The situation at the homeless camp was complicated. We had been contacted the day before with an SOS. The homeless encampment was being evicted and the people involved had pretty much exhausted their options for places to stay. Could we in the Overpass Light Brigade help?
The tents of the homeless had been destroyed at a previous location in the past - all items mercilessly thrown in a garbage truck and hauled off. The folks affected had been moved a few times, and had, in an inspired decision, decided to set camp on the parklike grounds beneath the looming Social Services building. How could they be ignored or mistreated at Social Services?
We told them to expect us around 8:30. We knew people would join us to hold the lights, but there was something wrong when we arrived. There was no cheery fire serving as warm heart against the chill of the night, no quiet murmurings of conversation. No people other than a couple of the advocates came out to greet us, and a palpable pall hung over the camp.
It had been a tough day for the people involved. Even with legal fire pits and barbecue grills, they had been denied a permit for fire. The Fire Department had come the night before to douse and destroy. They were told by police to leave the premises by 6:00pm on Saturday. There had been a news reporter there earlier in the evening, and an argument erupted over the conditions in the local shelters between a representative of the county and some of the homeless. People are afraid of the shelters. They don't like the bedbugs. The women and girls are under constant threat of attack. The people here would rather camp. The stars shone bright through the huge white pines. It was cold, but lovely. I could see their point.
Everyone was dispirited after the negative coverage and without the cheer of a fire, they all hunkered down in their tents, encapsulated in all they have. No furniture, no car, no dressers full of clothes. No campfire. Nowhere to go. Nothing. They were in for the night.
We stood around in the open field, holding a question mark that Joe happened to grab, talking to a couple of the frustrated advocates. It would have looked very, very strange from a distance: five people in a massive field, standing in the dark under huge white pines, illuminated by a glowing question mark. An OLB member known as Chaous arrived, greeted us, saw what was going on, and disappeared. She knows the streets - grew up on them, and has major cred among these folks. She's also as close to a rough-edged saint as anyone I have met. We were just about to give up on our action due to lack of people to hold the signs, when she came marching down the hill with a phalanx of folks: the campers, rallied and ready. It was really an amazing shift in energy.
It was powerful, marching across the woodchuck pocked acres to stand with the dispossessed in front of a massive Social Services building, backlit by megawatt klieg lights, holding our existential question: "Where can we live?" which we shifted after a while to the hopeful response, "We can live here." At the end of the action, everyone's spirits were lifted. There is something strange that happens in the collective work of holding these weird signs. The action invariably brings people together. It is profound and hard to put into words. We are the embodied text. We are our message. We are the Holders of the Lights.
Last night, on Sunday, Occupy Madison campers at Lake View Park were issued $169.00 citations for remaining in the park after the 10pm curfew. Advocates and neighbors who were standing with the homeless were also issued tickets. Their next move to try to claim space for a campsite is unclear. But this is America. If you have no property to own, or no access to temporary property to rent, you are not allowed to materialize, not allowed to land. You disappear in the night, enemies of property, enemies of the city, the county, the state. You are the displaced, drifting like sharks across a featureless sea, forever moving, forever sinking.
Where can we live?
We can live here...