Coping with camp’s dynamics and preserving a sense of mission
By Chris Kenning
Progressive America Rising via Louisville Courier-Journal
Pushing through the flaps of a tattered silver tarp into a dark tent, 19-year-old Dillon Face roused a sleeping David Barfield.
Barfield, 52, raised his head of unwashed hair from a cot piled with blankets and empty soda bottles, and lit a cigarette.
Dropping ashes into an empty tin of chicken, he rubbed his arms as the sun softened the frost from another chilly night in the muddy park at Fifth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard that has become Occupy Louisville’s home.
“You hear a bunch of people got arrested in Oakland?” Face asked, taking a seat across from a computer on a folding table, as his chatter turned to a complaint about camp participation. “We’re struggling right now because there aren’t many of us left.”
Barfield coughed. After four months, he has become an unofficial camp elder of this intentionally leaderless group and has seen its numbers dwindle, despite the mild winter.
Food donations have declined. Daily political activity has slowed, and recently a potentially galvanizing legal showdown with the city was defused with a permit approval.
Meanwhile, the camp — 18 plywood-floor tents, snaking power cords and a few picnic tables — has become dominated by the often polarizing presence of the chronically or temporarily homeless, some drawn by political advocacy, others by the electricity, donated food and tents.
Barfield is homeless himself and acknowledges that most of the remaining 15 to 20 Occupy campers are too. He doesn’t see that as an issue. For him, what started by chance has become a cause, a political quest.
“I was never political. … Now I have a voice,” said Barfield, a former telemarketer, circus hand and Waffle House waiter. “I used to think nothing could change; now I feel it can. … People need to see us here.”
But as Occupy Louisville enters its fifth month, it has in some ways become two separate but linked groups — the most visible of which is the camp’s often-changing group of homeless, and the other a handful of activist-minded residents who meet weekly at the Louisville Free Public Library, engage in public protests, visit the camp and organize workshops on issues such as foreclosures.
Many in both factions vow to hold out, hoping for resurgence in spring — and they see the downtown encampment as critical. But others question whether a camp — long the symbolic heart of a national movement intent on “occupying” space for change — is necessary.
“When it started, it was a 24/7 movement. … (but) when they realized there’s nothing you can do overnight about how to run society on a grand scale, a lot of them went home,” said Occupy member Robin Cook, a 38-year-old coordinator at University of Louisville’s Kent School of Social Work who lives in Germantown.
“If there were more people making that statement by living there, I’d be a thousand percent behind the camp,” Cook said.
But “I don’t see losing the camp as a danger to the movement.”
A limited tactic?
Nationally, the Occupy movement — spurred by the Canadian activist group Adbusters and inspired by the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt — took root last year in about 70 cities and hundreds of smaller communities, fed by continuing anger over bank bailouts, high unemployment and a widening U.S. wealth gap.
But many encampments have been diminished by time and the cold of winter, and in the past several weeks, police in cities such as Washington, D.C., and Oakland, Calif., have moved to evict campers. In New York’s Zuccotti Park, once home to hundreds of Occupiers, there’s only a symbolic presence after campers were evicted in November.
Supporters say the movement was never meant to win quick concessions on narrow policies, but rather to raise awareness of the need for more jobs, more equitable distribution of income, bank reform and a reduction of the influence of corporations on politics.
“It’s clear that the issue of economic inequality and role of money in politics have been put on the national agenda as never before. In that way, it’s succeeded,” said S. Laurel Weldon, a Purdue University political scientist who studies protest movements. But “this encampment tactic is limited. It requires so much from people to live in a space; it’s not the kind of thing that families or professional people can do indefinitely. Ultimately this group will have to think of other tactics.”
And the growing proportions of homeless in many camps have sparked an internal debate in the movement in cities from Atlanta to Eugene, Ore.
Some view the homeless campers as key stakeholders who highlight the economic disparities that the movement is protesting; others wonder if they are an appropriate public face for the movement, given the mental illness and substance abuse that often accompany life on the street.
Occupy Louisville campers bristle at the idea that being homeless makes them illegitimate activists. They are proud of being on-site representatives of a local movement that has garnered more than 8,300 “likes” on its Facebook page.
“We need a physical presence. It’s the only everyday direct action there is. Some of us have a place we could go,” such as relatives’ homes, said camper Curtis Huffines, 42, who became homeless last year after he lost an apartment, along with his apartment maintenance position.
