Defending Occupy Maine
An op-ed by Stephen Demetriou
Eric Blumrich opens his op-ed in the March 2012 issue of The Bollard by saying, “Occupy Maine began with a noble ideal,” one he purportedly supported materially and financially. But the piece he went on to pen veered quickly aside and became nothing but a rendering of his own misunderstandings, prejudices, and misrepresentations of the principles the core activists at the Lincoln Park occupation held. The idea that Blumrich holds forth, that all behaviors — violence, drunkenness, social deviance — were tolerated as the acceptable actions of “autonomous individuals,” is absurd and just plain false.
One particular insinuation, that a potentially violent threat from an “unhinged, clearly mentally ill” individual “holding a club spiked with nails” and loudly threatening the lives of all in the park, never really existed — as many who were there, including myself, have confirmed. A young man, clearly deeply disturbed, did show up at a Sunday community meeting in Lincoln Park with a walking stick, but without the life-threatening, nail-studded end Blumrich mentions. The insinuation that this fellow would be allowed to endanger children and families present because he was an “autonomous individual” is so bizarre I have to wonder about the intent of the one making the accusation. In his rendering, Blumrich seems unable or unwilling to conceptualize that a great majority of activists or their guests in the park that day were parents and grandparents, and would under no circumstances allow such a threat to come anywhere near their children.
To insinuate that such a thing would be allowed on principle because the fellow was an “autonomous individual” is ridiculous in the extreme. Rather than give this clearly unhinged young man autonomous free range, Alan Porter, one of the occupiers, called the police and the young man was escorted away.
As Local Sprouts owner Jonah Fertig, who has had long experience with different consensus-based decision-making groups, explained to me, consensus-based assemblies, such as those that took place in Lincoln Park, require that people give up some of their autonomy in order to agree with decisions reached by consensus. Blumrich apparently is confused about autonomy and consensus. And through his misunderstanding, he took a very nasty tone in his op-ed, going so far as to call the process at Lincoln Park “pathological irresponsibility.”
His remedy for non-participation or failure to adhere to the consensus decisions was authoritarian in nature, meant to force participation in general assemblies and decisions. Blumrich preferred hierarchy and power to enforce the rules. The occupiers, on the other hand, while trying to assert rules of conduct, had no such power or authority to enforce their decisions on anyone — except those who voluntarily chose to give up some of their autonomy and participate willingly.
The city and the social service organizations that seek to alleviate the problems of homelessness, mental illness, and drug and alcohol abuse spend a great deal of effort to secure funds for facilities, expertise, treatment and services, and they find the task difficult. For Blumrich to imagine that the activists at Lincoln Park could provide “superior” services is absurd.
What the camp offered was a place where homeless couples could sleep in a tent outdoors in the winter under the same blankets, a “luxury” not afforded by the city’s shelters. The camp offered free food, clothing, blankets and shelter, an alternative to hunkering down in the brush and woods on the outskirts of Commercial or St. John Streets. Those places had been cleared earlier in the fall by police, or by clear-cutting. I have photographed the detritus left in these sorry scenes — books, tangled clothing, torn tarps, and children’s toys hanging in the trees.
The homelessness endemic to the wealthiest society in the history of the world is not a pretty sight, and it descended on Lincoln Park with all of its heartbreaking attendant problems: poverty, despair, alcoholism, drug use, violence, theft. I have sisters who live in Missoula, Montana and Athens, Georgia. They reported to me that the same problems overran the occupation sites that existed there before they were broken up by authorities. To somehow imagine the Lincoln Park occupation was even the least bit capable of addressing so difficult and complex a problem is ridiculous.
So, how were these problems dealt with? By Blumrich’s patent answer, the occupiers would let people do whatever they chose to do because they were “autonomous individuals.” Such an answer is so nonsensical that it would be laughable if it weren’t so pernicious, so misrepresentative of what actually took place. Serious problems of violence or crime were dealt with by calling on the Portland police in the exact same manner any citizen would do when they are witness to violence, disruptive drunkenness and drug use, sexual violence or theft. The occupiers are all citizens, and as such sought relief from those our society authorizes to handle these behaviors.
