from disappointment to departure
Thursday last week I decided to go on an extended hiatus from involvement with Occupy San Diego.
I think the last straw for me was really being affected by behavior at Civic Center Plaza that was simply loopy. That day, there was one woman in orange-red body paint whipping the air with a garland. Later, she tried to set fire to some of the protest signs and was arrested. There was more that I saw that day that I’m not even ready to mention in this blog post.
Sheer wackiness has been a feature of Occupy San Diego from the very beginning. There is nothing wrong with this quality per se but when it becomes one of the primary aspects of the climate at the occupation, I think we have a problem.
On top of that, we never had a very good container for collaboration, a clear frame about how to work together. Add to that the crazymaking generated by the police infiltrator presence, it is a wonder that things have been as peaceful as they have been. Asking around, I have learned why certain core functions never were satisfied completely: in all likelihood this could be attributed to sabotage coming from people working for law enforcement.
Others have been very upset by sexism, homophobia, sexual harassment- none of which I was witness to but I have heard about multiple times; one woman told me she feared physical violence (after having experienced psychological violence) from one of the other active people at the occupation.
Perhaps things have improved, but for the longest time there was no agreement, nor a shared understanding about what forms of behavior were acceptable. Is public drunkenness ok? Is drinking alcohol on site ok? Is pot smoking fine? Is it ok to be high on site? Is it ok to light a cigarette without checking if those around you are non-smokers? Is it ok to make noise well into the night? Over time there was significant movement on these questions as people realized that if these questions are not addressed it’ll be hard to attract a more diverse group of people in solidarity with the occupation.
But perhaps the main issue for me is that Occupy San Diego has felt more like an encampment for homeless people since week two. There is nothing wrong per se with a homeless encampment. I think it’s wonderful that some homeless people- as I’ve heard firsthand- feel safer camping out at Civic Center than before. I have made some good connections with some of the homeless people there, and among the homeless folks there are a number who are making a great contribution to the Occupy Process. At the same time, there are a number who have significant psychiatric disabilities or other personal issues, and we never had a conversation about how do we do the work of the occupation, make the occupation attractive to people, and decide how to integrate (if we think we can) these people on the margins.
And, by extension, since the occupation has largely a flavor of a homeless encampment- a “be-in” of sorts- I’m not confident of it ever achieving much. Indeed, this HuffPost piece by someone who from the looks of it sympathizes with OWS challenges OWS supporters in a way that might make some of us squirm. It makes us ask ourselves what indeed has the Occupy Process achieved?
I certainly don’t feel drawn to being in Civic Center Plaza. Nor can I encourage others to come down there.
I write this with some awareness of my own privilege as a white male who comes from an upper middle class family (even if I have never earned much) and as someone who has dealt with some psychiatric issues in my own life. Also, I have worked a fair amount in the disability community and in the nonprofit sector.
There is some fear in bringing up these questions. Perhaps this’ll be read that I’m anti-homeless or don’t want people with psychiatric disabilities at the site. Rather, if I’m going to put my time in something, I want to have some confidence that it’ll go somewhere.
Personally, I believe it is possible for the occupation to be inclusive for all kinds of people- people on the margins and people who are not (yet) on the margins- to successfully live together. It does, however, require a conversation (or conversations) and some planning. And, speaking truthfully, I wasn’t and am not prepared to spearhead that conversation.
My initial motivation for getting involved and for camping at the Plaza was that just being in that physical space was an act of bearing witness. I found no need- nor did I really feel connection to any of the chants, much of which reinforced a sense of separation between “us” and “them.” I think all the wisdom traditions teach us that we are all in this together. For me bearing witness means/meant that just being at the Plaza, I was saying that the current economic system is not meeting needs and it needs to be changed drastically. And that would be a beginning of a conversation.
I envisioned at a later point convening conversations with people from all over San Diego on what a more equitable economic system look like and how we could get there. I also envisioned teaching others how to convene such conversations. That work may have to wait for a later point.
For all my many criticisms of what I’ve experienced in the San Diego occupation, I continue to be moved by the dedication of those involved. It has touched me deeply to experience (again!) the power of the circle- of the equalizing, wisdom-generating, compassion-creating, community-building effects of gathering in many circles, both scheduled and spontaneous, throughout the occupation. It has heartened me to see how people have really heard each other out in those circles. How little in the way of put downs or interruptions I saw in those circles.
And no matter how things turn out for (what I prefer to call) the Occupy Process, it has given us a picture of a new and different way of mobilizing, engaging large numbers of people peacefully for the greater good. I believe that with giving care to creating a strong foundation using highly participatory tools that draw on a community building paradigm that reaches beyond consensus-based decision-making (as referenced in the books mentioned in the Occupy Wall Street library blog post), I think it is possible to create something that looks a lot like the Occupy Process but with a better chance of moving forward.
Nevertheless having had a visceral experience of Occupy San Diego is a great gift. I will continue to follow the occupations with interest.