On Sunday, October 30, 2011, 37 people were arrested by the Austin Police Department at City Hall. The city had issued a memo of rules regarding the use of City Hall on the Friday before the arrests were made. One rule regulated the usage of food tables. Only a night after the rules had been posted, they were enforced quite strictly. As 10 PM came about on Saturday night, the food tables remained up in an attempt by occupiers to continue their normal routine. Police were quick to enforce the new “rules.” At about 12:30 AM cops moved in to take down the tables. Some of the occupiers locked arms around the tables, hoping to fend off the police.
Michelle Millette, an Occupier, told The Daily Texan “the general assembly wanted to let people know about what the memo said … [they requested] 48 hours to discuss the proposals, but [the city] never got back to [them].” When the new regulations were posted, a few occupiers were in confusion as to who issued them, since a city seal was the only validity the paper had. It wasn’t signed by the mayor, or defined as new ordinances (actual laws passed) by city council. According to assistant city manager Michael McDonald, they were in fact not new ordinances officially passed by city council. Nevertheless, the rules were enforced as laws, leading to the arrest of many core occupiers.
In an email response to an occupier who had inquired about the arrests, chief of police Art Acevedo responded, explaining the motivation behind the police action:
I was present the first day of OA and was truly happy to see 1,300 community members from a city I have grown to love, comprising a wide cross section of our society participate. The positive energy and spirit throughout our City Hall was something to behold. I can say that it was a day I will carry with me for the rest of my life as it represented the very best of our city, state and Nation.
“Unfortunately, since that time, we have seen a fairly rapid deterioration of conditions at city hall after a segment of aggressive transients moved into City Hall and actually started to camp out. Despite the City providing the use of City Hall bathroom facilities, we have seen the following: Public urination throughout including in the mezzanine, feces, public sex, discarded used condoms, drug use, graffiti, aggravated assaults, and true activists that have been at OA since day one, being accosted by aggressive people who did not want to conduct themselves in a manner which promotes a safe, sanitary environment for the OA members who are acting responsibly and representing the movement in an honorable fashion. We have been asked by a myriad of OA participants to help create a safer, cleaner, environment conducive to long term occupation …”
There definitely have been requests to help make Occupy Austin a safer environment. “We had a knife pulled on us, a few flashers, and lots of obscene folks. None of them were occupiers. Back when this all started is when we were told we were on our own by the police,” says occupier Molly Bryant. It seems the police have strayed from direct confrontation with incidents, and relied on the city to make new regulations to weed out the problem. What the regulations have done is incite dedicated occupiers to stand up against what they see as the city trying to suffocate the movement.
It’s not hard to believe that these rules were put in place to benefit the city. The city has noticed the rise of the homeless at Occupy Austin. Chief Acevedo stated, “there are people [at City Hall] that are not there for anything other than food service.” I have seen much anger towards the chief and the police in general, but they are just spokesperson for whoever has been making the sketchy regulations concerning Occupy Austin. The police presence at City Hall has been anything but violent, as opposed to other cities like Oakland and New York City.
You can’t entirely blame the city, either, for making those rules, because there truly is a homeless problem at City Hall. The thing is, many occupiers already knew about the problem. Natalie Atwater, one of the main coordinators of the food magnate and an arrestee of the food table incident, has been personally effected by the homeless presence. After being arrested and unable to return to City Hall, she continued to contribute to Occupy Austin by cooking food off site and dropping it off to those free of criminal trespassing violations. I talked to her on November 23, just two days after the city allowed her to return to City Hall. One day, those "leeching" on free food had finally gotten to her, so she stopped bringing food, and demanded those not contributing to start. The next day, she saw a good amount of those who previously only rose from their sleeping bags to eat, finally help out. I imagine it’s hard to not get pissed when, instead of being met with joyful faces gorging on your creation and nourishing themselves for the fight in the war against corporate greed, you get people who smell like a burning dumpster who go to sleep after they leave their food trash for you to pick up.
