If Helpers Fell From the Sky

St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador—We are living in strange times. This is an empirical fact. For confirmation go to Google images and turn safe search off. Type in anything. Note the results.

One of the things that makes it all strange is the underlying value system of our current milieu. Late capitalism dictates that anyone can succeed. The missing second part to that dictum is that anyone can succeed, but not everyone. One person’s success is another’s failure, financially. Late capitalism’s sine qua non is that it necessarily produces inequality: poverty, homelessness, addiction, mental health crises. We know this. The people who have the power to change things clearly aren’t interested in changing it, and the people who might desire change are by and large too busy to be able to do much about it.

Once in a while though, in a synchronous tingle through the matrix, a movement happens; the miraculous. A group of people crystallize who are able to navigate each other and make an effort to help, to make up for where our system fails. They volunteer their time and energy and are willing to do what many are not, to navigate the world with less fear, to be open to anyone, to live with less, to make a difference. To make a fucking effort.

I am not one of those people. I walked away, I didn’t have it in me. I got rattled after the Zuccotti Park eviction. Ken Canning, on the other hand, has been living at Harbourside Park for seven fucking months. Meanwhile, I complain about the drafts in my apartment.

So for seven months people have been congregating in the wind, rain, snow, fog and everything else to discuss how the people who fall through late capitalism’s gaping wide gaps can best navigate things, and how things might be such that they’d be navigable, and here’s the real novelty: the people having that discussion are the ones people affected. This makes sense because is someone who’s relatively wealthy really going to be able to relate and make decisions for someone who has lived a few feet from the harbour for months, or for that matter for someone who has been on the street for years, or who fell into addiction? What life experience does the mayor really have that would make him an expert on these matters?

Now, point of order. To say the people having the discussion are those people affected needs to be qualified. We are all affected. We are all affected by poverty, by hunger, by addiction. So at any given meeting you might be getting input from people who have nowhere to live, from an enormously diverse age gap of students, workers, people who are relatively well off. There’s no maximum income exclusion policy. There are many people who recognize social failings that produce inequality as a negative thing even as they succeed themselves. Individual wealth does not necessarily negate empathy.

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The mayor and several representatives from the city met with a group representing OccupyNL on a recent Friday at City Hall. Among many comments Mayor Dennis O’Keefe made in supporting the ideology of OccupyNL was this: “We can work cooperatively. Anything I can do to help.”

But when he was asked to help, by providing among other things a meeting space at city hall, to not evict the campers from Harbourside Park, or to provide another place for them to go, he did not seem so eager.

“In terms of the support that the city would like to give Occupy NL, have you considered any kind of tangible support like on a go forward basis providing us with meeting space like one night a week in the Foran room?

Mayor O’Keefe: “No.”

“Would you?”

Mayor O’Keefe: “Council would consider anything if occupy wanted to submit something to council…that request would have to be made.”

“Let’s say it’s being made now.”

Mayor O’Keefe: “But it’s not being made now.”

Such is the navigation of city hall. They don’t seem so much eager to help as they are eager to say they’re eager to help. On the suggestion that Occupy might be offering some benefit to the community, and that it might be worth considering the value of them staying at the park, Bob Smart, the city manager, replied, “What should we do if groups with similar social objectives decide to set up in Bannerman Park, and another sets up in Victoria Park, and Bowring Park?”

I don’t know, maybe it would be amazing if more people were willing to make a fucking effort, to live with less and put in time to make a difference. Maybe if people needed to live in tents around the city we might be concerned about the state of our affairs and the citizens of St. John’s more than the perception of our parks.

O’Keefe said, “Your objectives are our objectives. Homelessness and affordable housing and everything else. Tents and tent cities. We’d like to have places in the city for people that are nice places, that provide a decent standard of living. We’re doing everything we can and we wish the heck that we could do more.”

Well, you now have a group of people who are interested in this meeting and discussing ways of dealing with it, and your reaction to that was to evict them from the little patch of land they needed. I would be interested to see a reply from people who work in outreach groups around the city, to establish relationships with the city and with Occupy. I’m willing to bet very few people in the outreach community are satisfied that enough is being done and there are enough resources at their disposal and they don’t need anyone else helping.

“Anything you want me to do, I’ll do.” Well, I asked Mark Stacey at Sunday’s G.A. if there was anything O’Keefe could do, given his offer. Mark said, “The city has been getting the community more involved in decision making, which is what we’re all about and I’m glad to see the city do this and I think they should take this further, and we should get involved with that. A regular meeting space or an alternative space for people to stay or camp [would be great]. It would be nice for there to be an open dialogue, for them to listen to us, for them to work with us on bigger campaigns such as the campaign against C-10.”

How about it Mayor O’Keefe?

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There’s an old joke about belief that David Foster Wallace tells in This is Water: “There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: ‘Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out “Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. ‘Well then you must believe now,’ he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. ‘No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.’”

You get the gist. There are alternative ways to interpret events, we narrate the world in different ways, each more or less as valid as the last, but sometimes amazing things happen at the times we need them the most, and it would be helpful to get on the same page.

It has long been suggested that we as a society would not respond well to an actual prophet. The one who returns to Plato’s cave is murdered. Jesus dies on the cross. We butcher these people, so says our own lore. I wonder what we would do if helpers fell from the sky. If, here in St. John’s, a couple dozen people came out of nowhere and started putting in their own time to making this city (and by extension the world at large) a more welcoming place that was better able to accommodate more people, more peacefully, to help provide food and shelter and friendship and a place to participate meaningfully in the community – I wonder how we would welcome those people. And if they needed a small patch of public space, a dozen yards by a couple dozen yards, would we get in their way? And if they looked kind of different, or if some of the things they said sounded antagonistic, would that matter? Or would we be grateful, that someone, anyone, was willing to make an effort to help figure out and make some sense of this mess we’re in? If helpers fell from the sky tomorrow, I would hope the city would welcome them, accommodate them, and encourage them in their endeavour.

What would you do? And what would you like your city to do? Our city just kicked them out of their little patch of ground.


Originally published on Occupy Newfoundland and Labrador.

Photos: Occupy Newfoundland and Labrador/Facebook

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