Both the Examiner and the Chronicle reported this morning that the OccupySF encampment has become a public health hazard, setting the stage for what many believe is an imminent police raid. The newspapers' only source: a notice that the Department of Public Health handed out to protesters, at their camp in Justin Herman Plaza, at 6am today. I have been reporting eyewitness accounts from OccupySF for several weeks, and if any reporters from these papers had bothered to go there themselves, they would be telling a very different story.
The Department of Public Health states that fecal matter, urine and vomit have been observed in Justin Herman Plaza and on surrounding streets. That’s accurate. Like many streets in San Francisco and in any city, members of the public sometimes relieve themselves on the streets. The difference is that at OccupySF, people from the 300-person community camped out there take it upon themselves to clean up any occurrences of waste as soon as it’s observed. Scheduled cleaning teams coordinated by the camp’s Sanitation Committee sweep the streets three times per day, and wash when necessary. Late last night, even as protesters focused on plans in case of a police raid, which the city has been threatening everyday for most of the week, protesters went over the camp many times over with brooms.
Perhaps these issues could be resolved if the city were to provide the port-o-potties that Police Chief Greg Suhr and Mayor Ed Lee promised OccupySF last week. At last Wednesday’s Police Commissioner meeting, Suhr said, “We have no future plans to go into the demonstration. We know that it’s for the long haul…I’m actually working with the Mayor’s Office personally to put the port-o-potties and the handwashing stations down there to provide sanitation.”
In an Oct. 20 email to OccupySF, the deputy communications director for Mayor Ed Lee stated that “porta-potties are available by request.” A press release from OccupySF today claimed that “Port-o-potties are currently only available during daytime hours. OccupySF’s repeated requests for 24-hour port-o-potties have not been met.” When we asked mayoral Press Secretary Christine Falvey why the city hasn’t helped mitigate the public health issues they seem to be using as a pretext to break up the camp, she said, “There are porta-potties and hand washing stations at 101 Market Street, as the mayor directed, and are available for demonstrators to use. They are delivered in the morning and removed at night.”
I can confirm that port-o-potties for use at night, when no bathrooms on surrounding blocks are available, are yet to arrive. And police certainly have continued to “go into the demonstration”—making rounds and handing out notices from different city departments every day, “reminders” that protesters are illegally camping in a public park, violating sit/lie ordinances, and are now, apparently, a “public health hazard.” Today, a notice was circulated that cited all of these issues and informed protesters: “You are subject to arrest.” The camp is preparing for a possible police raid tonight.
These issues are not unique to San Francisco. Barbara Ehrenreich reported October 24 that, at Occupy demonstrations throughout the country, “for the individual occupier, one problem often overshadows everything else, including job loss, the destruction of the middle class, and the reign of the 1 percent. And that is the single question: Where am I going to pee?” In her piece in Mother Jones, “Why Homelessness is Becoming an Occupy Wall Street Issue,” Ehrenreich notes that “What the Occupy Wall Streeters are beginning to discover, and homeless people have known all along, is that most ordinary, biologically necessary activities are illegal when performed in American streets—not just peeing, but sitting, lying down, and sleeping.” San Francisco has some of the harshest laws in the country in this regard.
Many cities have accommodated Occupy protesters. Why won’t the city bring port-o-potties? And why are city publications reporting the city’s official statements without any perspective from the encampment itself? The people are speaking: that the powers that be won’t listen is what the Occupy movement is fighting against in the first place.
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