By Russ Lindquist
After police broke up an Occupy San Diego encampment Friday, protestors rallied their forces with a 1,000 member-strong march on Saturday. But while millions are taking notice of “Occupy” protests nationwide aimed at helping Americans who are struggling, at least one East County man struggling with unemployment and homelessness feels disenfranchised by the movement.
October 16, 2011 (San Diego) --"Homeless Harry" sat outwardly calm, but inwardly cringing, late Friday afternoon at the Civic Center downtown during the Occupy San Diego (OSD) protest.
Earlier in the day, a clash between protestors and police left one demonstrator arrested and nearly a dozen others pepper-sprayed. Yet amidst a calm in the aftermath of violence, Harry sat alone silently, head curled down towards the filthy clothes on his torso, hair neatly combed, eyes sunken behind severely sun-worn skin. Later he would candidly bemoan the OSD attendees’ joviality and denounce the overall character of present-day protestors, police, press and pedestrians.
"This group that's out here right now--it's the chronically homeless and unemployed in San Diego, and they're getting all the attention they want," quipped Sgt. David Kries of the San Diego Police Department (SDPD). It was 5pm and Kries--who bears a striking resemblance to a composite of Elvis Presley, Burt Reynolds and Arthur Fonzarelli--had been on duty since 7am, including while the pepper-spraying occurred. "We don't want to lay hands on anyone, or use these batons or [pepper-spray]," assured Kries, who nevertheless stood by the SDPD's earlier decision to pepper-spray protestors who Officers say were unduly defiant.
SDPD supervisors said that dozens of protestors formed a circle around a sole tent, in the middle of the Civic Center's plaza, as a stand-off that was in direct opposition to a police order which said that protestors could stay but tents had to go. The melee that ensued made many front-page stories, especially a picture of a seemingly calm SDPD officer pepper-spraying the face of a stalwart protestor. As a result of the confrontation, police arrested one protestor whom both they and some protestors characterized as an "agitator." Nevertheless, officers eventually left the final tent standing "as a concession" to the protestors, according to Sgt. S.H. Murphy.
Still, Sgt. Kries doubted the authenticity of the OSD protestors. "There's nobody here with a message--nobody here has an agenda besides that they found a place they think they can sleep," snapped Kries, whose tense lips and stinging soliloquies belied his thousand-yard gaze and stoically folded arms, as he straddled his BMW police motorcycle, while his measured, matter-of-fact tones cut effortlessly through the competition of sustained chatter, sporadic cheers, and someone's meter-less hand drum solo.
"It's public property, so they think this is theirs," Kries said dismissively. "Years ago, the homeless did sleep here, but they've been moved out," he recalled, then paused and thought before segueing, "There's no one there who's going to benefit by Obama's job plans, and tax-cuts." He gestured to the protestors 200 feet away. "There's no one there who pays any taxes! These are chronically homeless, unemployed people who live on the streets--usually someplace else.”
Most of these people tagged along as part of the Occupy San Diego movement, the Officer suggested, “where a lot of positive attention was brought on a pretty big issue that's gone on nationwide--it's a great, democratic process that we have--and these people are the hold-overs. And people are giving them attention,” he noted, then added that the group’s members are San Diego’s “hardcore homeless.”
Kries mentioned that none of the protestors who had been pepper-sprayed needed subsequent medical attention. "I've been hit with the stuff before--it's like getting a jalepeño in your eye. It's not that bad." Kries was unaware of what charges the arrested "agitator" would face.
Although the official reason police gave for removing the tents from the Civic Center was to facilitate a permitted World Dance Tour event that expected to bring 2000 or more to the Center over the weekend, Sgt. Murphy said that police would not be allowing protestors to resume a tent-city afterwards: "We have a lot more [permitted events] going on; there's no room for all those tents."
Surrounding the Civic Center's plaza, at 50 foot intervals, was a series of police officers who stood comfortably but attentively, each directing questions to unnamed "supervisors," or, "anyone with bars on their sleeves," as one grinning officer clarified while standing in parade-rest with his hands behind his back and fingers interlocked.
Inside the plaza, around 120 protestors variously stood, stooped, slept and shouted. One shouter held a megaphone. "I was here when the shit hit the fan, and the mace hit the faces," barked Brother Hex Green, who, although enlivened by previously having received pepper-spray to his face just hours earlier, urged restraint and introspection from both police and protestors:
"I experienced some very helpful cops during the march yesterday," Green said through the megaphone, "and the reality is that most of these cops are good people, but they have some really bad apples among them." Green then directed his attention outward to the onlooking officers: "But we'll play nice if you play nice." Cheers erupted by a couple dozen listeners, and Green passed the megaphone.
As the next OSD protestor took to the megaphone, Green spoke to me briefly of the incident involving pepper-spray. "The reason why the cops came in was because [although] we decided to take a couple of tents down, [still,] as an act of civil-disobedience,” protesters kept one tent up, he said. “And so they came and tried to remove the last tent [but] we linked arms and continued to show solidarity, and now that tent pretty much stands as a symbol." Green then leaned forward and playfully ended his interview saying, "pepper-spray tastes like chicken!"
Other protestors saw differently the events which led to the police pepper-spraying the protestors. Angela Kwan, a OSD protestor from Mission Valley, believes that the pepper-spraying had occurred because police had placed saboteurs in the ranks of OSD protestors for the purpose of escalating the atmosphere, to thereby justify police intervention.
Moreover, in addition to expressing disappointment at the waning presence of protestors for OSD, Kwan was disheartened at the incongruity of aims among those who remained, saying, "no one is agreeing on anything." Kwan says that she was among those earlier exposed to pepper-spray but that only a very little had landed on her forehead.
