But what do the protesters want? It’s so chaotic. There are signs about Palestine, abortion, foreclosure, wall street, the police, global warming, everything! It’s just a meaningless display taking up resources and making things worse. They need to go away.
Well, that’s what I hear a lot of people saying. I get that. Intersectionality is a hard thing to grapple with and it still makes me feel like rocks are breaking in my head when I sit down and really think about it. A lot of America is in denial about the fact that the blood coming out of the bath tub, the thumping up the stairs when no one is there, the flying dishes in the kitchen, the way the appliances all suddenly turn on at once and then shut down completely, the apparition of a wailing woman in the hallway, the congregation of flies on the wall paper might indicate the presence of a malicious poltergeist that must me exorcised from our midst before it kills us all.
You can’t miss the forest for the trees in situations like these. Pain to the others should not be accepted as an unavoidable side effect of the power and success of the exceptionally few. It is foolish to create protective barriers around bazillionaires that keep them free from restrictions or justice because you hope to some day be a bazillionaire for the same reason it would be foolish not to worry about the paying the rent because you bought a lottery ticket. Occupy Wall Street is hardly about revolution so much as it is about reformation. It’s calling the far reaches of the rich out of motherfucking bounds.
Then there’s the camping issue. It’s so messy, it’s a health hazard, it slows business, if you let the homeless in you WILL have problems, professionals need to handle that. I’ve spent many years working with the homeless so I have something to say about that. First and foremost, the “professionals” do not have it under control. Why? There’s a lot of corporate interest in there, too. When I worked at a multi-million corporate styled non-profit agency, I was prohibited from acting in the best interests of my clients when it came to education about safer substance use, specifically IV drug use.
Anything I have ever taught about safer injection drug use I learned from high school biology. Not everyone has had the privilege of being educated in human biology the way I was. Moreover, I went on to get much more specific training in harm reduction around drug use. When it came to documenting a violation of the rules, the staff were advised to follow the “line of sight” rule. If it’s in your line of sight, you must report it. No search goes into this process and things that are publicly displayed are considered to be treated as common knowledge.
This means, if I saw a pipe used for smoking weed coming out of someone’s pocket I was required to write it up. That’s part of the job. So when I noticed a rash of abscesses on the arms of a group of youth clients staying at the shelter where I did weekly HIV prevention workshops, I felt it was logical that I respond to it because those injuries were in my line of sight and my job was to be a harm reduction specialist working in HIV prevention. I proposed offering a safer injection and overdose prevention class but this was vetoed by my top superiors because out HIV prevention budget was very generously supported by a major retail clothing outlet that rhymes with OH, SNAP! They didn’t want to be connected to “a controversial pro-drug agenda” and we would lose a very, very, very large sum of money if I acted on what I knew as professional was in the best health interests of my clients.
Unlike the people making the decisions about what was best for the clients, I have actually done wound care. A lot of the time, this job entails draining abscesses. I’ve seen them big and gnarly. They fascinate me until the moment when you lance it or slice it open with a scalpel if it’s big and it oozes and the horrific smell hits your nose. Abscesses are also very painful. They take a toll on the immune system. They are a medical problem that requires care. It’s better to have never had one at all and while someone is injecting it is better for them to have the knowledge and tools to take the best possible care of their body while they are using.
There were other problems as well. In times of budget crunches, the hierarchy of demographic risk becomes the rubric for which demographics get any funding at all. When it comes to public health around HIV, there is a numbers game. People are assigned a number based on their behavior. There were days after work when I would have a drink at the bar only to be joined by a colleague ordering with me after being told to inform a client that he wasn’t “gay enough” to qualify for free HIV testing at the clinic where he worked. Street outreach was about documenting what races, ages, and sexual orientations you made contact with and there were quotas that could be impossible on some days.
I remember days in the San Francisco rain where I was sent out on street outreach expeditions into parks and alleys only to be told my 0 contacts in two hours in the pouring rain meant that I wasn’t “looking hard enough” to find people hanging out in the open in the rain who needed condoms. I love watching The Wire and I do very much consider it to be the best television show of our times. Thing about is that the story of The Wire is also the story of the social welfare system. It’s the story of any place with a defined power hierarchy. In the show we meet police officers Lester Freeman and Jimmy McNulty. I relished watching them on camera because I felt as though I had met them before in the free clinics and homeless shelters where I have worked. Unlike police work, social welfare has a turnover. There is no pension and frontline workers are paid a joke of a wage and get very little (if any) support from above for their efforts.
What all of this amounts to: the homeless have been getting fucked over by the system for a long fucking time. The homeless have been subjected to laws that criminalize not having enough resources to obtain shelter. Those that are offered to the homeless are scary and dangerous places. I’ve been lucky enough to work in the best but even there I have seen things that have racked me to the core. Homeless shelters are regarded, by and large, as places for absolute emergencies or “newbies” at being homeless. They are not safe. The polices that govern them are often exclusive to transfolk because the gender problem makes it “impossible” to place someone in a male or female bed. Despite the fact that histories of past sexual assault and abuse are exorbitantly high among individuals experiencing homelessness, there are group showers and bunks.
The system tries to teach “life skills” by offering support to those facing challenges with personal hygeine. The idea is that a good staff worker will be able to make the client shower in the group shower on a regular basis. The problem is: bathrooms and showers are a common place of sexual assault. I worked with clients who did not bathe because there was no place to do so privately and behind locked doors. For some, even being in the space would trigger a flashback or psychotic episode. The top of the system says that private bathrooms create too much of a cost to maintain and claim that more services can be offered to more people with group showers. From my vantage point, the sheer number of people refusing to bathe is a cost. The amount of time spent attending to someone going through the fear and terror of past abuse is a cost. What it’s like to watch a peer staying in the same place as you have a complete breakdown in front of your eyes requiring 5 paramedics to subdue and restrain them is a cost.
The homeless are so fucked, sitting and lying on some city streets is illegal. The way we ostracize people and actively keep them out and on the edges represents the ugliness of the human condition. We cite their addictions as a reason to shun them without considering the fact that sleeping underneath a bridge and spending a day being insulted, ostracized, and ignored is a pretty compelling reason to take drugs. The homeless are without the kind of security, safety, and support we take for granted. Even worse, many malicious do-gooders kidnap dogs from the homeless and turn them over to animal shelters that put animals to sleep in 72 hours or less and may also charge owners to take them out of custody. People do this because they don’t think “it’s right for someone homeless to have a dog.” They never take into account that the dogs of the homeless are working companions who will often eat before their owners do. They guard their owners and their few belongings. They are often the only source of love, comfort, and non-judgment that someone on the streets may have. Not only do we cast people off, we steal their animals as well.
The #OWS movement cannot ban the homeless. The homeless are at the front of the 99%. There is no way for the movement to simultaneously proceed and exclude the homeless. It’s going to be an awkward process for everyone to work together but this process is always hard. There are all kinds of people who are learning how to communicate with people coming from very different view points and opinions, bodies and languages, and reasons for coming out to fight. Connecting with another human being is a nearly impossible process but perhaps the most beautiful thing about humanity is that nearly everything we are emerges from our desire to connect with others even though it takes a lot of time, energy, and continuous effort. Communication is never complete, it is on going. Such is the way of social justice.
Getting back to AIDS, the activist group ACT-UP has two distinct phases. When Larry Kramer was working with ACT-UP it utilized some amazing and determined organizing and protest tactics. Change was forged out of this determination. Then ACT-UP entered a second phase of what can be considered counter-revolutionary performance art more than activism. A new leader came in and even attacked the founder Larry Kramer. When I talk about ACT-UP, I speak of the original organization and often pointedly Larry Kramer himself.
Even before ACT-UP and without Larry Kramer, San Francisco AIDS activists began a vigil in San Francisco on October 27, 1985. The vigil entailed protesters chaining themselves to the doors of the Federal Building at United Nations Plaza (Civic Center BART to you tourists). This vigil would become a 24/7 effort to violate urban outdoor camping laws and educate people about HIV and its stigma. The vigil remained in place for a decade.
At first it was a few but soon hundreds of people who were homeless, HIV+, or allies joined in at the camp. The stated demand was for $500 million in federal funding to be dedicated to HIV and AIDS research, pressure on the FDA to approve safe medications that did not have the lobbying power of the company behind AZT which is toxic and had a $10,000 annual pricetag in the mid-80s, and an amended legal definition of HIV/AIDS that would make the condition eligible for Social Security benefits.
The public space was claimed as a residential space. Those who had been isolated because of the stigma or lack of resources created a community to support one another and create a face and a story for HIV. The location was ideal for reaching federal employees who passed by on their way in and out of work everyday. Eventually many of these people began supporting the protest by bringing food, coffee, and donuts to the participants.
The protest garnered the support of the the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Many of the #Occupy camps do have the support of many of their city council members or board of supervisors. In November of 1985, Supervisor Harry Britt passed a resolution of support and future SF District Attorney Terence Hallinan helped the protesters get licenses as “city contractors” which halted the raids by the San Francisco police department on the camps.
It’s important for Occupy Protesters to examine the history of activism and work towards utilizing these political tools. The police raids must end. There are ways for cities to support these camps and the San Francisco Bay Area has a history of doing this.
Many of the same accusations were made. George E. Miller, the regional director of HHS, cited the same bullshit parroted by opponents of Occupy protest camps. The filth, the drugs, “hazard to safety and the community” and so on. The mayor of San Francisco stood by the protest. Those claims of hazards and health problems seemed ridiculous when the protesters were primarily homeless individuals who were HIV+ without support. This, in and of itself, is a hazard and a safety issue. You cannot make people who have nothing to lose leave easily.
In 1989 ACT-UP San Francisco blocked the Golden Gate Bridge in protest. Later that year, a public protest in the Castro district was attacked by the SFPD who came down on the 280 participants with batons and insults (the word “faggot” was heard being yelled by police dispersing the crowd). Later the mayor (Frank Jordan) would acknowledge the severity of the police response and fired his brother, chief of police John Jordan, from his post.
The peak of the AIDS epidemic in 1992 was met with new innovations in treatment and a gradual cultural change towards talking about HIV and AIDS. The story was in the mainstream. I know that these protests had an effect because I remember watching PSA’s on children’s television networks that were age appropriate ways to talk about the disease. The was more information available to me in 1992 as a child than there is for children of the same age now. The activism waned in the mid 90s and the protest dispersed. Today, San Francisco is known as the model of care of HIV/AIDS in the United States.
It was not innevitible that these changes occurred. They were the blood, sweat, and tears from people who both joined arms and blocked the traffic on the bridge, camped out at UN plaza for years, created theater, wrote poetry, wrote their congress people, came out of the closet, and more. The status quo didn’t become enlightened magically. Throughout it all, raids and police brutality happened in the background. Like the Occupy protests today, tents were thrown in the garbage and undercovers elicited information and attempted to sabotage action. The story is the same but the music is different.
When the Occupy protesters sleep overnight, it is a reminder to the people in charge that they are being watched. It is not a vacation so the term “camping” is inappropriate in this context. The camps are organizing food and shelter for people who don’t have it. They are learning to get through a stressful and uncomfortable experience with strangers and breaking new ground in communication. They are making a public space safer than the city did before them. They are learning what it means to include the excluded. They are making mistakes. They are getting schooled. They are learning.
These are protests that will continue to grow because there is an increasingly large number of people with less and less to lose. At some point the debt makes doing anything but sitting on your city hall steps demanding that justice be served and banks be held accountable for their crimes and anti-humanitarian tactics of turning Soylent Green into green cash money. We have created a generation of people who are not earning for themselves or the futures but as indentured servants to banks. We have created a class of untouchables in our society that we have decided should go to jail rather than remind us of what we’re doing wrong in front of our eyes.
It’s 2011. We all know that the phrase, “Get a job!” is a cruel and callous thing to say to someone. When I worked at that large agency, I felt as though the underlining purpose of my job was to act as a border patrol agent to human services. I can tell you as a privileged college educated woman, applications for SSI are riddled with trick questions that looked an awful lot like some of the Jim Crow voting restrictions I’ve studied. It’s an application designed to give people reasons to turn people down rather than to grant them supplementary income to survive. Individuals without advocates working on their behalf rarely get granted SSI. Who has an advocate working on their behalf is often, in practice, determined by things like one’s ability to bathe themselves in the group shower.
There were times when I sucked my breath into my lungs to silence the pain of not knowing what to say when I saw someone dismissed from services because they had a psychotic break in the shower. It was decided that our services could not meet her needs. There was no where else for her to go and it was more than evident to anyone that she was not able to take care of herself at that time. She was a teenager. There is something haunting about watching someone fully retreat into a battle raging inside their brain. It is frightening to watch someone fight for their life against something that you can’t see in the room, that no one can. It’s not there, but it is and everyone watching can feel the same monster breathing down their neck. The bystander effect in a situation like this is amazing. There is so much suffering in the cycle of abuse that is exasperated by systems designed to find reasons to keep people out.
Occupy Wall Street is about pointing out that the whole game is rigged. It’s diagnosing the symptoms that emerge in and throughout our societal body. There is a malicious presence. It must be called forth and exorcised from among us because the victim count is too high for comfort and the damage is great. America is supposed to be about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We cannot do this without healthcare, freedom, and safety. The system has failed us on all three counts. Like most illnesses and demonic possessions, some symptoms impact people in different ways. We must listen.