To camp or not to camp? That is Occupy’s question

After a wave of shutdowns, about 20 Occupy camps still stand. What do they tell us about the state of the movement?

Topics: Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Portland, Occupy Tampa,

Occupy Tampa has had a rough life. Born on a “Day of Rage” that drew 1,000 people to Tampa, Fla.’s downtown on Oct. 6, it put down roots three days later on a public sidewalk bordering Curtis Hixon Park. It soon blossomed into a community of more than 100 residents adorned with tents, medics, media, kitchen and library on a concrete patch less than 10 feet wide.

From day one, the Tampa police were a fixture in their lives. “They would come by at 6 a.m. to wake us up, and again in the afternoon to make us move our belongings off the sidewalk,”  says Samantha Bowden, a 23-year-old senior at the University of South Florida. The occupiers taped off a 6-foot section of the sidewalk for egress and say the city conceded it had the right to a 24-hour presence, but the police were intent on retarding the occupation’s development by wielding a code against leaving articles on the sidewalk. Occupy Tampa occupiers adapted by placing their belongings on carts so they could be wheeled away whenever the police descended.

Bowden claims the police stepped up harassment by riding motorcycles on the sidewalk next to sleeping occupiers and dispatching a helicopter every night to hover above the camp. Starting in November, she says, “The police would show up every day and throw people’s goods into their vehicles or city trucks and haul them away.” At night, when the park was closed, the police “would grab boxes or carts and toss them into the park to bait the protesters. If they tried to retrieve their belongings they would be trespassed or arrested.” Under Florida state law, police can issue a trespass warning that effectively bars a person from public parks for up to six months, which has happened to numerous Occupy Tampa members.

Worn down by the harassment, arrests and negative publicity that resulted, the occupation at Curtis Hixon Park dwindled to a lone protester much of the time. That’s when a guardian angel arrived in the form of strip club king Joe Redner. A self-made member of the 1 percent – Redner told us he “thinks” he’s worth about $14 million – he opened up a private plot of land in West Tampa called the Voice of Freedom Park to occupiers. Safe from police harassment, and equipped with electricity and running water, Occupy Tampa began life anew on Dec. 30 and is now nearly five months old overall.

After a third wave of Occupy shutdowns (Lexington, Ky.; Charlotte, N.C.; Miami; Honolulu; Buffalo, N.Y.; Austin, Texas; D.C.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Portland, Maine; Houston; Asheville, N.C.; and Newark) that swept the country with little publicity in late January and early February, a couple of dozen encampments still remain across the country. A few are persisting on private property (Tampa Bay). Some survived by the grace of friendly relations with city administrations (Kansas City, Mo.; Little Rock, Ark.; Orange County, Calif.). Others are locked in legal battles that may have inadvertently prolonged their stays (Boise, Idaho; Nashville). Yet all are experiencing growing pains and an existential crisis or two. Organizers can sound like a new parent, worried one week and pleased the next. And as the public fatigues at the sight of the raggedy outposts — and as new forms of action populate the Occupy calendar this year — the question of the political relevance of the surviving encampments comes into sharp relief. As the scrappy survivors wear on, they are grappling with a new dilemma: Why continue to camp?

“A social experiment”

West Tampa is a blue-collar enclave that is African-American on one side and Cuban, Puerto Rican and Central American on the other. Kelly Benjamin, a Tampa journalist and history buff, says it was founded in the late 19thcentury by Cuban and Spanish cigar rollers, leading to Tampa’s moniker “Cigar City.”

With external pressures relieved, internal pressures have percolated to the surface in Occupy Tampa. The problems are standard for the course, dealing with “people who are homeless, have mental illness or alcohol problems,” says Benjamin.

A public space with free food, shelter and medical care creates a triple challenge: caring for all who come to camp, with limited resources, while trying to change the system that produces the downtrodden in the first place. As across the country, there is a split in Tampa between those who think the camp is the point of the Occupy movement and those who feel the camp detracts from the movement’s goals.

