Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Dreaming Of A Democracy

PeaceCamp2010: There's Much More Than Sleeping At This Free Speech Demonstration

by Linda Lemaster, for Linda's Hearth

When I first visited PeaceCamp2010, I was moved to offer my support-- however little it seemed I might have to share with the fluid group of protesters. Most of the people I met the first week were totally focused on bringing attention to the public about an insidious sleeping-camping ban used to banish homeless people from any public areas and into hiding.

And because I had recently been in court as an 'expert witness' about local homelessness, I had already met some new friends who also turned up at this "Fourth of July Demonstration" which, it turns out, kept on going like the Energizer Bunny. In early July nobody I met realized PeaceCamp2010 would continue for several months, and then be shredded by County Sheriff Deputies.

Local attorney and sovereignty philosopher Ed Frey was deemed a hero to many of the homeless people who found their way into camp. PeaceCamp2010 located itself in front of Santa Cruz County's Superior Court where traditionally citizens gather to share ideals and to bring concerns to their government.

Frey had found the means to provide a porta-potty nightly, and mounted the rented utility on a small trailer behind his pickup truck. He was right: "potty" was the missing ingredient for many earlier pro-homeless and anti-sleeping-ban rallies and protests and demonstrations, including several events held at this very same location.

PeaceCamp2010 was like a living kalidescope. While a number of folks stayed with it, those regulars you might say, a majority of peoples' faces changed every few days. It was run as though we were all adults -- most refreshing. Sure, leaders emerged, receded, emerged again. Yet there was a "live and let live" air to the sleep demonstration that seemed to welcome all comers. The demonstration with it's signs and bodies continued daily even as the nature of community nad safety, and a survival dialogue, evolved among the growing-larger group. And there was press coverage. Mostly negative, feeding off stereotypes and expressed fears of the general housed population, then later on, the antigonism and fears of County Building workers who did not appreciate having to see the artifacts of homeless living on their way to work.

It was apparent that sleeping as a legit mode of protest went far over the heads of most passers-by. We were following a longstanding tradition that reckons sleep in this context as necessary speech. So many other venues had not worked, some even backfiring -- as evidenced by troll-busting backlashes, and by our inability to get our message shared without extreme distortion.

It is a painful thing to meet again and again new groups of politically innocent homeless folks becoming enthused self-help activists. They will be crestfallen when they realize how things REALLY work in "the system." But this time, it was different. The people involved were all survivors already, also they had a handful of housed allies such as Ed Frey when the camp began. So it appeared to me when I visited PeaceCamp2010 the first time, four days into the demonstrating, that there was a chance to be effective, and that fewer broken hearts would fall out.

Sleeping as Demo had worked for Mitch Snyder and the Community for Creative Nonviolence in 1984, tho' the Supreme Court ruled later that park bosses have subsantial rights to limit the gross number of sleepers demonstrating, to whatever extent they are protecting park resources. It was a court whose majority were as anti-homeless as was the general Reagan-enchanted population at that time. But at least those Supreme Justices understood Freedom of Speech as a Constitutionally protected right. Not so in Santa Cruz, for Honorable John Gallagher recently defined California's Lodging 647(e) as "sleeping...", and ignored everything having to do with our demonstration.

I have been striving for over 30 years to educate folks about the horrific and deadly results that come to poor and homeless people due to shortsighted, ignorant, and sometimes even mean spirited policies. Obviously, people are not hearing me yet. At PeaceCamp2010 I felt, "maybe THIS time we will be heard and understood, and some few folks will better survive?" I remained convinced that American people are largely compassionate -- they must be trussed up by fear, not paying atention? So I brought fresh water to the camp and spent some time listening to people, mostly one-on-one, yet we ate together and both informal and intentional subgroups formed naturally .

These homeless folks kept feeding me, so I stayed longer and I kept coming back. Yet I was floored when a news reporter from Channel 8 came by with his cameraman one late afternoon, and the several homeless folks still at PeaceCamp2010 declined being interviewed on-camera. Reporter: "So, can you point me to a spokesperson?" and the kids pointed to me; too late to panic! Grateful I'd had some considerable experience with homelessness, because I hadn't been hanging out among the political pow-wows.

Those kids were actually very busy -- watching gear and bedding for almost a dozen other folks, and getting to know someone else's dog for the day, while the dozen were away at jobs or doing their survival chores.

I had a lot of fun working with folks at PeaceCamp2010. One evening the vibes and the music were so great, even I (with my crumpled-up joints and pain centers amuk) was dancing. Backlit by bright yellow courthouse corridor nightlights, serenaded by magnificent violin, flute and guitar. Another evening, three drums and a young woman singing transfixed our senses.

By the time most everybody went to sleep, most of us were truly relaxed and in tune with each other. The warp and woof of community was enchanting, and I felt deeply reassured that many people will survive no matter the predations of the state and no matter housed people's fear- constricted territorial instincts. Once again showing everyone "Homeless Not Helpless".

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