Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 12.8.11

The Right to Survive

Occupy Eugene embodies basic human rights

The Eugene City Council will soon make a decision about whether or not to extend permission for Occupy Eugene to camp in the Washington-Jefferson Park. The Council should be aware that a precedent was established in the 1990s when the Eugene City Council approved an agreement negotiated by then state rep. Cynthia Wooten to allow a winter campground for the homeless in the Autzen Stadium parking lot. Government agencies agreed to finance local social service personnel to be present at the site to facilitate order and access to services. On balance, the experience was a success, but was not continued because the city and other agencies did not wish to continue paying for staffing the campground. Of course, a winter campground for the homeless is not enough, and while we must appreciate the Herculean efforts of local churches and social service agencies to deal with the homeless crisis, Occupy Eugene is reminding us that current efforts are inadequate and that the status quo of injustice and inequality in our city and country is unacceptable. 

At present, we have a historical precedent for using public space for needed camping by homeless people, a current campground — the Occupy Eugene site — that is being run efficiently and local community members providing volunteers and funds for staffing and services. Unfortunately, the need for safe camping space has grown along with public sector budget cuts, elimination of jobs, poverty and social inequality. These conditions have led to violations of the most basic human rights, the economic and social rights of our citizens — the right to shelter, food, security and health care — the “neglected stepchildren” of the human rights movement. 

As we approach the celebration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, the community and city leaders have the opportunity to expand our understanding of the Declaration and it’s relevance to us in times of crisis, as well as what a human-rights based approach to solving our local problems could be. Occupy Eugene is an ideal forum for such a discussion to take place this year. Also, it is an appropriate moment to reflect on our national government’s continuing policies of narrowing the interpretation of our citizen’s rights to free speech, habeas corpus, privacy, etc. and disregard for the most basic right of citizens — the right to survive. We are not an isolated community but exist in a global economy and are citizens of a nation that has assumed global leadership. Our struggle for human rights must include citizen involvement to hold our local, state and federal governments accountable to human rights standards domestically and internationally. 

In the aftermath of the barbarities of World War II and bearing witness to the horrors of the concentration camps and the gulag, Eleanor Roosevelt and other inspired leaders responded to a movement of millions of ordinary people and small countries around the world and drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approved by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948. This is also the legacy of “the Greatest Generation” which had the wisdom to seek justice through the Nuremberg trials rather than revenge through extra-judicial executions. We must reclaim this legacy of human rights and make it live again in our community and country. The work is in our hands now, Eleanor Roosevelt told the world. And she wrote:

Where after all do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: The neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory; the farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world. (Remarks at the U.N., March 27, 1958)

The presence of Occupy Eugene in the public space and discussion is focusing our attention on inequality and injustice — violations of economic and social rights — and mobilizing us to speak our truth — even the homeless themselves have been allowed to speak to the wider community and be heard. Poor people, no matter what color, creed or sexual preference, are excluded from community dialogue. They are excluded from the table and seen as objects of charity or welfare; instead, social service agencies speak for them. The movement symbolized by the camp is breaking down the walls of isolation and invisibility and connecting us to find a more inclusive voice as a community to continue the important work of reclaiming our government for people, not big corporations and big banks. This beginning dialogue has broken the taboo of silence, changed the political discourse to include the voices and needs of the majority and must continue to evolve if democracy is to survive. Human rights and democracy need each other. Keep the dialogue alive because the consequences of further restricting our democratic political system in times of deepening economic crisis and inequality could only make the road we find ourselves traveling on in the 21st century more dangerous for everybody.