Occupy's lingering legacy

Outdoor feeding of the homeless was almost a casualty of a nationwide crackdown on protest.
Outdoor feeding of the homeless was almost a casualty of a nationwide crackdown on protest. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 30, 2012

By Khadijah White

U.S. District Judge William Yohn's recent ruling against Philadelphia's ban on outdoor feeding of the homeless pleased me both philosophically and personally - personally because I had spent a night in jail after questioning police officers who were preventing opponents of the ban from participating in a public hearing. The case against me was dropped shortly after Yohn's ruling.

The city's outdoor feeding ban was part of a much larger legislative legacy of the Occupy movement in cities nationwide. It was rooted in attempts to restrict the free meals that had literally fueled the long-term Occupy Philadelphia encampment at City Hall.

But the city's effort to make Occupy invisible also had the ominous effect of punishing another marginal population that had benefited from the free meals and shelter of the camp - the homeless, the most vulnerable segment of the 99 percent. Many activists and homeless-rights advocates had been sharing food with the homeless long before anyone at Occupy pitched a tent - and, thanks to Yohn's ruling, they will continue to do so.

In the summer heat, the city's wintry eviction of Occupy Philly seems a distant memory. But the battle against Occupy-targeting laws continues - and it is not limited Philadelphia.

Since the Occupy movement began, food distribution restrictions like those in Philadelphia have arisen in Orlando, Fla., Houston, Dallas, New York, and Seattle. In Oakland, Calif., officials have advanced vague rules that threaten to impose jail time and heavy fines on people carrying common - and otherwise legal - objects, such as paint and wrenches. And at the height of the Occupy evictions around the country, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker introduced a "pay to protest" policy to hold demonstrators responsible for extra police, cleanup, and other costs.

The Occupy movement drew attention to the power of public protest, but it has also yielded widespread, coordinated crackdowns on people's ability to interact and exist in urban outdoor spaces. These policies have only aided efforts to criminalize the nation's homeless and preemptively arrest other vulnerable populations.

Such measures typically aim to exclude certain people from society as somehow deviant, while embracing other individuals or groups that are deemed more important. This raises a number of questions: Who will be considered deviant in post-Occupy cities? How will they be policed? And who are city spaces are really for?

As one Occupy lawyer asked the Guardian newspaper last year, "Why are they [Occupiers] being treated like criminals? People camp out before a major movie screening, or outside stores at Thanksgiving. The difference is that one group of people are engaged in a constitutionally protected and cherished activity. The others want a sale."

This push to criminalize and eliminate citizens from public spaces could have unfortunate consequences for the future of American democracy. If Egypt's Tahrir Square is any indication, the policies used to eliminate the Occupy camps may have signaled a beginning, not an end.

The food fight in Philadelphia is long from over; a civil trial will continue next year. And while my charges are history, many other legal fights with Occupy roots go on nationwide, long after the spectacles of arrests and homemade signs have largely disappeared. The impact of the policies left in the wake of Occupy will undoubtedly be felt for many years, leaving us to wrestle with another unintended legacy of the Occupy movement.

Khadijah White is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School

for Communication. She can be reached at kwhite@asc.upenn.edu.

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