by Quinn McGarrigle
In the past week in Philadelphia, a group of homeless people have begun building homes for themselves. They are determined to defend their new homes, and more than that, they are ready to take the fight to the city to make sure everyone has decent housing. An encampment of mostly tents and tarps has been constructed around the baseball cage in the Southeast edge of Von Colln Memorial Field, on the corner of 22nd Street and Ben Franklin Parkway. This encampment has grown rapidly, with around 50 tents and tarp structures housing both residents and supplies, all in the shade of the beech trees along the Parkway, one of Philadelphia’s central thoroughfares. The camp is located directly in view of the Rodin Museum across 22nd Street and is just out of reach of the shadows of the Center City skyscrapers towering only a few blocks away. This is an extremely wealthy neighborhood, and the main tourist district of Philadelphia. Just a block away and up a slight hill, a Whole Foods grocery store overlooks the encampment. Based on the information provided to me, the plan to construct the camp went into motion on Monday (June 8th) and was effectively established and taking in residents by Wednesday (June 10th).
My main intention for writing an account of the camp and its direction is to preemptively avoid both the genuine confusion and the targeted misinformation to which these kinds of space-taking projects are seemingly vulnerable. Accounts of the so-called “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” in Seattle have been circulating on social media, much of the information about the “CHAZ” being heavily exaggerated and misleading, whether in a positive or negative sense, to the extent that a Fox News reporter in Seattle referred to themselves as reporting from the “U.S./CHAZ border.” The real situation in Seattle remains somewhat unclear, but initial characterizations (hopeful from radicals and fearful from reactionaries) treated the 6-block radius as a kind of willfully organized and defiant effort at building a commune. The evidence given for this claim was largely in the form of signs declaring the neighborhood autonomous, small roadblocks somewhat misleadingly referred to as “barricades,” and the lack of police presence in the “CHAZ.” Rumors about its “anarchist” governance circulated quicker than any information about what the goals or internal organization of the Zone actually consisted of. As these stories circulated, Seattle protesters occupied their City Hall after elected socialist city council member Kshama Sawant unlocked the door for them, and President Trump demanded on Twitter that the Seattle Mayor “take the city back” from “anarchists.”
As the “CHAZ” gained a higher profile, it attracted a variety of local and national media that have allowed for a more sober view of the situation. The Zone has no cops patrolling or stationed there, though it did allow in a police detachment that wanted to check on the state of their station within the Zone (which, at the time of writing, remains unoccupied by protestors). Besides the current lack of a permanent police presence, and the protests, speaking events, and food distribution that have become commonplace in the neighborhood, things largely go on as normal within the “CHAZ.” USA Today’s account of the Zone is in accordance with the local media in describing it as a “festival-like atmosphere.” Businesses and prior residents in the area have not reported any disturbance of their lives or property, and the businesses actually claimed that the neighborhood becoming a center of the city’s protest has been good for business. The overall character is nearly identical to other peaceful protests around the country. It should be clear that the excitement and fear over the CHAZ being some kind of revolutionary project was based only on rumor. The absence of the police in the CHAZ is a good thing, and the presence of creative and sustained protest and community projects is certainly worth admiration, but neither of these situations constitute revolutionary organization. They don’t need to be revolutionary to be good and worthy of support, but it is crucial to make the distinction.
To avoid the rumor-based misinterpretation circulating around the “CHAZ” in Seattle, I felt it was important to develop and share an account of what exactly is happening on the ground in Philly. I will take on a personal tone to report on what I saw and interpreted from speaking with residents and organizers. This is primarily because, though I was careful to record as best I could whatever information was provided to me, I do not want to unintentionally misreport anything based on my own misunderstanding or misperception. This Philadelphia homeless encampment and the police-free zone in Seattle are incomparable, though, for the sake of clarity, I will focus more on my observations and interviews within the Van Colln Field Encampment (through which the difference should become clear) than on any comparison of the two.
