Occupy D.C.: Isn’t it time to tear down these tents?

Petula Dvorak
Columnist November 17, 2011

Joe Good has been homeless for a year and a half now, ever since, he said, he and a bunch of other guys got laid off from a furniture company.

Joe, 62, has become something of a fixture outside the McPherson Square Metro station. His hoodie is watermelon-colored; his mittens are purple. He’s hard to miss.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

On Thursday, he looked across the street at the buzzing tent city created by the Occupy D.C. protesters and flicked a purple-fleece hand at them in disgust.

“Bah. They’d never let us do anything like that. Never in a million years,” he said.

Nope.

If Joe and the other members of our region’s growing homeless population were to set up a sprawling, 24-hour encampment of tents and tarps a block from the White House, it would get cleaned out faster than the Missoni rack at Target.

The media spectacle — the outrage across the left-leaning land that follows every crackdown of Occupy protests across America — where is it when the same thing happens every day for folks who truly have nowhere to go?

When a pregnant homeless mother with a toddler beds down for a night in front of a D.C. Metro station and police ask her to move along, there is no outcry. There’s zero tolerance for any hint of a Hooverville, the shantytowns built by the homeless during the Great Depression.

“There is definitely irony in cases where occupiers are allowed to remain in locations from which homeless people are being forced out,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

The center released a report this week that tracked the nationwide rise in police crackdowns on the homeless, with more arrests for sleeping in public, loitering and panhandling than in recent years.

Here’s the bottom line: A tent city that is about survival will be shut down, while a tent city that is about protesting Wall Street fat cats survives.

“Occupiers have a right to protest inequality, but people most directly affected by that inequality don’t have a right simply to exist in public places,” Foscarinis said.

It’s a dilemma. The folks who advocate for the homeless are in a difficult spot, because pointing out the radical inequity can hurt the protesters, who, mostly, are on the same philosophical page as they are.

“I think the Occupy movements are about the fact that capitalist democracy has failed 99 percent of people by concentrating most of the wealth of this country in the hands of 1 percent of the people,” said Marta Beresin, a lawyer at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, who was reluctant to decry any special treatment that protesters get from police.

“The protesters are saying that’s not acceptable, and we need a different political and economic system in order to change that,” she said. The Occupy tent cities are symbols to the rest of the world that our system doesn’t work, a statement she believes is valuable.

But for other folks downtown, patience is wearing thin. That was evident even as hundreds of Occupy supporters — accompanied by dozens of cops — marched along the Key Bridge on Thursday, part of a day of demonstrations in New York, Los Angeles and other U.S. cities.

Amid all the noise and endless media coverage, people are asking: Isn’t it about time to tear those tents down?

“They’re just here, living, eating, sleeping,” said one woman leaving a federal building for lunch Thursday. “Where is the progress? Where is the message?

A minute later, a taxi stopped, and a blonde in a fur-trimmed leather coat hopped out and started taking pictures of the tents on her iPhone.

“I’m here on business. I had to stop the taxi to take pictures,” said the woman, who was from Tampa.

She agrees with the message that the 99 percent aren’t being represented and the 1 percent has most of the wealth.

She took in the sagging tents and the slanting port-a-potty with a sign warning “Comrades!” not to use the john when it’s overflowing. “But the mechanics of conveying that message?” she said, scrunching her carefully powdered nose. “The mechanics aren’t so good.”

Tracy Wang, who has been selling purses, gloves, scarves and hats from a stand on K Street for 25 years, doesn’t like the occupiers.

“What is their proposal?” she asked. They haven’t bought anything from her.

Inside the Occupy camp, the protesters have set up a library and a commissary. They have a colonial outpost across the street, Occupy Starbucks. Like a real, contemporary government, they even have an information tent with a sign stating that they won’t talk to the media.

It could be powerful to hold up these camps as the shameful shantytowns of the Great Recession. Only, they’re not. They’re just a stage set, more Woodstock than Hooverville. So much energy is going into occupying this space that a righteous, political message with a potential to effect real social change has become a temper tantrum about staying in the park.

Just ask Joe Good. There are much better things to do than hang out there.

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