The banner has been gone for awhile, Aaron tells me. Why? The owner of the tarp decided he wanted the tarp back because, he said, homeless people have been doing things behind it. What kind of things? I didn’t ask. Whatever it was, it was unacceptable behavior.
About ten days ago, the local paper ran a subtly negative story about the encampment, and the gist of it was picked up and echoed, I noticed just now, by the Chicago Tribune, yesterday. Drug use, defecation by the homeless, drunkenness, all the bugaboos that terrify “normal upstanding” people were trotted out. And yet, when I was there yesterday, I spoke with a woman, Charis, one of the regulars, who was quoted in the Bloomington Herald-Tribune; she said she had been misquoted, and that she had never seen or smelled any defecation in the camp.
The first thing I noticed when I walked in were two shiny two porta potties discretely tucked into a corner by that same wall. Good! And yes, Charis said, those porta potties came two days earlier. Perhaps prompted by that Herald Times story. In any case, what does the city, or any of us expect of homeless people? Where do they go to the bathroom? Are small businesses supposed to open their doors to them all day or night? To me, it seems obvious that porta potties should have been placed by the city in People’s Park a long time ago, given that this is the place where homeless people have historically congregated, ever since its owner, an heiress to the Lilly fortune, deemed that this little piece of land should be held by the city in perpetuity for the people, or else it would revert back to their family.
That was only one chapter in an amazing saga, as picked up recently by firedoglake in The Radical History of Bloomington’s Peoples Park, and the Occupy encampment there is not the first. Back in the early 1970s the park was “occupied” by a two-month encampment, so I heard from a grizzled ’60s man who sat on one of the park’s benches with his guitar case and dog at his feet, and some crumpled Xerox copies of newspaper stories from the encampment he had been part of nearly 40 years ago.
He wanted me to sit next to him so he could tell me about it. Unfortunately, the story didn’t stick with me, but the flavor of his telling did. Clearly, the spirit of protest and liberation had been suffusing this one-third of an acre park in the middle of downtown Bloomington for decades. So that it not only started in response to Occcupy Wall Street, but has continued all these weeks, is no surprise.
And the homeless? Well, says Jeff (I think that was his name), there that afternoon to whip up some killer chai, both vegan and regular, “I can learn from the homeless.”
Here’s Jeff, in the kitchen, looking out.
And here’s the chai table, in the main gathering tent that faces the kitchen. Aaron, with his cup of chai.
It was a beautiful day, so lots of people were in the camp, drying out after five days of rainy weather. Looking north from the main tent:
Looking south from the main tent.
I didn’t count them, but I get the impression that there are somewhere between 20 and 30 tents set up. Oddly, I have no pictures of the dense little area in which most of them perch. Are they all always occupied at night? I don’t know. I’m still tempted to spend the night, but know I’d have trouble sleeping, and why ruin the next day?
Speaking of tents, apparently a homeless man was found dead in one of them one morning a few weeks ago, of natural causes. That time, the local paper treated the situation with great grace and tact, making it a page two story, no big deal — unlike the screaming press that greeted other deaths in the Occupy camps nationwide. Then there was a further story that told of the community coming together to give him a proper memorial and funeral. So the kindness that prevails in Bloomington was in evidence in this sad event which could have spelled doom to the Occupy movement in towns with less heart.
I hadn’t been to the camp in weeks, so I scrounged in my basement for stuff they might need. I came up with a sleeping bag that had belonged to my late husband (didn’t even know it was there!), a good pair of ski gloves that would keep someone warm in -40° weather, like they kept me warm when I lived in wintry Wyoming, and one other thing, what was it? Can’t remember. The point is, I’ve got way too much stuff, and I can’t even remember what I have, much less what I just gave away.
As soon as I walked in, I asked where to put my donations, and Charis, the woman I mentioned earlier, said they had a donations tent, but that it was really scuzzy right now, and that she was thinking about cleaning it out. We walked towards it together. I sure wish I had taken a “before” shot of that tent, because it was a huge mess. Right then and there, I said — with relief, because, after all, what was I going to do at the camp? — I’ll help you clean it out. Let’s do it right now.