Late Thursday the 11th and early Friday the 12th, I was in the encampment for the first time, due to a call for people to provide a night watch to deter a potential police raid (or other interference or attacks) in the late night and early morning when most residents would be asleep and many of the supporters filling auxiliary roles would have gone home. Though at that point the camp was quiet, it was clearly well organized. Three primary supply tents were set up as a buffer between 22nd Street and the area where homeless residents had their tents. A medical tent, food tent, and miscellaneous supply tent were operated by volunteers throughout the night. I spoke with the volunteers operating these tents and there were clearly defined lists of their existing stock, as well as what they needed to get as soon as possible, what they would need long term, etc. There were very practical considerations regarding what kind of medicine or medical supplies are needed and how they might be acquired. For example, as with food, any opened or partially used medical supplies need to be turned away for safety and hygiene reasons, which is necessary but complicates the issue of acquiring prescription medications that may be necessary but are unavailable to the residents. None of this is surprising, but the attention to practical challenges and calmly taking on the responsibility of dealing with them in a rapidly shifting situation seemed to be an immediate strength. When I left the camp early Thursday morning around 3:00 AM, there were roughly 30 tents occupied by homeless residents, with some other residents in sleeping bags on the ground.
When I returned Thursday afternoon, the camp had already grown, now with at least 40 tents. During the day the camp was bustling with people working on various projects. Welcoming new residents, helping pitch their tents, taking donations, organizing the donations, and updating stock, distributing food and supplies where needed, speaking to interested passersby and potential volunteers: these are the primary activities I saw carried out on site. Away from the site itself, those with the means to do so were picking up supplies and delivering them both to the Parkway Encampment itself and to other homeless people around the city, both as a way to supply direct aid and spread the word about the project and its goals.
The encampment and the organizational methods developing for its operation include two primary parties: the ideological revolutionary leftists and the homeless population making up the residents. These groups play somewhat different roles and are approaching the management and expansion of the encampment from different positions, but are almost indistinguishable without asking around about details, as they are engaged in largely the same activities and come from similar backgrounds. I will refer to the leftists as socialists, though that might not be strictly how each describes their individual politics. The ideological peculiarities are not relevant to the immediate priorities of running the camp or the stated demands of the camp, all of which can be correctly described as revolutionary and anti-capitalist, for which “socialist” is as good a shorthand as any. The camp socialists are made up of two distinct Philadelphia organizations, the Workers Revolutionary Collective and OccupyPHA, as well as miscellaneous socialist volunteers, some with specialized experience (such as medics and nurses). The WRC and OccupyPHA serve as the primary guiding force — what this means will be clarified later. The other volunteers serve what might be called auxiliary roles in the sense that they use their experience with direction action, and/or their particular skill sets, to facilitate the camp’s survival in the form of managing, sorting, and distributing donations, as well as assisting with whatever other work might need to be done around camp. OccupyPHA is an organization formed in opposition to the abuses of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, especially their role in gentrification, aggressive eviction of people from their homes, and total failure to address the issues of homelessness in the city.
Workers Revolutionary Collective is an explicitly revolutionary socialist organization — they outline their beliefs, goals, and methods in a well-presented and accessible way on their website. They provide both summarized and detailed descriptions of the methods they intend to utilize to meet their goals. These methods do not incite or encourage violence against people, but they are not the “peaceful protests” we see encouraged by liberals. They advocate for civil disobedience that is non-violent but uncompromisingly disruptive and confrontational. Whereas liberals are only comfortable with protests that take part in a revisionist pageantry reenacting an imaginary white-washed Civil Rights movement (urging protestors to follow all laws and police demands, equivocating expressions of anger and frustration with violent agitation, treating any assertion of power as “diluting the message” or “endangering people”, etc), the Workers Revolutionary Collective has within their strategic toolkit the selection of disruptive civil disobedience utilized in the real historical Civil Rights Movement: illegal sit-ins, illegal marches, illegal occupation of public and private property, etc. Just as it was in the 60s, liberal detractors consider illegality to be inherently violent, and balk and call for law and order. Their broader demands are openly drawn from the demands of the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program. Like the Panthers, at the end of their list of demands the WRC includes an altered version of the Preamble to the American Declaration of Independence: a potent appropriation of mythical American language. Many American socialists (and some reactionaries) claim to draw on the legacy of the Panthers, but the WRC does not only claim the continuation of the Panther’s principles and long term goals. As far as I can tell, they are actively, effectively, and courageously putting the principles of the BPP into practice, of which this encampment is evidence.
