I floated past the Occupy Honolulu encampment at Thomas Square earlier this evening, curious after reading the Civil Beat article on their December meeting with Mayor Carlisle following the new city ordinance prohibiting the storage of personal property on public sidewalks. Asking for an exception to Bill 54, the stored property ordinance, seemed like a failed opportunity on the part of Occupy Honolulu to claim solidarity with the some of the most maligned people within the 99%.
The Occupy encampment is located on an awkward corner of Beretania, facing away from oncoming traffic. I imagine it’s been little more than a blurry splotch of tents for bus riders and drivers commuting in the mornings. Turns out that tonight is their last night. Property removal notices have been pasted to nearly everything, the Welcome sign, the potted plants, the bookshelves, and of course the tents. I wish I had brought a camera just to document the thoroughness with which items had been tagged by city workers. It felt like a Alice in Wonderland version of Hoarders. The woman at the literature table mentioned that the table itself was pretty much the only object not tagged for removal. “This is protected under free speech, because we’re distributing information.” She maintained that the tents should also fall under First Amendment protection because of the slogans written on their sides.
In the comments section of the original article, a Dan Clark wrote
“Liberal idealists malign ‘colonial powers’ for ‘occupying’ aboriginal lands in the US, India, Africa, Latin America, Taiwan, Japan or the West Bank yet you think it is completely okay to monopolize the sidewalks and parks. Sidewalks are made for [walking], not camping. Frankly, the Occupy Movement is a colonial power trying to steal the parks and sidewalks the rest of us pay for.”
Setting aside the metaphorical silliness of equating protest with colonialism, it’s clear that the question of what constitutes acceptable public use of sidewalks needs to be discussed. A lot of it boils down to what we’ve learned to think of as normal. After 5 years in Seoul, I am used to seeing semi-permanent protest camps set up in front of public buildings and corporate headquarters, with a series of posters and banners exhaustively explaining the controversy to any passers-by. The vinyl lean-tos are a kind of three-dimensional newspaper with only one topic. So even though I am a bit of a grinch when it comes to the efficacy of Occupy encampments in terms of long term capacity building, I can imagine their potential as tangible tactile media.
And I suspect the horror with which some Oahu residents view being homeless in public — “what will the tourists think! they’ll never want to come back to Hawaii!” — is because homelessness at this scale is a relatively recent phenomenon here. All us mainland-raised malihinis think of homeless folks as a consistent and unsurprising presence on big city streets. Far from our visitors huffing & puffing in outrage at the sight of a wino in Waikiki, everyone has marveled at how much easier it is to maintain dignity and hygiene where there are accessible public bathrooms and showers at beach parks.
Oddly enough, what visiting friends have grumbled about are the edifices of abandoned appliances and furniture that block Honolulu sidewalks. I know that bulky items pick-up is a perennial topic at neighborhood board meetings. A Department of Health project with Waipahu High students came to the conclusion that community health was negatively affected by all the heaps of trash. Combined with intermittent or crumbling sidewalks, abandoned rubbish is a greater menace to pedestrian freedom than a homeless woman with a fort of suitcases at the bus stop or a protest camp on a not particularly visible corner of a busy thoroughfare.
I’m still mulling over how to reframe the issue and why we accept sitting furniture but not sitting people on our sidewalks, but I suspect there is a way to have this conversation. I think the next step is to nerd out and get a copy of Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris’ book Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotation over Public Space.