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occupy detroit: getting schooled

October 17, 2011


Homeless Tony just dropped some serious knowledge on my ass. Some serious fucking knowledge.

When I started out on a ‘field study’ to Occupy Detroit with my friend, Dave, who also happens to be a teacher, I had no idea I was going to get schooled, literally. We met Tony, a homeless man about fifty years old, who’s been on the streets at least a year, sometime after midnight, long after most of the protesters had left and it was starting to get cold. His words, gruff and oftentimes filled with profanity, hit us both harder than the rally or anything the speakers themselves had to say. They were sad yet powerful, angry yet caring. More importantly, they came from experience.

There was something about what he said during our first meeting and the way he said it, as well as the fullness of his humanity in the face of complete privation, that made me feel almost as if I was in the presence of holiness. But Tony’s not a saint, at least not the kind most people would recognize. Most people call him a bum and tell him to get lost; most simply see him as just another homeless, unemployed black man endlessly roaming the streets of Detroit—not the contemporary Francis of Assisi with the attitude of Diogenes that my friend and I saw that night.

Tony looked around at what remained of the group, the people who were willing to risk the cold and possible arrest to camp out in Grand Circus Park, and shook his head. “I like what you’re doing. What you’re doing is right. But the way you’re doing it is wrong. Fuck Wall Street. I’ll show you what people need to be protesting, what the people should be taking pictures of and writing about. Be here at 7am and I’ll show you some real shit.” And good to his word, Tony was standing right outside the orange Coleman tent someone was nice enough to have set up and left for unprepared idiots like us, waiting, despite the cold, wind, and pouring rain. “See. I told you I’d be here.”

I’ll admit it, I was tired, cold, and hungry when I finally crawled out of the tent. Even with all the layers I had on and the protection of the tent, it was too cold for me to sleep more than a couple of hours. Then I immediately thought about Tony and the other people who didn’t even have a tent to protect themselves from the bitter cold and rain, and wondered how in the world they managed to survive this night after night.

We started walking south down Woodward, and Tony pointed out building after empty building. “What’s that? An empty fucking building. It’s been sittin’ there three years. Why don’t they let us sleep in there? They’re not using it.” This went on for a couple of blocks, with Tony pointing out property after property, storefront after apartment building, empty, waiting. Many of the buildings had signs saying things like: “For Lease. Wanted: Bar/Restaurant. Liquor License Available.”

It’s funny. People generally assume that help for the homeless has to come from the state, which means ‘bigger government’ and ‘higher taxes’—buzzwords that have never been very popular. But as Tony took us by Comerica Park, Ford Field, and the Greektown Casino, he asked why is it that wealthy individuals and corporations can seem to afford to build huge, multi-million dollar stadiums and casinos downtown, but can’t seem to find a fraction of that to build a simple shelter where people with nowhere else to go can sleep, eat, keep warm, etc. Ironically, what happens instead is that businesses push the publicly-funded police to enforce local loitering laws and essentially harass the homeless community, making them endlessly wander around downtown, looking for a quiet place to hide and rest.

As we continued our impromptu tour of his world, he’d often stop and tell us something about his life or about some of the people we ran into. He seemed to know everyone, and everyone seemed to know him. Whatever he had at the time — whether it was some spare change, a cigarette, or a swig of cheap vodka — he shared with whoever we ran into. At first I wasn’t sure if this was just a show; but the way the others responded to him made me think otherwise. They seemed to love and respect him.

Many of the people we met on the way had some obvious signs of mental illness or disability, a fact which Tony pointed by saying that half of them were probably thrown out of mental health facilities. Pointing behind me, he said, “Look at him. He don’t even know where he’s at.” It was a young man, in his twenties or thirties I’d guess, walking out of an alley with a smile and a blank stare. Tony asked the man if he’d eaten yet. The man said no and continued to smile and talk to himself. “I try to make sure he gets something to eat. You know anybody who’s talkin’ to himself and answers back is crazy. Shit. He might kill somebody or rape a kid one day and not even know what he did.”

