By Sarah Morrigan
IGC Resident Coordinator
(Expanded from one of her weekly essay assignments for the "12 Steps to Compassion" class at Ocean Seminary College.)
Consider empathy in the broader social context of the Occupation. How does our community manifest empathy? If so, how do we see it at work in our camps? Is empathy essential to our solidarity, and ultimately, the development, continuity, and sustainability of our movement as a whole? This question has been on my mind since I began occupying what was previously known as the Chapman and Lownsdale parks in downtown Portland on Day 1 (Oct. 6, 2011), ironically sandwiched between the Multnomah County Courthouse, Federal Courthouse, Portland City Hall, and the (In-)Justice Center (a combination of the city police headquarters and the county jail under one roof). Even though the origin of #OccupyPortland was billed as an act of solidarity with #OccupyWallStreet in support of the "99 percent," this past four weeks have seen incidents in which this ideal of solidarity has been tested over and over again.
During the four and a half weeks since the beginning of the Occupation, there has been some shifts in demographics at the Occupation. The original Occupiers, who were generally perceived by the mainstream media as being white and middle-class, gave way to an influx of "street families," anarcho-punk youth, and "juggaloes" around the end of the second week. Initially, the encampment was largely orderly, clean and trouble-free, even though police in riot gear was stationed across the street from the parks overnight. There were more parents with children. Generally the atmosphere was more intelligent and people were more engaged in activism and conversation. This began to change when the earlier Occupiers left as rain and cooler air moved in, and in their place a massive and continuous influx of the homeless, turned away by shelters and in search for a place to sleep safe from continuous police harassment. This became an issue of heated contentions and almost divided the movement. The earlier Occupiers were not happy with the fact that the food team and the kitchen became overburdened as they became the largest de facto soup kitchen in the city, serving up to 2,000 to 5,000 people a day, causing massive increase in wait times and burn-out among the kitchen team members, who were now working almost around the clock. This aside, the cultural differences between the original (mostly middle-class and college-educated) Occupiers and the newcomers, also became reasons for conflicts. By the end of the third week, inexplicably, the street families and juggaloes, on their own initiatives, declared that the Occupation would be a neutral zone and moved out of their own. While this resulted in a marked decrease in fights and noise problems, the areas vacated by them were immediately taken up by the older, chronically homeless population with criminal records (a number of them settled in just as they were released from the jail across the street, having nowhere else to go when the jail releases inmates often around 1 a.m.) and mental problems. This is often exacerbated by the frequent provocation of fights and undesirable behaviours by the hecklers who are there (often with video cameras) to cause problems intentionally so as to discredit the movement.
Many earlier Occupiers, including many in the safety team, said we should either pack up the camp or do something to keep the homeless away. They claimed that the latter do not really participate in the movement (admittedly the rate of their attendance at the General Assembly is low) and are causing strain on resources and volunteers. They also claimed that almost all crimes and troubles are attributable to the homeless. In short, the voices that said they "do not belong here" often became vocal, only to face counter-arguments calling for solidarity and unity.
Noting this phenomenon I had written an essay (http://www.worldpulse.com/node/46279) comparing this social phenomenon -- the Occupation camp is a microcosm of the greater society -- with the anti-immigrant, xenophobic rhetoric prevalent in the U.S. political discourse especially in Arizona and Alabama.
What is interesting here is that in xenophobia one tries subconsciously or consciously to build a wall between "us" and "them" -- and insulate oneself from the sufferings of "the other." In #OccupyPortland it is the stereotypical "bums on the street"; in Alabama and Arizona legislatures it is the "illegals from Mexico." This way one can not only dehumanize the other and insulate oneself from their experiences but also justify their sufferings, and even legitimize one's participation in the sufferings.
In essence, both empathy and solidarity and related and are vital keys to social justice movements. The idea behind the Occupy movement is novel in the sense that it is inclusive -- "we are the 99 percent" -- and united at the very level of humanity, instead of any particular segment of the population or by any specific single-issue agenda. This past month has been one of the most meaningful, hands-on learning experiences for me, as well. How do I feel empathy towards those who are here only to intentionally cause problems? How do I feel empathy towards the drug addicts whose presence are seemingly undermining our message and unity? How do I continue to remain true to the movement while the unauthorized factions keep causing troubles (such as violent actions and unpermitted marches that created massive traffic jams on purpose at 5 p.m. on a weekday) and the mass media reporting of them as though they are ours, even though we all know that the General Assembly did not even discuss their actions let alone voting on them? How do I empathize with an "anarchist" demonstrator who went to jail for vandalizing a police car when his action runs counter to the philosophy and undermines our existence? How can I feel any empathy when I see a long line of mostly homeless people unknown to the movement, waiting for a dinner, when I am busy and have no time for this -- and when I finally get to make time for dinner, everything was already gone? Those have been real, day-to-day questions that have dogged me every single day. Yet, I also know that solidarity cannot be authentic without empathy.
One of the greatest things that happened during the earlier weeks of the Occupation were conversations. People were talking to one another. Now it feels like the community is again divided and stratified along the class lines and racial lines. I thought the Occupy movement was to demonstrate that the people have a capacity to become a community in a direct democracy and participatory collectivism -- without institutionalized leadership -- but now I find often that the same kind of oppression is being replicated once again in the Occupation. Classism, sexism and racism are raising ugly heads again. Those divisions were once conquered through conversations and engagement. I feel it is time to bring them back.
While we often talk of the Occupation and the Occupy movement solely in terms of political ideologies, freedom of speech and direct-actions, the movement certainly has a deep spiritual aspect. A local writer Pam Hogeweide writes for the Burnside Writers Collective (well-known for one of its members, Donald Miller, of the Blue Like Jazz fame):
Like many Christians, I have prayed and fasted for revival to come to America. I have cried out to God more times than I can count for a spirit of repentance to visit our land. I never imagined it would look this way. The revival of my prayers I imagined was behind the four walls of steepled buildings, packed pews of the contrite with heads hung low, weeping guilt-driven prayers for sins to be washed away. I did not envision grandmothers, baristas, hippies and hipsters taking to the city streets to decry the sins of the nation. -- http://burnsidewriters.com/2011/10/28/16916/
The Occupy movement, like the earlier Great Awakenings in American history, is spreading like wildfire and arousing the consciousness of the people from all walks of life, uniting them under one community like no other movement could have done. In many ways, the Occupy movement is a profoundly prophetic movement. Likewise, the Occupations and their General (or People's) Assemblies are exploring, experimenting with, creating, and demonstrating new ways of being a community, just like the early Christians in the book of Acts did under the Holy Spirit -- not easy, but radical. Like the early Hebrew prophets and first-generation Christians alike, the Occupy movement envisions a community that dismantles the older social boundaries and the failed and corrupt system that enables the division between people and walls between human beings.
As we struggle on the daily basis with many difficult issues and decisions, we grow and become transformed. The Occupy movement is not just about changing the 1 percent and the political structure that enables the 1 percent, but it is also about profoundly changing our hearts, minds and behaviours.
This is not an official statement of the Interfaith Guild of Chaplains.