Published on
the Miami Herald

For Tent Dwellers in Occupy Miami, a Sense of Family and Purpose

Saturday marked a week since a patchwork of tents and people have been stationed outside of Miami-Dade Government Center as part of the Occupy Miami movement.

Laura Figueroa

With 40 or so mouths to feed, Michelle Wade, 21, was determined to provide a heartier dinner than the previous night’s improvised concoction — soupy rice seasoned with lemon pepper, sugar and All Spice, cooked over a less-than-functioning stove at a friend’s apartment.

Around the fledgling tent encampment known as Occupy Miami, Wade is referred to as “head chef,” a position she takes to heart since joining the camp dwarfed by the 31-story Miami-Dade Government Center. The group has been stationed at the center since Oct. 15, an offspring of the national Occupy Wall Street movement that is rallying against everything from big business to high unemployment rates.

Looking to gather everyone’s attention, Wade shouted one of the group’s key phrases: “Mike check!”

“Mike check!” campers yelled back, to signal they were listening.

Wade asked if anyone had a place nearby where she and the food committee could heat up cans of corn and beans for dinner — county rules prevents them from using any sort of electronic or gas-fueled cooking device on the plaza. Her question to the crowd underlined the economic disparities many in the group are railing against. “Nearby” meant either the luxury high-rise condos towering over downtown Miami or the cramped older walk-up apartments of Overtown.

Within minutes there was no longer a need to find a kitchen — an anonymous donor had six boxes of cheese and pepperoni pizzas delivered to the site. The flow of food remained steady that night — another batch of pizzas and cheese calzones were delivered, a large pot of chicken noodle soup was dropped off, and salad and fruit were laid out for the vegans in the group.

Homeless drifters with scruffy beards and dirt-caked clothes often got in line with the college students and thirty-somethings now calling the tent city their home. Wade didn’t mind sharing the group’s food, but she often asked those not a part of the tent city to wait until the rest of her cohorts had been fed.

“People think I’m trying to be rude,” she said after one homeless woman cursed her out. “I’m really not, I’m just trying to make sure family eats first.”

Family to Wade — who grew up bouncing around from one foster home to another starting at age 8 — now includes the diverse mix of people involved in the movement, a melting pot of ages, races and religions.

It’s a sense of belonging to a larger family that Wade said has motivated her to sleep overnight at the encampment of about 20 tents, staying put despite the dreary rain of the first few days, the threat of flooding and news of a tornado watch on Wednesday night.

For Wade, a young mother of two daughters ages 1 and 4, the movement signifies an opportunity to discuss with others some of her own struggles with poverty. After being laid off from her job as a receptionist last year, she has struggled to find a permanent job, one that pays well enough to support her daughters without some sort of government assistance.

For now, her daughters are staying with a relative each night, while Wade remains at the camp.

“This is our family,” Wade said. “Around here we all matter. We all come from different walks of life, and different situations, but we’re here to make something special.”

But what that “something special” is has yet to be clearly defined. Some say the something special is the fact that there is a now a public venue to house a free flow of discussions from the economy to politics, education to healthcare.

“It’s about having a place to come and start those discussions,” said Muhammed Malik, one of the group’s organizers.

Those at the camp tout that the movement is leaderless — “we are all leaders,” many are quick to say — but the shuffling of responsibilities has led to some frustration and the duplication of efforts. There are two Twitter accounts bearing the Occupy Miami name, and though the official Occupy Miami Facebook group has some 11,000 followers, smaller groups have also popped up.

“I love this movement, but it’s still so young,” said Walter F. Jimenez, a 28-year-old unemployed Kendall resident who has been living at the camp since it opened.

Still, the group has managed to steer clear of the droves of arrests and violent clashes that have marked some of the protests in cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York. They have since redubbed their tent city “peace city” and at night some occupiers head to a large circular fountain outside the government center to meditate.

There is also no pending threat of being booted from the property. Two of the group’s organizers filed a permit with the county to remain on the property indefinitely. Unless people at the camp are caught breaking the law, Miami-Dade spokeswoman Suzy Trutie said they can remain on the property.

The biggest threat to the camp so far was the inclement weather that had residents weighing down the bottom of their tents with sand bags to keep the wind from blowing them away.

There’s also the issue of the homeless, who have been in the area long before the Occupy Miami movement arrived, and who now circle the encampment in hopes of getting free food and cigarettes.

Several people in the camp, like Wade, have had their own brushes with being homeless and sleeping on the street and say they don’t mind extending a helping hand to the homeless, but they also grapple with some of the more aggressive street people who attempt to stockpile as much of the occupiers’ food as they can get their hands on.

“What they don’t understand is we’re fighting for them,” Wade said.

There has been talk of bringing a solar-heated portable shower to the area, and renting portable toilets, but until then dwellers have been relying on the bathrooms at the government center, at the library and in surrounding businesses. Most have ducked home to shower after a day or two. A few die-hard campers say they rely solely on baby wipes and rags doused in alcohol to clean themselves up.

“If the rain didn’t keep us away, nothing will,” Wade said cheerfully as she prepared a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a hungry supporter. “We’re not going anywhere.”

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