Things Fell Apart
The Occupy Maine Camp in Retrospect
By Eric Blumrich
Occupy Maine began with a noble ideal that I supported (and still support) wholeheartedly. I was among the first people to show up at the October 1 initiation of Occupy Maine in Monument Square. When the group moved their camp to Lincoln Park, I was a volunteer librarian and helped in every other capacity they required of me. I have supported Occupy Maine with food, supplies, and hundreds of dollars out of my pocket — money that was needed at home, but was donated because I believe the cause to be noble and important.
But the Occupy Maine camp quickly degenerated into a living example of serial, pathological irresponsibility. In doing so, it became an embodiment of the negative caricatures so favored by the far right — something not worthy of anyone’s support.
How did this come to be?
When the occupation moved from the square to the park, I continued to drop by with toilet paper, Moxie, and whatever cash I could offer. Within a week, the camp had become quite a mess — but, damn it, it was a campsite I had helped pay for, and I still supported it.
At the time, the group’s nightly general assemblies were still being held in the square. Many of those attending the meetings hadn’t been to the camp and were unaware of the sorry state of things. Likewise, some campers had never attended an assembly. So it was decided that the assemblies should take place in the park.
At first, it worked out wonderfully. Within 48 hours, the camp had been cleaned up and organized. Assembly attendance doubled. Occupy Maine had become a refutation of the Fox “News” narrative that Occupy camps were dens of drug abuse, rape, and murder. People were proud of what they were building. When the first storm came along and leveled the entire camp, the next day saw the building of stronger, more permanent structures. It was really quite inspiring and exciting.
As the community swelled to include not only those who were active in the Occupy movement, but also the homeless, I accepted it. The homeless population in Portland needed support. If Occupy Maine could provide services for the homeless that were superior to those offered by the city, it made OM look good. It proved we were organized and conscientious members of the community that were not only interested in making a statement, but also in making the community a better place. Many of the homeless campers returned the favor by assisting with camp operations and procurement. It was evolving into a mutually beneficial situation.
Unfortunately, there were still problems with the camp: food and supplies were always in short supply. The single port-a-toilet was overused to the point of being irrelevant. Small incidences of violence had been cropping up, reports of illegal drug and alcohol use within the camp were becoming more frequent. Security was always understaffed. Meanwhile, only about a third of the people residing in the camp were attending the general assemblies. Nearly all of the problems were being created by non-attendees.
Something needed to be done, and initially it seemed that the camp was willing to take action. A “zero tolerance” policy regarding the use of illegal drugs and alcohol was adopted. More importantly, it was decided by consensus that if an individual was residing in the camp, consuming supplies and receiving services, that individual was required to attend the nightly meetings.
The mandatory attendance policy would have either eliminated or delayed the problems that eventually led to the death of the camp. It showed that the occupation was willing to take responsibility for itself.
I was unable to attend the following day’s meeting, due to work, but I was able to drop by the day after that and was quite surprised to see that the assembly was even smaller than the one at which the two policies had been adopted. “Why are there so few people here?” I asked those assembled. “I thought we had reached consensus that all camp residents were required to attend G.A. meetings. I can see there are many people here in the camp who aren’t in attendance.”
I was then told something that made my jaw drop, and still confounds me to this day: “It was decided that we are a movement of autonomous individuals, and as such, no one has the right to require that anyone do anything.”
“Well, if that’s the case, then the “zero tolerance” policy concerning illegal drugs and alcohol is meaningless,” I said.
Much to my astonishment, my statement was greeted with nods and smiles. I was told that Occupy Maine considered itself to be an absolutely open and free community, in which people were to be trusted to do the right thing.
Other occupations in cities all across the country had instituted loose rules and codes of conduct. These other occupations had rightly come to the conclusion that without some regulation through consensus things would soon fall apart. The camp was already experiencing incidents that proved that trusting everyone to do the right thing was just foolish.
In adopting this patently insane concept that “autonomous individuals” had no right to institute even the basest of rules, Occupy Maine had turned its back on any concept of responsibility.
• A member of Occupy Maine assaulted someone? Well, that person is an “autonomous individual” — we had nothing to do with that.
