What Could the Homeless Possibly Have to Protest About?

One of the more instructive issues to emerge from Occupy Oakland has been that of an artificial dichotomy between homelessness and occupation-activism. Like the idea of non-traditional activists from communities of color holding their ground alongside anarchists, socialists and liberals, nothing has panicked both city officials and supporters of the OWS movement more than the idea of homeless people being homeless in the middle of a political occupation for the homed.

This is illustrative of some of the many problems with the current 99% meme, and its focus on the financial scandals, bailouts and mortgage securities fraud of the last five years. Obviously, there are none who have more cause to be politically active, nor would find it easier to use the occupation strategy, than the homeless. And yet, the unease with which even protesters view their presence, and the attempt to distinguish politically aware homeless from the non-aware in protests ostensibly about income disparity, is mind boggling. Witness this statement from the Los Angeles ABC-7:

“There’s no doubt about it that some people are migrating over here. We don’t want to necessarily turn them away. What we ask from the people that are turning up that are truly homeless is that they help us out.”

A Wall Street Journal  article carries the assumption that the homeless must prove their worth by immediately being concerned about political goals, rather than preventing their own starvation. There’s an incredible hubris here and it goes well past the laughable idea that some people–like the LA commenter–illegally occupying public land can tell others doing likewise where they can and cannot sleep. Somehow, its the truly homeless who must “help out” middle class protesters, rather than the middle class protesters, who’ve now tasted homelessness actively recruiting, training, enabling, and–most importantly–taking on the invisible and perpetual issue of homelessness as one of the most central and explanatory of the failure of the American economic [and healthcare] system.

That would necessitate moving the frame from its current location, heavily influenced by unions and other organizations, exclusively on issues of the finance debacle. Its not that these issues aren’t important. Indeed, some homeless people, like those I’ve had the privilege to meet at Occupy Oakland, became homeless when they could no longer afford their mortgage. And, of course, the rapidly contracting economy has made otherwise employed and homed people homeless.

This is not just an issue of focusing on the one percent, a convenient bogeyman for an umbrella protest movement afraid to alienate the upper and middle classes. Its not just about demanding a jobs program which will be impossible to evaluate in terms of efficacy for years to come. Its about examining our entire system and finding a larger platform and discourse that will one day create a better system in the US. In this fight–which is larger than simply noting the greatest income disparities–the apolitical homeless,  poor, chronically unemployed and working poor are our greatest allies, not people we need to shoo away from the camps we’ve established over their old stomping grounds. No, it won’t help Democratically aligned groups and unions keep the White House in 2012. But it could just change things for the better.

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4 thoughts on “What Could the Homeless Possibly Have to Protest About?

  1. This reminds me of a thought I’ve had about the goal of OWS. Rather than a political objective, the movement could focus on transforming individuals’ hearts. At bottom, that is the only way to transform society. I don’t know if OWS is capable of this, whether it could be an explicit goal, or if it could work with people who never show up at a site. Just a thought.

    I realize this is a religious concept, but it doesn’t need to have any religious connotation. I wonder if Chris Hedges has said anything about this.

  2. In the sense that I think it has the possibility to change the cognition around protest, how its done, and who can do it, i totally agree. Its not religious to me, except that there is definitely a human/spiritual component that goes beyond political organizing.

  3. here’s an interesting turn in which it’s apparently not only the media seeking to “distinguish” the homeless from the true protesters with valid grievances but also the protesters themselves. except that when you actually read the article, all of the folks who are quoted are actually happy to have homeless folks there and recognize that their struggles overlap in many important ways.

    http://www.scpr.org/news/2011/10/22/29521/occupy-la-camp-seeks-distinguish-homeless-proteste/

    • Yes, the responses were varied by activists, though there was one in LA that was particularly snooty. What set me off was the idea that homeless people must tailor their political beefs to what’s already been set up as the Occupy Ethos. If Occupy is open, if it doesn’t have concretized goals, then there’s no reason a few homeless people can’t take the mike and direct it to a greater degree to their own issues. To say from the get-go that they have to participate by picking up someone else’s banner, rather than take a moment to organize and develop their own is clearly wrong. And those are issues, I think, which have the power to create a more fundamental change than the occupy discourse, which has so far been focused on the last five years of corrupt practices rather than the systemic problems that have been and will be there, no matter what kind of reform arises as a result of the OWS movements. What if this became a movement of the homeless and unemployed, staffed and powered by the homeless and unemployed, with a focus on their immediate issues? What would be wrong with that? We’d all benefit.

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