Before the pseudo-ordinances were put into place, occupiers were beginning to regulate their food distribution themselves, to subtly fend off moochers. Josie, a frequent occupier of City Hall, told me they were creating stricter time windows for when they would have food out, as to not be a 24/7 soup kitchen. They knew they had a problem, so they aimed to fix it. Why not let them? It’s their problem and their food. And if the occupiers weren’t being harsh enough to deter a massive influx of homeless, why not meet with them to discuss solutions and provide ideas? It's ironic that the city went behind closed doors to make decisions about a movement protesting officials who make decisions behind closed doors.
Austin hasn’t been the only city with a homeless problem at its local occupation. It’s a nationwide problem. According to the New York Post, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) kitchen workers attempted to combat the “professional homeless” by changing the meals to brown rice, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and other non-gourmet food. A place to sleep, food to eat, and no hassle from the cops (for the most part) sounds like homeless-heaven to me. Yet, there seems to be a symbiotic relationship between the homeless and the true occupiers. Many non-homeless occupiers down at Austin City Hall have told me that even though the homeless do mooch off of them, they give the occupation numbers. In an occupation as small as Austin’s, it’s really important to keep those numbers up. Occupy Austin food magnate, Natalie, told me it’s unfortunate that there are people at City Hall who aren't participating in the movement, but they are still part of the 99% and their condition is the result of corporate corruption. In some cities, this mutual acceptance of the symbiosis has crumbled. Philadelphia Weekly reports that many homeless people at Occupy Philly are accusing the occupation of exploiting them for numbers.
So for the most part, many occupations have been able to utilize the presence of the homeless amidst the lack of actual contribution from them. Yet, their mere presence leads to a problem all its own, sanitation, or the appearance of a lack of it. The issue of sanitation and health has swept the nation, damaging many occupy movements and even shutting some down. On October 13, 2011, at about 2 AM, the city brought out a power washing crew to clean Austin City Hall, following through on a notice they gave a day before. The police told the occupiers they had to move to the sidewalk for the duration of the cleaning. Four people refused, were arrested, and were charged criminal trespassing. Many of the occupiers see the frequent cleanings as a strategic inconvenience the City has devised to agitate those sleeping there.
Occupy Austin has been lucky enough to have the city rethink its policies at City Hall and change them, based on the requests of Occupy Austin. The changes came after the Halloween weekend arrests, and allowed two food tables to be standing all day and night, and scheduled the power washes to an earlier time of 10 PM to 2 AM. (Previously they were scheduled from 2-6 AM.)
Some cities haven’t been as compromising. As reported by The Cap Times, Occupy Madison (Wisconsin) is on the brink of eviction due to their lack of receiving a permit. Madison Assistant Attorney Lara Mainella says, “we feel the city and the health department would be remiss if they didn't keep tabs on health and safety issues that might be present in that location.” Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter rejected Occupy Philly’s request to continue occupying Dilworth Plaza due to “the clear, adverse impact on public health and safety and other reasons.” On November 25th, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa issued an eviction for Occupy L.A., saying in a press conference, “from the start, we’ve said that a long-term encampment is not sustainable in City Hall park ... this is true for reasons of public health, this is true for reasons of public safety and for the security of the encampment itself. It’s time to close the park and repair the grounds so we can restore public access to the park.”
The most notable example of sanitation effecting an occupation was the midnight raid/cleaning of Zuccotti Park, New York, early in the morning (1 AM) on November 15th. The raid came unannounced, with notices being handed out as it was taking place that read: “THE CITY HAS DETERMINED THAT THE CONTINUED OCCUPATION OF ZUCCOTTI PARK POSES AN INCREASING HEALTH AND FIRE SAFETY HAZARD TO THOSE CAMPED IN THE PARK.” In wake of the OWS raid, many occupations have initiated preemptive cleaning and other precautions to keep a cleaning raid at bay. On November 16, Austin occupiers began an effort to thoroughly clean the plaza at City Hall by hand-scrubbing the floor with water and vinegar.