So we did. Glad for the company, she attacked the job with great purpose and verve. I stood outside, waiting to receive what she tossed out and organize it. A lot of it was dirty; so I made a pile for laundry that Charis said she’d take home with her to do, unless, she hoped, someone else would volunteer. I thought about it, but didn’t speak up, my own little boundary system a bit too tight for such a quick release.
At one point, she tossed out a bunch of shoes. I mean probably 40 shoes. I wondered if they all had matches. Asked a couple of homeless men — you can tell the difference, but what is the difference? Nobody who was actually camping there was especially “clean;” but to me it was clear who “fit in” to society and who did not. Mostly the homeless stick together, though I noticed more blending of boundaries this time than I did the first two times I visited. Anyway, I asked a couple of homeless men to help sort the shoes and they did a great job. All the shoes had matches! There weren’t any extras! But then they didn’t bother to replace them in the bin. It was as if they’d do the job, just as I asked, but no more. (I may be reading into the situation inaccurately. Who knows, maybe they just lost interest, or were called away.)
I asked another homeless man if he would fold tarps for me, and he did a wonderful job, placing the folded ones neatly in a pile and showing me where it was.
Charis and I worked so efficiently and thoroughly — taking books back to the library (including several on AA and other recovery programs), traipsing to find new boxes to make new bins for underwear, sweaters, outerwear, shoes, etc. Trivial Pursuit game cards were everywhere; I painstakingly gathered hundreds of them and placed them in their own plastic bag. Then, aha! we found the board to which they belonged! Trivial Pursuit, such a metaphor. Is the pursuit of this encampment trivial? Is people standing around, sitting around, hanging out in a relaxed manner, trivial?
I heard back from Aaron, who had gone on a scouting mission with others for a possible new (second) camp. Here’s Aaron again.
Aaron was one of the original people who organized Transition Bloomington. He had attend a week-long non-violence workshop (or was it a mediation workshop?) with I think it was Joanna Macy in September on the East Coast and followed that with a visit to Occupy Wall Street at Liberty Square, before returning to Bloomington to help set up and hold energy for Occupy Bloomington.
Anyway, Aaron said they’re looking for a parcel of land that they might be able to camp out on more permanently. I told him about a village right next to either Stockholm or Copenhagen (ah, it’s Copenhagan, and this village is called Christiana, just googled it!) that I visited years ago, which has its own building codes and a way of life that is much simpler and close to the ground than the surrounding city. And of course, I myself lived in a village of yurts for 20 years, and I’m aware of lots of little communities of handmade houses here and there.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful, we agreed, if just like the newly forming Bloomington Cooperative Plots, and the Green Acres Neighborhood Ecovillage, these alternative ways of life could be established here in Bloomington, for those who not only are homeless by force of circumstance, but who choose to simplify to the point where they no longer need material wealth, especially money. Especially that! And speaking of which . . .
I asked where the food for the camp came from. It was abundant the day I was there, and Jeff told me it’s always abundant, that it just appears from lots of different restaurants and people donating. The gift economy in action! I’m going to take the last of the greens from the GANG garden down there tomorrow. Here’s a few more shots of the ingenious kitchen.
The sink, where they wash dishes, is a tarp stretched into a long trench.
Here is the sink again, showing the pumps for water, underneath, that you press with your foot to squirt water out.
Water storage. Like food, water comes from lots of places, lots of people, all donated.
I’ll end this saga with pics of the supply tent, newly organized.
Notice the blue sleeping bag on the chair in the left corner. That’s the one I brought, and Charis tells me they go like hotcakes.
It felt good to “do a job” while I was there, and it was greatly appreciated, by the way. Makes me think that I’ll go there once a week, and help organize something each time. That way it’s easy to get inside the heart of what’s going on and not feel like an awkward bystander who isn’t brave enough, or patient enough, or determined enough, to camp outside in all sorts of conditions, just to see the new world brought in by the skin of our teeth.
Charis and me outside “our” supply tent.