from disappointment to departure

25 Oct

Thursday last week I decided to go on an extended hiatus from involvement with Occupy San Diego.

I think the last straw for me was really being affected by behavior at Civic Center Plaza that was simply loopy. That day, there was one woman in orange-red body paint whipping the air with a garland. Later, she tried to set fire to some of the protest signs and was arrested. There was more that I saw that day that I’m not even ready to mention in this blog post.

Sheer wackiness has been a feature of Occupy San Diego from the very beginning. There is nothing wrong with this quality per se but when it becomes one of the primary aspects of the climate at the occupation, I think we have a problem.

On top of that, we never had a very good container for collaboration, a clear frame about how to work together. Add to that the crazymaking generated by the police infiltrator presence, it is a wonder that things have been as peaceful as they have been. Asking around, I have learned why certain core functions never were satisfied completely: in all likelihood this could be attributed to sabotage coming from people working for law enforcement.

Others have been very upset by sexism, homophobia, sexual harassment- none of which I was witness to but I have heard about multiple times; one woman told me she feared physical violence (after having experienced psychological violence) from one of the other active people at the occupation.

Perhaps things have improved, but for the longest time there was no agreement, nor a shared understanding about what forms of behavior were acceptable. Is public drunkenness ok? Is drinking alcohol on site ok? Is pot smoking fine? Is it ok to be high on site? Is it ok to light a cigarette without checking if those around you are non-smokers? Is it ok to make noise well into the night? Over time there was significant movement on these questions as people realized that if these questions are not addressed it’ll be hard to attract a more diverse group of people in solidarity with the occupation.

But perhaps the main issue for me is that Occupy San Diego has felt more like an encampment for homeless people since week two. There is nothing wrong per se with a homeless encampment. I think it’s wonderful that some homeless people- as I’ve heard firsthand- feel safer camping out at Civic Center than before. I have made some good connections with some of the homeless people there, and among the homeless folks there are a number who are making a great contribution to the Occupy Process. At the same time, there are a number who have significant psychiatric disabilities or other personal issues, and we never had a conversation about how do we do the work of the occupation, make the occupation attractive to people, and decide how to integrate (if we think we can) these people on the margins.

And, by extension, since the occupation has largely a flavor of a homeless encampment- a “be-in” of sorts- I’m not confident of it ever achieving much. Indeed, this HuffPost piece by someone who from the looks of it sympathizes with OWS challenges OWS supporters in a way that might make some of us squirm. It makes us ask ourselves what indeed has the Occupy Process achieved?

I certainly don’t feel drawn to being in Civic Center Plaza. Nor can I encourage others to come down there.

I write this with some awareness of my own privilege as a white male  who comes from an upper middle class family (even if I have never earned much) and as someone who has dealt with some psychiatric issues in my own life. Also, I have worked a fair amount in the disability community and in the nonprofit sector.

There is some fear in bringing up these questions. Perhaps this’ll be read that I’m anti-homeless or don’t want people with psychiatric disabilities at the site. Rather, if I’m going to put my time in something, I want to have some confidence that it’ll go somewhere.

Personally, I believe it is possible for the occupation to be inclusive for all kinds of people- people on the margins and people who are not (yet) on the margins- to successfully live together. It does, however, require a conversation (or conversations) and some planning. And, speaking truthfully, I wasn’t and am not prepared to spearhead that conversation.

My initial motivation for getting involved and for camping at the Plaza was that just being in that physical space was an act of bearing witness. I found no need- nor did I really feel connection to any of the chants, much of which reinforced a sense of separation between “us” and “them.” I think all the wisdom traditions teach us that we are all in this together. For me bearing witness means/meant that just being at the Plaza, I was saying that the current economic system is not meeting needs and it needs to be changed drastically. And that would be a beginning of a conversation.

I envisioned at a later point convening conversations with people from all over San Diego on what a more equitable economic system look like and how we could get there. I also envisioned teaching others how to convene such conversations.  That work may have to wait for a later point.

