Occupy Iowa City or the world's worst homeless shelter?


SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Dressed like Kim Jong Il and carrying a box of Franzia (don't ask), I strolled through a snowy College Green Park with a small group of friends and acquaintances.

"People are still doing that?" one acquaintance asked, nodding toward a largely abandoned village of tents. "That's so [expletive] stupid."

"I heard it's basically just homeless people," another person said. "Occupy Shelter."

Yes, if you haven't heard, Occupy Iowa City is attracting some homeless people. Many of the original Occupiers have fled to heated homes. Their four-month permit is set to expire Feb. 29 and the city is expecting a request for renewal.

But should the Occupation be extended at the local park? After making an afternoon trip up to the camp and interviewing every member present (one person) I say yes — though it can't go on existing as it is. The current state of that park is detrimental to the participants' cause.

Occupy Iowa City's example represents the general trend for the polarizing movement. Whether it's police raids, snow, or apathy, many Occupy movements seem to be moving into their homes and off the front page. We don't hear as many of those we're-in-this-together-no-we're-not-get-a-job exchanges as much as we did back in October.

(Meanwhile: Countless news orgs are battling fits of frustration. "What else are we going to blow out of proportion?" they ask themselves. There are board meetings. A whiteboard reads "Ron Paul newsletters" next to a giant check mark.)

What gives? Why are only the homeless left to sound the alarm for social justice? Some say it was the cold, the filth, the tough guys yelling at 2 in the morning, the snow, the mud, the lack of drugs and alcohol, them getting a job, their friends, a reliable outlet, or maybe people straight-up stopped caring.

Whatever the case, I made my way to the College Green on Friday afternoon to see what was left of the fading demonstration.

It was snowing lightly. There weren't many fresh tracks around the camp. I stood and read the bulletin board for a few minutes, thinking someone may see me and illuminate to me the horrors of seahorse farming or something. Nothing happened. The blinding enthusiasm of months' past looked to be settled in hibernation.

I went up to the biggest tent in the park — the castle tent, if you will. Maybe the leader was curled up in a sleeping bag, reading Voltaire and oblivious to the world. I called in and heard nothing back. Blast.

I made my way to the middle of the abandoned tent-village and called out for someone, anyone.

"Hello?" I said. "Occupiers? Occupy Iowa City?"

"Yes?" someone returned. His voice was both groggy and croaky, like he had just woken up with a mouthful of blood.

I told him that I was a columnist for The Daily Iowan and asked if he would be willing to speak with me. He accepted, unzipping a layer of his tent so we could see each other. He was a large man, looked 52 years old, had a big, gray, untamable beard, and his mouth was noticeably devoid of blood. No blood. He rested on his elbow while we spoke.

"How long have you been here?" I asked.

"Um," he started, clearing his throat. "I don't remember. A couple uh, um. Well, let's see, uh — all summer at that park and all winter in this park." He didn't seem nervous, but his voice and demeanor suggested extreme doziness, as if I had interrupted a sleep induced by two bottles of Nyquil.

He said he has always been with Occupy. "How long do you plan to stay here?" I asked.

"Um, until, uh, as long as, um — as far as it can go," he said. "Yeah, as far as making a change …" he trailed off.

"What has Occupy been up to lately?"

"Taking inventory," he said. "I'm getting, cause we gotta — our time's up here, um, the 18th, I think."

His estimation was a little off, 11 days.

"Earlier in the year, like in October, there were a lot of people coming up here and sparking debates. Do you think people still do that today, or not as much, or?"

"Um, yeah," he said. "We do have meetings, but not in the park 'cause it's too cold." He said they have meetings "about once a week."

I asked him if he was proud of what Occupy had accomplished and he said yes. "Like what?" I asked.

He spoke very slowly. "Right now, it's on paper throughout the globe that we're trying to, um, make changes as a people or citizens," he said.

I pointed to the some empty tents nearby. "Did everybody bring their own tents or are these leftover or donated, or?"

He sat up — one can only lean on an elbow for so long. "Well, a lot of it's donated," he said. He seemed to be waking up a bit. "And you can bring your own, or — you know."

(I think I know.)

"One last question," I said. "If you could say one thing to the 1 percent, what would it be?"

He sluggishly smacked his lips and thought for a few seconds.

"Be willing to understand," he said.

Be willing to understand. I like it, though I have a sneaking suspicion it was to the 98 percent as much as the top 1.

As impossible as soliciting the sympathy of corporate scoundrels sounds, I'd say getting people to empathize with the homeless is an even less likely.

(Yes, you're in your position because you're a hard worker, and he's in his position because he's lazy. Keep telling yourself that.)

The most staunch opponents have depicted the Occupy movement as a joint effort of the world's hippies and homeless. The current state of College Green Park confirms this to many people in the area.

The man I talked to believed Occupy's cause, but, from what I gathered, he was not advancing its agenda. He told me he has been with the movement since its inception but couldn't really tell me what they were doing, what they've done, or give me a definitive answer on how often they meet. This is not an activist. This is a poor man with a tragic story who found shelter in a convenient location.

If Occupy Iowa City wants to renew its permit, it has to prove to the community that the park is a breeding ground for thought and debate. Right now, it's only acting as a reminder of their existence.
If their permit is not renewed, Occupy Iowa City will be dead. They will be invisible to anyone not subscribed to its Twitter or Facebook. They cannot let this happen. What they're saying needs to be discussed.

It's time to clean up your act, guys.

Also, if you were wondering: My Franzia tasted excellent.

In today's issue:

comments powered by Disqus

Privacy Policy (8/15/07) | Terms of Use (4/28/08) | Content Submission Agreement (8/23/07) | Copyright Compliance Policy (8/25/07) | RSS Terms of Use

Copyright © The Daily Iowan, All Rights Reserved.