Besides those who became involved as ideological socialists, the other primary group working in the encampment are the homeless residents who are working to both build themselves a home and get enough leverage to enforce their uncompromising demands for universal housing. I qualify socialism with “ideological” only because I do not want to strictly distinguish those involved on the basis of having more abstract political convictions, from those (especially among the homeless population) who may not have much familiarity with the ideological abstractions of socialism but nonetheless find themselves embodying the struggle for true liberty and equality, and understand its necessity in an immediate and urgent way. I spoke with several residents making a home in the encampment. I had no recording equipment and may have opted not to use it on the basis of privacy regardless, so I will paraphrase what residents told me and only include what was clear so as not to unintentionally misrepresent them. All names and descriptions were included with residents permission and with the agreement of representatives from the camp.
I met first with Teddy, a man who is not himself homeless but was inspired to join on Wednesday the 10th after walking by and “falling in love with it.” He was very friendly and enthusiastically working towards the camp’s efforts, doing whatever was needed of him. He was glad to hear that I wanted to speak to the residents, and directed me first to William. William claimed he didn’t have anything useful to say, but after some prodding from Teddy he opened up and had a lot to say. I hardly had to open with a vague inquiry into what was going on in the camp before he stated unequivocally that they were out there to get housing, nothing less. For clarification, I asked: “The point isn’t to live here permanently then, it’s to get housing?” He affirmed this enthusiastically, saying they were sick of having no permanent place to live and getting no help, and that they were there to demand housing for everyone once and for all. A few times he described this housing as “public housing,” and I asked him if he distinguished this from existing “low-income housing,”, and though he didn’t specify what the difference would be, he said “Any kind of housing, doesn’t matter,” and reiterated that everyone needed homes and that they were ready to fight for them. This sentiment was shared by every resident I spoke with. There was an overwhelming precision of purpose: every homeless person staying in the camp that I spoke to said that they were there to demand housing.
Some prejudiced and reactionary people may see the homeless as “below” the political. They might see a homeless encampment, even one organized with a broader goal such as this one, as simply desperate people looking for a place to stay and something to eat without caring much for the circumstances outside of those primary needs. But in the camp there is a tangible unity of purpose and an angry determination. The opinions and goals of the residents in the encampment reflect actual social conditions, and the necessary steps to improve them, in a way that is far more convincingly political than the empty spectacle of the media, the speeches of politicians, or the parades and festivals of liberal activism. William did however have some concerns about the camp residents and their supplies being exploited by those who pretended to be homeless, but took the supplies they received elsewhere and sold them. He said that the people doing this were usually addicts who were not homeless themselves, but poor and dependent on substances, and taking the supplies that were meant for the homeless residents. I asked whether some of these addicts may be homeless themselves and struggling with their addictions, and he conceded that this may be true, but reiterated that it was still wrong and was sabotaging their effort. William went further, saying that nobody should be staying there if they’re not ready to take part in the struggle for housing. Another resident, Tianna Frisby, came over to watch William and I speak. I asked if she wanted to be interviewed, and she seemed surprised and shied away from the offer. William encouraged her as Teddy had encouraged him and she relented a little, saying that the main thing was the demand for housing, and they weren’t stopping until they got it. She stopped after this and laughed and said she didn’t have anything else to say. We got word that the resident meeting was happening shortly in the baseball field, and someone clarified for me that it was a planning and decision making meeting that only residents could participate in, but I could stay to the side and watch and take notes. Before the meeting started, I spoke briefly with a few more residents as they prepared for the meeting, and every one of them affirmed that they were there to demand housing and the end of homelessness.
The meeting was held in a large circle of residents and members of WRC and OccupyPHA. That only residents could attend the meeting was not strictly true, seeing as WRC/OccupyPHA were involved as facilitators and mediators, but the rule effectively ensured that discussion and decision making was happening only among those staying in the camp. I haven’t mentioned the demographics of the camp yet, but they are noteworthy. The camp residents and WRC/PhillyPHA are both, by a large majority, black, poor, Philadelphia residents. Because this is the standard, assume that anybody I describe fits this description unless noted otherwise. There is no immediately striking difference in the dress or language of WRC/PhillyPHA socialists in general and the camp residents in general — there is a wide variety overall, but the variety is common among both the residents and WRC/PhillyPHA. Throughout the meeting, and speaking to some members of WRC/PhillyPHA afterwards, it became clear that WRC/PhillyPHA are distinguished by having theoretical, political, and legal familiarity to varying degrees, but are largely from similar circumstances as those they are helping to organize themselves. Multiple WRC/PhillyPHA members expressed that they had themselves at some point been homeless or lived in crackhouses.
