Camping really can cause change
One cool October day in 1985, when I was a young reporter at the Guardian, a friend who was visiting from New York where she was working with Gay Men's Health Crisis, called me with an urgent message:
City employees were out with water hoses, trying to force a couple of HIV-positive men from camping in front of a federal office building at U.N. Plaza. I ran down there; she had photos. I talked to the men, who were tired and wet, but determined not to leave — and within a few days after my story ran ("AIDS vigil under attack," 11/6/85), they were joined by dozens more.
And as the months passed, the AIDS vigil grew and grew. It raised awareness of the federal government's criminal lack of attention to the epidemic. It became a tent city, a small community in the middle of San Francisco with donated food and supplies. Every once in a while, a politician or a media celebrity would spend a night there.
The feds backed off with the hoses and the city figured out that the encampment was no danger to anyone and was making an important political statement. And it remained there — with tents and tarps — for ten years.
I was at the OccupySF camp Oct. 3rd to do a live KPFA broadcast with Mitch Jeserich, and the place was clean, peaceful and well-organized. A couple of cops walked through while we were on the air; they were smiling and chatting with the protesters, who were negotiation with the Department of Public Works about vacating the grassy areas to allow watering. I saw none of the filth that the daily newspapers have talked about.
The only real health and safety problem was the lack of portable toilets — the seven on site weren't enough for the number of people there. So if the city wants to keep things sanitary, Mayor Ed Lee ought to send in some more. Oh, and the medical tent needs supplies, particularly ice packs and sterile gauze.
A woman from Occupy Vancouver was down visiting and showing solidarity; she said that protesters all over the continent were looking to San Francisco and Oakland for inspiration.
This is a good thing. The protests may not have an agenda, but they have a message, and it's getting to big and too loud to ignore. I hope it doesn't take ten years for politicians at the local, state and federal level to respond — but as long as nobody's addressing economic inequality, OccupySF is and ought to be here to stay.