“Some people feel that the Occupation space is not a healthy space to get organizing done,” says Benjamin. “There is so much personal drama that goes on there and the difficulties of living with more than 20 roommates, securing the food, electricity, water. These types of personal conflicts have absolutely sapped energy. It’s turned some people off because they didn’t get involved with Occupy to deal with these difficult dramas for hours and days.”

The conflict between the organizing and the camp has cropped up in many occupations. Activists at Occupy Portland say of the hundreds of people living at the downtown park, that few were present at general assembly meetings where decisions were made about the camp. In Austin, the general assembly repeatedly tried to end the occupation on City Hall steps before police evicted it in early February, but it limped along because occupiers pleaded they had no other safe place to live. At Occupy Wall Street organizing was crowded out by the low-rise tent city that consumed Zuccotti Park in the final weeks (though plans were in the works to erect a large canopy that could hold the general assembly and other political activities).

Occupy Tampa has weathered these difficulties for months, but Benjamin sees an upside to that. He describes the West Tampa occupation as a “social experiment” that has to be seen in relation to “a sprawled-out city” like Tampa. “A lot of people don’t have a sense of community and don’t have to interact with people who are much different than themselves,” explains Benjamin. “It teaches people lessons about how to communicate better, to be sensitive, to learn how to live together, and the benefits of sharing and community. These are all skills that many people have lost and forgotten. There are aspects that are frustrating … but it serves a valuable purpose.”

Occupy Little Rock: Apply within 

“Since we don’t have to fight for our existence, we have the opportunity to fight for greater things,” says 28-year-old Adam Lansky, a music producer and head of public relations for Occupy Little Rock. Those greater things include working to curb corporate influence in politics, restrict development near the Lake Maumelle watershed, and build its weekly FM radio program. Occupy Little Rock members informed the city of their intention to camp, and on Oct. 21 availed themselves of a 27-acre city park containing the William J. Clinton Presidential Library. Lansky says the Little Rock police chief invoked a no-camping ordinance, but acknowledged that “what you’re doing is within your First Amendment rights, and we want to give you a space to do it.” So Occupy Little Rock received an open-ended permit to a parking lot a few blocks away, as well as a dumpster and port-a-potties paid for by the city for the first two months.

The space serves as a “24/7 billboard for the movement and a portal for anyone who walks by to get involved,” says Lansky. But “anyone who walks by” is a mixed blessing. “The physical space is awesome, but that has really been the most problematic element of the whole movement,” Lansky explains. “A lot of good people ran out of patience and vanished and slowly started to get replaced over the last month by transients. We need more people that are motivated, with a high level of intellect, who aren’t just looking for handouts because that was creating dissonance on the site. What is going to bring down the movement? The easiest thing that’s going to bring it down is internal conflict.”

So Lansky proposed a process to filter out unproductive campers. Prospective members need to show a photo ID (one would be provided if necessary), fill out an application that asks for personal references, relevant skills and “medical/psychological conditions.” Successful applicants must then undergo a one-week probationary period with monitoring. If the applicant is not approved, they are asked to leave the camp. And if they don’t leave? “Refusal to leave peacefully will result in removal by the police with possible criminal trespass charges.” Even if “inducted,” members are subject to a “three-strike rule.” The proposal met resistance but eventually passed.

Occupy Little Rock’s choices will make some people squirm. Not only does it appear to have the first means-tested occupation, it looks to be replicating a criminal justice system that is opposed by the many occupiers who organized a “National Occupy Day in Support of Prisoners” on Feb. 20. The process of monitoring, review, a three-strike rule, and threats to call the police and press charges will likely alienate those caught in an incarceration industry that one writer terms “The New Jim Crow.” Given the anti-immigrant sentiment in much of the country, asking for identification, references and other personal information may turn away other groups too. In a city like Little Rock, which is 49 percent African-American and Latino, it’s unlikely that the application process will help the face of the movement resemble the 99 percent who live there.

