Monday, September 21, 2015

Occupy Wall Street Pushes Back Against the Criminalization of Poverty, Homeless Advocates Speak Out/Sleep Out!

Scenes from NYC on the fourth anniversary of Occupy.  Bottom organizers with the Public Space Party.  

When Hurricane Sandy hit, the Occupy movement built on the lessons of the Common Ground Collective to create an effective collective response, proving flexible and adept in ways rarely if ever seen in federal emergency relief agencies.

Few were talking about inequality or raising the minimum wage before Occupy.  Today, these are conversations that even the Republicans are taking part in. And the push for a $15.00 wage is gaining traction across the country.  

Thursday, I spent the day thinking about Occupy, reflecting on the ways Occupy has helped infuse energy into current labor fights, struggles over public space, and a generational push against the criminalization of poverty.   Sadly, the phenomena is only increasing, with more petty arrests, fines, and street sweeps, pushing outsiders, the homeless, immigrants out of public space into for profit jails.

Over the last four years, Occupy has worked to push back against this phenomena. For a brief while Occupy and labor supported each other in mutually beneficial ways.   
Before Occupy, the Governor of New York refused to acknowledge the need for a millionaire’s tax in New York.

After Occupy started calling him “Governor 1%” he responded, keeping the taxToday, the governor is attacking higher education, raising tuition on CUNY, with the ear of the Koch Brothers, instead of regular New Yorkers.  My union, the Professional Staff Contract of the City University of New York, is now six years without a contract.  The governor would rather bicker, scheme, and blame than support the people who make the university of the people accessible to immigrants, first generation students, and graduate students who could not afford to go anywhere else.  Without affordable education, more would   enter the underground economy; the city would experience more crime, poverty, and probably arrests disciplining the poor.  Rather than see affordable education as a way out, the governor would rather increase tuition and costs for these very students and their faculty union. He seems to be punishing them for being poor. 

Today, as the punishment of poverty expands, so does the need for movements on the ground to push back.

So, on the fourth anniversary of the OWS movement, I attended a union meeting over our fight for a contract and I rode my bike to New Alternatives for LGBT youth, talking with homeless youth, living in the streets of New York City.  Many live in the piers, sleep on the trains, and ferries all over New York. There, many are subject to arrests and street sweeps, pushing them from the streets, into the jails away from public view, or into punitive welfare systems.  Sadly, homelessness persists and persists here, as does the criminalization of poverty.

And I kept on thinking about Occupy.

Later that afternoon, my friend Marina Sitrin was putting on a session at Occupy.  

So I rode down to Zuccotti.

Sharing, Reflecting and Visioning

#BlackLivesMatter to labor rights and housing defense, we have all been very busy working towards a new future. In NYC We will gather in small assemblies to share what we are all up to now, the affect and effect of Occupy, and to vision possible futures. 

We request that people across the United States act in solidarity by taking two hours on 
#S17 to check in with your local political community. Please post your events in the comments so we can share them far and wide. 

We will conclude in one large assembly.

The intention is to celebrate, reflect, and imagine together. 

-- Child-friendly.
-- Please bring food to share.
-- Musical instruments and art supplies welcome.

Scenes from OWS year four. 

Old friends from Occupy were there, as well as old.  I love going down to see Zuccotti Park, to feel the energy in the space, to greet friends, to revel in our public commons. For me, this is what Occupy has always been about, connecting people and movements. Meeting downtown together, we created our own public commons.  With it, we beat back isolation, reminding each other we can all act together.  

two days before the anniversary, adam purple, who created the majestic garden of eden, later destroyed by the city, died.
there will be a memorial for him this week at la plaza cultural community garden

With community gardens under threat, the need for public spaces such as this is more urgent than ever.

There were several marches and actions moving out of Zuccotti, including an Anti-Gentrification march, and a street action to end homelessness. I rode to and from the park several times, making it home for parenting, and then zipping back for the rallies, marches, die inns and sleep outs planned for the evening.  The call of this space has always been compelling, offering a redemptive narrative for a city whose discourse is too often dominated by power elites, celebrities, and developers.  VOCAL put out a call to end homeless:

Occupy Wall Street to End Homelessness

On the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, we will be marching from Zuccotti Park to City Hall Park to demand housing for the homeless and the banks must pay for it thru a Robin Hood Tax!

We will be meeting at 5:45pm at Zuccotti Park
Gathering at City Hall Park for a speak out and sleep out.

Organizers from VOCAL were at Zuccotti.

Organizers with VOCAL

They’ve been fighting homelessness and HIV and the drug wars for years now.  And many were active in Occupy.

Over the next two hours, the group would die inn, march, and rally back to City Hall, where they started their speak out / sleep out highlighting the expanding specter of homeless. Over and over again, group members reminded those in attendance, that the homeless of the city reflect a systematic failure. Homeless  is perhaps the most visible example of poverty we see in New York. Yet, most people seem to ignore the problem, much the same way they stroll past the homeless sleeping on the streets.

Scenes from the speak out /sleep out!

 Elizabeth Owens, of VOCAL, explained to me why she was there.

 “It made me so disgusted  to see no one doing anything.  The shelters of filling up. There is no way I can stand here and leave anyone behind. As long as I can do something, I will do it. We’re speaking for people who cannot speak for themselves.”
She spent the night in the park, explaining that the police had been there all night, supporting the sleep in, noted the prophetic and famously amiable Ms Owens.  The police had been there all night, without interfering with the action. 