All of this is in contrast to a broader contemporary leftist milieu that, both in Philadelphia and the US more broadly, often finds itself composed primarily of students, academics, professional activists, and various middle class extractions. Of course, there is no position in society that puts someone above the struggle for a better world (though for some, that struggle might demand uncomfortable changes). But at the core of any socialism worth the name is the understanding that a better world cannot be instituted on anybody else’s behalf. Throughout history, whenever social change has been offered as charity, as the good will of the powerful, it has always in time proven itself to be only a way of transforming and maintaining the evils of the existing world, of changing things a little bit so that things can stay mostly the same. Fundamental to a revolutionary socialism in the tradition of Marx, of Lenin, of Huey and Assata, is the idea that, in a society structured around the exploitation of a particular class, the people within that exploited class are the only ones who are able to transform society in a way that can effectively abolish the systems exploiting them. They are able to do this by identifying and exploiting the leverage available to them. This leverage exists due to the fact that, however degraded and exploited a class might be, if they continue to exist as a distinct class they (through accident and/or design) serve some kind of role necessary to allow society to function. Whether “homelessness” be considered a distinct class is not exactly relevant. Class analysis (at least, when following Marx) is not meant to neatly group people into accurate categories that reflect reality exactly, but to identify those tendencies of society and history that are responsible for the division and exploitation of people — and then study how that division and exploitation functions, and why it functions. In the Van Colln Encampment, we see the effective use of leverage by the homeless population of Philadelphia to make their demands and invite productive struggle. The WRC/OccupyPHA understand personally the immediate needs and challenges of homelessness and adjacent impoverished conditions, and they understand theoretically the position that the homeless fill in society. This combined knowledge, and the courage to act on it, seems to me what distinguishes these socialists from many other contemporary leftist groups.
Homelessness is, like unemployment more generally, the condition of violence and dehumanization imposed on those who have nothing to sell but their own ability to work, and fail to find someone to buy their ability to work. Homelessness — the denial of access to the bare minimal tools for survival — is the implicit threat levelled at every wage-worker. If you don’t own property that makes money, or you don’t sell your life in portions to whoever will take it, you will be considered extraneous, you will be considered a failure, and you will be blamed for it. The way our society is structured demands the suffering of the homeless, and it demands that they suffer separately, quietly, and humbly. If they don’t want to do that, they are expected to find a way to start selling their lives again at any cost, or remain condemned to suffer. Every grocery store and condominium may as well be inscribed with the words emblazoned on the gates into Auschwitz — “Work Sets You Free.”
On the corner of 22nd and Ben Franklin Parkway, on Friday June 12th, about 60 homeless people gathered in the grass of a baseball diamond in Van Colln Memorial Park and refused these terms. On one side of the field the encampment sat underneath the full green canopies of Philadelphia’s ubiquitous gray-white spectacled beech trees. Above the trees and across the parkway the glass of the Center City skyscrapers glared yellow and orange in the late afternoon sun. A few of the tallest were constructed in the past ten years when many of the camp residents lost their homes. Beyond the skyscrapers, over the Delaware and Jersey, the sky was a darker blue and gray clouds rolled in. On the other side of the field, the view was dominated by the towering Parkway House Apartments, its wide brick face lit up in a pink glow as the day moved westward. As most of the encampment’s residents put down their work and cleared out of their tents for the meeting, volunteers continued to sort donations and prepare them for distribution. Some of the joggers and dog-walkers and people passing in their cars surely wondered about what kind of homeless camp this was — arrangements of tents and bedrolls are commonplace in the city, but rarely do camps this large show up in Center City, and for a close observer the presence of supply tents and some kind of formal organization would have seemed unusual.
