Justice for Khali

Posted on 11 January 2012 by Cami Graves

One of Occupy Oakland’s newest causes is the release of Marcel Johnson, a.k.a. Khali, a homeless man who joined the camp near its beginning. In the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday, staff writer Demian Bulwa reminded us of Khali’s troubled past both inside and outside of the camp. Bulwa begins his article:

One obstacle Occupy Oakland faced after building a City Hall encampment came not from authorities but from within – a mentally ill homeless man with a long prison record who witnesses said beat fellow campers in fits of rage. Some were so frightened they moved out.

No one called the police on the man, who called himself “Kali.” Instead, he was banished in an act of freelance justice, with a protester knocking him unconscious with a two-by-four Oct. 18. Police cleared the tent city a week later, and Mayor Jean Quan has cited the incident as a motivating factor.

Bulwa also writes of how Khali later returned to the camp and “did better this time, helping out” by distributing food, giving out blankets, and participating in Occupy Oakland actions. After his return, campers and other demonstrators were also more willing to accept him, some, who showed up at the courthouse in Pleasanton on Monday where Khali’s first arraignment was held, saying they forgave him for his earlier aggression.

Many would say Khali’s situation highlights an important issue faced by Occupy camps across the country—what to do about the homeless and the mentally ill and disabled who are attracted by the social atmosphere, the free food, and the safety of community, but who are also in need of medical or psychiatric assistance. But this is not just an Occupy issue. This is an American issue. This is a global issue.

This issue brought to the light by Khali’s situation is one that most people, let alone Occupy campers, have little awareness of or experience with. Is it any wonder when the United States sweeps its homeless, nearly 30% of whom suffer from mental health problems and 35% of whom suffer from substance abuse problems*, into back alleys and under benches, when we create stigmas around them rather than offering a hand to them, having faith in their ability to contribute to society just as much as anyone else? In the past, the media have been quick to point out that Occupy camps are prone to either ignoring or evicting homeless people, but they fail to address that instances of such behavior are only symptomatic of the wider issues at hand.

From October 2009 to September 2010, almost 1.6 million people in America experienced homelessness, and almost 110,000 were found to be chronically homeless (that is, experiencing homelessness over a long-term period).* And while we’re led to believe that the top causes for homeless are laziness and incompetence, the reality is that homelessness is much more complex. According to a survey of 29 of America’s most populated cities, the main causes of homelessness include lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty, lack of rent assistance, domestic violence, family disputes, medical or health costs, natural disaster, eviction, and prisoner re-entry—with mental illness and lack of needed services, substance abuse and lack of needed services, and low-paying jobs topping the list.** Joined with other statistics concerning jobs, housing, and services in the U.S., and with the fact that unemployment remains high and more individuals and families are finding themselves in need of assistance, it becomes clear that the United States has seriously failed to treat homelessness as an institutionally-rooted problem. It is one that can only be answered by implementing adequate services, guaranteeing employment and education opportunity, and supplying affordable living—it can certainly never be solved with secrecy and condemnation. The good news is that homelessness in some demographics has seen decline with the passing of the HEARTH (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) Act in 2009 (the president also recently published the comprehensive report, Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to prevent and End Homelessness); the bad news is that these programs can have little effect if larger changes aren’t made to the way we approach the responsibility to ensure employment and housing to all, because with more families and working poor needing help, people who are chronically homeless are falling to even lower rungs. Some of us may bounce back, but they may never be able to get back up again, may never be considered valued members of American society.

This leads to another angle the media has largely neglected to cover but that Bulwa talks about in his article: with time, the people of Occupy Oakland learned to accept Khali, despite his previous outbursts, and Khali began to think of Occupy Oakland as the place where he could “turn his life around.” Bulwa and some Occupants speak of it as a transformation within Khali that led to his acceptance, but I would argue that it was also a transformation within Occupy Oakland. As the camp grew, more people with different life and career experiences emerged. A medic tent to provide medical assistance (the first people who responded on the evening Kayode Ola Foster was killed) and security team already existed, but a Safer Spaces Committee formed to “address issues of trauma [and] oppression within the movement towards the goals of increased participant sustainability, and collective liberation.” It goes further. There’s now a Foreclosure Action Committee that advocates for those facing the threat of being evicted, and there’s an Anti-Repression Committee to “coordinate jail and medical support” in the wake of frequent police brutality. These committees formed in response to problems we were seeing that required our attention; they didn’t exist at our outset.

That’s the wonder of Occupy Oakland: where there has been need, people have brought their varied skills and knowledge and rushed to meet it. As a grassroots movement made up of strangers with many different grievances and hopes, it isn’t perfect, but it is an example of the kind of democracy and community that our nation as a whole can learn from.

Khali eventually became a part of Occupy Oakland because he could help it as much as it could help him; he gave us a second chance as much as we gave him one—and the reality now is that he’s in jail for his involvement in a movement he believed could help him make a significant change to his life and to the world, not for whatever his past held. I wonder what that says about our society, that the authorities will use a man’s checkered past to arrest and hold him for struggling to liberate himself and advocate for change.

Khali talks about “turning his life around”

You can come to Khali’s next court date at 9 AM February 6th, at the Superior Court of CA, 5672 Stoneridge Dr. in Pleasanton.

*according to estimates from the 2010 American Homeless Assessment Report

** according to the annual survey of 29 of the cities which comprise The U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness (learn more about the causes of homelessness here)