“They checked on us, to make sure we were ok and shook their heads smiling when they heard why we were there, with a smile. There was no harassment.  They were with us all night long.”

Antonio explained that he had slept in the park because he is still homeless.  “I don’t have a room,” he explained.

Aaron stood smiling in the morning heat. “You can put this down as #sexyhomeless,” he joked when I walked up to him.

“I am a part of this population.  I stay in an SRO,” he explained.  “This is a rich city.  There is no reason this should happen.”  Yet today, he explained, “People sleep in trains, cars, bus stations, parks, it’s ridiculous.  People walking by should look up and stand with us.  They are one check away.  Some people do not see the problem. Some people are here because of the issue, others because they need to be.  There is no other place for them to go.”  Everyone is at risk.

Mike, another volunteer who took part, said he was tired but glad he took part.  “I just lay down and talked all night long.  It’s the first time I ever did this.” He hopes the city builds more affordable housing that people actually afford.  “Homes, not jails, and houses people can actually afford.”

Maxi, a visiting from Austria, was holding a sign declaring, "globalize empathy, save the people not the banks."  He explained that he was here in solidarity with the homeless from around the world.  “Bail out people, not the banks,” he explained.  For the last few years he has lived in Free Curry, a field in Berlin, where the homeless and squatters have built a community, eating left over food. “It’s a Occupied field, very cosmopolitan, occupied in the center of Berlin, started in 2012.  We collected left over food, a lot was provided.  But the space was eventually shut down and turned into luxury condos.”

Sounds just like New York, I concurred.

Cycling and environmental activist Josh Bisker, of Public Space Party, stood smiling with sleep in his eyes.  He got a text the night before at 11:15 pm saying there was a sleep out at city hall so he came.

Paige Teamey, another Public Space Party volunteer, had also slept out, noting, “There needs to be more advocacy for the homeless.  Its systematic of the issues with Bratton and the city.”

Josh concurred.  “Its such an easy thing to stigmatize.  And even in the simplest humanitarian sense, ‘there before the grace of god go I’ we could all be there.  It could happen to all of us.”

Michael Tikili, of ACT UP and Healthgap, walked over and we all started talking.  “It was great,” he explained, looking back on the evening.  “There was a lot of Inter-Occupy dialogue, among people from spaces in London, Berlin and New York, talking.  A lot of people out, it was really like a reunion. And it was nice to have the Robin Hood financial transaction tax be part of it.  The synergy between these movements is powerful. Occupy would not have been as huge without the homeless who came their and helped hold the space.  They were also there to hold two am rallies on the spot.  Yet the homeless problem has only gotten worse.  The shelters are full.  And there are empty buildings all over the city that could be used.  Really it’s time for DeBlasio to act on this.”

Yet, others wondered what it was that DeBlasio was thinking.  His police chief seems to be in charge.  So the city is locking up the homeless, instead of providing viable alternatives. 

Long time AIDS housing advocate Jennifer Flynn, of VOCAL, explained that the city was releasing a plan for East New York.  “We will see if there is a commitment to the homeless.  If we can’t see a commitment, I’m not we can get ahead of the problem. Right now, the problem is the city sees $30,000.00 as very low income, extremely low is $18,000.00.”

“That’s entry level publishing,” noted Josh.

“We’re hoping we see movement,” followed Flynn.  “Housing is the solution.  Without housing, that’s bullshit.  Right now, I’m worried that Rudy Giuliani is running the city homeless program.”
She did not mean literally, but the city seems to be echoing late 1990’s era criminalization of poverty and homelessness.

This is seen on the city level, but also in transnational policies such as the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership. 

Christopher, an activist from Occupy Democracy London, was in town for the Occupy anniversary.  He described the ways the prison business has found ways to use mechanisms such as the Investor-State Dispute Settlement  (ISDS) and the TPP to expand the prison industrial complex.  “They want more arrests and people to fill the prisons,” noted Christopher, explaining that the ISDS allows corporations to sue governments, in one case for loss of revenue because not enough people were there to fill a private prison.

Christpher has been staying in New York for a week, sleeping on the streets in solidarity with the homeless, sleeping on the Hudson River and throughout the city.  “The police in Washington Square Park threatened to arrest him when he refused to let them look inside his bag.”  They did not seem to be more squatter rights in London, he explained.   And the police in New York have very little interest in being reminded about people’s rights to refuse unreasonable searches and seizures

As I left he was sitting talking with people passing by on the streets.  People were walking by, without saying a word, seemingly ignoring his message.

 He said his group would be in Paris for the climate march.

Joanne Ferrell , of Occupy Albany, was also on hand.  “We camped out to draw attention to the problem of homelessness,” she explained, noting that there are 20,000 homeless youth in the streets in New York City, 8,000 veterans. 

At the peak of Occupy, many of these folks found a place in the movement, supporting a community, and breaking the isolation of life in the street.  With free sandwiches and mutual aid, friendly faces and people to organize with, Occupy offered a counter narrative to the often punishing treatment of the poor in this city.  VOCAL was around before Occupy and is still at it today, building on the ideas of Occupy dispersed into parts wide and far after the city cracked down on the encampment.  Today, these ideas are part of a conversation and a set of ever expanding practices that are more necessary than ever: Occupy, squat and do what’s necessary to build community and end homelessness. 

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