Perhaps the number one reason why camping on the streets has genuine radical potential is that it draws people from very different walks of life together. In everyday life, we tend to deal mostly with people of similar status to our own which makes it difficult to empathise with those who are in a totally different position within the society. What’s more, our culture teaches us to look down on those who have “failed in life”, the homeless, the beggars, the mental patients and so forth. Until we start getting rid of this tendency as a society, I don’t think any radical change is possible. As long as we keep excluding groups of people from our communities, we’re simply reinforcing the structures that create the inequality and oppression we’re supposed to be fighting against in the first place. It would be a fallacy to think that we’re not a part of those structures ourselves. Putting our bodies on the streets forces us to recognise and deal with this reality. Stanley Rogouski makes this important point about the Occupy Wall Street encampment in his article over at Counterpunch:
“To anybody who spent time in the now demolished Zucotti Park tent city, there are no longer two clear cut categories, homeless and not homeless, human and untouchable, dirty hippy or respectable protester. What made Occupy Wall Street in Zucotti Park so potentially radical is the way it taught us that homelessness is not an either/or proposition. There are not homeless people and not homeless people. There’s a continuum, running all the way from members of the “1%” like Michael Bloomberg all the way down to the demented, mentally ill man sleeping on the grating of a side street waiting for January, and the cold, to die. What separates a young idealist like Ketchup just starting her life, for example, from a lonely middle aged man like Ray Kachel headed for social oblivion? The answer would be “not very much.” What separates a member of the middle-class from the homeless man he walks over in Penn Station or the “dirty hippies” he used to smirk at as he walked by Zucotti Park? How many paychecks, how many medical emergencies, how many fights with his wife or his employer will it take before he’s out in the streets looking for a place to piss and finding that the Starbucks has converted them all into “employee only” restrooms. For most of us the answer would be “not very many.”
Occupy Wall Street at Zucotti Park took all of Wall Street’s victims and put them on public display, only a few blocks from the New York City Stock Exchange. It took the group of people most devastated by the “Great Recession,” people who were scammed into high interest, high risk mortgages by the casino on Wall Street, to the group of people who were most devastated by Bush’s crusade in the Middle East, homeless veterans of the Iraq war. But it did more. It gave them the opportunity to empower one another, to begin the process of building a community. It allowed the chronically homeless contact with people who had more social skills, who, perhaps, could teach them to pull themselves up off the streets. It brought the gay teenager who was kicked out of his home in the Bible Belt together with the middle aged liberal activist from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It brought the 22 year old, recent college graduate, too poor to move out from his parents house in the bad economy face to face with the laid off worker in his 40s and 50s. It dissolved the rigid social categories that separate us and allowed us to speak to one another as humans. It was, in short, the fulfillment of the words of Walt Whitman, that great New York poet who trod the ground around what is now Zucotti Park many times.
“STRANGER! If you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?”
Had the encampment at in Zucotti Park been allowed to persist through the winter, had the activists in Occupy Wall Street would have continued to feed the homeless and protect them from the police, they might also, in time, have secured help from the surrounding community. People might have brought their donations, not to the United Way or the local mega church, but right to the people who needed them. Zucotti Park might have become a successful laboratory experiment in how to reclaim people who had fallen through the cracks into social oblivion. It might have exposed both the “1%” and the governments they own as the frauds they are. Clearly that could not go on. Maintaining occupied spaces also develops collective leadership. It requires people to understand the importance of camp discipline well known to any NCO in the military. It requires people to learn how to organize, to conduct outreach, to drive working groups and coordinate through general assemblies. Getting hauled off the Brooklyn bridge in handcuffs and spending 12 hours in jail with 125 other men begins to create the kind of bonds people develop in the military, only, in this case, those bonds are developed engaging in class war against your real enemies, not in an imperialist adventure overseas.”