The residents’ meeting began in an orderly fashion. I can’t say with any assurance that my impressions were accurate, but I sensed a nervous anticipation from some residents. These meetings were as new as the encampment itself, and it would not be surprising for there to be skepticism about the viability of this kind of organizing, or their own ability to contribute to it. From others there was a firm enthusiasm that I feel more confident in conveying — I got the impression that many residents had total faith that their project was possible, and the eagerness and seriousness with which they talked about pushing forward made clear that they were under no illusions about the difficult road ahead. Though the Workers Revolutionary Collective and OccupyPHA were instrumental in the creation of the encampment, their presence in the residents’ meeting was relatively light. WRC/OccupyPHA opened up discussion about plans to capture the lanes of the Parkway adjacent to the camp. The need for barricades to stop cars and the possibility of violent retribution from not only the police force but angry civilians was discussed. Taking the street is necessary for the homeless encampment to have more leverage to make their demands and maintain momentum, but it is a significant escalation. In addition to the strategic leverage this would provide, it would also open up possibilities for longer term infrastructure. The access to drainage would allow for outdoor showers to be installed; porta potties could be set up away from where people sleep and eat; the streetlights can provide a source of power. These plans are not simply presented by the WRC/PhillyPHA, but are discussed among the residents. People are excited about the plans and eager to make it happen. The discussion of concrete strategy and tactics is interspersed with spontaneous shouts regarding the cause and its necessity: “Nobody should be homeless, nobody!” “This is our home now!”
At some point the main discussion uses these exclamations as a pivot and a speaker affirms: “Everyone that lives here, this is our space! Think about it like this. This is your home now. Treat it like you’ll be here forever, we’re planning like we’ll be here forever.” This was not just an inspiring sentiment. The call to treat this as their home was followed by real plans about how it could more effectively be made into a long term home. The most urgent consideration here was resisting eviction by the city. For this purpose, the experience and legal familiarity of Philadelphia housing policy from the OccupyPHA members was invaluable. They explained and emphasized that no one should let in or talk to anyone from the Philadelphia Housing Authority or any other social workers or government agencies, because, though they would be promising to help, the acknowledgment that they are living illegally on public property would give the city grounds to evict them. Many people speak up giving their own stories about how the PHA and other government assistance programs have not only failed them, but worsened their situation and wasted their time and energy before leaving them out to dry. Someone asks the OccupyPHA speakers about how they would be able to use the camp as an address. There is a plan for this — they intend to build a small wooden building, find the exact address of the location where it is built, and register the building under that address. The tents will be given individual “apartment numbers” so that mail can be sent to the main address and then given out to the individual residents. The significance of mail for unhoused people cannot be understated: applying for any kind of government aid requires a mailing address, both to have the initial application materials sent to you, to have the aid approved, and to receive aid such as EBT cards, medical assistance information, etc. Besides government assistance: applying for jobs requires proof of address, receiving or renewing official identification requires proof of address, opening a bank account requires proof of address — so many miscellaneous necessities depend on having a permanent, legally recognized address. Without one, your avenues to being recognized as a legitimate citizen are heavily limited, and you are in many situations effectively considered a “non-person.”
From here the conversation continues into the plans to create an ID system for residents for multiple reasons that will make organization more efficient, especially as the camp continues to grow and distribution and accountability will be necessary within a group where not everyone knows everyone else. Some other minor issues are addressed, such as trash disposal, and requests to keep the sidewalk clear to not invite any unnecessary anger from locals. A member of WRC mentions (I paraphrase): “There’s people of all different genders here that need to be respected. People use pronouns like he/him, she/her. I don’t personally know much about any of that, but, just respect each other and call people what they ask to be called. We’re here for each other.” The WRC/OccupyPHA members stated around this time that they are not there to control either the meeting or the camp, and that the facilitating role they took on should not ever be taken to mean that WRC/OccupyPHA was in charge of them. They reiterated that certain strict measures are necessary so that the residents can remain in control of the encampment. Among these are the total restriction on the presence or aid of any government, business, or non-profit organizations that would all open the ground for eroding their demands, their leverage, and inevitably lead to acknowledgement of the encampment as illegal and fair grounds for eviction. For this reason, the ability of the residents of the encampment to govern themselves is premised on a consensus that every camp resident understands how, by accepting official “aid,” they could easily undermine the camp’s integrity in a variety of ways, even through a moment of carelessness.
