(I can’t believe what’s just happened…no, scratch that; I can believe it, but it’s embarrassing as heck. I was flipping through one of my notebooks just now and I found a few paragraphs which should have been included in the whole Thanksgiving/Black Friday multi-part essay epic. It’s pretty good, but there’s no good way to go back and splice it into the post where it should have been. I think I’ll just write it up as its own post.)
Another problematic issue which has emerged during this holiday season is the way that public space is viewed, used, and exploited. There is something here that hearkens back to “the commons,” again in pre-Industrial England. We know it as the Enclosure Movement. Enclosure, or “privatization” as it is known these days, involves the legally sanctioned transfer of traditionally public goods and services into private hands. In medieval through industrial England, it was the grazing and farming land which got privatized; in the United States of the 20th and 21st centuries, it is the less tangible assets: education, fire protection, recreation, and so on. Make no mistake, though, they want the land too. Don’t get me started on public-land resource extraction; we’ll be here all day.
“Public land”…what image does that conjure? Probably a park of some sort, whether city, state, or national. And rightly so; America’s parks are a commonly held resource, and one of its greatest treasures. Yet this fall and winter, we were witness to mass arrests, harassment, even brutality from police forces against unarmed citizens who were peaceably assembling to “petition the government for a redress of grievances,” a right guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Meanwhile, other people were allowed-encouraged, even-to camp out in front of large retail establishments for days on end, anticipating the Big Sales Event. Apparently, the only violence there was shopper-on-shopper. The cruel irony of using the “Occupy” tag on these campers notwithstanding, there is a huge incongruity here.
Or is there? Viewing these events through the lens of enclosure provides a different perspective, and may uncover the rationale behind them. As practiced in pre-industrial England, enclosure had the short-term effect of re-directing thousands of people: both physically into urban areas and socially into a new form of dependence on industrialists for employment, merchants for goods, and philanthropists for charity. Long-term, the populace gradually learned how to be “good workers:” how to conform to a clock, answer to a boss, and re-pattern a life to fit this new urban, industrial paradigm-the “new normal” of its time. Meanwhile, power accrued with wealth in the hands of a privileged few.
Wait-I’m still referring to the Industrial Revolution. Eerie, isn’t it, how the same sort of pattern is emerging today? Of course, one major difference is that the “commons” now being overtaken is less physical than economic and social; i.e., the public goods and social safety net which progressive activists and legislators had built over the previous century. From the National Park Act of 1916 to the Clean Air Act of 1970, not to mention progress in workers’, children’s, and civil rights, the arc of the American experiment has bent towards community and equality, however erratic that arc looked at any given moment. The past 30 years or so, however, have seen a gradual but undeniable erosion of that progress.
Erosion, geologically speaking, is a tricky business: year upon year of slow, steady work may show little progress, yet a momentary shift in equilibrium can release a catastrophic event. Then, when the crucial “tipping point” is reached, the whole hillside falls away. The same pattern seems to hold with recent political and social changes. What may look like a sudden shift in the national mood was more likely the end result of a generation of relentless grinding, like water on stone, undermining the surface. When the appropriate crisis emerged, the
privateers (I mean, privatizers) were poised and ready to implement their “austerity measures” in order to save what they left (I mean what was left) of the economy. Not that I’m implying that the crisis was engineered to lay the groundwork for the new regime; goodness knows I’m not that cynical. I can, however, recommend someone who is. She may also be spot-on in her diagnosis.
Meanwhile, the pattern replicates, and institutional advantage reinforces itself. Law enforcement protects the interests of the privileged, and those marginalized have to resort to ever more desperate tactics in order to be heard. Now that free speech has been “monetized,” it’s pay-to-play. Camping out on private property is perfectly fine, if the intention is to go shopping later; but gathering in public areas to exercise free speech is met with batons and pepper spray-unless the necessary permits have been purchased.
Or, apparently, if the issue in question is the firing of a legendary football coach in the wake of an egregious child-abuse scandal. What I find most curious regarding the Penn State rioting is not the students’ behavior itself, but how long the police allowed it to continue, especially considering the Draconian response to #Occupy protesters by campus police elsewhere in the country, such as UC-Davis. To an outside observer, it might seem as though the same protective mind-set that allowed the child abuse to continue for so many years was directing the campus police to let those poor, frustrated college kids have their collective tantrum. Why else would they have let the situation escalate to the point that it did?
While we’re on the subject of appropriate reaction to public-space occupation, I must admit to getting tired of the SHOCK and DISMAY regarding the presence of-GASP!-homeless people in the #Occupy camps! Really? That’s the big problem? Not poverty and homelessness rates approaching all-time highs in this country, but that some of “those people” have the temerity to mingle with the…the what? The elites of the 99 percent? Should the protesters be the “middle 98%,” then?
First of all, the idea that citizenship depends on owning property should have been left behind with colonial charters and the British East India Company, or what did our ancestors fight a revolution for? Secondly, since the trend of economic policy for most of the last 30 years or so has been a leading cause of the rise of homelessness in the United States, who better to speak to the issues of most concern to the Occupy movement than those most affected? Besides, who else understands the tactical issues confronting urban campers better than those who have done so for the long haul?
I am not being facetious here. I’ve been on the other side of the line that separates “camping” from “nowhere else to go,” and that change in perspective, while hard to swallow, is irreplaceable. Whatever issues homeless people face are symptomatic, not causal, of other systemic problems facing this country. “The least of these,” as a past social activist once called the poor, ill, and indigent, are the canaries in our society’s coal mine. We ignore them at our own peril; and if we are one of them, we need to sing out while we still can.