Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Poor Sleep Among Us

Occupy Portland has rightly been receiving criticism. If Chapman and Lownsdale Squares were filled with homeless people instead of with the privileged creative class, the city would not bend to their demands. In fact, the city would run them out of the parks. The police would enforce the anti-camping ordinances. The city council would use the encampment as an excuse to write rules more draconian than the controversial sit-lie laws. But the bongo-slapping hippies and anonymous types in Guy Fawkes masks can stay, the argument goes, because they are mostly middle class and mostly white. The conflict has been summed up by a sign hanging outside Occupy Portland that disparaged the camp as PRIVILEGED DIGNITY VILLAGE.

To heighten the contradiction, another illegal homeless camp has sprung up on West Burnside. As this camp exists solely to help the homeless, and as it appears on a block of land owned by a man who has been in near constant conflict with the city over the land's use (Anybody remember "Randy Leonard's Hit Squad"?), the outlook for this second encampment is far less rosy. It has already received warnings from the Bureau of Development Services. Nobody expects this second encampment to last very long. The Portland Mercury's Denis C. Theriault points to the injustice: "[I]n Portland, apparently, not all occupations are created equal."

While accurate, this criticism misses the point. First, Occupy Portland is a political and cultural movement the likes of which have not been seen in the US since Richard Milhous Nixon prowled the Oval Office, rubbing together his blood-stained hands, and shouting obscenities into hidden microphones. City governments can no more easily channel the tidal anger represented by the occupations than officials in coastal Japan could hold back a tsunami. The wrong reaction  could result in a Fukushima of toxic public sentiment. Police actions against other occupations, most notably Occupy Wall Street, have increased public sympathy while drawing attention to the issues of economic and political inequality that motivate this movement. Those in charge realize we might have a Tiananmen moment on our hands. In an era of the democratic panopticon, where cameras are as ubiquitous as Starbucks, they want to avoid any iconic images like this, this, or this. Thus they choose to bide their time and accommodate the occupation.

Second, Occupy Portland has not created a space for privilege while excluding the poorest among us. In fact, those experiencing homelessness, including families, have been arriving at the occupation to find a safe place to sleep. At the occupation, they can live with dignity without being awakened each morning by a swift kick in the ribs, and without their economic condition being criminalized.

Finally, the occupation has opened up a space for discussion and action around a community of issues, including homelessness. The Pew Research Center points out that the economy is now the most important media topic, "largely driven by dramatically increasing media attention to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations." Not only has the tone and content of the American conversation shifted, but solidarity actions across the country have sprouted like mushrooms after the rain. Occupy LA, for example, has joined forces with Rose Gudiel and ReFund California to save her family's home from foreclosure. With each success, the people become more emboldened. The occupations have shifted the balance of power away from the pro-corporate propaganda of the colonized media and toward an occupied consciousness.

The issues raised by the occupations have yet to be hashed out and clarified. While the battle lines have largely been drawn, the major clashes have not yet occurred. The city of Portland has not yet decisively responded to the new homeless encampment on West Burnside. More importantly, we have yet to see what sort of solidarity action Occupy Portland will engage in when the city moves against the West Burnside encampment. This much is certain: the future is untweeted, and in a networked world, information travels with seismic velocity. We won't know what hit us till we are dusting ourselves off.

No comments:

Post a Comment