In response, Lansky says the application process has successfully filtered out the people “with serious psychological issues, people marginalized by society who need rehabilitation services we cannot provide. We are not throwing them out because of their issues but because their issues manifest in very socially disruptive ways.” He says those disruptive people are mostly white, as is the rest of Occupy Little Rock, so they don’t know how communities of color will react to the application.

“The truth is,” says Lansky, “we have been trying to create an Occupy site with racial and ethnic diversity, but we’ve had a hard time reaching those communities, even before the application process. I understand it might put them off, but I really hope it doesn’t.” In the meantime, adds Lansky, the process has “protected the integrity of the organization” and allowed the camp to thrive.

Occupy Providence cuts a deal

Until late January, Occupy Providence’s camp was located in Burnside Park, across the Providence River from the Rhode Island State House. Robert Malin, a 59-year-old writer and documentary filmmaker, says the park was the kind of place “you could see the crack pipes lighting up at night.” That changed when the Occupy movement came to town. Group members approached each park resident, explaining what the movement was about and encouraging them to join. Drug users or homeless people who did not want to join were asked to move on. Malin says, “It was pretty much universally felt by local police force that we cleaned up the park for all practical purposes.”

The city issued multiple eviction warnings in the fall, but never took action. Soon it began citing health and safety concerns as winter rolled in. Malin says Providence wanted to avoid the “if it bleeds it leads” headlines and began opting for a legal course of action. Lawyers told occupiers, “There is a long case history [in Rhode Island] where health and safety have trumped free speech rights.”

Paul Hubbard, a 60-year-old multimedia producer, says early on “we could have mobilized 500 to 1,000 people to defend camp, but as time went on, realistically, that wasn’t going to happen.” Plus, Hubbard adds, “two different visions began tugging at each other within the camp,” between those who prioritized the camp and those who wanted to focus more on protest actions.  At the same time, Occupy Providence has organized more than 40 direct actions since its founding.

Faced with looming eviction by the city, dwindling supplies, falling public support and cold weather, Occupy Providence needed options. According to Malin, a poll of occupiers found widespread concern about the fate of the homeless in the camp, many of whom had recently lost jobs and homes, should eviction occur. At the same time, they discovered that the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless had been working for six years to get a day shelter, as the homeless were forced to wander the streets with their belongings until shelters opened in the evening.

So Occupy Providence cut a deal. Members offered to break camp for the rest of the winter in exchange for a temporary homeless day center. The city “was dragged to this kicking and screaming all the way,” said Malin. “They didn’t want to set a precedent that we could occupy to get them to do something that they didn’t want to do.” The city relented, but claiming they lacked the resources reached an agreement with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence to open and pay for the shelter.

“We saw an opportunity to make a concrete demand of the city in exchange for an orderly transition out of the park and we took advantage of that,” said Hubbard. “This was a tactical maneuver that allowed Occupy Providence to regroup but also to win something very important. It seems like a small victory, but the larger context is that for weeks the question of homelessness was driven by Occupy Providence and it was a huge discussion and debate in corporate media that previously social justice movements didn’t have. We were on the front page above the fold for three days in a row.”

But, Hubbard acknowledges, the goal of the Occupy Movement is not to gain a temporary day shelter, something the city should already be providing for its citizens, but to change the system that produces homelessness to begin with. To what extent, then, was the arrangement a victory or a retreat?

“It was a tremendous victory for Occupy Providence,” says Hubbard. “Running a tent city takes a lot of energy and resources and at some point beating an organized retreat is more useful than a disorganized one. The national repression of the Occupy movement has been extremely disruptive.” Malin is more guarded. “Whether we outsmarted ourselves or whether we were outsmarted by the city or whether we did something that is a model for other cities … is not entirely clear, but the occupying part is just a strategy,” he says, not the only method for achieving the movement’s goals.

And the sense of victory is important in itself. A movement cannot grow on soaring visions, idealism and outrage alone. It needs tangible victories, that it is delivering the goods. The daily bread of the Occupy movement is successes, even partial ones, like Oakland’s Nov. 2 general strike, the Nov. 5 “move your money campaign,” the Dec. 12 West Coast port shutdowns and dozens of successful eviction and foreclosure defenses. It shows participants they are making a difference, that power is conceding something, and provides an elegant comeback to the “Get a job and take a bath” vitriol oozing from online trolls and stumping politicians alike.

