In an ironic twist few would have anticipated two months ago, the Occupy movement risks being hijacked—not by the cops, the media or the money of Wall Street, but by the homeless. As wintry weather bears down on Santa Fe and a lot of northern cities and towns, the political activists in tents and sleeping bags are being replaced by transients, drifters, vagabonds, conmen and grifters, druggies and misfits of all kinds, looking for a handout, a tent, a hot meal and a place to hang that isn’t a church- or government-run shelter.
Those who are serious members of the OWS movement and have slept at the Railyard encampment here report an increasing number of occupants who have no interest in the movement except what they can gain from it personally. Instead of social or political commitment they have an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. Naturally the mainstream media are picking up on the growing divisiveness, and it won’t play well on Main Street. People who don’t understand the movement or its goals are happy to exploit any perceived weakness or inconsistency. Violence, such that which broke out in Oakland a few nights ago, is the worst setback, especially when it is precipitated by the Occupiers, or appears to be. Camps full of disruptive misfits and social outcasts are nearly as bad.
On the one hand, the greed of the 1 percent and a gridlocked, dysfunctional government are largely responsible for the legions of homeless this society produces, and the movement cannot ignore them. On the other hand, parasitic and unstable transients, not the foreclosed and the economically displaced, are the ones filling the camps, and Occupy movements are facing a major strategic decision in one city after another.
To launch the movement, physical occupation of a park adjacent to Wall Street was a great political statement and a focal point for drawing participants and media coverage. Though most of the sites occupied in other places weren’t as meaningful, the symbolism of staking out a piece of public property as an act of civil disobedience was still powerful and appropriate. Now some are starting to question whether maintaining the camps is becoming a form of fetishism—an obsessive attachment to something that is not really the heart of the movement.
The time has come for Occupy groups to contemplate abandoning their encampments rather than seeing them be held hostage by drifters and grifters. Occupation was always a symbolic act, and more can be accomplished by the process most of the groups have now successfully established, of holding general assemblies and working/action group meetings in a variety of public spaces. Exercises in direct democracy, marches, rallies, picketing, teach-ins, and maybe even flash mobs, are effective tools each group can use, now that adherents have come together and the media are providing coverage. There are many targets on which the 99 percent can focus, and the Occupy sites are no longer essential for that purpose.
While the encampments have had a certain historical resonance as well, mirroring the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression, they could not practically speaking be expected to exist in the long term, so why not move beyond them now that they are becoming a logistic and a strategic liability?
This doesn’t mean the many outcasts they are drawing should be forgotten by the society that created them, but that is not a new problem or one the Occupy movement can allow to drag it down. America needs a message of unity from OWS and its supporters, not mixed signals, and not the negativity that is waiting to happen the first time a major casualty is reported from some Occupy camp. It won’t take long, it will happen any day now, and it will further undermine the confidence of the public and the image of the movement.
Onward, Occupiers—it’s time to break camp.