Sparro Kennedy Fights For Occupy Wall Street's Homeless, Mentally Ill
Before Sparro Kennedy knew it, she was grabbed and thrown to the ground. All 4 feet, 5 inches of her was sprawled out like a rag doll behind a tent in Zuccotti Park, home base for the Occupy Wall Street protests. No one reacted: not a peep, a yelp or even a gasp from the dozen or so onlookers. No one rushed to her aid or tried to chase off her attacker. They all seemed a bit bored, as if this were as a common as an uptown bus. Even her attacker stood by impotently as Kennedy wiggled slowly to her feet.
"See what I have to go through?" Kennedy said, dusting herself off.
For Kennedy it was just another day at the office, or tent rather, which serves as headquarters for the Comfort Community, where occupiers come for donated clothing, supplies or to sign up for showers. Getting into arguments, the occasional shouting match, or tussle is an everyday occurrence for Kennedy, who has waged a fight within the movement on behalf of Occupy Wall Street's most vulnerable participants: the chronically homeless and the mentally or emotionally unstable. Kennedy herself is homeless, currently living in the tent in the park that she shares with a dog and two other people.
She is a constant presence around Comfort Community and the tent city that Zuccotti Park has become. She's like a little voluble mother figure with dozens of sometimes unruly "babies," many of whom she said believe more in the movement than in taking their meds.
"There's a push to drive out the homeless and those with special needs," Kennedy said. "Our responsibility as a community is to make sure that everyone has a voice and that nobody is left behind. I'm here to make sure of that."
As Occupy Wall Street has grown, it has attracted its fair share of the chronically homeless who want to take part in the protests or who crave the food and camaraderie that hundreds of occupiers have brought to the park. Among that number are also many with special psychiatric, emotional or medical needs, Kennedy said. Some within the movement view them as troublemakers. These people, who have been marginalized in mainstream life, are being marginalized again here, Kennedy and others claim. This, she quipped, in a movement that purports to represent the 99 percent who have been victimized by American greed and all manner of corporate meanness.
She said many of the people who are leading meetings or voting on legislation for the movement do not live in the park, are not true occupiers, and only come to hoist the occasional sign or vote during meetings. (Who else would pass a rule barring sex in the park, other than those who aren't sleeping in the park? she asked.)
"We have people who are coming from everywhere, from all different types of backgrounds, all different types of educational experiences, and they are coming together, but there are still vestiges of the system that we are trying to break and a culture that we are trying to evict from our psyches," she said. "Those aspects are still present in the movement. They are using these preconceived notions and ideas to express how they feel things should be done. And that doesn't always mean what's right for everyone."
So she said she speaks loud at meetings, harangues those who won't pay attention to the needs of those who hear voices, scream out for help, or seem a bit too confused or detached for comfort. She half-joked that she has been prone to "cuss people out."
"I'm here to make sure that this movement does not leave behind the people really dealing with reality out here," Kennedy said. "Some people have lived in a bubble all of their lives. Well, now that bubble has been popped."
Late yesterday morning, Kennedy buzzed about the maze of tarpaline and tents in Zuccotti Park, dressed in an aqua-blue head wrap and turquoise leggings. She had a cigarette in one hand and a cell phone in the other. She was coordinating press for Comfort Community, checking on the delivery of supplies and putting out logistical and emotional fires, of which there seem to be thousands each day.
As a coordinator with Comfort Community, she helps to order supplies, field donations and make the occasional clothing run with donated money. This afternoon was to include a shopping run for shoes. She said organizing the supplies can be a major effort, with bag loads coming in daily, including some rather curious donations, like the occasional pair of stilettos or, a few weeks ago, 1,000 pairs of thong underwear in all colors and sizes.
"For a few days you saw a whole bunch of uncomfortable people walking around here," she joked.
She said she deals with the hoarders and those with other compulsions, those who feel the need to ask for "three coats, four pairs of pants and thirteen pairs of shoes, all in different sizes."
Kennedy, who said she graduated from Michigan State University a few years back, is rather evasive about her age. "I never tell, baby," she cooed.
She said she moved from New Orleans to New York in August for a cushy job as a belly dance fitness instructor at a studio in nearby Mt. Vernon, NY. Then about a month after she moved, the program was cut and she was laid off. With no paycheck and no job, Kennedy found herself homeless. Then she caught wind of Occupy Wall Street on Facebook and joined the movement in its second week.
She started off doing protest dances in the middle of the park but soon got sucked into the action. She is no stranger to activism, she said, having worked with community groups and in various sustainability actions in the past.
Though she doesn't have a job or a home with a solid roof, she said that she is happy.
"Yes, I am happy. It's crazy, but I am," she said. "I'm part of this wonderful community, this crazy family that loves and hates each other all at the same time. But we do love each other."
As she sat on a bench a few blocks from Zuccotti, eating the rare treat of a Chipotle steak burrito, her phone rang, signaling another fire to put out.
It was about Josh, a young man she suspects has Asperger's syndrome or schizophrenia, mixed with a serious case of immaturity. He had taken a bag of clothes from a volunteer at Comfort Community. A few days earlier he had stolen cash from the donation jar. The group wanted to vote him out of the community of comforters. Kennedy made her way through the camp and behind the big Comfort supply tent.
Nearly a dozen people stood around Josh, who was in his early 20s with his shoulder-length hair pulled into a pony tail.
"How many vote to have Josh leave the community?" Kennedy asked. Every hand went up. "We love you, Josh, but you have to leave our tent. We love you. But it's time for you to go."
"It's not your group, Sparro," Josh blurted out.
"You're right. It's his and his and hers, and mine," she said, pointing around to each person in the circle.
As she turned to walk away, Josh grabbed her by the collar and threw her to the ground. No one seemed surprised.