For all my many criticisms of what I’ve experienced in the San Diego occupation, I continue to be moved by the dedication of those involved. It has touched me deeply to experience (again!) the power of the circle- of the equalizing, wisdom-generating, compassion-creating, community-building effects of gathering in many circles, both scheduled and spontaneous, throughout the occupation. It has heartened me to see how people have really heard each other out in those circles. How little in the way of put downs or interruptions I saw in those circles.

And no matter how things turn out for (what I prefer to call) the Occupy Process, it has given us a picture of  a new and different way of mobilizing, engaging large numbers of people peacefully for the greater good. I believe that with giving care to creating a strong foundation using highly participatory tools that draw on a community building paradigm that reaches beyond consensus-based decision-making (as referenced in the books mentioned in the Occupy Wall Street library blog post), I think it is possible to create something that looks a lot like the Occupy Process but with a better chance of moving forward.

Nevertheless having had a visceral experience of Occupy San Diego is a great gift. I will continue to follow the occupations with interest.


12 Responses to “from disappointment to departure”

  1. Birgitt Williams October 25, 2011 at 12:42 am #

    I am delighted to hear you are no longer part of that movement. You are very talented and compassionate…and I encourage you to use your wisdom and great skills to offer trainings in collaborative, participatory methods such as Open Space Technology and Whole Person Process Facilitation. By doing so, you will assist countless numbers of people to claim their personal power, develop their capacity for true collaboration, and make a big difference in the world.

    Birgitt Williams, author The Genuine Contact Way

    • Elly Faden (@EllyFaden) October 25, 2011 at 6:09 am #

      People are reacting to OWS with a variety and range of emotions. Reinhabit, with Birgitt’s vote of confidence, has decided to “abandon” it because homeless, etc. inhabit the encampments, and there is no structure in place (after 8 weeks) of dealing with these people.

      It sounds to me like both Reinhabit and Birgitt could add a lot of value to the movement. You don’t have to go down to the streets, although being present is, of course, the strongest statement. You can join groups or meet new people and keep up the good fight in other ways. For example, I spent last week helping set up the tech for TAPNEC and the weekend working with a newfound friend on: And, yes, I have attended two of my local OWS’s and found some of the people and vibes to be unpleasant. However, I recognize that some of the people have NEVER had a voice. At least I do, and I am committed to putting it to good use in the movement. Please consider adding yours in a different way. Thanks! – Urbaned

  2. riabaeck2 October 25, 2011 at 2:50 am #


    • pacerjp1492 October 25, 2011 at 7:58 am #

      I was glad to have received your post and the account of the time you had invested in Occupy San Diego, and I understand your concerns. You have been a much closer participant than I have been. Health and Care-giving considerations have prevented me from staying overnight, so I have only been in and out occasionally. Whatever small things have been achieved, so far, it nevertheless is the first time in a generation that we have had an uprising like this in the U.S. Who knows where it will lead.

      I had an interesting experience last night when the fellow sitting next to me in the GA circle lit up a regular cigarette. I have not smoked a pipe since 1988, however the smoke engendered some memories. I did not say anything to him until someone official asked him to leave the circle if he wanted to continue to smoke. He complied and as he did I thanked him for doing so.

      Later we saw each other and talked a little. Before we left that evening he saw me again and wrote out his name and contact information for me. I, in turn, invited him to the interfaith service that was planned for the following morning at OSD in the Civic Center.. What do you know, he actually came. I did not have much time to talk to him there, but may continue our conversation via email.
      Take care my friend.

  3. Michele Frankel October 25, 2011 at 8:55 am #

    I am sure the majority of the problem is the law enforcment infiltrators. In my experience ‘they’ use personaliy disorders like a script to help them develop their undercover personas.The feeling of danger is frequently ‘them’.

    Zoning from the market place , would possibly support lifestyle diversity.

    I have attended a couple of circle events recently, developing there within, the power of silence and saying little and then less.


    Interesting times and a very interesting report.

    • history October 28, 2011 at 9:16 am #

      i disagree. the majority of the problem is us.

      the infiltrators, etc, make it worse, but we cannot blame them for much of the dysfunctional stuff that continues to make us look stupid, untrustworthy, unrealistic and irresponsible.

      i want to work with people who are somewhat in touch with reality, people who notice what is happening right in front of them, people who say they will do something and do it.