And the Founder’s Square camp still sometimes acts as the movement’s local hub. Earlier this month, stay-at-home mom Patty Call joined other supporters and activists there, taping protest signs on their shirts that read, “Keep your hands off my Rights,” and testing out drums in preparation for a noon protest march.
By the time the marchers reached the federal courthouse at Sixth and Broadway, supporters had swelled to nearly 50 people, giving speeches and waving signs seeking the repeal of the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes a provision allowing indefinite detention of terrorism suspects by the military without trial — and which critics worry could be used against U.S. citizens.
“They’re doing a fantastic job camping and being out here to represent the rest of us,” Call said of the camp Occupiers. “At least the national media is paying attention to the issues.”
Push for change
On a recent night, 33-year-old Jesse Garrido made his way through the largely deserted Louisville Public Library Main Branch on York Street, taking an elevator to a second-floor conference room.
Inside, about 20 people involved in the local Occupy movement — including Barfield and some going only by nicknames such as “Taco” and “Quiz” — sat at a long wooden conference table. There was a man in a Rastafarian hat, a tattooed man in a leather vest, a young man in skinny jeans and pinned-on anarchist symbols, a working professional and a few students. Most were not staying overnight at the camp.
A newcomer, Craig Sawayer, introduced himself and said he was checking to see if the local movement was worth joining or was “just a symbolic representation of a real thing.”
It was the latest “general assembly,” a weekly, consensus-driven, no-leader meeting that often leads to lengthy, roundabout discussions on everything from upcoming protests to camp logistics. It had been moved to the library from the camp because of the cold and to draw more participants.
Garrido, the son of a union airline worker who worked in a factory before signing up for classes at Jefferson Community and Technical College, reviewed a complex set of hand signals the group uses to keep the discussion moving — for example, “spirit fingers” up showed approval, down for disapproval.
“Let’s talk about the needs list,” he said, leading to discussion of dwindling food donations and the need for more fliers to pass out.
There was talk about a “Stop Foreclosures” workshop and a demonstration to protest policies supported by U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
There was a lengthy debate about whether the group could afford $100 a month for an office at the Braden Center in western Louisville for a safe place to keep computers after several had been stolen from the camp.
Garrido said afterward that he got into political activism battling mountaintop removal and other causes living in Lexington, where he’d moved to follow a girlfriend. After coming to Louisville, he said, he was thrilled to read about the local Occupy movement.
“It was perfectly in line with the stuff I’d been spouting on Facebook for the last few years,” he said.
He stayed at the Louisville camp for about six weeks, he said, before becoming frustrated by the endless meetings and the implications of holding a physical space.
“We were spending all our time on infrastructure — who is going to do the dishes — the larger issues were getting lost in the minutiae of day-to-day camp life.”
Cook, sitting next to him at the meeting, said she identified with the movement’s demands for bank reform, after going through her own foreclosure. She said she decided not to stay at the Occupy camp because she didn’t think it was a safe place to sleep.
But she visits the camp, attends meetings and demonstrations and believes “there’s not a chance in hell Occupy is going away, no matter what happens to the encampment.”
Camp life struggles
In Louisville, demonstrators moved in November from the original site at Jefferson Square park to Founder’s Square, a small patch of green on Fifth and Muhammad Ali, where they got approval for a portable toilet and use of an electric outlet powering computers, portable heaters, hot plates and lights.
Fears that the city would move to evict them led the group to seek a legal injunction that landed in federal court. But that was put on hold after the city recently granted a camping permit for up to 70 protesters through March 31. It required the group to put up $500 for electricity at the site.
Chris Harrell, an attorney working for the group without much expectation of being paid, fronted the group the $500 for the permit, and Barfield and others helped raise money through word of mouth to pay him back.
On a chilly recent weekday, 19-year-old Brittany Burns, wearing a black, hooded Occupy Louisville sweatshirt, ski hat and nose ring, was repairing her small pup tent, which had collapsed in the previous night’s winds.
Burns said she grew up in rural Washington state, living with her father, who worked jobs in grain elevators, carpentry and painting but was often out of work and struggling. She finished high school in Springfield, Ky., where her mother was living, and has hopes of becoming an English professor one day. But she can’t afford college, has struggled to find a job — and recently has been homeless.
