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Musings from the Sonoran Desert and elsewhere

Amy McMullen

Amy McMullen
Gold Canyon, Arizona, USA
January 01
Amy McMullen is an activist for human rights, social and economic justice and a blogger and political essayist currently residing in Arizona. Her main interests are anti-racism, immigrant rights, LBGTQ equality, health justice and women's rights. She has worked to remove the worst of the anti-immigrant, Tea Party politicians from office in Arizona and advocates to get progressives elected. Amy's former incarnations include back-to-the-land counter culturist in the 70s, small business entrepreneur, Bed and Breakfast proprietor, charter boat captain, EMT, medical assistant and rehabber of distressed homes.. She currently volunteers for the Phoenix Urban Health Collective as a street medic and is on the board of a new nonprofit devoted to providing free medical care for the uninsured and under-insured in Phoenix. Amy's writings on social justice and other subjects appear in Truthout, Salon, Addicting Info, The Tucson Sentinel, The Pragmatic Progressive and on her blog at Open Salon.

Editor’s Pick
OCTOBER 27, 2011 11:20AM

Occupy Phoenix: As Long as it Takes

Rate: 9 Flag

Photo: Robert Haasch

Photo: Robert Haasch 

A volunteer medic's observations of Occupy Phoenix

I’m standing behind my table with a bright “Medical Station” banner taped to the front of it.  On this table I’ve laid out plastic bins filled with donated vitamins, over-the-counter remedies, high energy snacks, powdered Gatorade, hand sanitizer, disposable toothbrushes and sun screen.  Behind me are plastic tote containers overflowing with bandages, medical gloves, personal hygiene items, tape, and various other supplies.  Someone has donated a canopy to protect us from the sun and rain and we have several folding chairs, a pair of crutches and even a wheelchair at our disposal.

A young man approaches and asks for some vitamins and Gatorade.  I give them both to him.  He asks me if there's any charge, I shake my head. He talks for a while about his life and why he is here and then moves on to wave his sign at traffic on Washington Avenue.  His sign says “I am the 99%”

This scene plays out many times a day.  I’ve been standing or sitting at my little shady corner of Cesar Chavez Plaza in downtown Phoenix for the past ten days, arriving around ten in the morning and staying until about seven at night.  I volunteer my time because I believe in this movement.  I also feel strongly that it's time to stop complaining about the direction our country is going in and take action. Setting up a medical station was how I chose to participate.

I am one of the 99%

I have numerous helpers who accompany me; people with some kind of medical knowledge to help hand out small necessities for free to anyone who wants them. My husband, who is a Physician Assistant, shows up when he’s not working to help out too and his advanced medical knowledge is invaluable.

I’ve brought along my blood pressure cuff and glucose monitor to do health screenings.  Every once in a while I respond to the cries of “Medic!” that ring out across the plaza, grabbing my jump kit to run wherever my EMT training may be needed until an ambulance arrives.

During my long days on the plaza I’ve talked to many people. I’ve heard their stories and opinions, their hopes and dreams.  I worry with them over their health issues, try to point them towards getting interventions for their high blood pressures and soaring blood sugar levels.  I harass the guy with the scary blood pressure of 191 over 125 until I extract a promise to go to the free clinic in South Phoenix.

I’ve also watched as the two thousand enthusiastic people who attended our first Saturday on October 15th have dwindled down to a few dozen during the weekdays.  But paradoxically, I’ve seen the determination of our remaining few grow.

At some point I looked around and realized that while this movement started out as a broad representation of our diverse population, those who have stuck around through thick and thin are predominately homeless.

The man who is our night medic is one example.  He's a medical assistant who lost his job after a dangerous and debilitating autoimmune disease made it impossible to work.  He’s been on the street for quite a while now, waiting through the months-long process (and uncertainty) of getting his disability approved.   He tells me that the homeless shelter run by the county in Phoenix is a horrible place where drugs and violence abound and only a few showers are allowed per day for over three hundred men.  He is fortunate he has been able to get medical care through a free clinic near the shelter and even though it takes him an entire day of waiting in line to get his multiple medications refilled, he’s grateful since he’d be dead without them.  When he heard about the Occupy Phoenix movement he and several of his homeless buddies came straight to the plaza to join in.

But many of the homeless do not get the care they need or their care is inconsistent at best.  I talked to a woman who has stepped in to man the food and water station.  She borrows blood pressure pills from a homeless vet friend who can get extras through his prescription plan.  She was an investment banker who lost her job and then stayed home for three years to care for her dying husband. When her husband died she’d lost her home and everything she owned and found herself out on the street.  But she has come alive since she has taken on the responsibility of feeding people and she tells me with a huge smile that this makes her realize that she loves to work and has hope she may have a job again someday.

The homelessness situation in Phoenix is dire.  Per an October, 2011 report by the advocacy group Phoenix Homeless Rising, Arizona has one of the highest poverty rates in the country: 18.6% as of 2010.  There are approximately 17,000 beds in Phoenix shelters, which is woefully inadequate for a homeless population that ranges between 20,000 to 30,000 on any given day.  Heavily enforced anti-camping ordinances in the city have criminalized sleeping outdoors while strict and often punitive rules within the shelters as well as unsanitary and unsafe conditions force many out and onto the streets.  It’s a catch 22 situation designed to hide the homeless out of sight into overcrowded and untenable shelter campuses and criminalize those who dare to (or are forced to) break away.

