Thursday, March 29, 2007

Empowerment at the Expense of Power

An old friend read my "fetishization of failure" post from last week and wrote to remind me that he knew I was being an idiot long before I figured it out for myself.

I guess I should have listened.

My heyday as a homeless empowerment organizer, in the lumpen-Alinskyist sense of the term anyway, was from 1987 to 1993. All of my organizing during those years was based on the proposition that homeless people needed to transcend their self-hatred and internalized oppression to build a militant movement led by themselves.

These radicalized homeless people, who posessed special knowledge and wisdom borne of their experience in the streets, would eventually so threaten the status quo that concessions would eagerly be made. This movement would at some point be coopted, but not before significant wins were made in terms of housing, jobs, benefits, etc.

This is the sort of thing that occurs when one reads too much social theory in college.

And so, I and my merry band of twenty-something cohorts worked to empower homeless people by organizing various direct action-style outbursts that were made larger than life by a willing media.

My favorite was when we set up a "living room" on Boston's Federal Building Plaza on what was statistically the coldest day of the year. I think it was February 22nd. We rolled out a carpet, couch, chairs, end tables, TV, and lamp, and did a Food Not Bombs feed while the wind whipped through the plaza to create a 20 below wind chill.

We sat around trying to look casual. People actually lined up for food. Several of us got minor frostbite. WGBH totally ate it up.

Looking back at this period, I have to ask, "What? Was I insane?"

The place where I first went deep into this was Homefront 88, a roving encampment of homeless people that began as a protest camp at the Statehouse and over time took on a life of its own. The camp went from the Statehouse to across the street on the Boston Common, and finally a few blocks down the road to City Hall. There, under the liberal Flynn administration, an uneasy truce held for nearly three months.

What began as an immersion journalism project became, for me, an education in the morays of street culture and charismatic leadership. I took on the role of informal advisor. Over time, the homeless advocates who had initially supported the encampment mostly drifted away. The camp lost sight of whatever political goals it originally had and became mostly about self-preservation.

And the longer Homefront persisted, the more violent and dangerous it became.

I remember one Sunday afternoon, hanging out with a handful of people on the City Hall steps. There was a guy drinking Mennen aftershave. He passed out and his head hit the bricks with a sickening thud.

His friends laughed. This was a rough crowd.

By the time the city bought the leadership out with the promise of an office space, phone, and access to a copier (which never materialized), I was happy that the homeless could claim victory and close the thing down. Someone, sooner or later, was going to get killed.

Afterwards, the core leadership came to stay at our apartment in Somerville.

After 4 days, when they showed no sign of leaving and one of them passed out in front of our downstairs landlord's doorway, we politely asked them to move on. They did, but they weren't real happy about it.

Somewhere during that process, I internalized an identification with homeless people against the oppressors, speaking for themselves, leading their own revolution. My high standards of knee-jerk radicalism took me to a place of uncritical identification.

And there I stayed, for about five years. I had a lot of ego bound up in my role as an organizer who built homeless leadership from the bottom up. I considered most middle-class people to be clueless and irrelevant to the struggle at hand. Despite all evidence that this was ultimately a ridiculous, unsustainable, and self-defeating strategy, I was one macho fucking organizer, and the fight felt holy and pure.

It was, strangely, empowerment at the expense of power. And for a long time, the question of whether any power was actually getting built simply never came up.

This stopped working for me well before the time I hit my Jesus year, six months after I moved to Seattle in 1994. The age of 33, the urban legend goes, is a time when you either make a transition and move on, or you whither and die.

I moved on. Not everybody does.

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