On the second anniversary of the original Occupy protests in New York City’s Zucotti Park Sept. 17, Honolulu protesters marked their 682nd continuous day of 24-hour vigil at the corner of Ward and Beretania avenues, making it the longest-running Occupy encampment in the U.S.
On the anniversary, only Sugar Russel and Lucas “Luana” Miller were at the collection of tents and backpacks, though that number swells and ebbs at any time on any given day with various Occupy members and their guests. They were kind enough to talk with me about their experience as long-term protesters, and how their time at Ward and Beretania has changed their outlook.
The makeshift camp, now called (de)Occupy Honolulu, was started in 2011 on the Fifth of November, which (remember, remember) is known as Guy Fawkes Day in Britain, but has come to represent rebellion following the holiday’s popularization in the graphic novel and film, "V for Vendetta," and subsequent embrace by Anonymous.
Miller was there from the very beginning, when the group decided there should be a 24-hour vigil at the park. Unbeknownst to them, staying at the park after closing is illegal, leading to everyone’s arrest on the very first night. This would be the first of many experiences dealing with Hawaii’s law enforcement, learning how they could accomplish their goal of maintaining a continuous presence.
Like other Occupy groups nationwide, the Honolulu contingent was composed of a broad swath of people, from schoolteachers to anarchists, who were tired of the status quo and wanted to do something about it, even though they weren't sure what that was. While members of the group were happy to entertain dialogue from all comers (a concept they call “radical inclusiveness”), this also contributed to the mixed messages the movement has been known for since its inception.
Miller mentioned they wished they could change their Facebook name, to reflect their (de)Occupy name change, in a nod to the Hawaiian sovereignty influence which took root early on.
It’s clear, however, that almost 700 days of camping out has given at least these two Occupiers some focus. While their general message remains one of economic justice and equality, given the opportunity, they speak at great length about the plight of the homeless. Russel and Miller said that sharing in the struggles of Honolulu’s homeless has been eye-opening.
To be clear, most of the campers at Thomas Square are not homeless (and at least a few have college degrees) but, much like the homeless they advocate for, Occupiers have increasingly experienced being woken up by police at two or three in the morning and having the possessions they couldn’t quickly retrieve confiscated.
The sense of solidarity born of that mutual struggle has led Russel to pursue activism on behalf of the homeless, with one of her recent victories being the expedited placement of a 72-year-old homeless veteran with possible dementia into a home with access to special care.
Despite this, she recognizes there are simply not enough resources allocated to helping the homeless, even as new bills designed to prevent them from inhabiting public spaces are passed and enforced.
The Occupy group seems well-liked by a subset of local community members. During the interview, several people dropped by to talk story or provide supplies. For a while Tuesday night, Miller disappeared, only to return with a water bottle he had filled at a sympathetic local business.
Staying for the amount of time these people have requires support and logistics, and it’s clear the Occupy network extends well beyond the crew at the corner of Thomas Square. This network is most visible on Sundays, when they get together for open-invite potlucks and roundtables in the park.
The protestors are less popular with homeless advocates who work through government and NGO venues. A social service worker with experience on homeless issues said that new bills are meant to make it difficult for the homeless to live on the street, though it's in hopes of pushing them into official channels set up to help them.
He acknowledged there is truth to Occupy's claim that not enough resources are allocated to homeless shelters if all of Honolulu's homeless decide to take advantage of existing programs at the same time (currently, anyone can get a bed and three hot meals).
He added that commensurate funding would follow if that happened, allowing the system to expand to meet their needs. He said homeless service providers are generally against Occupy's push for allowing the homeless to continue living on the street.
Already a familiar sight with almost two years under their belt, the Occupy people plan to stay at the corner of Ward and Beretania for as long as they can.