Sanitation, health, hygiene, and public safety. These are all major issues of the homeless. When you take the visual of a dirty person and fuse it with an unpleasant smell, those two senses can easily trigger a defense system for those not accustomed to it. One occupier told me that she was afraid to bring her kids to City Hall. She thought the sight and smell would frighten her children. When I asked another occupier, Eric, if he felt safe taking his 16 year-old daughter down to the occupation, he responded: “Most of the homeless people just stay on the steps … typically, our interaction with them is minimal. There are so many cops there that if anything were to happen it's probably the safest place to be within the city of Austin.” The only violence his daughter experienced was from seven people passing by in cars who flipped her the bird. He says, “those seven have been more disrespectful than any homeless, transient person at City Hall.”
The mainstream media has also added insult to injury. When I asked occupiers if I could quote them in my article, many were cautious and skeptical. One person flat out told me “I don’t trust the media.” I can’t blame them. I don’t either. These days, many news outlets are obviously biased and limit what they show and tell to spin a story. Some do it on accident, many do it on purpose. On the night Occupy Oakland marched and shutdown the Port of Oakland, the nation’s fifth busiest port, the biggest story on CNN.com’s front page was about how Paris Hilton became famous, with a small link to coverage on Oakland in the low left of the page. Foxnews.com’s front page didn’t even have the word "Oakland” until the next day. The vicious ogre that is the media will consume anything worthy of high ratings. Instead of an interview with another boring occupier at Zuccottii Park talking about how OWS has managed to create a library through donations of over 5,500 books, why not talk to a crazy lady condemning the Zionist Jews for the fall of the economy? This is the story Fox L.A. covered. The Tea Party has used this out-of-context story to distance itself from the Occupy movement, as they are both seen in the media as being similar to each other.
The homeless presence has also been misrepresented in the media. Yes, there have been reports of public urination, deification, masturbation, copulation, and illegal medication, but what many news outlets have done is expand the problems of the few to represent the entire movement. Even if it’s not intentional, this is what the public sees in the news. This is what they use to relate to the Occupy movement. I must admit that the crazy lady's remarks, that Fox covered are quite entertaining. But it’s easy to fall into that pit of entertaining media and many don't realize it once they've fallen in it and are unable to differentiate between the opinions of that crazy anti-Semitic woman and the consensus of a world movement as a whole.
Even when we get news reporting true to what the consensual meaning of the Occupy movement is, in places like Austin where the unemployment rate is lower than the national average, it’s easy to blow it off. We hear about the US deficit, but those trillions of imaginary dollars seem to elude many, so they go on working and living as if it’s just a small slump in the economy that they will never truly feel. I asked some middle class relatives, who have mortgages, if they had felt the 1.7 trillion dollar rise in debt (roughly $15 trillion total, as of November 2011). They all could not cite a specific time or place they had felt it, nor did they experience the effects of the recent recession. It’s no mystery, though, that many have felt the crumbling economy through job loss and home foreclosure. Yet, those who don’t experience those drastic events seem to not realize the detrimental state our economy is in. (If you are a visual learner, I highly recommend you see an info-graphic here: http://xkcd.com/980/)
That’s what separates those yelling, “get a job,” from those holding signs saying, “end corporate greed.” The misinterpretation of the movement helps create those who cast occupiers down. Many of the occupiers have jobs. I’d go as far to say the majority of them do. Many of the troublemaker-types are just passing by and happen to be in the perfect place for the nightly news.
There are those who want their college tuition paid for them, and those who truly want a socialist society, but that’s not what Occupy is about. It’s not about anti-capitalism. It’s not about anarchism. It’s about justice. Occupy is the 99%, composed of many different beliefs and opinions. The only thing they want is a fighting chance. They want their government back from the corporations who push public policy to favor them, the 1%, with their billions of dollars. In the months to come, I can assure you many cities will attempt to shut down occupations. Some occupations will hold their ground, some will be evicted, but the movement will not end.
Many people will realize how close they are to becoming jobless, and even homeless. That is why many empathize with the homeless at Occupy movements. Yes, some of the homeless are homeless because of drug abuse and bad decisions, but some are in their current state because of a diminishing economy. I have heard and seen many homeless people contributing to the cause, holding signs, speaking at general assemblies, and much more. Yet, there’s no escaping that they are one of Occupy’s many problems. A solution to their current condition is unfeasible at the moment, but if Occupy can manage to work with the homeless and also manage their way around those who work against them, they can be part of the solution.