The police were called many, many times for incidents that activists camping there felt were illegal or threatening. In many instances it was beyond the scope of what the police could address, not having witnessed the incidents or being in a position to do anything to remedy the situations. Activists — and I witnessed this on several occasions — reported drug use, or drunkenness, or dangerous situations, and the police on many occasions did come, investigate, and ban people from returning to the encampment. In many cases, complaints were made and police reports filed on behalf of activists against those threatening or otherwise disrupting their lives.
As the activists were camping in Lincoln Park under a legal cloud, having been directed to the park and given temporary permission by the city manager, they were in no position to tell a homeless person whether they could stay at Lincoln Park or not. And some homeless people, as Blumrich rightly describes, became active, responsible participants in the protest. Two Guatemalan men who barely spoke English stayed at the park. They were given shelter, clothing, and were fed, even though they didn’t participate in general assemblies because of their language barrier. They were welcomed because they didn’t make trouble or take advantage, and they were in need.
Others were druggies, drunks, violent, or harbored minors in their shelters completely unbeknownst to the activists in the park, just as they would have done if they were camped along the Fore River or Commercial Street. These people were not voluntarily giving up their autonomy to play by the rules, or even to help make the rules, although the opportunity to do so was clearly before them. They were autonomous individuals living out, in many cases, their sorry, dysfunctional lives, often at the expense of those around them.
The only way to get the undesirables to leave was either to threaten them with action by the police or to actually call the police when they were seen to be violent, excessively intoxicated, or stealing from the occupation and those camped there. Sometimes the police were able to help; other times they offered little help at all.
Blumrich’s depiction of some of the problems at the camp was surprisingly accurate, given his other misrepresentations. The difficulties getting volunteers to cover nighttime security, the waning attendance at general assemblies, and non-participation in camp life by some camped there were all real. A policy statement concerning drugs and violence mentions a committee process to handle accusations of violence or substance abuse. The intentions were good, but the campers were never adequately organized to implement such a committee, especially when those likely to be brought to answer charges were frightening, non-cooperative people.
If a person was not willing — and there were plenty who were not willing — to give up some of their autonomy in order to participate in making and living by consensus decisions, there was nothing that could be done by the occupiers. These problems were discussed ad nauseam by some in general assemblies who felt great frustration over the inability to do more. Blumrich’s contention that non-participation in rule-making and non-compliance with the rules were accepted and allowed is without merit. At best, it was tolerated when nothing else could be done about it.
I too started following the occupiers in Portland right around the start of the gatherings in Monument Square. I have been photographing Occupy Maine events, camp life in Lincoln Park, and organizational and community meetings related to Occupy Maine ever since. I testified in the court case when my photographs were entered as evidence of the political protest that was taking place in the park, a contention the federal judge accepted. I have facilitated general assemblies and spoken as a member of the Occupy Movement to the media and in other forums. When the first big storm blew through the camp and destroyed some of the larger structures, I built a Quonset hut structure for the Free Store out of strapping and tarps. It stood through the storms for the rest of the winter until I helped disassemble it in February with the closing of the camp.
Blumrich had some truthful things to say about what happened when the homeless and indigent moved into Lincoln Park and brought the attendant problems of poverty, drug use, violence, and crime. But his assertion that every criticism he raised was excused with the answer that the troublemakers were “autonomous individuals” is patently false. He owes his former fellow occupiers an apology.
Support for the Occupy Movement continues to grow with efforts to pass city and town resolutions condemning corporate personhood and the corrupting influence of money in our politics. Activists and citizens are talking and meeting regularly, organizing these efforts, as well as efforts to pass Constitutional amendments to the same effect. Inequality has been highlighted as the scourge of the middle class. While middle-class incomes continue to fall, the very wealthiest in our society continue to reap benefits of preferential tax treatment and excessive compensation, living lives the vast majority of the rest of our society no longer even dream of ever attaining. Millions of middle-class families are one employment, medical or financial crisis away from ruin, and there really is no excuse for that in the wealthiest society on earth.
Get involved. The Lincoln Park encampment is past, but the societal problems highlighted in the encampment are still with us. Join us as we demonstrate for change in our world, for the better. The world can’t wait.
Stephen Demetriou lives in Portland.