(open letter to the city council) Thanks for, and thoughts on, the recent workshop

Gentlemen and Ladies of the City Council,

I want to thank you for having the workshop, inspired by the desire to be a fair umpire to Occupy Bangor and in general.  I want to thank you for everything from the rousing speech about our nation’s origins in the early pilgrimages to this land, to the quiet expressions of determination to uphold the law, to the counterpoint that you are a policy-forming committee.  And I appreciate equally those moments of legal clarity from the city attourney, particularly in reference to the law of unintended consequences.

Please understand that I have no position of authority at Occupy Bangor, and everything I say here is from me, as a citizen who is deeply committed to the peaceful protest that has formed in this city.

This is simply my view of the matter.

There were only a few focused, specific questions which you asked of us, the public.  These I can address, and the concerns from which they seem to spring.  I can also address the questions I imagine you might ask.  But there are undoubtedly questions you have not asked, which I can not anticipate, and I would encourage you to publish them with the announcement of the next meeting’s time.

One question Mr. Sprague asked was, “How long do you intend to be there?”  Another was, “How is being limited to park hours ‘onerous’?”

The group has not reached consensus on a time-frame.  The brave reply you may get from people is, “As long as it takes!” 

My reply is, “Until spring.” 

One passerby asked me, “What happens in spring?”

I told him, “We come up with another plan.”

This is Maine.  Camping out will be safe — if there is any risk to life or limb, I personally promise I will lead the retreat into a headed structure — but miserable.  Utterly miserable.  It will be a hardship.

As a hobo, I have a notion of what deliberately going through a hardship does to a person’s character, as a matter of choice.  It tempers your character.  It causes you to live in reality and not fantasy.  It wakes you up wonderfully.

You learn, in other words, something about what you can personally accomplish under your own power simply by being determined.  I want this for these people.  I want the college kids who have an interest in political activism to be tempered in this way.

I think it will equally be good for the community, for Bangor and the surrounding area, which may be legally separate communities, but which in fact look to Bangor as a man looks to his leader.  People right now, in great part, think we want handouts.  They think we want a free ride.  They think we’re soft.  But as the weather gets worse, this is starting to change.

Two cyclists passed by a few mornings ago, and looked at us.  I waved.  But they were not friendly.  One tried to be sarcastic, saying to his friend, “Oh, I think I’ll camp out in the cold weather–”  –but couldn’t.  It didn’t work.  Because there’s no selfish reason for us to be doing what we’re doing, and this is becoming increasingly self-evident.

When people see that, when people see that what we want is not welfare, but jobs, an economy that allows us good meaningful work, by which a man might support his family, and not a crooked system where the banks cheat and lie and are bailed out in the name of the man on the street, only to see that bailout money shunted into the pockets of the super-wealthy, to the harm of the corporations that got the money, and to see the CEOs that made those decisions get million dollar bonuses — when people see that what we want is the true opportunity to work for our livings, I believe that will be good for the community.

How that gets translated into political action, into elections, into national policies, and so forth, I am not too particular.  That is not my field.

“Onerous” was not my word.  I am not sure it is the right word to describe the application of the park’s hours.  Perhaps it is more the word to describe the weather.  Or the economy.

But the fundamental problem with allowing free speech activity only 6am-10pm is that it implicitly disallows 24/7 free speech activity.  Even when we are not speaking, we are communicating.  We are communicating the dire state American society is in by putting ourselves physically out in all weather continuously.  There is no escape, no break, no part-time involvement with the economy, with the ruptured social fabric of America, with what the pattern of work does to people and to families in this country, and therefore there will be no break in our contending with the weather. 

There will be no cheating, protesting only during normal business hours, to go home to a warmly heated apartment, perhaps paid for by the generous public housing policies of the city of Bangor, to sleep in a nice soft bed provided by public funds.  Not from me.  Not if I can possibly help it.  I get food stamps, and that should be enough.

(To be honest, I’m thinking of applying for such an apartment here in Bangor, as a place to shower, as a place to go if our camp fails.  But I’m not sure how I’d handle the temptation:  I’m also thinking of not applying for it.)

So I’m pretty ambivalent about “onerous” being the right word here.  You want nice parks, nice people in them, nice things to happen in them, and there’s no good reason especially not to insist that peaceful protest should be done during normal business hours, in the daylight, when the TV cameras are rolling, or could be rolling. 

Because decent people should be in bed at 2 o’clock in the morning:  in a nice, soft bed, in a nice, warmly heated apartment, and if a citizen of Bangor can’t afford that you’re willing to supply it to them.  Certainly people shouldn’t be peacefully protesting out in winter weather at that unGodly hour, because even though it might not hurt anyone, it’s somehow vaguely not decent, not nice.

I understand that point of view and I see it as a natural part of wanting a well-ordered society.  But what we have is NOT in fact a well-ordered society.  It is ordered, certainly.  Very strictly ordered in some instances.  I would dispute, however, that it is ordered well.

Whether we encamp, if that is the proper legal word I don’t know, on library property or on city property, is not too important to me:  but as I see it, it would be better for the City of Bangor for us to camp in the park.  This is what the park should be for, for people to gather and express themselves, and it should be for that at any hour.

