The Power of Place¶
For seven weeks an assorted collection of locals and travelers have organized themselves into a type of community that’s new to Eugene and Lane County. In this community the wealthy rub shoulders with the unhoused; doctoral students have discussions with folks who can’t read; mothers with houses extend their hearts to youth on the streets; unemployed carpenters, electricians and builders work on creative, necessary projects; and daily, thousands of discussions about politics, economics, ecology, democracy, and community activism ripple through the city.
This experiment in community life and political resistance is known as Occupy Eugene; to those taking part, it’s an intensive experiment in community reconstruction and regeneration.
The glue that binds this new, broad community of protestors together is collective outrage at the appalling level of inequality generated by the global economy. The brazen actions of international finance are only the most visible symbol of the unfairness. For many, our economy is anything but fair: it is neglectful, ruthless and greedy.
Nationwide, homelessness is a growing problem. In Eugene, at least 4,000 people are without housing—including individuals, families with children, and veterans. Although the Eugene administration should be commended for its efforts to work cooperatively with Occupy Eugene, much remains to be done, and the occupation has brought renewed attention to the need for action. In this city, people who live, work, and pass by the Occupy encampment are waking up to the reality that it is the challenge and the duty of every citizen to contribute to the solution.
The common assumption that this (or any) movement starts and stops at protests or demonstrations is simply false—especially in the case of Occupy Eugene. Most of the people involved at the protest site work on logistics or human relations. They’re constructing semi-permanent dwellings for the unhoused and creating community spaces for project work and dialogue. They’re helping people work through addictions, violent behaviors, or mental illness. They’re participating in hundreds of meetings and creating new, more democratic and inclusive forms of organization. The feverish development of these community capacities may seem distant from typical protests but they lie at the core of the occupation.
Occupy Eugene distinguishes itself by embracing rather than rejecting the most precarious of the 99%. “As we’ve rushed to take on the top 1%,” one occupier reflected, “we’ve found ourselves helping and supporting our brothers and sisters in the bottom 1%. In doing so, we’ve created a culture, a village that does just that.”
If we resemble a homeless camp that’s because most folks at the site have been hit hardest by the shockwaves of repeated financial crises, the gutting of public services, and the continued failure of the economy to create decent jobs. If we don’t resemble a party convention, that’s because we are connecting with the people directly at the true grassroots. If our actions appear divergent or uncoordinated, consider that you may not be paying close enough attention.
It doesn’t surprise us that some in our community are confused by our insistence on maintaining a protest site. Few have witnessed the startling transformation that purposive action has had on the unhoused of the city. A glimpse into a typical day at the site affords a brief opportunity: an Occupy resident with nothing scurries to track down an organizer and implores them to take two quarters because they want to support the movement; another battles against drug use by starting ‘Sobriety Alley’; a group of young occupiers christen ‘tarptopia,’ a tent neighborhood complete with curfews and other social rules; a recently evicted couple arrives ready to set up camp despite having other options.
However, our reasons for maintaining the site extend beyond the desire to “serve” or even “empower” the unhoused: in truth, we serve or nourish each other through, and with, the site. To use the analogy of another occupier, “the site is like our sun,” sometimes violent, constantly changing, and an always radiant nexus of activity that we orbit. It feeds our activism and serves as a constant reminder to ourselves, and the broader community, that we must not leave, that we must not back down. Given the scale of the problems that we face we often muse to ourselves: Why not occupy? Why not make our voices heard as loudly as humanly possible as we stand on the brink of yet another financial crisis? If not us, who? If not now, when?
We invite all residents of this lovely city to come visit us and participate in our democratic laboratory. Get to know us, and if something catches your eye—feel free to plug in. Thousands of Eugene residents are strongly committed to remaining at the occupation site and if you believe that Occupy Eugene should be evicted forcefully for perpetrating the crime of community service, we hope you’ll pause to consider the question posed by AlterNet editor, Joshua Holland: “Imagine what might result if mayors sent in social workers to help people rather than riot police to bust some heads?”
Jamil Jonna and John Monroe are organizers with Occupy Eugene.
“Why not make our voices heard as loudly as humanly possible as we stand on the brink of yet another financial crisis? If not us, who? If not now, when?” was left out of the op ed sent to the RG.