Monday, December 5, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, Part One

Is your town occupied too? In towns across the land, protestors are “Occupying Wall Street.” In my city, although ordinary people are making some common sense observations about the protestors, I have yet to see any comprehensive “summing up” of the occupiers by any elected officials. How annoying.

Even if a “first minister” (premier) or a “first citizen” (president) has little actual power, it is an expected part of their position for them to have moral power. As in Ronald Reagan being the first politician to alert us to the existence of the deficit, or like John Kennedy explaining how the cold war insurgency was something new. I expect my leading figures, even if they are just figureheads, to set our agenda, to prioritize. I expect them to inspire us, as a body politic, to focus on a few things… And to put into perspective national front page stories such as the Occupation of Wall Street. I’m sure you’ve read the stories.

In my town the occupiers are in two main encampments. The most conventional, with store-bought pretty nylon tents, are in the town square, Olympic Plaza. This plaza was created in the 1980’s as homage to the town square in Sarajevo, a plaza for joy-full gatherings during the Sarajevo Olympic games. Now our public space is occupied, endlessly, by a gathering without joy. Perhaps the Olympic Plaza includes a few homeless, while the most homogenous gathering is on the river island, being entirely of homeless persons. By all reports, neither encampment is like a pioneer town. No, they are both more like The Lord of the Flies. Their professed belief in “freedom!” sounds like a “cop out.” Individual citizens are remarking on this, saying how the occupiers have no rules or organizers or central message, that is to say, it’s as if they were still children with authority issues, but still… nobody official is saying so.

…For this essay, this Part One, my focus is the homeless camp. Respecting how perhaps most Internet readers prefer posts to be overly short, and overly focused, I will overly stick to what I know…

If the homeless on the island were capable of organizing, if they were capable of policing the grounds for litter, of electing an occupation-village mayor, of agreeing to be bound by the deliberations of their town hall meetings; in short, if they were capable of being as self-reliant as our pioneer ancestors, then I what I know is they would be just like me—and I have never lived homeless. I’ve been poor, yes, and I’ve starved; I’ve had to dress in layers for insulation, like a bag lady, because my starved body wouldn’t produce heat; I’ve had my legs on fire after climbing a single flight of stairs—but I’ve never been a homeless person. Nor gone on welfare.

My choice, years ago, was clear: If I wanted a bungalow with a white picket fence, and if I didn’t have good steady job, (I did contract work) then I would need to pay a price. I would need to replace freedom from responsibility with acceptance of responsibility; in short, I needed to share a bungalow with other people. Happily, in a multi-bedroom shared house, my part of the rent would be much less than, say, for sharing a bachelor apartment. How easy. At least, it was easy for a boy whose ancestors had lived in longhouses and gathered for barn raisings and quilting bees. No need to elect a house mayor, not when we gathered around a kitchen table and agreed to police the area, and agreed to simple guidelines such as whether we should label our food in the fridge. Maybe we couldn’t afford a dishwasher, but Ann could wash and I could dry while I asked her about her day. Home sweet home. I could ask her, “Read any good books lately?”

I recently read Charisma, by Steven Barnes, where Barnes quotes a successful war hero, civil rights leader and self-made millionaire, Alexander Marcus, as saying, “A choice, once made, creates its own path.”

If a potentially homeless person, like Ann, can’t afford the first month’s rent on a boarding house or apartment then she has choices. The easy way out is a shelter, which, like a youth hostel, must empty out every morning. There the residents, according to a shelter volunteer, break down into three groups: one third there from mental health issues, one third substance issues and one third there from circumstances. From that choice, I don’t know if there’s any path leading onwards. The better choice and path, it seems to me, is to get a windfall of cash by accepting the responsibility of Social Assistance: Welfare. What would you do?

I suppose welfare varies from state to state, but hey, work with me here, I am trying to do a thought experiment with you: If, hypothetically, your state’s welfare won’t pay for a nice apartment then you’d need to pay a price for giving up the freedom of being homeless. Your “path” would be lined with Housemates. However, they might be a living example of a more functional life. What if, unlike you, your housemate buys a monthly bus pass first thing, before he spends all his welfare cheque? Wouldn’t he then be a living rebuke to you and your “freedom from responsibility” lifestyle? Ouch.

What else might this new path entail? Obviously there would be free psychotherapy and support from a social worker. I feel silly writing this, but it seems to me that taking this path would mean developing minimum skills for adult responsibility, clear communication and basic politeness, such skills as needed not just for holding a job but for simply hanging out at home… not to mention those kitchen table meetings. While your social worker could teach you communication skills, most likely you would grow into your various skills as a child does, by trial and error from your housemates, like some sort of 24-hour alcoholics anonymous meeting. Growth is good.

The best thing of all, and the worst thing of all, if you’re an anarchist wanting “freedom from everything,” would be your support from your social worker, and from your housemates too, supporting you to become responsible enough first for volunteer work, then part-time work, then a full-time job, perhaps at minimum wage at first… A choice, once made, creates its own path.

But wait a minute—would you want to even begin to learn basic politeness? A pretty lady of my acquaintance says homeless beggars “should be shot” because they are so mean to her on the street. No, not every light bulb wants to change.

How queer. Make a choice, commit to your choice, and one day, at the end of your path, there’s a job and your very own white picket fence… Yes, I know, I make it sound so attractive. But it’s not for every dim bulb. Easier to claim your “freedom,” beg, and remain homeless.

Sean Crawford
November 2011
Calgary, Alberta
(Part Two will be posted in due course)

~The “no money left for a bus pass” example came from a single mother classmate. She worked in a shelter for prostitutes, and one day she said through gritted teeth if her teenage son had so little maturity she’d feel ashamed.

~Part of the genius of alcoholics anonymous is that nothing is merely handed to a recovering alcoholic. In their open-to-the-public headquarters I have noticed that even a mere ten-cent leaflet is not free. The drunk must somehow find a dime. (Find an empty pop bottle?) Call it finding self-respect. Before you get all weepy white liberal on me, remember that AA has a better track record than white university medical degree professionals.

~More on "nothing is merely handed": In my city, one day, I heard talk of building a new shiny residential tower for the homeless. They already had a smaller building. That same day I watched as two homeless chaps approached an office-retail tower. I correctly predicted something: They bypassed the polite sign saying to save energy by entering the revolving door. Instead, quite unlike anyone else, they reefed open the handicapped door. Obviously, handing them a bigger tower is no good if between their ears they see themselves as still homeless, still separate from accepting membership in the responsibilities of society.

~Perhaps, through gritted teeth, I should be ashamed of my fellow rich white liberals who toss money to poor beggars. These feel-good liberals are, as one would say in alcoholics anonymous, “enabling.” Call it slackervism. The tossers enable those poor blokes to merely subsist, to avoid welfare, to thereby to have daydreams, perhaps, but no real hope of a future. Grrr.

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