In New Haven, an Occupy Encampment Stays Alive and Keeps Inequality on the Agenda

Even as most of the Occupy movement's tent cities have been flattened and ravaged across the country, in New Haven, Conn., where poverty and unemployment rates far exceed the national average, occupiers are standing firm in a sizable and tenacious encampment. Occupy New Haven (ONH) began in solidarity with the nationwide movement initiated by Wall Street protesters, and to this day continues to maintain a flourishing village on the city green, with 50 to 60 permanent residents, in spite of the progressively lower and lower temperatures inflicted on the camp by a New England December.

At the camp, activity proceeds as if the nationwide evictions of other occupations had never happened. Hundreds of signs planted all across the grounds lay out criticisms of the national economic situation and propose improvements (some catchy but vague, others surprisingly specific and taking up multiple small-fonted posterboards). Teach-ins and working groups meet frequently, and twice-weekly general assemblies gather both campers and supporters for discussion and planning. Actions, too, persist. A recent march conducted in concert with local unions drew over 1,000 people, and many more are being plotted.

Of course, maintaining an outdoor social movement in the dead of winter is a task Sisyphean in arduousness and seeming futility. But ONH has improvised. To deal with the cold, solar heaters have been built, and tents fitted with sophisticated insulating materials. An Occupy knitting circle in Florida regularly sends up packages of hats and scarves for the campers, and food donations are provided by a local church. In spite of these measures, life on the green is relentlessly punishing. Strict prohibitions on open flames by the local fire marshal mean that hot food is rare, and the risk of hypothermia looms perpetually. The unrelieved harshness of the conditions has caused some "summer soldier" occupiers to depart for more comfortable climes, but a decently-sized band still lingers.

That New Haven should be the site of this final tent city is strikingly appropriate. The wealth gap is as visible there as anywhere else in the country. Just two or three blocks from the Gothic spires of Yale University, incubator of the American power elite, lie whole neighborhoods of blight and despair. While Connecticut is the wealthiest state in the union, over a quarter of New Haven residents are in poverty and many more are on the cusp of it. New Haven's staggeringly high murder rate (34 thus far this year in a relatively small city) and major local epidemic of joblessness show American society at its most fragmented and distressed, and the city puts starkly on display locally the causes of the Occupy movement's grievances nationwide.

New Haven was therefore primed for an occupation from the beginning, and ONH is able to persevere partially because of favorable local attitudes. It helps a great deal that ONH has thus far maintained the favor of the three major powers in the city that could have brought a similar havoc to that afforded America's other occupations. The mayor, police department, and owners of the Green have all blessed ONH with either sympathy or indifference. Lacking a callous billionaire plutocrat mayor like New York, or a militarized, gas-canister-and-baton wielding riot police like Oakland, New Haven's encampment has been able to focus on what matters: building a movement and keeping the issues alive in the minds of the public.

The support has therefore been liberating. As they continued, and cities' patience with them dwindled, most other occupations were forced to prioritize survival over protest. In New Haven's frigid wintertime, survival is also foremost among the occupiers' goals, but the city's toleration has given ONH a great deal of freedom to plan and to act.

For ONH the difficulty now is to establish direction. Some have proposed working on mortgage foreclosure, conducting civil disobedience by occupying and maintaining foreclosed homes. The cold irony of the housing crisis that so many empty homes now coexist with so many desperate homeless suggests housing policy as a compelling target for protest. Others ONHers have proposed keeping the focus national, trying to work on potential laws and constitutional amendments that might rein in corporate power and ensure a dash more accountability and fairness in American economic relations.

Of course, there is no need for ONH to obey the supposed imperative to come together around a single issue or mode of action (a sadly near-universal media expectation partially caused by the original Occupy Wall Street organizers' foolish decision to orient the protests around a still-undecided "one demand"). Because a diversity of problems animate participants' passions, from joblessness to the machinations of the Federal Reserve to Citizens United, there was never destined to be a rigid central issue, and at its best the occupation operates as a springboard from which groups interested in attacking economic problems from a variety of standpoints can mobilize.

Still, diversity of tactics cannot mean a mess of tactics, and thankfully for ONH, New Haven's favorable political climate has a second advantage: there is a pre-existing jobs-and-justice movement in the community with which the occupation might unite. Spearheaded by local workers, a tremendous push for fairer citywide economic policies has been growing for some time, and this past November resulted in the election of a new slate of social justice-minded candidates to the Board of Aldermen. Now, vibrant debates over potential city jobs programs are occurring throughout New Haven, and there is serious possibility for enacting radical, creative new ideas through the city government.

The New Haven Occupiers therefore have good reason not to despair, even as the snows come down and the wisdom of wintertime tent-life begins to appear moderately questionable. The city is not only one of the most Occupier-permissive in the country, but is one of the places where an occupation might do the most good. Those dejected over the demise of America's brief, beautiful tent-cities can look to New Haven for a dose of restorative hope, and the Occupiers' enemies should grind their teeth knowing that the movement lives on as more than a mere idea, at least among the chilly New Haven bunch.

Disclosure: While I do not consider myself a New Haven Occupier, I have spent time at the camp and assisted with some Occupy projects. Also, my mother has knitted them hats.