Just before that, he’d shown us where he ‘sleeps’; although he said he hadn’t actually slept in days. It turns out it was right across the street from where we parked, in a windowsill of the Old Wayne County Building. His ‘bed’ consisted of a hard concrete recess that offered minimal protection from the wind, rain, and cold. He kept what few things he had stashed in a small play area, including a small grill, and someone had already ransacked through his stuff. His blanket, which was still there, was pulled out of a plastic bag and was soaked. I didn’t even know what to say. All I could do was look at him with all the sympathy I could muster, which I knew wasn’t nearly enough. And yet he rarely stopped smiling. “I’m the happiest homeless man out here. You gotta laugh to keep from crying.”

He showed us where he regularly asks for food, which is right out in front of the Sweet Water Tavern. He pointed out the places on the sidewalk, in between manhole covers issuing steam, where a lot of them try to sleep due to the warmth. He took us by streets he said he didn’t go down because he’d either be arrested or shipped off in the ‘party van.’ According to Tony, the police routinely throw homeless people who wander around Greektown too much into the back of a police van and drop them off in the worst possible neighborhoods. When that happens, he says, he immediately files a complaint, for whatever good that does.

Later that night, when we ran into him showing some other people from Occupy Detroit what life on the streets was like, he took us behind the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law on St. Antoine, where we found a group of people sleeping. One of them was a lady who was over sixty. Tony talked to them for a minute, and then gave the lady the extra sleeping bag my friend had given to him earlier. After we walked a block or two away, he sat down at a bench to finish his vodka and broke into tears over the fact an elderly woman has to hide like some kind of vermin just to try and get some sleep.

The toll this kind of life takes must be staggering, mentally as well as physically; so it didn’t come as much of shock when he told us that he was on a suicide mission—that he wasn’t scared to die, he was scared to live; that he was tired, tired of looking after the others, like Chuck and Red—one, almost seventy, the other not all quite there. We ran into them earlier in the day. Tony said they get beat up a lot, that other guys routinely steal what little money they get. He said he’s had to step in on more than one occasion. “I got two or three more good years in me,” he said with a laugh as he threw a punch into the air.

More than once, Tony mentioned that he felt like he was being tested, that he was on a mission to help others, often accompanied his constant mantra, “I’m tired. I’m tired.” It was impossible for me not to notice the similarities between him and the biblical Job, both men struggling to remain righteous in the face of excruciating circumstances and trials. It reminded me of something his friend, a man by the name of Kevin Johnson, said the night before: “You have to love others more than yourself.” Something he said he learned only after losing all of his family while in prison and found himself on the streets when he was finally released.

“Why do I do it? People say I’m stupid. ‘Why you lookin’ after them? They’re not related to you.’ That’s just me,” Tony said with a shrug. “Out here, we’re all we got.” He illustrated this by asking random passers-by for change or their leftovers, and noting in his own unique way how many of them simply ignored him. “See? And they say I’m blind. Fuck you! I’m your real daddy!” He also liked to use the word ‘dyke’ a lot. Definitely not saintly language; but he had a point. Very few of the people coming out of the numerous bars, clubs, and restaurants acknowledged him, let alone stopped to offer anything, or to even just say that they didn’t have anything to give at the moment.

“They can spend $500 partying, but they can’t spend $2 to give a man a damn sandwich?” As one person walked by, completely ignoring Tony, he said with watery eyes, “You don’t think that hurts me?” It reminded me of all the times I did the same thing. I felt ashamed. And when one man actually did stop to offer Tony some change, Tony said, “I don’t want your money. But what you just did right there, man, I love you for that.”

And that, for me, perfectly illustrates the essence of this movement. No matter what others may say Occupy Detroit is about, or how the media tries to frame it, for me it’s all about treating people like people. And that’s exactly what the occupiers of Grand Circus Park are doing. They’re not just ‘a bunch of hippies’ camping in protest of the growing economic inequality; they’re setting up a comfort station, where occupiers and the homeless can get things like gloves, coats, and blankets; a food station, where anyone can get a bite to eat and cup of coffee; a medical station, where basic first aid can be given (I saw Red there last night). In essence, they’re protesting by taking care of the community. As Dave would say, it’s a movement by humanity, for humanity.

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