Thursday, October 27, 2011

Who counts as a 'real' occupier or person?

Some juxtapositions:

JoAnn Wypijewski has an unexpectedly good essay in The Nation called "The Body Acoustic." It's about the way the physical body has become important in the Occupy movement. She says physical existence matters suddenly more than usual in these political camps, first because people are caring for each other materially, and having to trust each other to do so, under the trying conditions of outdoor living, and also because members of a generation raised on paranoia, texting and video games are spending steady lengths of time befriending strangers face to face.

Wypijewski, in a trailing point but an important one, begins to suggest that fellow-feeling has developed in these camps between relatively privileged people and people who routinely endure physical privation. That thought resonates well with Barbara Ehrenreich's article, which I've previously mentioned here, about the Occupy protesters' rediscovery of things homeless people already know about the punitive laws affecting people who live in public space.

Then there's this at Salon from Amy McMullen, who is a volunteer medic at Occupy Phoenix. She's saying that homeless people are the most dedicated, most persistent, and often most resourceful participants in the camp. She describes some of the people she's talking about. They're highly competent, with skills and energy they're very much able to contribute to the community. They're also, for reasons that should be obvious, highly motivated.

Amy McMullen's article happily debunks a consistent, unfair theme in conventional wisdom about homeless people and protest encampments -- one that says, "the [real, middle-class] protesters are having to decide what to do about [opportunistic, parasitic, possibly criminal] homeless people who join them because the protest happens to be outdoors." No. Protesters against economic inequality who are homeless are real protesters. In fact they are the protesters who have the strongest reasons to speak up and stand up for their own interests by making economic injustice more visible. They're not ringers, not hangers-on, not moochers. They're very much contributors and very much part of the core constituency.

(Admission: back in February I -- urk -- halfway fell for the "homeless people are hangers-on" meme myself here in talking about "street people" who joined a protest camp for South African divestment in the late '80s on my college campus. In mitigation, people who were homeless in the '80s tended to be way less together than people who are homeless now, because then we had the vestiges of a safety net. Also, the demonstration was about South Africa. Local people's poverty seemed off-topic at the time, although in retrospect it seems weird and hypocritical to have thought that. Still, I was still wrong to write what I did.)

One more juxtaposition:

Right now at UC-Berkeley's Bancroft Library, there's an exhibit of rare books and other documents about California migrations. In it, with much else, is an old propaganda article promoting government camps for migrant farmworkers, of the type described favorably in The Grapes of Wrath. A well-meant but painful caption on one of the photos says migrants coming to the camps are getting the first chances in their lives "to live like human beings." How insulting is that? If they didn't live like human beings before, what were they, then?

What I want to say in response is hard to articulate, but it's something like this: Look, it's human to live any way a human being can live. People respond as people to their circumstances, even when the circumstances are hellish. Don't ever dismiss anyone's life as too awful for the possibility of kindness or happiness or individual creativity. Think about poetry scratched on prison walls.

We're all equally physical beings. We're all fundamentally in the same boat.

Maybe we're relearning that just a little?

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