What If They Sent in Social Services to Help Occupations Instead of Riot Cops to Bust Heads?

Occupations across the country have struggled to feed and shelter the least fortunate among us, and then faced often violent police crackdowns at great taxpayer expense. Pause for a moment and imagine what might result if mayors sent in social workers to help people rather than riot police to bust some heads?

In a society that tends to avert its gaze from the homeless, the hungry, the addicted and the mentally ill, the Occupy movement's compassion has become an albatross around its neck. “We don't exclude the people at the margins,” one protester at Occupy Oakland told me. “We invite them in and feed them.”

Around the country, occupations are struggling to provide a semblance of social services that cash-strapped cities are failing to provide. “We were a magnet for the angry poor, the homeless, the angry poor drunks,” a member of Occupy Philly told Salon. “And as the number of people here to absorb that part of it got smaller, it just became overwhelming.” Another activist added: “We see somebody sleeping, we throw a blanket over them…but there are people here who really need help.”

Kip Silverman, an organizer with Occupy Portland, told AlterNet that the majority of those at the recently evicted camp were “homeless or disenfranchised people. We have folks that have just recently lost jobs, lost their homes, and the Occupy encampment is all they have right now.”

Silverman added that the city might be contributing to the problem. “I have heard from three individual sources that some of the city institutions that help the homeless and disenfranchised are actually sending some people our way because we have services that we’re providing that apparently others cannot or will not,” he said.

With the influx of the homeless come various problems, and cities have used them to justify sometimes violent crackdowns on the occupations. In Oakland, a homeless man with a history of mental illness attacked several protesters in an incident that officials touted as being indicative of the “violence” surrounding the occupation.

In Burlington, Vermont, a homeless veteran killed himself in the camp, prompting city officials to cordon off the park where the occupation had been established. As USA Today noted, “authorities cited the potential hazard of police not being able to see what is occurring inside the tents as the reason for the tents' removal.”

Veterans' suicides are a national disgrace that we rarely talk about. A vet attempts to commit suicide once every 80 minutes, on average; 1,868 of them tried to end their lives in 2009 alone, and most of them, one presumes, weren't in tents.

An overdose at Occupy Vancouver, one of the 47,000 drug-related deaths each year in Canada, prompted that city to deliver an eviction notice.

Around the country, cities are cutting back on vitally needed social services. At the same time, with the help of federal homeland security grants, they're spending money on high-tech military gear for their police departments.

As Stephen Graham, author of Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, told Democracy Now! “there’s been a longstanding shift in North America and Europe towards paramilitarized policing, using helicopter-style systems, using infrared sensing, using really, really heavy militarized weaponry.”

That’s been longstanding, fueled by the war on drugs and other sort of explicit campaigns. But more recently, there’s been a big push since the end of the Cold War by the big defense and security and IT companies to sell things like video surveillance systems, things like geographic mapping systems, and even more recently, drone systems, that have been used in the assassination raids in Afghanistan and in Pakistan and elsewhere, as sort of a domestic policing technology. It’s basically a really big, booming market, particularly in a world where surveillance and security is being integrated into buildings, into cities, into transport systems, on the back of the war on terror.

When all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail, and in two months, cities have spent an estimated $13 million policing, and in many case evicting, their occupations. That's only part of the tab; they will spend much more defending themselves against lawsuits and settling claims of police brutality.

The Oakland PD is being sued by the ACLU of Northern California and the National Lawyers Guild. Other suits are pending in Denver, Minneapolis, Austin, Cedar Rapids, Tucson, New York and at the Berkeley campus of the University of California. That kind of litigation costs big bucks. A recent investigation by the Bay Area Fox News affiliate found that the city of Oakland, with 400,000 people, has paid out $57 million to settle lawsuits stemming from police abuse over the past 10 years.

One has to wonder about the opportunity costs. How many people could have been offered drug rehab, job training, low-cost housing, mental health and other services for that money? Here we have a community that needs those services, and its citizens are concentrated in one place. So, why not send in social workers instead of riot cops?

This preference for law enforcement over social support is part of a larger trend. Barbara Ehrenreich recently wrote about the fact that, “in defiance of all reason and compassion, the criminalization of poverty has actually intensified as the weakened economy generates ever more poverty.”

So concludes a recent study from the National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness, which finds that the number of ordinances against the publicly poor has been rising since 2006, along with the harassment of the poor for more “neutral” infractions like jaywalking, littering, or carrying an open container.

Most cities, for example, have ordinances designed to drive the destitute off the streets by outlawing such necessary activities of daily life as sitting, loitering, sleeping, or lying down.

Living in a capitalist society carries inherent risk; many Americans are an illness or an unexpected job-loss away from misery. But Ayn Rand's toxic ideology has permeated our culture, and many look on the poor or those suffering from mental health problems as somehow deficient and unworthy. The Occupy movement has already succeeded in focusing the national discourse on spiraling inequality and the pernicious role of money in politics. Perhaps in the end, it might ultimately succeed in teaching us something about basic human compassion as well.