The efficacy of this strategy of course depends on whether or not the city and the police will obey their own laws, which is always, at best, a gamble. Besides that, walking the tightrope of quasi-legal loopholes that depend on each camp resident understanding and following the needs of the loophole could become very challenging as the encampment grows and survives. Consensual democracy can be a viable method of governance (it has been the standard model in much of West Africa for a very long time (see Section V, parts 14 and 15)), but that doesn’t mean it’s viable without generations of precedent or as a model that can resist the dominant ideology and form of governance from within. Whether self-organization on this level can meaningfully be called governance when opting out is as simple as leaving with your tent is itself arguable. Any method of governance, or some strategy of collective cohesion resembling it, is in a context such as this encampment necessarily fragile and must adjust itself quickly and flexibly in response to attempts to undermine it, and must manage all this without sacrificing too much of the ground (literally and figuratively) that it has claimed. As they are no doubt aware, for WRC/OccupyPHA to adopt a stricter command role and attempt to institute a “formal” ban on activities endangering the encampment’s integrity would do no good at all on a strategic level. Either way, the same general consensus against outside interference would need to exist to prevent the undermining of the camp. But an attempt at asserting formal leadership in this context (a small, fragile project kept alive by tangible demands) would reframe the real necessity to protect the camp’s integrity as an abstract agreement to do what the leaders say — an alienated deference to a group of leaders could easily dissolve the spontaneous cohesion and direction that comes from shared leadership and decision-making in such a high stakes situation. At least, these are my intuitions as to the situation. I am only inferring the situation and the strategy based on what I saw happening in the encampment. It is one thing to study history and remark on what could have been or what should have been when those circumstances are long gone. It is something else entirely to see social processes and human life swell into historical significance before your eyes. My intention is not to explain these situations and strategies, but to be a student of the situation, and learn from the people making it happen. I would advise other people to do the same.
Following WRC/OccupyPHA’s reminder that they were only there to provide advice and guidance and that both the meeting and the encampment in general depended on the collective leadership and decision making of the residents, WRC/OccupyPHA began to take an even lighter role in the discussion than they had before. Residents spoke up and talked among each other expressing various thoughts and ideas. The most pressing points had already been introduced and emphasized by WRC/OccupyPHA, so that further discussion began to take the form of broader statements, personal experiences, denouncement of the injustice of homelessness and poverty and praise of the solidarity they had shown to each other and that had been shown by volunteers and donors. It disgusts me that I feel it necessary to emphasize the focus and coherence of these dialogues and speeches, but even many of those who are sympathetic to the homeless tend to hold prejudices towards them as a certain kind of “lost children” that have “fallen” out of the ability to speak for themselves. It is true that many homeless people struggle with untreated mental illness, and among those illnesses are some that make communication difficult. But more than that, however, it is my belief that those who have never been homeless or have never been close to homelessness misunderstand the humility and deference of the panhandlers and beggars they encounter as being representative of the real personality and temperament of homeless people in general. The humility adopted by many homeless people is a necessity for survival. Even if you, as a homeless person, are as kind as possible, if you go out of your way to be non-threatening despite whatever anger or sadness you carry, non-homeless people are intimidated by your existence. So you wear masks. You become a good storyteller. You try to become invisible as a person while remaining visible as someone with needs to be met. Even your joy and laughter seem threatening to many non-homeless people. That the homeless are full people, with a full range of emotions, thoughts, and feelings, with life behind them and ahead of them, is (for many non-homeless people) more terrifying than the illusion that the homeless are only a sad part of the landscape, an opportunity for their own charity and reflection. Sympathy can be dehumanizing.
