Occupy Boston’s General Assembly: the beauty and challenges of an inclusive community
Much has been made of the problems that plagued the larger Occupy encampments in their final days. A few weeks ago, I spoke with journalist Chris Hedges, a vocal supporter of the movement, during a visit to Occupy Harvard. He admitted that the New York camp in Zuccotti Park had become mired in problems: “They lost control of the camp in the last three weeks,” admitted Hedges, “when they went inside their own individual tents.”
These camps were created as examples of an alternative society that was wholly inclusive and equitable. They exercised a horizontal democracy in which everyone was represented and no one could accumulate power: consensus ruled.
It was beautiful idea: living, utopian communities existing in the nation’s public squares and parks for anyone to join. However, the scenario that played itself out over the past few months has revealed a reality far more complicated. These camps, which were open to everyone, became a place of refuge for those who had been turned away by virtually every other mainstream community that exists in our society today. They became places that would accept and care for the country’s homeless and those with serious substance abuse problems.
What does this mean? I was chatting with a man in the media tent at Occupy Boston, who said the New York Times had called him to ask one question, “How bad is your homeless problem?” It’s an example of the manner in which the media has trivialized the issue, treating it as a problem of bad optics for the movement, rather than as an indication of the dire need for inclusive communities like the ones Occupy created.
I arrived at Occupy Boston in late November, weeks before the December 10 eviction that cleared Dewey Square of the hundreds of tents that had been there since late September. I arrived after dark as the community gathered against a towering spotlit brick wall to hold their daily General Assembly. That night, a long, painful, and revealing conversation took place about the fate of one particularly difficult resident of the community, a man named Henry.
Henry was a much loved member of Occupy Boston with substance abuse and mental health issues that had become too unweildy for those in charge of safety to handle on their own.
A proposal was made to evict Henry from the camp.
The heated yet nuanced debate that ensued revealed a primal function of the Occupy camps: to vitalize conversation about societal issues by making those issues real, by occupying those conversations with real people and real problems, and then making real attempts to solve those problems and come up with answers.
I’ve been thinking about how best to explain what happened at the GA that night, and have decided that even though the transcript is long and at times tedious, it’s worth reading about what happened in the words of those who were there. After all, the process of the General Assembly itself is long and tedious, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.
I’ve edited this transcript considerably for length. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on what should or could have been done about Henry.
The Occupy Boston General Assembly discusses a proposal to evict Henry from camp
Saturday November 26, 2011
John, 30s (member of Safety): I realized that to remove a person from camp, we need ten people must come to the safety meeting specifically to give their own reason for why they think this person should not be allowed in camp. Way more than ten people have come up for this individual and have advocated for his removal. It’s unfortunate. It breaks my heart. It really does. I abstained in the vote, but I allowed – I didn’t allow anything. The safety group proposed that we remove a certain individual, Henry. I don’t know his last name, but everybody knows him here. This is the only way that I know how. People have been asking, ‘How do we remove a person?’ I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and fighting with it internally. I don’t know how to do anything but suggest – and I can suggest time and time again – that people abstain from hanging out here or using drugs and alcohol on these premises. But, oh man. We’re only individuals, and when the power comes down to individuals to make that call, it puts too much strain on those individuals. I’ll speak to that on a personal level some other time, but the proposal on the table tonight, again, is a proposal to bar Henry from camp, for egregious abuse of the good neighbor policy.
I want to make a point of information, I feel as if any individual up for review should be able to speak their mind, so if Henry is in the camp, this is your chance now, [begins shouting very loudly into the mic] to come and speak and reason for your ability to be here. PLEASE HENRY, IF YOU ARE HERE, COME HERE. THANK YOU, FRIEND. [John is overcome and exits the GA]
Alex [clean-cut 25-year old man in red fleece]: You know, Safety as a working group and Mediation have done many things concerning people and individuals. We didn’t come to this point easily. We exhausted every single avenue that we have to deal with this issue and this problem. We’ve done it nicely, we’ve done it forcefully, we’ve done so many things that we really need the community backing in this situation. It’s not an easy moment for us. It’s not an easy moment for me personally. It took a lot to come to this point, and it became a community issue. I hope any working group who has a big problem that they try to tackle so many times that it hurts, that they bring it to the community to share.
