Free-Riding a Protest? The Homeless and OWS

December 7, 2011

Political Theory


I came across this article (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/01/us/dissenting-or-seeking-shelter-homeless-stake-a-claim-at-protests.html?pagewanted=1&hp) while reading the New York Times online. As we all know, there is a national movement currently sweeping across the country that is known as Occupy Wall Street. These protests started in America on Wall Street in New York City as people representing “the 99%” to display their anger with the inequality of wealth in America versus the richest 1% of the population. The article discusses the presence and effect of the homeless on the movement as they have began to join its numbers. Some moved into the Occupy camps to participate in the movement, while others simply joined to receive free benefits.

As the protests grew and spread across the country over the past months, protestors have formed their own shantytowns, more or less, out of their tents as they stage their protest. But their success and growing numbers has begun to attract these sometimes-unwanted guests into their camps. Like everyone else in Occupied communities, the homeless populations are taking notice of the new tent cities and are beginning to take advantage. The OWS (Occupy Wall Street) communities are generally open to new protestors and will not turn others away who want to join their cause. Thus, the homeless use this to their advantage to score free meals, clothes, showers, shelter, and safety. In essence, many homeless people are free riding off of the OWS movement and are hindering rather than helping a movement that is acting in their benefit.

Upon reading this article, I thought back to the Collective Action Problem where people will act in their own self-interest, even if it is rational for them to cooperate. People naturally choose to act in their own self-interest, like in a state of nature, despite the fact that both sides can benefit from mutual cooperation. In a state of nature, equal men act in their own self-interest to attain the best ends for themselves. In this case, the homeless are acting in their own self-interest by entering the OWS communities; however, not to have their voices heard and add numbers to the protest, but to gain food, clothing, shelter, and other benefits for themselves at the expense of the protest. Since they are constantly fighting to gain resources because they are often barely surviving and live “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” lives, they are jumping to take the handouts presented to them.

“When the tents went up, everybody moved in,” Douglas Marra, a homeless person in Denver, said. “They knew they could get stuff for free.” (See article from link above, Adam Nagourney, New York Times).

While they could be aiding the protest to force a change in government policy in America (that could potentially benefit the homeless), they instead act in their own self-interest.

a picture of the OWS movement

However, the entrance of the homeless into the OWS movement has brought to my attention the importance of Rawls’ argument for fairness and should remind the protesters of what they are really fighting for. In discussion, my section touched on the unclear motives of the OWS movement as they simply want a democracy free of economic power politics, and corporations that value people, justice, and equality over profit, self-interest, and oppression (Declaration of the Occupation of New York City). Pictured below is the actual jumbled grievances of the movement from the same site.

Occupy Wall Street Declaration image

http://www.nycga.net/resources/declaration/ for bigger image

Rawls would argue in the face of this new fear of the homeless invasion of the Occupy movement that these people are the ones that the movement needs to support the most, based on the Difference Principle where “social and economic inequalities are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.” Rawls believes that “schemes of cooperation” need to be created to protect these people and that everyone should do so willingly because it could have easily been them in that position in society. Thus, as we would not know our position in society behind the Veil of Ignorance, based on his Two Principles of Justice, people want to play it safe in society and advocate for the maximin (maximizing the minimum position in society). Therefore, the Occupy movement should re-assess its values and realize that it needs to take this homeless invasion as a reminder of whom they are really trying to benefit. They should then restructure their argument to support the creation of government policy that benefits the lower end of the 99% first.

Now, it is up for debate whether the homeless are truly acting in self-interest, or honestly do not know about the OWS movement and cannot join the protest because they are uninformed. I believe that many of the homeless occupiers of the OWS camps have learned about the movement, but only choose to pretend to participate and instead free ride for their own personal benefit. However, there are those in the homeless population that are disabled or suffering from mental disorders and cannot understand the concept of the protest. Are they truly acting in self-interest and free riding? And is that ok for the movement, since it should be supporting the homeless in the first place. Or is this homeless invasion turning the Occupy movement into a “recovery institution,” as Hero Vincent put it (see article pg. 2, Adam Nagourney, New York Times).

This also drums up a few questions in my mind, so I will close with these:

  1. Do you believe that the homeless, in this scenario, are acting as free riders on the OWS protest?
  2. What do you believe about the homeless, and the underprivileged class as a whole, in society? (See video clips of Daily Show on Warren Buffet). I don’t want to get into a whole discussion on opinions of the OWS (unless if the conversation naturally goes there), but are they truly free riding in this system from government handouts?

** The second video focuses on the “free-riding” of those who don’t pay taxes

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One Comment on “Free-Riding a Protest? The Homeless and OWS”

  1. elotis Says:

    I hate to say it, and this is coming from someone who is very fiscally conservative, it is hard for me to take OWS seriously, let alone homeless people joining in on the protest. I can see why one would argue that the homeless joining the OWS protests fit in with the overall theme of trying to get the government to help those in need. However, I think of OWS and I think of those who have the right to protest would be those who had been laid off from corporate jobs and had been loyal to their companies for years, college graduates and those who got screwed with bad loans from banks and mortgages. Of course they are acting as free riders! Do they really care about the protests? Do they even know what they are protesting? Probably not. Let’s face it, these homeless people are probably not going to have their lives improve or dramatically altered by OWS, so lets at least let them eat and have somewhere to stay.

    In regards to your question on the homeless and those underprivileged in society, there must be a distinction made. I think of homeless people, and I think of drug addicts, alcoholics, people who just completely screwed up their lives so bad that they are in the position they are in. Then there are those who are underprivileged, which I consider to be the more poor, lower class of Americans, but who still have a roof over their head and food to eat. Homeless people are indeed free-riding on the altruism of the American people and the welfare system that the government has created, but I am not opposed to that. However, when I think of negative free-riding the welfare system in this country, I think of the underprivileged. What got them into the dire straits that they are in? Who knows, it could have been factors they could control, or factors that they couldn’t. Either way, it angers me that I have to fund a system that is helping those that choose not to improve their situations. Yes, this is a very conservative stance on this question, but that is just my personal opinion.

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