It is, in my view, a little embarrassing that the Bangor Public Library is, or appears to be, more deeply committed to the first amendment than is the city.  The city has nicer property (with all due respect), a higher volume of traffic, and I expect at least equal vulnerability to public displeasure.

The fact that we encamp on library property and not on park property is maybe a trick of the library having less institutional inertia than the city.  But in my opinion, really we should be on park property.  I don’t imagine anyone is especially hung up over my opinion, but if we imagine what our founding fathers’ opinion might be, I cannot envision them being too happy with a city that lacks a commons, or where niceness is seen as a perogative that trumps assembly and speech.

Mr. Balducci, among others, said that the council “cannot support camping.”  And his reason for this was that “not all groups will be as exemplary as Occupy Bangor.”

First, I wonder why the council cannot support camping.  That is to say, it cannot allow sleeping:  I wonder why.  But that’s a bigger discussion.

The little discussion is, “Thank you!  Now, what do you mean specifically by ‘exemplary?'”  In that conception of exemplary camping, which presumably is nice camping, acceptable camping, might be found a specific set of criteria and guidelines which the city could allow, and hold Occupy and all other groups to, if the council had the political will to do so.

I want Occupy Bangor not to be seen as a group of scofflaws.  More than that, I want us not to BE a group of scofflaws.  More than that, I want the law not to be something we need to scoff.  More than that, I want to accomplish effective change to American society, to heal this sickness that has worked its way into the structure of the power relations between the ultra-wealthy and the rest of us.

In terms of the larger discussion, I called to your attention during your workshop the way in which your rules against sleeping on park grounds force homeless people to sleep on private property:  in open garages, under porches, in unlocked cars, sometimes in abandon buildings, if one is so lucky as to find one, behind shrubberies put out in front of banks, in parking garages, and all the rest of it.

These are not necessarily bad people.  They may simply rather not be forced to sleep in a big room with a bunch of drunks and junkies.  They may have money they are worried about being stolen from them.  They may be worried about their physical safety in a shelter.  The shelters may be full.  They may have had personal conflict, for example because a shelter threw out their property, with a shelter worker and therefore be blacklisted.

If you were to allow sleeping in the park, you fear the park would be full of homeless.  And that is likely true.  But now consider that, by disallowing the homeless to sleep in the park, all of those homeless do not vanish.  They all find someplace even more illegal to sleep, where they will not be noticed.

I suspect this is the “law of unintended consquences” that was mentioned a few times.  You don’t *intend* to force the homeless to sleep under people’s porches and in their garages, but that is in fact what you are doing.

You do not need to take my word for this.  You can have candid or public conversations with cops who work the beat here in Bangor.

If you want the parks to be nice for middle-Americans, find the specific criteria that would make nice parks.  If that criteria is that there are no homeless, no sleepers, when the parks open to the public at 6am, make a policy that no one can sleep in the park after 5. 

Then at 5 or so, have the morning police crew circle by the parks and chatter their sirens.  By six, the parks will be clear.

Honestly, I think this is your most effective, ecological solution.  And it happens to make some room for Occupy Bangor to apply for permitted tents.

As I have it, your priorities for park use, especially in conjunction with permitting are:

* To coordinate usage and avoid scheduling conflicts
* Preservation of the facilities
* To assign financial responsibility if something is damaged
and of course,
* To ensure fairness.

Now in conjunction with this last item, I would like to respond to this last point.  Particularly, I would like to respond to the story that the city attourney told about being chased out of the park, with his wife, when they were sitting in their car during closing.

It is an accomplishment in fairness that the cop does not distinguish between an important city official and a hobo.  But the fact remains that reality does distinguish between them.

The city official, like most of the people you think of when you think of Bangor citizens, has a place to go.  He goes home.  Or to a nice restaurant, perhaps, if he likes.

But where does the hobo go?

So, you see, although it’s not a hardship for you to be moved out of the park by a cop at closing time, the reason it is not a hardship is that you have resources.  But people who do not have those resources lack the same recourse.  The hobo or bum cannot go home, so it is a hardship for him. 

It is a great hardship:  more than not knowing where to go is the crazy-making understanding that **there is no place for him to go**.  It is unlawful for him to have any physical location at night, if he is asleep.  He might walk on the sidewalks, as long as he can remain awake, but that’s pretty much it.

It’s difficult for me to describe the impact that this understanding has on a man.  Most citizens have had the experience of not being considered by their government.  But here we have the experience of being considered, and the government doing its best to make it illegal for him to exist.

–The standard response that one might expect from a city council, when this problem is brought to their attention, is, “Oh, the homeless are now sleeping under overpasses?  We should ban that, too.”  And so on.  I trust and believe you’ll find something better than that.

A man does not have the right in this country to sleep in the open.  But I expect this is largely because our founding fathers never imagined they would need to grant people that right.  They did not envision every space, every corner of the map being — occupied — in the way they now are.  But they did have the foresight to write the 9th amendment, which is perhaps the best they could do.

In my view, sometimes more regulation is not the answer.  Sometimes the answer is less regulation, and more individual freedom.  This is a course we’ve pursued for years in regards to corporations, with mixed results.  I encourage you to consider applying that thinking to individuals too.


Conrad Cook

ps – This was a long letter.  I appreciate you reading it.  Everything I put in it I put there because I thought you needed to know.


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