Occupy Syracuse a Year Later

David Rabinowitz, a combat veteran, knew of hardships during his stint in the Army.

But now he was on Syracuse’s South Side sleeping every night on a dusty hard floor, without even a blanket or sheet to protect him against the bitter cold. Neither he had a pillow to rest his weary head so he improvised his backpack as a pillow. He laid up against a wall in hopes of avoiding being stepped on by total strangers. The funky odors, bright lights and loud music, persistent throughout whole nights, disrupted his attempts to sleep even further.

A light bulb went on in his mind. Rabinowitz decided to end the ordeal of having to live in the can of sardines atmosphere of a homeless shelter on the South Side. “I’m moving to the Occupy Syracuse encampment,” the military veteran told his friends.

Rabinowitz wasn’t alone in his pursuit of better diggings in Perseverance Park on South Salina Street in downtown, where the tent encampment was located. Aaron Dean moved to the camp from a homeless shelter in the Mission District, sandwiched between Syracuse’s Near Wear Side and downtown, while Jess Hartz moved to the tents after staying with friends on Syracuse’s North Side.

On July 10, 2012 Occupy Syracuse sponsored a talk, in the Sankofa room of the South Side’s Beauchamp Library, by former Army Infantry Staff Sergeant Kevin Baker, who turned into an Occupy Los Angeles activist after coming back from a deployment in Iraq.

A snowy night at Occupy Syracuse last year. -- Photo from Occupy Syracuse Facebook page

Among the audience was Dave Kashmer, a Navy veteran, unemployed for two years, who is a member of Occupy Syracuse. “Half of the people staying at Occupy Syracuse were homeless and half of these were crazy,” Kashmer said, using a common term to refer to individuals with psychosocial disabilities.

In a cathartic moment, both Kashmer and Baker confessed having experienced in their lives symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. “At some point I was contemplating committing suicide,” Kashmer said, whereas Baker recounted having had a sense of alienation. At first, Baker didn’t know where this feeling came from. He later attributed it to his internationalization of the “oppressive structures” of the prevailing mode of production, he said. By participating in the Occupy movement both veterans have found a renewed purpose and distinctive resolve to help them cope with their problems, they said.

Not everybody shares Kashmer and Baker’s zeal and commitment to the Occupy movement. The New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin said on Sept. 18, 2012 “it became clear to me that Occupy Wall Street, which began with a small band of passionate intellectuals, had been hijacked by misfits and vagabonds looking for food and shelter.”

On Nov. 9 a follow-up meeting of Occupy Syracuse activists was organized by a composition and cultural rhetoric doctoral student at Syracuse University, Ben Kuebrich. It took place in the university’s Huntington Beard Crouse Hall.

Kuebrich said that the mainstream press has been dismissive of the Occupy movement. He quoted The Post-Standard as saying that “if the Occupy Syracuse members hadn’t been in Perseverance Park, they would have been staying in their mother house basements.”

David Salerius, a radiation technologist at Upstate Medical University, met Kuebrich while both participated in Occupy Syracuse. Salerius said at the same meeting that, even before the existence of the tent village, the business community in downtown was worried about the homeless hanging out in and around their stores, discouraging customers from patronizing their establishments.

“These business people opposed Occupy Syracuse because they claimed it had made the problem worse by attracting more riffraff, in their words,” Salerius said. “But there were a few exceptions as three small business owners were very supportive of Occupy Syracuse.” One of them was Alex Grabi, an Egyptian-born proprietor of the Empire Newsstand at 189 Walton St. in Armory Square, who let the occupiers use the restroom at his site, saying that Occupy Syracuse reminded him of the Arab Spring in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

“The way in which Occupy Syracuse dealt with the homeless was by showing solidarity with them as opposed to charity, which is a paternalistic and condescending attitude,” Salerius said. “Solidarity implies treating the homeless as our equals.”

As it was reported in the local media, the Occupy Syracuse structures were razed on Jan. 19, 2012. It ended a social experiment in which the tent tenement stood on prime real estate and in close proximity to luxury apartments, a striking counterpoint underlining precisely one of the issues raised by the occupiers: the growing wealth and income inequality between the one percent and the ninety-nine percent. A mere three blocks from the encampment, at the Masonic Lofts at 320 Montgomery St., the monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $ 2,675, according to the Downtown Committee of Syracuse.

Occupy Syracuse didn’t move to the Masonic Lofts. “It has been basically reduced to a Facebook page,” said Ann Tiffany, a South Side resident and Occupy Syracuse supporter, who added, “I don’t check Facebook often.”

 

 

– Article by Miguel Balbuena, Community Correspondent for The Stand