The meeting at the Von Colln Encampment became a forum of rage, hope, and affirmation. A woman spoke about how she had run around for years trying to get help from the government and still had nothing to show for it. Many echoed this with their own experiences and agreement that they were done going through these channels that promised help but never delivered. A man stood up and stepped into the center of the circle and said, “There should be no homeless people! None! Give people some fucking homes! Fuck the homeless memorial! Every year they add new names to the memorial and they act like that’s doing something for us! They’re always talking about gun violence, about how we need to get rid of the guns, but there’s as many people dead from homelessness as from guns. I don’t want to see any names on that fucking memorial!” I made sure to write this down exactly as I had heard it. He was met with cheers and agreement. Some residents expressed that, as bad as they had been treated by the city government and many individuals, they were receiving real support from many donors and volunteers, and that these kinds of networks were a very hopeful sign for their project and these connections should be maintained. Another man stood up and, following the example of the other, went to the middle of the circle. He was not speaking loud enough for me to make out exactly what he was saying from where I sat off to the side of the meeting. I did notice that he had a southern accent of some kind, and only then did I look close enough at him to notice that he was a white man with a very dark tan. I caught small portions of his speech, and he mentioned rights and holding cops and politicians all personally accountable several times, often motioning in the direction of City Hall. Whatever he said it was more or less well-received, but I got the sense it was lacking in clarity even for those in the meeting that could hear him. Though it is crucial that all residents be able to speak and contribute and have a say in what’s happening, I do wonder if there is some better way to help with interpretation of comments that aren’t entirely clear, or some kind of alternate regulatory mechanism that can help meetings stay on track and within a reasonable timetable.
As the meeting continued, the issue of clarity and time emerged again. In addition to these potential problems, tensions appeared over the confrontational strategy of the camp and the methods through which the demands were being made. This strain came to the surface as a woman who had not talked yet spoke for a long time. She recounted her own story of addiction and having her kids taken from her by child services, and specified that that was her responsibility and her demons to wrestle with. She went on to describe her own experiences in prison, in public housing, with homelessness. She lost her family and her home during the financial crisis in 2009 and has been struggling since. Many of these experiences served as framing for her to talk about her experience with doing taxes and filling out paperwork and advocating for herself, and offering to help any residents who needed assistance with those things. She also spoke on the need for residents suffering from addiction to recover so that they can keep and maintain their housing when they get it. As she continued on, the tangents and anecdotes became less focused and more drawn out and eventually overtook her speech entirely. Some people began to mumble amongst themselves, some stopped paying attention, and a few left. Though her reason for continuing to speak was not clear, she was a good speaker and delivered many poignant phrases and scenes, unfocused as they might have been. Among those were religious allusions: “God says we can’t get our help from those we help because if they could help us they would have,” and “It’s okay if you don’t believe in the Lord, but believe in your ancestors, believe in something!” Her political calls were also evocative: “They have their knees on our necks whether we can see it or not!” and “They kill us, but I’ll die for my people.”
At a certain point, after she had been speaking for around ten minutes and attention had drifted away from her (though most residents still remained in the circle), she spoke about the fact that there would inevitably be abusive and non-cooperative people in the camp, but if everyone else stuck together and was firm, they could get them to leave on their own when it was clear that wouldn’t be tolerated. Another woman walked over and objected to this in a way that wasn’t entirely clear — she seemed to be put off by the idea that there wouldn’t be some kind of harsher discipline, and also brought up something about coronavirus concerns. I could hear what she was saying from where I sat but did not understand what exactly her objections or questions were, and the residents seemed to be similarly confused, as she was met with questioning glares from around the circle. The woman who had been speaking for a long time now was particularly offended by the new woman’s comments, which did in fact sound scolding and patronizing. But this original speaker responded with a strange comment about coronavirus, attributing the deaths it causes to God’s will and saying that God knows what’s in your heart and will protect you from disease if you’re meant to be protected. Though the point of her speech had trailed off and become tangled long before this, this was the first truly objectionable thing she had said, and the meeting bristled with more mumbling and confusion. The two women went back and forth for a few tense moments. The objecting speaker seemed to only just realize the nature of the encampment in this exchange, and said indignantly that “this is illegal and you can’t be doing this.” This especially riled people and there were objections from all sides. What had been quiet mumbling became several conversations about who this lady was and what she was doing here, asking if anybody knew her.
