I spent yesterday at Zuccotti Park interviewing protesters in an attempt to get a more detailed and coherent picture. Not surprisingly, very few people claimed that they used drugs. But there were notable exceptions. Sonya Zink, who has been present at the occupation since it starte, told me that last night there were persistent rumors that the police were going to raid her corner of the park for drugs, but that nothing happened. When asked about the presence of heroin, coke, crack and other hard drugs, she said that they "weren't a problem"—and then she made the surprising admission that she smokes pot openly in the park: "It’s an activism thing for me," Zink told me. "I smoke right here on my bed when I do, and I want them to come arrest me for it. A lot of people are smoking weed out here for activism reasons, not because they’re trying to drop out, but because we think that weed should be legal and alcohol should be illegal."
I also met a heroin user named Jonathan who has been on the park for 14 days. He told me that he doesn't use in the park "because this isn't the place for it." Instead he goes "down by the piers." He also claimed that no one in the park is selling any drug except pot.
How to handle drugs and alcohol is a hot-button issue that each autonomous Occupy encampment deals with in its own way. At Occupy Oakland, the city's police officials blamed “rats, alcohol, and illegal drug use” as a rationale to shut down the tent city that sprung up there earlier this month. Similarly, Denver mayor John Hickenlooper used drugs as an excuse to shut down the camp in his city. As hundreds of Denver cops moved into to end the protest, 23 people were arrested, none for drugs. In Boston, police have arrested just one couple for heroin possession. But tensions over the issue are running higher at Occupy Los Angeles, where some participants say that drug use in the encampment is becoming too common. “Everybody is pretty much partying it up,” said Rachel Goldie, 20, who recently left an LA rally in disgust.
But John Beddle, an EMT at Zuccotti Park, explains it this way: “We don’t say that we’re going to have a party and change the world. We say, “Let’s change the world and then have a party.’” And a press representative for OLA said that while they, too, were doing their best to keep the LA site clean, "drugs are an undeniable fact of life at any large gathering of people, from concerts to ball games. It's unrealistic for people to tar an entire movement for every infraction, when the police can't even keep drugs out of jail."
Yet drugs—and the attendant dangers and prejudices—will remain high on the list of reasons for police raiding occupations, arresting protesters, and evicting encampments. The occupiers' prevailing practice of self-policing and friendly persuasion, however noble, is already—inevitably—falling short of effectively enforcing the official zero tolerance policy. In the days ahead, we will report on how this conflict develops and is dealt with around the country in Occupy Wall Street's inspiring experiments in true democracy.
Jed Bickman is a regular contributor to The Fix. He also writes for The Nation, CounterPunch and other websites and magazines.