Guest post by Kali Cichon of Occupy Charlottesville.
On October 15th, a group of people met in Lee Park with the intention of occupying a public area in protest of corporate greed and corrupt government. We quickly realized that many who had also been failed by our current social and political systems had beat us there, and it was decided by consensus that as part of the 99%, the homeless should be welcomed in solidarity. A little over a month later the occupation is no longer just strangers and protesters sharing public space, we have become neighbors. I am here today to defend not only my rights to free speech, but also my neighborhood.
Many people have advised me that I should not be so attached to having a physical location for the movement, and warned me that I’m losing sight of the important issues by focusing on the people who now call Lee Park home. Instead they want us to pursue loftier political goals. I would like to know what political issue they think is more important than caring for the people we love and live with. Imagine a world where everyone made choices with the good of their greater community in mind. How many of the harmful political policies that currently threaten an American citizens chances for a better life would exist in the first place? How many criminals, white collar or otherwise, would walk our streets?
It is the sense of belonging, mutual respect, and accountability to a group that has caused many in our camp to find reasons to start regulating their substance abuse, moderate violent or disruptive behavior, or even just consider acting more altruistically and diplomatically than they have in the past. I have been inspired to be a better human and a better citizen just by existing as part of this community, and I know many others who feel they also have grown and learned from their experiences. In addition, many of the people now living in Lee Park have no other place to call home, and the shelters in the area, while offered with kind intentions, are too few and too restrictive for everyone to make use of them. Their inherently temporary and strictly regulated nature also actively discourages any permanent supportive communities from forming. In fact, every social service currently available seems to exist with the goal of re-integrating people into the very system that failed them to begin with or covering up the failure to do so with short term solutions. There must be other options besides conformity or failure. I feel that the open autonomous community that has begun to form in Lee Park may offer hope for finding alternatives to a broken system. Members of City Council, if you want us out of Lee Park I must insist that an alternative safe space be provided both for the purposes of peaceful protest and shelter for those who need it. The humanitarian issues made more visible by this occupation will not disappear if they are ignored. We must either address them now, or admit that we are too cowardly to face the ills our own society has created. I am the 99%, and I stand with my friends and neighbors in Lee Park.
Note from Xiane: Lee Park is located in the heart of Downtown Charlottesville, VA. Despite the image that the city has of being well-off and fairly liberal, there has always been a large population of homeless folks, per capita. And the provisions made for those homeless has not been enough despite the efforts of organizations like PACEM. Occupy’s open agenda is the perfect place for these sorts of issues – often ignored or swept under the rug – to be addressed.