activism / australia / class / community / fetishism / privilege / solidarities / sydney / urban

Framing occupy, homelessness, solidarity

In 2000 the sociologist Rob Rosenthal published a study on public representations of homelessness (cited, for example in studies such as this one on homelessness, social work and the print media in Australia). Rosenthal’s study grouped mainstream media representations of homelessness into three loose categories: Lackers, Slackers and Unwilling Victims. I’ve been reflecting (surprise surprise) on such representations around and within the defiant manifestation of the so-called Occupy movement.

Mainstream media images of camping out en masse in the Central Business District have become ubiquitous in news from the occupations in various American cities (and indeed elsewhere), as they did when the wave of response to economic austerity measures hit the plazas of Spain earlier this year.

The camp in Martin Place, Sydney has attracted attention in the same fashion, and by the same token it has encountered – and been joined by – those who “sleep rough” in inner city spaces on a more permanent basis.

Why “sleep rough”, exposed to the deoxygenised wind tunnel that is the Sydney CBD at the best of times, as part of a collective, political statement against endemic socio-economic inequality? With Rosenthal’s study in mind, we might look at three representations of “sleeping rough” in the mainstream media:

First up is an image from last year’s Vinnies CEO sleepout, a now annual event held in Sydney to raise money and awareness for and about the needs of homeless people. This is the CEO of McDonald’s Australia, spending a night outside, in a sleeping bag on cardboard. She’s a woman with fair skin, wearing lipstick and clean clothes, eating what looks like standard soup kitchen fare: a bread roll and some hot liquid in a foam cup. The accompanying article (from Murdoch daily The Australian) is approving: suggesting she is putting herself out, sacrificing an evening’s comfort for the benefit of people who need help from those in a more fortunate material position.

Our second image appears next to a story about homelessness on the streets of Sydney, from Reuters on 6 Jan 2011. The article reports a series of grim facts about the vulnerability of street sleepers in the big city. It also, arguably, shows a fair-skinned person lying on cardboard in a sleeping bag. However, this person is marked as ‘homeless’. Unlike the CEO above, this person is not identified: in fact they stand in for homelessness, as a representative image of that phenomenon (which, any more-than-two-second analysis would show, is far more complex and less visible than such imaging suggests; and which may be better described in terms other than the morally charged ‘homelessness’).

Finally, an image of a person asleep at the Occupy Sydney camp in Martin Place. With fair skin and a beanie over their eyes, their image is used to illustrate a story by Sky News, stating that police are trying to move out “the activists sleeping rough in Martin Place”. The police succeeded in doing so and continue to represent the state in its repression of people being in public space in particular ways.

To return to Rosenthal’s study: of the three images I have described, arguably the only rough sleeper who escapes any of the three categorisations is our McDonald’s CEO.

I think this tells us something about how those who sleep rough in the inner city most nights because they have no other choice may be linked – in a crucially disparate and uneven way – to those who are choosing to sleep rough in the inner city as part of the developing spaces of ‘Occupy’.

9 thoughts on “Framing occupy, homelessness, solidarity

  1. Rosenthal rightly shows how ethically mobile the category of ‘homelessness’ can be in public discourse, and you have added to that the way in which metonymic images actually work in different sorts of ways in relation to this category.

    So there are two sorts of commonalities in the representations of homelessness and those of the ‘occupiers’: they share some ethical terrain and some figural terrain. I also think pointing to these connections is a potentially very powerful strategy, and there can be some amplification of the problem of visibility/readability of homelessness through occupy. But how do you offset the fact that choice is so easily used to shunt ‘occupiers’ back into the slacker category?

    Ehrenreich (link in previous post) managed this problem by using the space of similarity opened up to then emphasise the contrast in a way that wasn’t anti-occupiers, but was very much about the dire treatment of those sleeping rough long term. Thus, in how she has framed it, occupiers are able to publicly ‘learn’ things that your CEO never can. That seems a good strategy, but I wonder what others could be used to combat the stupidity of choice and its intimacy with the idea of the slacker.

  2. One does wonder! If it’s a question of media framing then it might not get beyond said stupidity/intimacy.

    Choice is a hinge that is hard to get beyond in presenting ideas of solidarity – which, like the very issues under discussion via Occupy, is experienced/adhered to/operationalised as something far more complex than ‘a choice’!

    (‘Choice’ gets used to mark out moralities across so many cultural practices (including solidarity, activism….) …. we are compelled to make the ‘right’ choice as an individual….)

    Thanks for the prod πŸ™‚

  3. I would like to believe that even the mainstream media can be played with to good effect here. I guess I’m just wondering how. I know from some of the people I’ve talked to and accounts I’ve read that these issues came up in discussions at Occupy Sydney ie whether or how to construct a public image of the movement. For me this is an interesting question, and I don’t think its unrelated to the ways in which occupation itself is or can be done. What I like about your post is that, even though it’s about ‘representation’ and discourse, it’s clearly also about practices acting on other practices (photographic practice, media practice, the practices of occupation, charity practices etc).

  4. Oh good, thankyou, I hoped that could come across.

    So much food for thought at this moment! And thought for food. I guess if we can’t eat money….. πŸ˜‰

  5. Nicely done.
    An interesting intervention in relation to representation and stigma.
    And in relation to political activism and use of anonymity by ‘homeles’ groups in the Occupy movement.
    I like the way this relates to your (fascinating) essay on activism and fetishism-
    Being an identity challenged genX with 60s activist parents, I’m very ambivalent about direct action, especially for ‘others’.
    Your ideas really confirm for me that indirect action can be powerful too and it’s inspiring to see these ideas being put in practice by Occupy Sydney. For me, Occupy has a great potential to use this exciting interplay of direct/indirect action.

  6. Thanks Freya, and thanks for reading!

    I think ‘indirect’ and ‘direct’ action can be a bit of a false dichotomy πŸ˜‰

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