She said she joined the camp about six weeks ago not only to have a place to get meals and sleep, but because “things need to change.”
“Some people honk and yell ‘Get a job!’ ” Burns said. “But people also walk through and ask, ‘What’s Occupy?’ ‘What’s the 99 percent?’ (and), ‘Are you guys cold?’ ”
Nights are so cold, she said, she can see her breath as she waits to fall asleep. She sometimes squeezes hand sanitizer into a tin can and lights it inside the tent for warmth.
The days can be tedious, she said. She smokes cigarettes to kill time, or fetches water, waits for a meeting, checks the Internet using one of the camp’s few donated laptops or walks to a homeless shelter for the occasional shower.
Though less abundant than when the movement began, some food comes at least five nights a week — leftover meatloaf or fried chicken fetched from a grocery deli.
On one recent night, three waitresses from Howl at the Moon bar, at 4th Street Live, emerged from the cold, rainy night with tubs of leftover hummus, pita, fried appetizers and vegetables from an event.
“We wanted to help them out. I agree with everything that’s going on here,” said Mac Brown, a waitress who was thanked profusely as she left.
Inside the camp’s white kitchen tent, there’s a collection of canned green beans, rice, oil, condiments on plastic shelving, along with a two-burner hot plate, coffee makers and microwave. When there’s not enough food, Burns said she goes across the street to the Cathedral of the Assumption, popularly known as “bologna alley,” where volunteers serve free meals.
Asked how long she’ll stay, she said she’d probably leave if she found work but believes her time there has already made a difference.
“If one person hears us,” Burns said, “we succeed.”
Still, the strains of communal living are evident. At a camp meeting recently, objections arose when Face suggested that campers be assigned jobs to clean up, cook food and maintain the camp.
“I ain’t seen anyone doing anything,” a young woman announced.
Some complained about the lack of food and suggested a few members work part time to bring in money.
“There ain’t gonna be no working part time while the rest of the camp lays around,” another man shouted, pointing toward a fellow camper. The conversation ended unresolved.
At times, tensions flare from a rotating group of largely apolitical homeless visitors, some of whom can be belligerent or keep residents awake at night. On a recent night, a drunken homeless man kept yelling loudly for cigarettes. Campers said they’ve worked to usher out troublemakers who they say give them a bad name.
Lt. Michael Sullivan, a Louisville Metro Police officer who has been checking on the protesters, said police haven’t had many problems involving drugs or other major incidents at the camp. But he said they have replied to calls from Occupiers when some of the homeless people were drunk or causing trouble.
“We had one group saying, ‘We’re the real Occupiers,’ ” he said. “We can’t play that game. If it’s a public space and people are allowed to be there, it is what it is.”
Barfield is among a handful who’ve been at camp since last fall. He sleeps in the “media tent,” which houses a computer he had in storage, a donated laptop and some files containing meeting notes. He’s the one often tapped to speak to visiting supporters and churches bringing supplies. He posts updates to the group’s Facebook page and website.
Barfield said being in the camp has changed him. Through it, he’s met a congressman and found new hope of starting his own culinary business. He said he feels “a part of something bigger.”
Fellow camper Tony Stidham, who recently moved to an apartment because of his wife’s high-risk pregnancy, said the movement has also given him new perspective.
“I’d say the majority of people are here for the right reasons,” he said. “I think the camp needs to stay. This is a big part of the protest.”
Still, few can say how long they’ll stay.
For some, it’s only until they find work or an apartment. Others echo Barfield, who — well aware that ridding politics of corporate influence or achieving economic equality aren’t easily achievable goals — says he’ll stay until “it gets to the where it’s decided we don’t need an encampment.”
Jim Mims, director of the city’s Department of Codes and Regulations, said recently that while the campers haven’t been a big problem, “at some point in time, we’re going to need to restore this park … to where it can be enjoyed by the downtown population that has traditionally used it.”
Marianna Ashley, 44, of La Grange, a member of the group who is on disability and works part time at a gas station, said no matter what happens to the camp, she thinks the Occupy movement will play an ongoing role in American politics.
“To me, this is a counterpart to the tea party in a lot of ways. Instead of social and fiscal conservatism, it emphasizes human issues and needs as being important,” she said. “The tea party had the market cornered on American anger, until we came along.”
Tags: Occupy Wall Street. Kentucky. Louisvile