Moments of expulsion and economic relegation have occurred in fits
  133. and spurts throughout modern history, but they are most acute during
  134. periods of general economic crisis. It is therefore to this logic of exclusion and crisis that we should look to in posing the question, “Why are
  135. you here?” What is important is that the answer actually encompasses
  136. both the homeless and the broader OWS movement—both have been brought into existence by economic relegation, crisis, and expulsion. We
  137. must understand that a common logic underlies the mass foreclosures,
  138. the expulsion of low and middle-income earners from their homes, the
  139. emergence of an indebted and seemingly economically redundant generation of students, the growth of mass incarceration as a tool for containing impoverished populations, the widespread and growing homelessness of the past forty years, and the racial dynamics that play out
  140. in these processes. It is no simple coincidence that street homelessness
  141. reemerged in America at the same historical moment that the top 1 percent began its rapid ascent, in the early 1970s. It is only when we take
  142. our common predicament seriously that we can answer the question of
  143. why we are here. We each have our own story, but ultimately we have
  144. arrived together at this juncture of precariousness, insecurity, and exclusion. This common predicament must become a source of solidarity and
  145. a foundation for the difficult task of building a new politics of inclusion.