Burlington's Occupiers Have Company — and They're Really Homeless
Kevin J. Kelley
The Occupy Wall Street movement may be complicating life for some bankers, but it’s been a boon for the homeless population — at least those benefiting from relaxed regulations in Burlington’s City Hall Park.
Larry, a white-bearded 62-year-old who wouldn’t give his last name, estimates that on many nights, his fellow homeless make up half of the 60 or 70 campers in the park. He says the itinerant are drawn by the free food and clothing that Occupy Burlington offers, as well as by the safety the protestors’ presence ensures.
“We couldn’t get away with doing this if it weren’t for this protest,” Larry observed last Friday night.
But the disproportionate number of belligerent drunks and mentally ill homeless in the park presents unique challenges for the generally well-educated and articulate protestors who make up Occupy Burlington. Efforts to peacefully coexist are consuming much of the occupiers’ energy and blurring the political focus of their protest.
Disruptive behaviors on the part of some homeless persons are also generating tensions with the police and the Kiss administration, raising the possibility that an ugly confrontation could occur — even in mellow, progressive Burlington.
In the food tent last Friday night, both homeless and occupiers were able to help themselves to as much strawberry cheesecake, baked ham, fresh fruit and granola as they could eat. The well-stocked outdoor pantry comes courtesy of local sympathizers, including farmers and restaurateurs, and Food Not Bombs, a volunteer group that helps feed the homeless year round.
Beer and liquor are not provided, but many of the homeless bring their own. Substance abuse is common in the park, despite a sign in the protest’s information tent warning, “There is to be NO drug and alcohol consumption in our camp. This is a tactical decision, not a moral judgment.”
That coda is an expression of the nearly absolute tolerance that is at once an appealing strength of the protest and a weakness that could lead to its demise. Keith Brunner, a recent University of Vermont graduate, says he’s “excited” by the “chance for dialogue between folks from privileged backgrounds, like myself, and people living on the streets.”
CC Reuge, a UVM anthropology major, suggests that while aggressive outbursts are not acceptable, “the homeless do have a right to be angry.”
Other protestors were also at pains to accentuate the positive even as two police officers arrived around 10 p.m. Friday in response to a call from an unidentified protester who was concerned about bellowed threats of violence from a drunken man named “Joel.”
“He’s not like this when he’s straight,” said occupier Brad Hartley. “He’s actually a really sweet guy and a talented street poet.”
It took police about half an hour to calm Joel down. They didn’t arrest him, but the police’s arrival triggered a discussion — “debate” would be too strong a word — among 30 or so occupiers gathered in a circle outside the information tent. Inside it, another sign reads, “We strongly discourage occupiers from involving the police unless a person is in immenant [sic] physical danger.”
After an hour of talking in turns, consensus was reached only on the need to discuss the issue further at the next day’s general assembly. Joel, meanwhile, wandered back to the tent he was sharing with three or four others. An hour later, he and his friends were shrieking profanities and bellowing in a boozy chorus that made it impossible for nearby campers to sleep.
In the course of earlier open meetings, the occupiers had devised a code of conduct that is supposed to apply to everyone in the encampment. It’s not a complicated or extensive set of rules, but, as Brunner ruefully noted, it goes largely unenforced. The protestors do carry out security patrols in two-hour shifts all night long. The purpose, one speaker declared to general approbation, is “not to try to win arguments, but to act nonviolently in making sure everyone is safe.”
It may not be possible, however, to reason with those who are most troubled and/or inebriated. David Russell, a leader of Burlington Street Ministries, says that in his 37 years of interacting with the local homeless, “substance abuse and mental health problems” appear to be the key causes of their precarious condition. “I haven’t met anybody who’s ended up homeless for economic reasons only,” said Russell, a burly, bald and bearded man with a camera hanging from his neck. “Somebody who wants to get off the streets can definitely do that in Burlington.”
In the same painstakingly egalitarian way they search for consensus on political issues, the occupiers are taking on the city’s homeless-related challenges, as well as the practical difficulties of living in a park. The protesters are relentlessly seeking to actualize Gandhi’s famous command: “Be the change you wish to see.” In Burlington City Hall Park, a motley collection of mostly twentysomethings is striving to create a new society that will have little in common with the structures and practices of the old.
Anna Niemiec, 64, paused from a circle dance beside the fountain to marvel, “Their way of organizing and decision making is so different from what I grew up with.”
At a general assembly conducted on the steps of city hall, a “facilitator” explained to newcomers the set of hand signals used by occupiers all over the country in responding to a speaker’s remarks. Every person’s verbal comments are repeated phrase by phrase and in unison by all assembled. A session begins with shouts of “mike check!” — a reference to this “people’s microphone” that takes the place of electronic amplification.
Wiggling the fingers with hands pointed upward signifies approval for what’s being said; downward wiggling shows disagreement; fingers pointing straight out, a lukewarm response. There are also hand movements requesting recognition for a point of information. Assembly attendees can use sign language to suggest someone’s been talking too long or to make the most extreme statement possible in these assemblies: “I totally disagree and will leave this movement if this proposal is passed.”
Equally unusual is the etiquette of many of the protestors. They are far more likely to express gratitude for someone’s comments than to adopt a defensive or snarky posture. At one recent general assembly, vigorous upward wiggles greeted a suggestion that Occupy Burlington draft an open letter thanking nearby merchants for their generous support. The group also agreed that a set of volunteers should meet with police and city officials to discuss problems in the park and to emphasize the protestors’ intention of acting respectfully.
On Friday, the assembly also listened to a proposal to “use the old Vermont technique of heated bricks” for warmth in the tents on increasingly cold nights. One speaker endorsed that idea, but added that hot potatoes might be an even better option because “root vegetables are abundant this time of year and you can not only use the potatoes for warmth, you can eat them, too.” There was no reaction from the homeless contingent on that one, either verbally or through hand gestures.
Occupy Burlington’s edge is generally articulated by Jonathan Leavitt, the closest approximation to a leader this gentle protest has. “We’ve done everything to be in compliance with what the city wants,” Leavitt said in reference to a recent letter from Mayor Bob Kiss citing alleged violations of various ordinances. “I find it ironic and unfortunate, though, that the Progressive mayor hasn’t said anything about the reasons why we’re out here.”