Kansas City: No tension, no impact?

Occupiers in Kansas City, Mo., marvel at the ease with which their camp has functioned. Nearing the 150-day mark, it may be the longest-running occupation, having planted its feet under the shadow of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank on Sept. 30. Its announcement to the city of the intention to camp was well-received, says Occupy member Richard Sauvé. He says the camp enjoys the support of the mayor, the police, who donated tents to the cause, local unions, University of Missouri professors, churches and passersby. A strict code of conduct is honored in the camp. Whatever restrictions on camping or permanent structures in public that may exist on the books, none of Occupy Kansas City’s activities has raised the ire of what Sauvé calls a “big small town” and not a single arrest has occurred in nearly five months.

Despite the lack of inside tension and outside opponents, Kansas City occupiers have also contemplated the purpose of the encampment. “No one is fighting for the right to live in a tent,” says the 41-year-old Sauvé, a print designer and veteran organizer. “People are fighting to get back into their homes, to make a better life.” While the camp can act as a visible magnet to draw in new members, Sauvé ironically notes, “maybe our biggest struggle is reminding people that we’re still here.” As core activists burn out, the group needs to refresh its blood by attracting new people who can continue the political work while keeping the camp stocked with gas and food and other survival basics. But without the drama and publicity of more confrontational direct action, the camp can be overlooked as it becomes part of the landscape.

As other occupations move on to what Sauvé calls the “second or third phase” of the movement, such as home foreclosure defenses and coordinated national protests, he admits Occupy Kansas City has debated whether continue the occupation. “But I think it’s necessary to have it there,” Sauvé says, “at least until the country as a whole has really understood the movement.” While he appears proud of how long the camp has run, Sauvé adds, “I don’t feel any occupation is any more or less successful as the occupation is as a collective. In short, we all won. Any advances or setbacks that any occupation has, we share entirely.”

Forming a new society

After 30 years of the fracturing of the left, the unifying message of the 99 percent and the highly visible reclamation of the commons through the act of camping everywhere gave the Occupy Movement its strength. The flimsy tent villages clinging to public street corners and plazas, calling attention to systematic inequality and attempting to build a more just and democratic society, burned deep into the imagination and changed the public debate.

Without the camps, the movement could fragment into a thousand other worthy causes and lose its centralizing force. And while the camps mirror the conflicts in society, they also provide the space to deal with those conflicts in order to grow the movement. For it is the very practice of forming a new society, with all its attendant difficulties, that inspires hope. Anthony Dwayne Hudson, a 51-year-old poet and former prisoner, said of Occupy Denver, “It’s my therapy, man. It’s fulfilling. And it’s given me courage. It’s boosted my self-esteem. To where I’m now ready to go out and engage this world. When I walk out of here, my walk is different. My whole mind-set is different. So I always want to be connected to this.”

But there is also danger in an unwieldy camp sapping energy. And even when functioning smoothly, there is a risk of becoming normalized and less relevant over time. The occupations succeeded because they rejected all politics as usual, including the same old marches, rallies and protests, which had become ineffectual.  “I don’t think you can keep doing the same thing and expect different results.  I think you have to surprise people,” says Lansky of Occupy Little Rock. “When the media and the public at large are forced to adapt to a whole new mechanism by which a revolution is operating, it gets more attention, it’s a way of fostering more support. We need to begin exploiting these outside opportunities rather than hammering the same nail.”

Whether spring will bring fresh shoots of camps out of the fields of concrete is unknown. For the element of surprise that characterizes this movement has already helped to seal its place in the history of American grass-roots activism.


Arun Gupta, a New York writer and co-founder of Occupy the Wall Street Journal, covers the Occupy movement for Salon.

Michelle Fawcett, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor in the Department of Media, Culture and Communications at NYU and is reporting on the Occupy Movement nationwide.

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