by Michael Pettit photo by Jenny Hazard 

A Month of Occupy Milwaukee in Garden Park       

On the night of November 15, the practice of exerting authority over the expression of First Amendment Rights allowed by citizens, on behalf of city government, was once again asserted by local police, in the form of an impromptu search of the camp by several officers, and re-statement of the “No tents up at night” policy which they have enforced upon our occupiers.  

After establishing willingness to comply and carrying out the process of dropping tents for the night, an interesting conversation was had with the officers. I asked them if they knew really what precedent was being upheld by enforcing this policy. At first the reaction was somewhat defensive, re-asserting that City Government makes the rules and they are following orders, doing their job, etc. 

I replied, “Yes, I understand that, and we will comply. But do any of you actually know what is the reason for the order, or the precedent being upheld by this policy?” 

The general answer was along the lines of, “We don’t question the orders we are given, we just follow them.” 

I responded, “Well, I feel sorry for you then – if I was doing your job, I would want to know, what is the principle being upheld by this policy, so that I could truly feel good about doing my job enforcing it. If any of you have the time or interest to look into this, and find out the reasoning behind this restriction and what precedent is being upheld by enforcing it, please get back to us about that, and let us know.”  

To me, this whole situation is not a “battle,” as some occupations and other city governments have made it, but is a real and present opportunity for direct physical dialogue and negotiation of and about the boundaries of our culture and the rules we choose to live by as a people. We have the right to Freedom of Assembly and Freedom of Speech, but on what terms? Who should have the right to set those terms, and how should they be established and upheld? We all have inalienable rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, but we also have corresponding responsibilities, within those rights, to maintain a civil society and respectfully uphold the rights of others to enjoy the same, whether they agree or disagree with our beliefs and choices.

There are many opinions and points of view on these topics, but the Occupy movement is presenting us with the opportunity to look at and ask directly questions such as, “What are truly the rights of the occupiers?” and “What are the rights then, of the homeless, who live in similar conditions and under the same restrictions, not by choice as a means of publicly calling the question, as we are?” 

At the point where, as is the case now, members of the homeless community are sharing space with us, to enjoy the relative freedom from harassment that the camp provides, these issues become enmeshed with the action to occupy. Also, as we are standing for a cause centered upon addressing issues of income inequality and social justice, we cannot exclude from our consideration the issues that rationally apply to the reality of the existing homeless population, who sustain themselves and their own survival at the lowest possible level of income and foundation of physical support that exists in our society.

In many other cities, these issues have been actively taken up as part of the public dialogue on city policy and law enforcement. In some cases, successful resolution of these issues has preceded by a decade, the current focus on the occupation of public spaces by members of the Occupy movement.  

It is time Milwaukee took a serious look at the examples of success in accommodating the needs and rights of those in our city who lack the means to participate in the existing system of self-support through conventional housing and employment. All citizens and all people have the right to a form of shelter and a home base for organizing their lives that guaranties them the dignity and safety needed to advance their own cause of survival and self-fulfillment.

The links provided below represent the most current research available, showing how these issues have been resolved successfully in other cities, and the benefits realized for these cities and for the homeless populations within them, by actively addressing these issues and achieving community-created solutions which go far beyond just the unquestioning enforcement of existing laws.  As winter approaches and pressure to end the Occupation increases, we will be asked as a city-wide community to take a serious look at what statement of cultural principle is being upheld on our behalf, by our response and the response of law enforcement. 

Please take the time to educate yourself and add your voice to the public dialogue that will continue in the course of coming events.

Learn More:

Report from Democracy Now!, on the success achieved by residents of Seattle’s “Nicklesville” settlement: democracynow.org/2009/3/30/nickelsville_seattle_newest_tent_city

Detailed study and report from the National Coalition for the Homeless, about tent cities on the West Coast, 2010: nationalhomeless.org/publications/Tent%20Cities%20Report%20FINAL%203-10-10.pdf


(ED NOTE: Occupy Milwaukee moved their camp to Garden Park in Riverwest on the night of October 18. They negotiated a truce with District 5 police who agreed to let them stay in the park, but required that they remove their tents at night. As the encampment has grown, adding a food tent, supplies tent, and meeting tent, this policy has been tested repeatedly. As the 30-day point neared, police increasingly attempted to enforce this policy. This had led to a discussion about the larger question of how homeless people manage as the weather gets colder. This opinion piece was written by Michael Pettit, a Riverwest neighbor who has been “occupying” since October 15.)