Man, late 20s: I would just like to say that I’m against this, because I don’t think we should have people voting to kick people out.
Alex: For a good time now, weeks off and on, Henry has been a disturbance. He’s constantly drunk, and his tent is constantly loud and obnoxious and the centre of problems that are hard to deal with. He’s threatened people many times and has been involved in an altercation, a fist fight, and if you want to know the details of that altercation, we have a mediation log board and you can come and read it sometime.
We’ve dealt with it in several ways. We tried to get him the help he needs. Several people have done this, pursued avenues like detox, and things like that. He has been evicted from camp before, and returned without technically going through the proper channels. In all honesty, maybe it was foolish, but we allowed it, thinking that maybe we could get through to this individual. This whole community is a work in progress. Even just recently, me personally, I was meeting with him as often as I could, a couple of hours a day, sitting with him, talking about what we could do to make him better, how to be patient, helping him to understand that his actions have consequences.
I’m sad to say that in this case, for a lot of reasons, some of them for which I will not even put the blame on him, it did not work out. And at this point, we’re kind of at our wits end about it. That’s why we’re here.
I think Henry is a decent person, but it’s not a matter of choice. He doesn’t intentionally pose a threat to himself or others. But he does become a threat nonetheless. I have seen interventions, and other types of efforts to assist him. They do not have a lasting effect.
Devon, man in late 20s: I’m one of the medics. I’m EMT. There’s a high rate of mental illness, substance abuse, and alcoholism down here. With the cold weather coming, you’re going to run the risk of fatalities due to exposure and due to overconsumption of fun things, and we don’t want that. We’re trying to minimize that, and I’m trying to do my fucking best to minimize that, and if that entails removing someone, then that’s what it’s going to take. We need to try to keep this as focused as possible, and bad elements are just going to dilute and pollute this community. It just gives me more work to deal with, especially when someone runs the risk of seizures. I’ve already had to deal with them, and I’m well qualified to deal with them, but I’d rather not have to, and it paints this place in a bad light. So, if we can establish that someone is a health hazard to themselves, or just a hazard to this community, I’m all for it [eviction].
If this passes, I have contact points with substance abuse, with emergency shelters, with housing, so if that person decides, ‘Hey yeah, I want to get my shit together, and I need some help doing that,’ that big red cross down there is a great place to start. I will do everything in my power. I put five people in detox in the past three weeks. One of them within an hour of them coming and saying I think I need to go to detox. So I will do everything within my power to help this person, if they want the help. I’m not going to force it on them though, because I have people that really need it and want it.
Martin, man in 30s: I have been a volunteer with homeless issues for ten years. In addition, I worked at a homeless shelter full time for three years. I’m very aware of issues and how to deal with homelessness. I’m very concerned about Henry’s safety as well as the community’s. This community is extremely poorly equipped to handle these problems. It will only hurt both Henry and the community for us to try to do this. Finally, we can make a decision as a community to protect the community, and I think we should.
Wildabeast, man in 30s: It just seems to me, being an addict myself, and trying to recover myself, it seems almost as if it’s been predetermined that he needs to go. From the sounds of this, and nothing against Alex, I’m sure he has tried his best, but you know, being an alcoholic and an addict myself, at some point, there are certain people…For the community to just go about and exit him like this, is asking for trouble later. I understand you have a team ready to do this, but it will come to problems later. Like that gentleman said, Alex tried, that’s on Alex, and that’s great, nothing against him, but has he tried, or have I tried. John has tried, and I have broken up one little fight and I didn’t feel threatened. I don’t know. I just think it’s a really bad idea to kick somebody out. Because there really is no difference between those guys with their lights flashing in their vehicle over there and us here, if that’s how it’s going to be. Drinking is legal last time I checked, and even though I’m fully against it…I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m just saying, I don’t want the community to suffer later.
John: But there’s an obvious unsaid rule here: hold your substance or go. No willful open use of intoxicants in camp. It’s easy. It’s such a basic thing to ask to be respected, that it’s insulting that it taxes the time of those individuals who have sought to take care of this problem.
