Society Must Be Defended From Rats

by zunguzungu

Occupy Oakland is ten days old now, and is beginning to attract a very predictable and more or less uniform kind of media attention. Or shall I say uniformed? The fact that the camp at Frank Ogawa Plaza has constructed and effectively runs an around-the-clock kitchen which is efficiently distributing food to any who want it — including Oakland’s large transient population — will not be mentioned, or at least not treated seriously. Instead we, we will read about rats, fights, drugs, and dirt. This article headlined “Rats and drugs mar Occupy Oakland tent city, officials say,” for example, is a classic example of stenography journalism:

OAKLAND — City officials said Tuesday they may have to shut down the Occupy Oakland tent city in coming days because it is attracting rats, alcohol and illegal drug use. A pre-existing rat problem around Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, which public works employees are normally able to keep under control, has been exacerbated by the demonstrators’ presence, said city administrator spokeswoman Karen Boyd. The problem “has gotten worse with all the food and people and couches,” Boyd said. Because the protest has people cycling in and out, she added, the city is having to repeat the message about how to store food and keep the area safe. Boyd said she wasn’t sure how to describe the extent of the growing rat problem, but that it’s been reported in complaints by local businesses, workers and even the demonstrators themselves. This comes on the heels of increasing reports of illegal drug and alcohol abuse, fighting, and sexual harassment in and around the camp of about 100 tents, Boyd said.

The fact that the journalist “reporting” the story simply repeats, at length, what a single city spokesman tells him should be seen as the gift from the newspaper to City Hall that it is. I’ve underlined the main verbs in the first six sentences to make that as clear as possible; that story is almost literally nothing but variations on “what City Hall told us [about the people protesting against it].” And so, the “objective” reporting just happens to repeat exactly the narrative that city hall wants to tell — things were under control before, but now the demonstrators are “attracting rats, alcohol and illegal drug use” — and imagine out of existence any possible counter-narratives which might be told.[1]

But the story that city hall wants to tell is preposterous. There are rats there at night because there are always rats there at night. I’m sure the smell of food does attract more vermin than usual — even as the presence of people also repels them — but the bottom line should still be obvious to anyone with a brain: you don’t normally have a rat “problem” in the park at night because you don’t normally have any people there (or at least not any people the city cares to notice). Even during the day, the only people that use this (quite unused) park are on their lunch break, eating their sandwiches or whatever, and then at night the rats eat their leavings. And no one cares. But now that there are people there — people creating a political headache for city hall — now, suddenly, the rats are an important problem. Suddenly, coincidentally, the city is very concerned about “rats.”

I invite you, by the way, to take a stroll through any part of the adjacent downtown Oakland at two in the morning and observe the rats which have been living off Oakland’s messy humans for many decades, and who will for many more. They’re not hidden, or even particularly shy; you’re just not there to see them and have your sensibilities offended by their presence. But that entire area is a filthy fast-food ridden stretch of a typical dirty downtown, well and truly “marred” by the fact that day-time human leave their waste everywhere for the night janitors to feast on, and who are the real causes of whatever vermin problem it has. It would be truer, in fact, to say that Oakland’s rats are invading the Occupation’s camp.

But rats are not bothersome when no one important is bothered. Because the issue isn’t who brought the rats, it’s the fact that they are now visible, them and the dirty messiness for which they are being made into a lazy symbol. The City was fine with that park when no one was there, when rats scuttled across it at night while drug dealers sold drugs and homeless people slept and urinated in the shadow of city hall. Oakland simply did what any self-respecting city does with such disfiguring blots on its honor: it occasionally sends the police out to chase them away and then it ignores them when they come back. And it longed for that plaza to be clean and picturesque in the way a good plaza should be: empty of people.

But hey, did you see what I did there? I was talking about rats, and then suddenly I was talking about human beings. Did you notice it when you were reading it? Did you feel any cognitive dissonance? What kind of cognitive dissonance did you feel?