• A member of Occupy Maine was caught with cocaine and heroin? Well, that person is an “autonomous individual” — we had nothing to do with that.
• A member of Occupy Maine was defecating in public? Well, that person is an “autonomous individual” …
The mind reels at the utter, stubborn ignorance that went into this line of thinking, and we saw the results. After a few weeks, 75 percent of the people staying in the camp refused to attend general assemblies or participate in any of the actions Occupy Maine organized. They were just there to take advantage of the free food and shelter. These people were allowed to stay and take whatever they wanted from the limited supplies since they were “autonomous individuals.”
Despite all of this, I continued to donate cash and supplies, attend assemblies, and spend hours every day organizing and cleaning the library. (I now realize this was just for show, since I never did witness anyone actually reading a book there.) I continued to defend the camp long after the point at which it had become a hindrance to the movement, rather than an asset.
I was there at the City Council meeting when Occupy Maine’s permit request to remain in the park was debated. I’d intended to just help fill the benches, but wound up at the podium defending the camp. I pointed out that Lincoln Park had always been a dodgy area, and said that the camp had helped make it a safer place.
Within a week, my opinion had shifted 180 degrees.
During visits to the campsite in the following days, I saw people still in residence who had instigated violence and violated the “zero tolerance” drug policy — people Occupy Maine claimed had been expelled from the camp. When I asked why these campers were still there, I was told once again that they were “autonomous individuals” and, as such, were not subject to anyone’s dictate.
I began to feel ashamed and, quite frankly, cheated. I began to care less and less about the camp, since it apparently cared so little about itself.
The following weekend, Occupy Maine held an open house event to demonstrate that they were still there and had no intention of leaving. As I approached the park, I saw a guy in his 20s walking the perimeter of the camp and holding a club spiked with nails. He was screaming, cursing and threatening to “kill everyone in the park.” He was unhinged, clearly mentally ill.
Giving this individual a wide berth, I entered the camp and started asking around. “Hey, we have a person walking through the camp, voicing his intent to commit murder and brandishing a weapon that could easily do the job. Are we going to do anything about that? There are families and kids in the camp, and today was supposed to be the day we show off the camp as a safe environment!”
The answer? Well, you’ve probably guessed it: “As autonomous individuals, no one in the camp has the right to dictate to this person.”
Even more insulting, I got the impression that many in the camp thought their tolerance of this clearly murderous behavior made them oh-so-special. They were practically patting themselves on the back for allowing this person to threaten families and children!
To say I was disgusted would be a gross understatement. That was one of last times I ever went to the camp. The next time I met with City Councilor Dave Marshall, I found myself wanting to apologize for defending the camp at the City Council meeting.
A few weeks ago, I visited the camp one last time. The cumulative effect of so many violent and unacceptable acts had rendered the site more uninhabitable than anything the surprisingly mild winter weather had done. The camp was pretty much deserted. The problem had solved itself in a rather sad way. Even the library had been gutted — most of the books had apparently been stolen by “autonomous individuals.”
Beholding this depressing sight, I felt no animosity toward the homeless people and hangers-on who had created so many problems for the camp. After all, they were people in desperate situations, just trying to survive. Rather, I felt a bitter anger toward those who, motivated by a stunning naïveté born of childish idealism, refused to care enough about a camp that so many had put so much time and effort into building.
When Occupy Maine lost its legal challenge, I shed not a single tear, nor wasted a moment indulging in resentment or regret. The camp had become a stain upon the Occupy Movement.
I walked down to Lincoln Park as the last remnants of the camp were being removed, and encountered some of the occupiers who’d been so adamant about the concept of “autonomous individuality.” According to them, nothing that had transpired was the fault of Occupy Maine. It was all the fault of those “evil cops” and, ultimately, City Hall was to blame. Even as the camp disintegrated before their eyes, these people were stubbornly unwilling to accept a shred of responsibility.
We cannot get confused and believe that the camp equals the movement. Occupy is, and always has been, much larger than a campsite. The cause of Occupy is still noble and incredibly important. The movement has already changed the political discourse in this country, and will continue to do so in the months and years ahead. It will be an exciting and wonderful thing to see. I look forward to being a part of it.
Eric Blumrich lives in Portland.