Older man: It undermines our purpose.
Anna: Point of information: when you say ‘has he tried, has he tried, has he tried with all due respect to Alex, we should all be trying,’ I agree we should all be trying. You should all be going to the safety meetings at 6:30 in the library tent and doing a safety shift and getting yourselves to be an integral part of the community in a place where we need help possibly the most. And to Community Wellness meetings, which meet daily. We simply do not have the human resources right now to deal with all of the people we have at camp who have a lot of problems. And these are people that we maybe love, like Henry. A lot of us have gotten kind of attached to the guy, but we still spend hours and hours and hours with him instead of doing the billion and a half other things that we have to do. And so, if you all would step up and do some volunteering to do some safety shifts, they’re 4 hours each, you get training, you help us out, John will teach you the ropes, Alex, a lot of people are here to do that. Please help out the community in this way, maybe we can start helping some of these people we’ve promised so much to and can’t deliver.
Woman: I have been working with Henry since the altercation last night, at approximately 5:15pm. More than 24 hours later, one broken contract, at least a dozen excuses, and two options for him to stay, including one of them a detox, one of them a late night shelter, it came to nothing. I gave so much, and it came to nothing. And Henry is not the only one in this part of Boston who has had these types of problems, since way before the occupation. I want to ask how much we should really care about even dealing with these problems when maybe instead it would be better to keep building. And maybe try a different sort of option such as exile by silence. That people stop speaking to these members.
John: Why aren’t the rules being followed? Why aren’t they? It’s bullshit. I see a lot of it. I thought the rule was, once you fuck up, you fuck up – that’s it. But I see people bending over backwards, trying to help. It’s not right, because if you bend over to help them, they turn around and say, ‘Fuck you, ha ha, I got one over on you, I’ll do it again.’
Alex: It’s hard to be one single person wanting to do this in a non-violent, peaceful way, to derail even a single violent person. It takes multiple people; it takes a community. If we’re going to strive to do this with non-violence and not swing punches, I can’t do it alone, John can’t do it alone. We really can’t do it just the two of us. Safety is not always in the position to be working on these things. Right now, it’s ten or so individuals facing multiple violent people who don’t know how to handle things in a peaceful way. We’ve had some successes and we’ve had many, many failures, and we’ve learned along the way, but that doesn’t change the fact that we need help.
Anna: Maybe it’s time to go to concerns and objections, and then we’ll go to statements of support? Again, the topic of conversation here is a proposal to ban an individual from camp named Henry who has been evicted twice before, but has a lot of connections to people in this camp, so it’s been a difficult issue for us to address. Strong concerns and objections to this proposal is what we’re taking now.
Joseph, man in 40s: No, it’s not one at a time. I’m an alcoholic and I’m a drug addict. So if that’s the case, you get me out. I could have drunk six bottles, in my tent. Come out drunk. You would tell me pack up, you’re out of here, but when someone else does it, you look the other way. Good for them, alright, oh well. But you’re picking on one.
John: We’re picking on one tonight. When really, really bad examples happen, this is going to happen. We’re not going to call the Brutes, we’re not getting zip ties. We’re going to do it like this.
Joseph: You get him out, he comes back in three days, does it again. So what are you solving? Nothing. You’re solving nothing. New York is a lot worse than here. I started in New York. We lost. I’m here to help this. But if you tear down this camp, that’s not strike one against me, that’s strike two. This is supposed to be a fucking community. Get together. Get your shit together. Clean up your garbage around your tent. That’s not my responsibility. Help each other. Get them out of camp if their drunk. I sat for the last three nights for 24 hours with three drunks. I got to know them. I seriously got to know them, because I’m an alcoholic. I’ve been to not one rehab, I’ve been to ten. Ten detoxes, ten buildings. They know me by name.
Greg, facilitator in 40s: Joseph, it seems like you have a strong concern about just evicting one person at this general assembly.
Man, 40s, to his friend: now you get a sense of how tedious this process is. The strife. The trials and tribulations.