Angela Kwan is a student at Grossmont College and a member of B.E.A.T.--Bringing Education and Activism Together, a club on the campus.
Meanwhile, Denis Pavlov, who was also sprayed in the melee, agreed with Kwan that police were secretly agitating at the event, saying, he believed police intentionally escalated the situation that resulted in the use of pepper spray. Pavlov nonetheless went on to spread blame for the cause of the escalation, saying, "but we all have our egos--we [protestors] and the police." He then spoke of two OSD protestors whom he characterized as "agitators," and explained how he says the two had provoked the police escalation.
According to Pavlov, the police had asked protestors to move tents away from the center of the Civic Center's plaza, to make a fire-lane. "Of course we made a path right away," Pavlov said. "[But] there are some people among us that are agitators, that are trying to make people strong--that are trying to make people get in fights," claimed Pavlov.
"[The police] told us 'hey guys, you have to make sure there is a clear path for the workers', but these two [protestors] went out and started [misleading other protestors]: (whispering) 'Hey, you know what I heard? We are supposed to put our tents right in the middle'. So people put tents right there in the middle," asserted Pavlov, gesturing to the center of the plaza.
Denis Pavlov is a native to Russia who, in 2001, left Moscow for school in New York. After studying English for two years at community college in NY, Pavlov says he then crossed the country to attend the Burning Man Festival in Arizona before settling in Los Angeles for a while. Thereafter, Pavlov says he biked down the coastline, from LA to San Diego, over three days.
"It's like you're crashing a child's birthday," Harry said, explaining how unwelcomed he felt when going to get food from tables in the center of the plaza at the Civic Center. Protestors said the food was for anyone.
Harry did not want to give his last name nor clarify where in East County he had previously lived, but spoke briefly of La Mesa and El Cajon, before saying that he left from East County two and a half years ago, after selling his car to get by while trying to find a job. Then, giving up on East County's public transit, which he described as "entirely inefficient," Harry moved into downtown, where he says he spent the money from selling his car on food and shelter until the cash ran out.
Although his eyes were typically downcast, his forearms on his thighs, now and again Harry looked up and studied the commotion in the plaza of downtown's Civic Center, only to slump back down and quietly lament the images that he saw. "Maybe hacky-sack will make a comeback--that would fix things," Harry drawled sarcastically, referencing two jugglers who swung and twisted slings the length of their arms that were weighted by some baseball-sized objects at their ends. "Let's kill some time while we're waiting for something else," imputed Harry onto the jugglers, slowing considerably his last words such that the phrase "waiting for something else" seemed like a mantra.
"It's like a high school float-committee gone bad," Harry said, turning his attention to the protestors' signs, many of which were simply pieces of cardboard inscribed with a few words in permanent marker. "And it doesn't matter--none of this matters," he groaned, before mockingly declaring, "Let's make posters--that'll fix it!" Turning to me, he synthesized his point, quipping, "posters will fix their problems like a Hallmark card will fix death."
Harry then denounced the protestors' presence generally, saying, "If I tried to sleep here over the last two years, the cops would give me an illegal-lodging ticket, and if I still didn't leave, they would take me to jail [but the protestors] get to stay and do this." His worn, relaxed hand drew a cigarette up to his pain-laden face for another drag.
As for advice to the protestors, Harry said, "Read some history about how [protests] work, or at least the pathology of how these little get-togethers, these shin-digs, work. [These protestors] haven't a clue ... they need more than consensus; they need leadership, someone to say 'here is what we are going to do, and here is how we are going to do it." Then, decrying the protestors choice of titles, Harry said, "They have 'facilitators' and 'mediators' probably because they think 'generals' and 'lieutenants' sound too corporate and militaristic." Then, laughing, he added that their titles, “sound like a day-care."
Vacillating between grumbles about the challenges of his homelessness, on the one hand, and his dismay at the character of the protestors, on the other, Harry's persistent venting, though vitriolic, lacked the strength of the proverbial whirlwind, resembling rather a sputtering spiritual tail-pipe on an unloved spiritual car that had long since failed to pass spiritual smog, and so had been set aside. Harry seemed to feel that he, himself, was an entirely unloved person who had long since been set aside.
After groaning about the scene before him, Harry addressed me and responded to my previous question, telling me that his goal, now, is the same as it has been ever since he became homeless two and a half years ago: to get a job--any sustainable job. "As soon as I get that, I can move forward, but without that first building-block, nothing is going to happen," he insisted, his words muddied by peripheral chants and cheers from protestors. "So first things first," he concluded with an energy emptying exhale.
"It's hard though. It's hard just to stay clean, to keep my nails clean." Harry spoke the latter sentence to himself but loud enough for me to overhear.
Talking of the frustration of his daily routine, Harry spoke of St. Vincent DePaul. "Go down to there," Harry recommended, "and see how long we wait in line just to get a meal. I appreciate the meal and all, but sometimes I wait in a line for four hours just to get lunch ... and at the Neil Good Center, showers start at 8am, but if you are trying to get a leg up, you can be just getting ready by 8--you need to be done and gone by then! This is not progress.
"I didn't throw my life away with drugs and alcohol like some of these [homeless] people--I just ran out of money," Harry said.
Denouncing that which he claimed was the common mindset of downtown's news reporters, police, residents and patrons towards the homeless in the city, Harry concluded, "When that guy fell off the roof the other day--or was pushed or whatever--that was business-as-usual to these people. All year long, people die here on the streets; these busy people just step over stiffs all day long. It doesn't surprise them. What does surprise them is when the stiff actually sits up."