Does Occupy Wall Street Have a Drug Problem? - Page 2

By Jed Bickman 10/23/11

It isn't a pot carnival or a "crack alley," no matter what Fox News claims. But despite a new zero-tolerance policy, alcohol and drug use in Zuccotti park may threaten the entire movement.

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According to a medic at Zuccotti Park, trained volunteers tend to dozens of drug and alcohol abuse victims a day. photo via

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A week ago last Monday night the NYPD made a surprise attempt to dismantle the medical tent, claiming that it constituted a “structure,” which is not permitted in the camp. Ed Mortimer, a street medic who specializes in drug and alcohol treatment, was asleep next to the tent at 11:30 pm when a NYPD lieutenant woke him, saying that they were going to take down the tent. Medics and occupiers formed a nonviolent human chain around the tent six people deep. Mortimer looked across the square, and there was Jessie Jackson, coming to join the protest. Jackson linked arms with the medics protecting the tent, saying, “I’m not visiting, I’m occupying.” Under the gaze of the media, the NYPD retreated without a word.

Days later, Mortimer, joined by Frank White, a volunteer medic with a background in mental health, sat down with The Fix to talk frankly about drugs in Liberty Plaza. Mortimer has been living on the square for much of the occupation, after he answered a call for street medics to help the movement. Mortimer is a trained street medic, one of many gnarly and stalwart veterans of the protest scene who form an underground collaborative of more or less medically savvy people who get their qualifications more from experience than from classrooms. White, a relative newcomer after four nights, is a mental health counselor from Connecticut who became the de facto point person for drugs and alcohol issues.

“We have a slice of society out here,” says Mortimer. “We don’t have a lot of people who have problems with drugs and alcohol"—but, then again, all are welcome to join the movement. “You’re not supposed to be drinking and drugging on the square,” he says. “When we see that, we try to convince people to leave, explaining that it hurts the movement. To be uncontrollable, that undermines the movement.” Drug using and dealing would also give the cops an excuse to search and arrest occupiers.

White adds that “most of the people I have to intervene with are fighting against a system that has been beating them down for their whole lives. So some of them have emotional problems, and some of them address those problems with drugs and alcohol.” Although the movement needs to maintain a sober face, it isn’t about judging those people for their histories or their habits. But people who use are generally asked to use outside the park. “And there are some people who come here who have severe mental health issues. They have the best of intentions, and they are in the same 99%," White says, carefully avoiding the terms "the homeless" or "street people" while speaking of them.

Medical resources are limited. During the day, volunteer doctors and nurses are available to write prescriptions. As medics, Mortimer and White do their best to head off emergencies or less serious problems with drugs and alcohol through strategic interventions and, more generally, through open discussion of the issue, so that people don’t feel they have to hide their use and only come to the medics when things go bad. They are committed to doing everything within their power to keep from having to institutionalize people who display mental-health problems. 

Volunteers include members of Alcoholics Anonymous, who do outreach and distribute AA literature. Mortimer has also coordinated unofficial AA meetings, which are “just like any other AA meeting, the only difference is that they’re fluid. If we need to have a Big Book meeting, we’ll have a Big Book meeting. If we need steps, we’ll have a [twelve] steps meeting.” He hopes to make the meetings “official” by proposing them at the General Assembly and getting them on the schedule on the new giant blackboard that has recently appeared in front of the media station at the top of the park.

Patients dealing with “severe inebriation,” as Mortimer puts it, are not simply expelled from the square but are instead transported to the medical tent, where volunteers take care of them and try to explain how drug and alcohol use at the park hurts the movement. So far, says Mortimer, he has not come across anyone whose life was in imminent danger due to drug or alcohol use, though other medics say that several people have been rushed to the hospital. Early in the occupation, there were widespread media reports that there had been a drug “overdose” in Zuccotti Park, a term that immediately brings heroin to mind. In truth, the person had been “Robotripping”—drinking cough syrup—and had come to a medic who was not trained in responding to drug use and who introduced the term “overdose” into the rumor mill around the park—and the New York Post. Mortimer assures me that the Robotripping patient “was never in danger of dying" and was taken by ambulance to a local emergency room. 

Though the police attempted to dismantle the medical tent on Monday as a way of undermining the protesters’ staying power, Mortimer says that most of the officers stationed around the square understand and respect his role as a street medic. “Street medics exist because the poor don’t have access to medical care,” he says, explaining that his trainer in street medicine was one of the first people to set up a medical tent when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. “As street medics, we would like to see free medical care for everyone, without a corporation standing in between patients and their medicines.” 

For most of the volunteers who staff the facility, becoming a street medic is itself a nonviolent protest against a medical system that often ignores those without insurance or private resources. Street medicine came into being at and after the “battle of Seattle” against the WTO talks in 1999, when activists were teargassed by the Seattle Police Department and the National Guard. After that event, protest organizers realized that they needed to bring their own medical care with them to the protest, so they started short but intensive training sessions to become activist medics. Partly because they only have limited (varying) degrees of access to conventional resources like prescription drugs—and partly because of their own values—street medics often rely on herbal and traditional medicines. They know how to flush out eyes after a teargassing or pepper-spraying. They know how to bind wounds and treat contusions in the field. At Occupy Wall Street, they serve an important comfort function as well as medical care: they provide herbal teas, aspirin, band-aids, blankets and hand-sanitizers. They help the “comfort” team keep participants warm and safe as possible.

Different medics see—or tell reporters—OWS's drug problem differently. Kostry's account of drug dealers selling a wide variety of substances as well as an incidence of drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning differs from the markedly more sober scene described by Mortimer and White, who failed to mention dealers or overdoses. Messages left for all three sources before press time were not returned, but the presence of drugs at the occupation is one that will certainly remain a hot-button issue in the days to come, one that The Fix will follow closely. Requests to the NYPD for an interview to get its reports of drug use and drug dealing, including arrests made, if any, have yet to be answered.

Susan Howard of the New York Lawyer's Guild, which represents many protesters who have been arrested, says that the NLG is not representing anyone on drug charges, and that they know nothing about any drug activity at the Occupy Wall Street encampment.

By all accounts, the vast majority of protestors on the square respect the ban on drugs and alcohol. A casual observer is likely never to see drug use or dealing, and those who flout the "no drugs" policy are usually confronted by fellow protestors. On a recent weekend, before the "Good Neighbor" policy was implemented, a man standing next to me at a General Assembly took out a joint, lit up, and began taking a few puffs. A protester behind him immediately asked him to put out the joint. He quickly complied. Soon after, the facilitator made an announcement asking people to do drugs elsewhere on their own time, saying that “we want everyone to feel comfortable in this space.”

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Jed Bickman is a journalist and copywriter living in the greater New York City area. He is the associate editor at The New Press. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.