A third woman approached the two arguing and said very firmly and for everyone to hear that everything so far had been accomplished without anybody getting anything back, that they were doing it for each other and it was working better than asking for permission from the city or the government had ever worked for any of them, and that no one had any right to come in here and tell them it was wrong to help each other. Focus shifted back for a moment and people clapped and shouted their agreement. The objecting woman wasn’t hearing any of it — she restated that what they’re doing is illegal and is never going to work and that they need to go ask the city for help. At this point the circle broke and many people walked away, and whoever remained gathered around the confrontation that was happening. A couple of the WRC/OccupyPHA members joined with those residents walking away and listened to their disappointment with the meeting being derailed, and assured the residents that this was okay, they had covered what needed to be covered and it would take a little while for these meetings to develop. While this is certainly a sober and pragmatic way to deal with the growing pains of such a project, I do nonetheless wonder if meetings ending in such an informal and uncomfortable fashion could be bad for morale, and undermine faith in the encampment’s overall viability. Someone finally asked the objecting woman who she was and if she was a resident, and she said no. She seemed to have wandered over and did not understand the nature of the meeting. She said she was with a prison support organization, which tempered some of the suspicion of her, but a few were still angry and told her this meeting was not for her and she had no right to come here and lecture them. The original woman who the non-resident had voiced objections to walked off very angry, saying that she’s not one of us and doesn’t understand the struggle. A couple WRC/OccupyPHA members spoke to the non-resident who had inadvertently intruded and tried to explain the situation to her, and though I could not hear them, they defused the conflict successfully and from there went to speak with other residents and talk amongst themselves.
As the meeting fully broke off and the residents and WRC/OccupyPHL returned to the encampment, a very thin white resident who had been standing on my side of the meeting approached one of the WRC members who was walking in our direction. He addressed the WRC member and gestured to the Parkway House Apartments across the field. The wide building was now half shadowed. He said, quietly and excited: “Why don’t we demand they open that building up for us? Plenty of space in there.” The WRC member smiled and nodded and said that’s a good idea and walked away with him to talk about it.
I stayed for a while longer and spoke to some other people around the camp, but I think that the account above suffices for a record of the state of the homeless encampment on 22nd and the Parkway as of June 12th. Whatever happens going forward, I would caution anyone who is not a resident of the camp away from playing “what they should have done” in too fast or loose a way, especially as far as that speculative pastime consists of grafting on ideological convictions to inapplicable situations (“if only the leaders had done such and such”, “if only they had adopted x position instead of y”, etc). Hopefully we will be learning from their resounding success (it is possible!) in getting their demands met and continuing the fight, but whatever happens, the encampment is already an accomplishment in revolutionary organizing in the United States.
I will note again that though my account of the situation is honest and accurate to the best of my abilities, it does rest on my observations and interviews from only one night and one day in the encampment. Normally in political or journalistic writing I refrain from personal anecdotes as I feel that, when writing for these purposes, observation and argument serve their purpose better when removed from self-reference. In this case I will make an exception, as I have already adopted a more personal tone for this text and I feel that this personal encounter provides some context for that tone. When interviewing residents of the camp I found my father among them, and as I had not spoken to him in a while, and he is a recovering addict who has been homeless at times, I was not sure whether he was a resident of the encampment or not. I spoke to him and he clarified that he was not staying there but was helping out and delivering supplies, and that he was friends with some of the residents in the camp. He seemed nervous, distant, and shaky, and my first assumption was that he had relapsed and gotten high again. After asking if he was okay because he seemed sick, he told me that he was starting to have an episode. He is a US Army veteran and, in addition to severe PTSD, has a bad case of Gulf War Syndrome, a poorly understood bundle of (often debilitating) neurological disorders. For my father, these episodes last weeks, and consist of extremely painful physical symptoms as well as dissociative war flashbacks. When the episodes start, he looks forward to the dissociation, as it takes away the pain until the episode is over. But the dissociative flashbacks have led him to stalk around the city, steal cars, break into our family home, relapse into his addiction, and have led to his arrest and confinement before. If he was not white it is not likely he would have survived these encounters as many times as he has. When I left the encampment for the night he assured me he was going back to the apartment he shares with a friend of his, but was hoping his friend would be understanding, as this would be the first time he was having an episode while living with this friend. I don’t think that personal experiences are a necessary prerequisite for speaking on social issues and having opinions about what is right and wrong, and I resent that we are so often challenged to perform our own tragedies to prove we have the right to speak about something that everyone should be speaking about regardless. But I am sharing this information here because I feel that my account of the encampment would feel incomplete, and somehow dishonest, if I did not include any mention of my very intimate appreciation of the courageous work these people are doing on the Parkway.
Updated information about what the camp needs in the form of donations or other support can be found through http://www.wrc.life/contact/ or contacting WRC on twitter at @WorkersRevolut2.The demands of the encampment are as follows: