Encampment Matters in the 2011 Decolonize/Occupy Moment. John Hayakawa Torok, Nov. 19, 2011.
“Is this an occupation or an infestation?” Washington Post, Nov. 15, 2011.
“For the poor citizenship consists of supporting and sustaining the power and idleness of the rich. They must work for those goals before the majestic equality of the laws, which forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.” Anatole France, 1894.
To the memory of the April 1914, Ludlow, Colorado campers.
The Occupy/Decolonize encampment in front of Oakland city hall has been removed twice by police raids, the first time with such force that it made international news and because Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen sustained a head injury. The local movement’s response was the November 2 Strike/Day of Action. It exceeded all expectations as to numbers and diversity and as a predominantly peaceful day long protest that first shut down several local branches of national banks and then the Port of Oakland. These events made Oakland, one of the country’s more troubled small cities, world renowned.
The rationale offered in Oakland, as elsewhere, for closing encampments is public safety and public health. Safety concerns purportedly arise from deaths at encampments including the death by gun violence of “Alex” (25 year old Kayode O. Foster), the 110th such murder in Oakland in 2011. Health concerns purportedly arise from sanitation issues among campers ever since homeless people have joined the encampments. It has emerged that governmental rhetoric and the policing response against the encampments was nationally coordinated.
The proper frame for this safety and health rhetoric is the war on the American poor unleashed by the privatization of urban public space following large commercial real estate and corporate interests’ investments in city centers. Business Improvement Districts – private associations wherein money rules – have quasi-governmental powers to further their biggest corporate members’ agendas. The poor must be disappeared in order to create an attractive image of the city for those with money to spend. The police and private security are then tasked with making urban space consumers only.
When humans without money to spend, with other humans who oppose rampant consumer ideology, start collectively using urban public space, it directly challenges the so-called redevelopment project. The Occupy/Decolonize encampments project a vision for a community that is not transactional. They promote human connection outside market relations, through mutual aid, cooperation, and participatory democracy. This ideology threatens reigning capitalist and consumer ideology. Both corporate power and city public officials know this.
One might argue that Business Improvement Districts have colonized, by their capitalist and consumerist agendas, urban public space to the point that it is now private and too often racially exclusive. They also exclude a public that does not have or does not wish to spend money. Our too easy acceptance of the exclusion of the poor, the dispossessed, people of color, the otherwise troubled from our city streets is a symptom of our own colonization by their ideology. Occupy/Decolonize encampments challenge this.
Encampment matters. Homeless encampments at the margins of cities have been dispersed previously. Who are the homeless other than the victims of the 1%? They are the foreclosed upon, the jobless, those who have been bankrupted by health care costs, or those who otherwise cannot care for themselves and lack resources. Those with jobs see clearly, as evidenced by organized labor’s increasing alliance with the Decolonize/Occupy gatherings, that public policy seeks to produce more such victims.
The encampments shine wholesome sunlight on deaths in poverty ordinarily invisible in the richest country on earth. We only heard of these deaths because they occurred in or close to encampments in New Orleans, Salt Lake City, Oakland, and Burlington, Vermont. These deaths in the shadow of city hall highlight failures of local and national political leadership. The leaders are shamed as they should be.
Encampment matters. These spaces are communities where mutual aid and care become possible through the sharing of resources. Many who do not sleep on the streets or parks bring food and other contributions, have conversations, and participate in and help with organizing the all-important general assemblies. Twenty-four hour camps strengthen the prospect for conversations and solidarity.
Encampment has become a key symbol in the Decolonize/Occupy moment. After police removed the Occupy Cal-Berkeley encampment for the second time, students occupiers hoisted two tents in the air with helium balloons in front of Sproul Hall. These too were removed by campus authorities. In early December, an action by religious, labor and community organizations to support congressional extension of unemployment benefits will involve encampment on the Capitol Mall in Washington D.C.
Putting our bodies in public space, moving our bodies through public space, staying in tents in public space as a form of protest, decolonizes and reclaims space for the public. Such action is important for the health of democracy in the lands now called the United States. That some of those who do so stay lack other lodging does not make these acts any less political. Decolonize/Occupy Everywhere!
John Hayakawa Torok is a critical race theorist and card-carrying member of the U.S.A. Green Party who lives in Oakland, California.