This week has seen a sharp increase in police action against the Occupy Wall Street movement, with the destruction of the Denver camp successfully carried out and a near 24-hour standoff with Portland police meaning that two significant and large Occupations are now scrambling to find new space or reoccupy their old one. Denver and Portland aren't alone; a vague sense of unease has overtaken the Occupy Seattle encampment at Seattle Central Community College and a discussion group formed after last night's General Assembly in order to discuss tactics should authorities find a legal pretext for evicting us from our space.
The justifications for these actions are many, but the major push to end Occupations seems to be inspired by concerns of health and safety among campers. Mayor Sam Adams, who previously seemed very motivated to accommodate Occupy Portland, issued orders to clear the camp due to what he characterized as criminal behavior and drug use in the tents at the two parks occupied by protesters. Thousands of people arrived on-scene to support demonstrators, but after a long 18-hour standoff Occupy Portland decided to make a tactical withdrawal and are now preparing to regroup.
Actions like this, in the face of the largest populist movement in American history, are costly and ineffective. Occupy Portland isn't going away; on the contrary, police action motivates people to get involved. I spoke with Janet, the coordinator of Occupy The Roads, an RV tour of the country, and she related to me the story of her involvement. While vacationing in Detroit, she was unaware of the movement and uninspired to take part until she watched police action on TV. She then rented a car and drove to Occupy Wall Street, where she immediately began assisting protesters in their activities. One can certainly use this story to illustrate: police action will not end Occupations. In Oakland, extreme tactics were used against activists. They failed. There is still an Occupy Oakland.
So why do we waste money and resources on ineffective crackdowns?
The debate is centered on drug use and safety, and city governments appear to be willing to abrogate American's right to peaceably assemble in order to regulate crime and substance abuse. This is doomed to fail and is a symptom of a broken system. Why?
Because the drug use will still happen, just not where the police can pinpoint it.
I have said for weeks now that one of the great strengths of our movement is our ability to help the homeless. Our providing of safe space to sleep and clean water and food to consume has brought in unprecedented numbers. Some have denigrated our camps as homeless shelters; I proudly accept that nomination. The homeless need to be fed and clothed and we're doing it. Homeless people need food to eat and healthy activity to participate in and we're providing it. The homeless are the quintessential example of why we need change in this country. We can neither turn them away nor discriminate against them! They are the direst in need among the 99%.
Unfortunately, drug use is disproportionately active among homeless populations. We know this. Where there is homelessness, there is despair, and many have become addicted to drugs and commit crimes to feed their habits.
So I'll admit it: There is drug use in occupations. What is the solution? Is it tearing down our tents and demonizing our movement? Absolutely not.
Let's re-think the model of how we deal with these issues. Criminal behavior and drug use (and yes, I believe they are two different things) require more thoughtful solutions than forcing the homeless to sleep on the street again. To be frank, if they overdose in our camps (which operate on an alcohol/drug free guideline that is enforced as often as possible), they at least are surrounded by people who can provide first aid and summon authorities. This is not the case, necessarily, when the homeless are forced to use drugs in alleyways and public restrooms. So how can city governments address these issues?
1. Stop making the police our enemy. Unsafe situations occur when enforcement of safety is impossible. We have neither the desire nor ability to become police. Stop tearing down our tents, and we are far more likely to summon the proper authorities in order to stay safe. As it is, Occupiers fear allowing the police free access to our encampments because thus far, our brothers and sisters in the police force have been inappropriately used to infringe on our right to assemble. Make them our friends again, and less crime will happen in Occupations.
2. Stop denigrating us as criminals. The mainstream media (MSM) and local governments are quick to paint Occupations as hotbeds of criminal activity. The truth is, crime happens everywhere. Every apartment building has criminals, every street corner has drug users. Just because meth is rampant in Seattle does not mean the entirety of our population is tweaking. Drug use occurs, but it is not rampant. The vast majority of Occupiers are not there to use drugs, but to protest. Stop the negative propaganda and find ways to work with Occupiers!
3. Send us social workers! Organizers would welcome drug and alcohol counselors to assist us in helping people addicted to substances. To be honest, the people who need help should have been helped already. The only reason we have drug users in Occupations is because local governments have failed to effectively address the problem of drug abuse. Send us social workers, treatment counselors, give us resources! You should have been doing this already! At least we are providing a model where it would be easier to give those resources to the people that need them the most.
Lastly, have compassion. The reason our movement exists is because people are troubled. They are unhappy. They need help. We are providing a forum for discussion and a method for people to address those problems, but we need assistance in many aspects.
To summarize: if you fear crime and drug use in our encampments, make it possible to address crime and drug use. By tearing down these tents you are not only making things worse for those of us who do not use drugs, you are only scattering those that do. You aren't helping. So please start.