RODRIGUEZ-TORRENT: Occupy forced out, but for what?

I met Audrey by chance, while shooting a documentary that sought to portray arguments for and against the eviction of Occupy New Haven. Audrey has spent the last three years of her life on the streets. Until a month ago, she lived in a tent on the upper Green, close to the main Occupy encampment but about 100 feet from her nearest neighbor. Then, on the night of March 13, she was raped by a stranger; England Gamble, 53, a registered sex offender, has been charged with sexual assault. Audrey, whose words come out in a rasping whisper, was unable to even shout for help.

When I met Audrey last Tuesday, I found her living within the main Occupy encampment, sharing a tent with two men whom she had gotten to know and trust during her time in the area. “I’m safer here,” she told me. “Nobody’s going to hurt me anymore.”

That Audrey chose, after being raped, to move into the main Occupy encampment is more than a reminder of Occupy New Haven’s role as a refuge for the homeless and the vulnerable. It is also an indictment of the eviction proponents like Nate Zelinsky (“Occupy: a post-mortem,” April 19) who claim that a humanitarian concern for safety is a major factor informing their stance. Does it really make sense to argue that the homeless are safer in isolated living situations than in a small, tight-knit camp with a security detail?

Turning to lesser offenses, some have cited increased police calls to the Green as evidence of the “dangerous situation” supposedly created by Occupy New Haven. Occupiers, however, claim that they are acting as a “block watch,” calling in crimes that would otherwise have gone unreported and sometimes even breaking up fights between non-Occupiers. It is impossible to say definitively that their characterization of the trend is accurate, but it is equally unreasonable to dismiss it out of hand. Having become the victim of an attempted mugging by a group of teenagers while crossing the Green at 7 p.m. during the winter of my freshman year, I would like to remind readers of what Zelinsky, who grew up in New Haven, should already know: the Green, poorly patrolled and a longtime haven for drug users and the homeless, did not suddenly become dangerous with the arrival of Occupy New Haven.

So what other grave wrong was Occupy perpetrating upon the citizens of New Haven? The answer: taking up a small portion (less than 10 percent) of the Green, and suffocating its grass with their improvised flooring.

Once Occupy had lost its battle in federal court, its members were given less than 24 hours’ notice to pack up and move out before the area was bulldozed. This was more humane than some would have liked: Zelinsky wishes the camp had been razed weeks ago, partly to avoid giving Occupiers the opportunity to work within the American justice system to challenge the eviction in court.

Occupy New Haven has some unmistakable black marks on its record: recall the incoherence of the movement, the diatribes against corporations large and small, and the aggressive way in which Occupiers taunted the police. At the same time, Occupy has refocused our discourse on America’s shameful level of income inequality and the paucity of our social safety net; the encampment has offered shelter to the homeless and the dispossessed; and the movement has brought local activists together to discuss and take action on a range of issues, from the role of corporate lobbying organizations like ALEC to the possible reopening of Dixwell’s “Q House” for local youth. More importantly, Occupy New Haven challenged the status quo.

In response, Occupiers have been met with everything from harassment, apparently by Yale football players, to the theft of Occupy signs, in which members of the Yale College Republicans and Yale Tory Party were implicated.

Imagine if the low bar for eviction proposed by commentators like Zelinsky were applied more broadly. Where would our humanitarian concern and our quest to improve New Haven lead us next? Given the aggression shown by Yale students toward Occupy New Haven, the number of crimes committed on Yale’s campus by Yale students (e.g., sexual assault), and Yale’s own record of appropriating public space for its own purposes (see, for example, parts of Wall Street), I am drawn to one inescapable conclusion:

Evict Yale University.

Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at ethan.rodriguez-torrent@yale.edu.

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