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occupy detroit: where do we go from here?

November 8, 2011

I went down to Occupy Detroit Sunday for the ‘Labor in Solidarity‘ rally and march, as well as to just check out how things are going; and to be honest, I’m feeling rather apprehensive about the whole experience.

When Dave and I first arrived at Grand Circus Park, I was initially optimistic. I was happy to see more tents than the last time I was there, and even happier to find Tony sleeping in one. He was just getting up as we strolled into the park, and Dave immediately set about adjusting some tarps under and over the tent to help keep out the water that Tony had mentioned was sneaking its way in. Right after that, Dave saw Anthony, one of Tony’s friends, trying to do the same, and proceeded to help him too, going so far as to make his own stakes out of old pallet boards.

Overall, things seemed to be going well enough at first glance. Spirits still appeared to be high despite the increasingly cold weather and other challenges. I saw some familiar faces, as well as some new ones, and more were slowly wandering into the park for the upcoming rally. It felt good to be back down after so long. But soon, I started to notice small changes here and there. I was surprised, for example, when I heard that, for security reasons, they decided to fence off certain areas and give out colour-coded wristbands to help keep track of who’s actually camping, as well as who should have access to where donated items are stored.

Trying to be more organized about that kind of thing makes sense. Unfortunately, there appeared to be little rhyme or reason to who they’re given to. Dave had trouble getting one earlier in the week even though he’s been a regular face at Occupy Detroit from the very beginning, and some of the people they were given to have been accused of harassing other occupiers. Tony pointed out one man working security for the day who he said harassed (and possibly sexually assaulted) a female occupier the week prior. And some of the ‘security’ team seemed to be taking their roles a bit too seriously, strutting around the park with other people’s dogs acting like they were tough shit, talking down to anyone questioning their presence and making them feel uncomfortable, while turning a blind eye to the ones shooting dice and selling weed.

In addition, some of the homeless people who have been hanging out and sleeping in that park for years are starting to resent being what they perceive to be as segregated and restricted from the rest of the occupiers, while others are getting angry at being pushed out of the park. Certainly there are issues that need to be addressed here. Some of the homeless who have joined the occupation are just there to hustle occupiers, while others are stealing things out of tents and selling drugs. But at the same time, they’re fucking homeless and we’re essentially occupying their park; what’d we really expect to happen, an endless chorus of Kumbaya? They’ve been doing this to survive long before we showed up, and they’re going to continue doing whatever it takes to survive long after we retreat to our regular lives.

It’s almost comical in that the occupiers are setting up a mini version of the system they’re protesting; and there seems to be a big disconnect between occupiers and the homeless, which should be natural allies in this fight. It’s kind of sad, really; because as my friend, Francesca, so succinctly put it, “If even the people with the best of intentions lose sight of the greater purpose, what chance does anyone else have?”

But despite these growing challenges, there are a lot of people down there with good hearts who are working extremely hard to make this movement successful; and the majority of the homeless people I’ve met and hung out with have been a never-ending source of knowledge and inspiration for me. They’re giving me a perspective on the world I thought I had, but really didn’t. The trick is getting the two groups to see the other’s point of view, and to get occupiers and homeless alike to take more of an active role in the committees. From what I’ve heard, many of the decisions are being made by a minority of occupiers who are actually participating in the various committees, and many of the committee members themselves change regularly, leaving greenhorns unfamiliar with certain issues and people to introduce/block proposals and make relatively uninformed decisions (although some of this is due to the inherent limitations of consensus decision making).

That said, the majority of my views and opinions about what I’ve seen have been influenced more by the homeless participates like Tony and his friends than the occupiers, as I’ve spent far more time with them and listening to what they have to say than anyone else, so I’m sure there’s ‘more to the story’ as they say. Nevertheless, I think their ideas and concerns should be taken just as seriously. Tony, for example, questions why they’re occupying the park in the first place.

“Who are you fightin’? Ain’t nobody in this park but a bunch of homeless motherfuckers.” He’s been saying from the very beginning that protesters should be occupying the governor’s backyard. And I think he has a point. Some have suggested moving the Detroit occupation to Lansing, the political center of Michigan, where they’ve got the support of the mayor and an indefinite permit. Word also has it that legislators routinely walk by the dozen or so occupiers in Lansing and talk with them about why they’re there. The idea has merit and makes tactical sense; although strategically, it’d be difficult to get everyone up there, not to mention organizing a reliable supply chain. Donations are hard enough to come by, let alone trying to figure out how to get them consistently to Lansing. And many simply don’t want to ‘abandon’ Detroit. But that’s something for the occupiers themselves to collectively decide.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and things could always be better; but it’s not like they’re not having similar problems in other cities. Moreover, this is the first time a lot of these people have participated in any kind of political activism, and even though I’m critical of certain aspects of the Detroit occupation, its very existence makes it a relative success. I just hope that we can keep up the momentum and learn from our mistakes; because what concerns me the most is the fundamental stability and longevity of the movement itself. If the Occupy Detroit movement implodes, whether due to our relative inexperience, infighting, political apathy, or whatever, it’ll be our failure—one not so easily blamed on the 1%.

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