If you didn’t, it’s probably because “rats” and “vermin” is a common way of talking and thinking about this country’s underclass, the human beings who, because they sell drugs or don’t have a stable home, don’t quite seem like the sort of people we have to care about. They seem dirty. We might even let ourselves get stupid enough to imagine them as parasites (as if we ever gave them anything). And it’s this tropological confusion that City Hall wants to encourage, and which the entire Oakland Tribune article is built around reinforcing: you start with the rats, and then suddenly you’re talking about human beings. You don’t have to actually say that the people camping there are messy, dirty, undesirable parasites. But the message gets across as clearly as a wink between friends. When an anonymous Oakland police officer describes “the scene in tent city as akin to a scene from ‘Lord of the Flies,’” you don’t even need to have read Lord of the Flies to understand what he’s really saying. without civilization, we have only the dirty jungle of matter out of place. Clean that up. We certainly don’t want “Homeless people, ex-convicts, at least one registered sex offender, students, unemployed hotel workers, anarchists and reform-minded activists [to] freely mingle together in what amounts to a democracy free-for-all.”

What in the hell is a “democracy free-for-all?” Is Occupy Oakland a socialist experiment in communal living or is it what Hobbes called the “war of everyone against everyone” that occurs in a state of nature? Because those are actually two completely different things. And that Tribune article wants you to think of the second, to shudder at the thought that all those people might “freely mingle” and so they make it, peculiarly, into a “free-for-all.” The free association of unlike types is a battle, you see. And we will bring peace back to that “free-for-all” when they’re all arrested.

But it’s even more important to look at the larger narrative frame being presumed: if you think of what’s happening through a public health perspective — if the problem is “how do we keep this space clean?” — it will seem rather obvious that the presence of the campers is a problem. And so it will seem intuitive that they should be cleaned up, tolerated for a while at most, but certainly not allowed to be permanent. Yet good gracious me, why stop there? Dozens of homeless people camp out in a four block radius of city hall every night. Think of the mess they make. Wait, did I say “dozens”? I meant hundreds. They should be cleaned up. They should all be cleaned up. And the drugs and alcohol, and the people that use them, oh my. We should probably clean them up too. Plus, you know what the biggest mess-makers in that area are? Let’s get rid of all those fast food restaurants and drug stores and institute an overnight curfew while we’re at it and also ban pedestrians and human occupation. That’ll clean the place up and get rid of the rats.

What if, instead, we think about how the occupation is changing the area, rather than blaming it for all the symptoms of social dysfunction that long preceded it, and which the people in it are actually trying to address? We might see, for example, something like what Omar saw:

One thing I did want to write about was the revolutionary power of the kitchen at Occupy Oakland. At some point, the idea of having a place where people could grab some food while they occupied, developed into the idea of a permanent and round the clock food creating infrastructure, which would hydrate and feed all who came up, regardless of their affiliation with the camp. The camp participants I spoke to remarked in wonder how organic the process had been, and that the idea had not come from anyone person or strategy. In my view, that’s what’s created the incredible diversity of the camp, which now houses a large homeless population, and draws in a large number of local residents–hungry, peckish or simply curious–who then interact with each other and with the activists there. The resulting meeting of minds has been a real joy to witness. I hope I’m not overstating the case, but I truly believe that if Oakland Occupy—and more broadly most of the Occupy Movements—has any value at all its in this capacity of creating a place where the previously apolitical or politically unsophisticated can learn from each other and others, and become politicized without the confines of an ideology/goal or institution.

But of course, he’s been spending hours at a time in the camp, talking to people and participating and thinking. He’s just some blogger. And even if the author of that Tribune article spent more than the hour or so that most journalists spend, in order to get their pictures and move on, he doesn’t seem to have noticed much while he was there; the only thing he heard or saw appeared to have come to him on City of Oakland stationary. So he doesn’t let you see that the net effect of removing the camp from Ogawa plaza, if they do “clean it up,” will be to make it back into a pristine-looking and unused park, at the expense of shutting down “a permanent and round the clock food creating infrastructure, which would hydrate and feed all who came.” and this can only seem like a loss if we remember that all of those people down there being all homeless and undesirable — all those “rats” and “flies” that we don’t have to explicitly call them — will still be out there no matter what. We just won’t have to see them, or even know about the people who are actually down there feeding them and being fed by them. Frank Ogawa plaza might now be the least segregated and most economically diverse neighborhood in Oakland, but if we can get rid of it, we can go back to being blandly assured by city hall officials that Oakland’s economically devastated human infrastructure is under control, well and adequately policed by nice men in nice clean policeman uniforms. And we won’t have to know otherwise.

Update: Also, please read Omar’s follow-up: Occupy Oakland, Day 10: On Rejecting the City’s Request to Return to Invisibility

[1] The closest thing to actually talking to any of the occupiers that the reporter does is this bit of boilerplate: “Participants have named numerous complaints, most of them having to do with economic disparities and with corporate influence over government.”