  4. reinhabitsandiego October 25, 2011 at 4:09 pm #

    Elly, and all, thanks for your replies. In a way today’s post is something of a response to your encouragement…

  5. Pat G October 25, 2011 at 11:11 pm #

    I am also troubled by our image and by our demeanor at the Civic Center.
    OWS went through this as well, and they asked supporters to send in reasonable clothing to help upgrade the outward image of occupiers, in the spirit of improving our outreach.

    Like it or not, appearance and behavior make a difference to observers who may be trying to understand what we are about. And I realize that the homeless join the area because it offers safety and food. But I believe we can attempt to ask occupiers to follow a few rules of cleanliness and decency. How do we expect office-goers and middle-class people to be attracted to join a bunch of dirty foul-mouthed rabble-rousers? Unfortunately, all too often the pictures and videos are not flattering.
    And at times, like today at City Council, their actions are counter-productive, and I fear, have caused damage to the movement.

    We are all trying in our own way to strengthen the movement. And I will continue to do so, regardless.

    – Pat

  6. Anubis D November 1, 2011 at 8:13 pm #

    The Civic Center was your problem. The people who did not want to turn the occupation into an anti-authority rally left October 12th.
    We were the one called traitors, thieves, collaborators, informants, cowards, peaceful, organized, hard-working, clean, cooperative….
    You were just at the wrong camp.

    • history November 1, 2011 at 11:46 pm #

      The non-violent ones who want to do something more than express anger are still around and starting to organize better.

  7. Margie Collier November 8, 2011 at 12:13 pm #

    I certainly understand your fear of bringing up these questions! I think that people in general have romanticized notions of homelessness!

    I have been homeless myself—my family (me, my wheelchair-bound husband, and two children) were living on the streets of San Diego several years ago. Life was not what I had expected…not at all.

    I actually assumed that the majority of homeless families where in that situation because, like me, they had been living paycheck to paycheck, lost their jobs, and had exhausted their savings. Not true—at least what I observed.

    The overwhelming majority of homeless people I observed where in that situation due to drugs and/or mental illness; untreated schizophrenia, especially coupled with illegal drug abuse, results in some bizarre and often frightening behavior. I was fearful most of the time…and I was experienced in working with people with schizophrenic and affective disorders!

    I, like you, don’t have any answers for this practical problem facing the protesters…but I do have some ideas about how to change the root of this problem.

    Most of the OWS sympathizers see the need for real, fundamental change in our economics laws. Capitalism is just not working anymore; one wonders if it ever really did! It hasn’t for me. It has not worked for the 99%.

    Very few of us caught on early that this country was founded by the 1% FOR the 1%! We have certainly been brainwashed with our white-washed American history lessons.

    Karl Marx tried to tell us how to live in a world where we would realize the need to come together in the understanding that there is no need to exploit each other, that capitalism is fundamentally corrupt, and that socialization of means and results of production is necessary. Yes, I know that other countries have applied some of his ideas—applying only some of them won’t be effective!

    Every person must be compensated for their work with what they need to exist in our world. This refers to whatever is needed for every person to exist normally: safe housing, a job, a family, pension, healthcare, education. Every person must have this.
    But everything beyond the necessities becomes public property. And it must only be used for the benefit of the society, and only to the necessary extent for this society.

    Those bizarre-acting mentally ill, homeless folks would get the health care and the monitoring that they need. As it stands now, legally, the mentally ill have the right to suffer! They don’t have to take their medications (unless they are court-ordered and received injections)…part of the illness itself is being treatment-resistant, i.e., not wanting to take the medication. So the cycle continues…

    • reinhabitsandiego November 9, 2011 at 4:20 am #

      Thanks so much for taking the time to write. One of my motivations in taking part in the encampment was to face my own fear of homelessness. It can happen to any of us.

      I feel honored by your perspective, as someone with a family who has dealt with homelessness. I share your wish of living in a world where we honored all life, attended to the well-being of everyone.
      Thank you!

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