Public health and Occupy

Pub date November 29, 2011

By Sasha J. Cuttler

OPINION On November 17, Mayor Ed Lee’s administration declared OccupySF a "public health nuisance." The mayor and other city officials are using this declaration as a justification to evict the OccupySF camps.

But rather than being a nuisance, the Occupy camps are reclaiming public space and voices while making health disparities more visible. Dozens of health organizations are making statements of solidarity, including the American Public Health Association, with more than 30,000 members, which recently passed a resolution with overwhelming support of the Occupy movement.

San Francisco officials say that overcrowding and inadequate sanitation are causing a threat to public health and safety. But as noted by public health nurse Martha Hawthorne, "When is the last time city department heads have left their offices and taken a walk through the Tenderloin, just minutes away from the San Francisco Occupy site? Smells of human waste? Evidence of street drug use? Garbage on the street? It’s there and has been for years, the inevitable consequence of the lack of affordable housing and years of cutbacks to mental health and substance abuse funding in San Francisco."

As far as overcrowding of tents, Hawthorne goes on to note: "Overcrowding? Go anywhere in the city with a public health nurse. You’ll see multiple families living in one flat, sharing a kitchen, having their own tiny room if they are lucky and can afford it. People sleep in shifts and live elbow-to-elbow in garages, basements, closets, old office spaces — and they are the ones we nurses can see, because at least they have an address. "

The one percent is attempting to maintain control by blaming the victim. Rather than blame the marginalized for their misery, the Occupy movement opens an opportunity for dialogue and mass mobilization while providing tangible assistance to those in need of help right now. Homeless and mentally ill individuals have been receiving food and shelter at Occupy encampments everywhere.

The Occupy movement is making visible the public health consequences of insatiable corporate greed. Income inequality is closely paralleled, unsurprisingly, by poorer health outcomes. The rich are not only getting richer, they are living longer, healthier lives than the majority of us in the 99 percent.

Despite months of Occupy experience world-wide, the only evidence of ill health and injury directly related to the camps can be found in the hundreds of nonviolent activists exposed to clouds of tear gas, fountains of pepper spray, myriads of beatings, and volleys of rubber bullets. These incidents of state-sponsored violence can cause lasting health impacts on the individuals who are exercising their right to free speech and assembly.

We can do better than this. We need to use this gathering as a reminder that health care is a human right and do everything in our power to help, not hinder, the populations we serve.

Like thousands of other public health workers, I believe that the Occupy movement is creating an incredible opportunity that needs to be protected and expanded. Public health does need to be protected — and one of the best ways is through engagement with the Occupy movement, not through its eviction. 2

Sasha J. Cuttler, R.N., Ph.D, is a nurse and SEIU Local 1021 activist