Man, 20s: I just wanted to say that I don’t want Safety to take part in this decision, mainly because there’s a lot of people in Safety who drink. I’m not going to put out any names, but I don’t think Safety shouldn’t be a part of this because that makes them hypocrites, and we should be telling them to leave as well. Because they also keep people up by playing jump rope out here at 1am and just being stupid. And the other thing I wanted to say is that, should we actually kick out this person because he’s become a problem for the camp, or should we all just step up and try to take care of him? There are tons of people at this camp. I’m sure we could do it if we all agreed to help out.
Martin: We don’t have the clinical training.
Man, 20s: I’m not sure clinical training is necessary. Has it been necessary?
Martin: It is. It is necessary.
Woman, 20s: I have a concern that a member of this community is being excluded without having the opportunity to speak and defend themselves, although I acknowledge the individual may be avoiding the process for exactly this reason. Thank you.
Man, 40s: My friends, I would like to remind everybody that we don’t have a permit. We are guests technically of the city of Boston. This is public land, and I think it’s a disaster if this group decides to evict somebody. As much as I think in my heart that he doesn’t belong here and that we may be pushing him further along the line of his problems, it would look so bad, we would become a parody of ourselves if we decide to evict somebody. That’s it.
Woman, 30s: I’ve already introduced myself as an outsider, but I’ve been listening you today and I’ve been following what’s been going on here from my bedroom [on the web]. As someone who spends most of their time watching this from their bedroom, I look to you to represent this movement. And I think the focus of this movement is being taken away from the issues when you have to focus your attention, so much of your attention, on something that should maybe be for a rehab. This isn’t a rehab, right? This is not a party. Not to me anyway, and not to the people who are looking to you to represent what this movement is. I think if someone isn’t doing what they’re supposed to do here, which is represent the movement towards a better society, then I don’t think it’s right to focus on the symptom. I think alcohol and drug abuse and this bad behavior that this person has displayed are the things that we’re trying to change about society. I think it’s not so effective to focus on curing this one little symptom, as it is to focus on the cause, and curing the cause of the disease that’s causing these symptoms. You see what I’m saying? If you have to get someone to leave, that’s what you’ve got to do, to keep things moving forward.
Sherry, 30s: I live here. I know a little bit about Henry, and I’m sad to think that we have to evict him. As a homeless individual, I can tell you that it’s a societal issue here. We’re confronted with an issue that we all are familiar with, but not everyone has been confronted with it in such a close proximity before, and we’re dealing with it in a way that shows the failure of the outside society, by not helping individuals. Getting into detox is great, but you know what? They can just sign themselves out when they feel better. They’re just in denial of their problem. That is a failure to figure out how to help somebody when they can probably harm themselves and harm others. It contributes to the homelessness of this country, to substance abuse and diseases. And there is a root cause to everyone who has a substance abuse problem. If we’re just going to focus on the one person, we also have to look in the mirror and make sure that we’re not doing something to ourselves and the people that we love that’s just as harmful. I do think that we have this Good Neighbor rule and guidelines for a reason, and if we’re going to have Henry leave, then there are a lot of other people that need to go out the door with him. Because there are a lot of people in this camp that are abusing substances and abusive towards other campers, disrespecting the whole process here and what we’re trying to do, that need to leave. We have to think about what this means if we make Henry leave. Other people here need to think about how they act here.
Henry, 30s [arrives at GA to speak to his eviction]: You don’t even know. You feel strongly, but you don’t live it, you ain’t been here. Yes, I’m an alcoholic, I’m sorry. I do have mental problems. But do I deserve to be kicked out of here because of my mental disabilities? I mean, there’s other means of helping me out, better than kicking me out on the street.
Woman, 30s: I don’t know Henry, but I’ve been listening to people’s comments. It sounds like there’s a lot of people that like you, but it takes so much time to keep people safe – emotionally safe, physically safe – and while you have good intentions now, you’ve been given lots and lots of help and understanding here, but there’s been many times you’ve threatened their security. So it’s not that they don’t like you, but the way you act…
Henry: Don’t give up on a person that needs help. My name is Henry. I know you guys are upset with me, I know you guys are really pissed off. Half these people I don’t even know, and you know what? I fucked up. Forgive and forget and press on to the next day.
The proposal was tabled for further discussion at a later date. When I left Boston, Henry was still living at the camp.