At Occupy Phoenix the anti-camping ordinances have been stringently enforced to prevent protesters from setting up tents or displaying any kind of camping gear such as sleeping bags or pillows. Sleeping is also prohibited and the police patrol relentlessly to make sure nobody nods off.  It is also not permitted to prepare food in public spaces so all food preparation must take place on private property.

On October 15th, the first day of the Occupy, an attempt was made to set up an encampment at the Margaret T. Hance Park in central Phoenix but this was met with riot police, pepper spray and helicopters flying overhead.  Over forty protesters peacefully held their ground and were arrested but after that night the park was abandoned.  The occupiers next selected Cesar Chavez Plaza as their base of operations, with its proximity to all the large banks and the downtown business sector. At first the city insisted on closing the plaza at 6 pm every evening, forcing the occupiers onto the narrow sidewalk but finally enough pressure was brought to keep the park open overnight.  But camping was still prohibited including lying down on the sidewalks or sleeping.

So now, in the second week of our occupation, we muddle through as best we can.  While I watch the people who have chosen to stay get more and more sleep deprived and as I stand by fuming while my helper gets roused up by the police when he nods off in one of our chairs, I do what little I can to try to keep people healthy.  I send the young people who have homes home and I steer the homeless to places where volunteers have offered to let them sleep.

But I also now realize that it is the most powerless, the most voiceless of our population who has the biggest stake in this movement.  They are the ones who’ve lost the most; their homes, livelihoods and their families.  And they must battle daily to maintain their self respect.  It is only fitting and extremely satisfying that they are the ones who have stepped forward and are assuming these roles in our own little corner of the occupy movement.  And if we accomplish nothing else, the very least we can do is raise awareness about how the city of Phoenix has made their existence even more miserable.

I took today off to write this article but I'm already feeling guilty for not being down at Cesar Chavez Plaza.  I'm hopeful that this movement will grow and we will bring about some real change as a result.  And I'm feeling encouraged. One of my homeless medic helpers told me yesterday that a reporter asked him how long he planned to occupy Phoenix.  His reply:

“Hell, I’m staying here for as long as it takes.”


We are the 99%



Phoenix Rising Report on the Homeless:

Holding Phoenix Shelters and Service Providers, Police, and Government Accountable for Mistreatment of Homeless






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Amy- glad to see you are out there, I ran into Jason at the store the other day and got caught up on the Urban Health Collective goings on. Aside from free clinics, which many people need, there are many health clinics in the hispanic community which anyone can go to for medicine and doctor visits, typically called Clinica Familiar, Clinica Hispana, Clinica Real. There are a lot of cash pay options that are always available to people with few funds, and ways to get cheap meds without having to wait for AHCCCS to kick in. It isn't for everything, but it is a start. I gave him a heads up, as well, that you don't need a doctor script to get labs ordered, just find the smaller cash pay labs throughout the city and go in, they are much cheaper than So**ra and Lab C**p, and the same ones. (I deal with a lot of cash pay/no insurance patients). Sending you guys good energy and support. I am surprised there hasn't been a full sweep of all the protesters yet, Sheriff Joe certainly already knows who many of them are. :(
Very interesting post. Good luck with the whole thing, personally and the Phoenix occupiers.
Increased awareness of homelessness needs to be added to the list of benefits of the Occupy movement.

At the Occupy Madison encampment, too, the long-time and newly homeless are playing a large role, both helping and challenging. I wrote a bit about it over on my own blog.

At one Occupy-organized protest event, I got to chatting with a reasonably well-dressed and well-groomed woman holding a sign next to me. She would stand for a bit and then lie down on the ground for a while. She said nothing about being homeless until after she offered me a ride back to starting point of the march. She had to clear the garbage bags full of laundry off the front seat of her car. She has her disability determination (myasthenia gravis), and recently came to Madison at her sister's invitation to get help from the university hospital here. Her sister had neglected to mention the invitation to her husband, who refused her a place to stay.

She described to me the maze of hoops and roadblocks she was trying to navigate to get on her feet. It was overwhelming just to listen; I cannot imagine having to go from office to office every day without a sure place to stay each night, all the while suffering from a disease that makes your muscles weak and requires frequent rest. She accepted only some of the help I offered. It was eventually too much for her. She left the city about a week after we met to live with her mother in Missouri.

She educated me about the brutal life of a homeless person with a disability, insights I never would have gotten if it were not for Occupy.
Stand strong, honey.

And I think Sheriff Joe is a dress-up gal like J. Edgar. His slip is showing.

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"
--sinclair louis

"One withstands the invasion of armies; one does not withstand the invasion of ideas."
--victor hugo

occupy party reaches critical mass/seismic effect--now what?
Thanks for the look inside your branch of the movement. Stay strong!
what is the connection between sitting in the plaza, and changing the law?

i feel politicians respond to votes, or the lack of, and they certainly respond to money. but a group of people sitting in the plaza is just a tourist attraction, at least until someone throws a stone. then there will be some action, but probably not what you would like.

why is there no voting program? just saying 'do something nice' to people whose career is based on screwing the poor is not going to work.
okay but strike OS

Strike OS -whoring – one tag only -OWS
Vivendi les resistance! Thanks for an insightful look at the OWS movement from street level.
Amy- What a powerful post. I'm so moved by what you're doing. One of the great things about this movement is the willingness to help those in need. Your first hand account of doing that is an inspiration, and it was well worth the day you took off to get this story out.