Hands Across Riverdale: Barricades–The Forward-Facing Body of the Occupation

In some sense, the entire story of Occupy Riverdale–now on day eight if you count the vigil–can be captured via an understanding of the barricades erected to prevent Aqua America/PVR construction crews from moving in to build the water withdrawal station rubber-stamped by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC).  A construction for which the residents of the park–families, old people, kids, their homes and lives–are just in the way. This story includes many elements and actors, and the barricades themselves have been erected and deconstructed, rebuilt, and dismantled–and today mowed down by the disgruntled previous land owner, Skip Leonard. But that is not quite the story I want to tell. A barricade, I have learned, is not merely a barrier to keep out an unwanted guest. It is, and particularly in the case of Riverdale, a representation of an idea, an instantiation of a purpose.

And as I sit at the “command center,” looking out onto Route 220 and its ubiquitous parade of water haulers, waste trucks, frack rig trucks–and the occasional car–I  realize that over this past week, I have come to understand that purpose in a way I never had. I’m on the 12-3 AM security shift, and what that means is that the barricades–now brightly painted with the words “We are part of your community”–are a responsibility. Indeed, though I expect no one and nothing into the wee hours of the morning, every day that passes feels like a greater responsibility. Why? Because the clock is ticking towards a Monday meeting that may change the very course of this occupation. “Meeting,” in fact, seems a bit underwhelming in light of the possibility that the residents of the park may accept an offer of some dollar amount that will move them out of the park–and move we of Occupy Well Street into a decision. And this decision is all about the barricades.

Our original purpose here was to protect the park’s residents from unjust expulsion at the profit-driven Aqua America/PVR, and to make folks as painfully aware as a non-violent protest can the egregious injustice of these evictions. There is much much more to be said about the vulnerability of the park residents–older folks, economically vulnerable folks, children. And I hope that the passel of pictures I have been taking each day (posted as Hands Across Riverdale, Occupation Day on my Facebook page) will help to tell this story. Indeed, my hope in the photo albums is three-fold: first, to demonstrate the resolve of the occupation to protect the human rights of the residents–every day as some incredibly enterprising and creative occupiers build outdoor ovens, cook really great vegan food, and attend to one another’s needs and requests. Second, I want each of us involved in the occupation to see our faces–I want us to SEE what we have accomplished here, to see our laughter, our concern, our work, our collective will. Third, I want Aqua America to see all the same things–and I want them to be shitting their pants.

But when Monday comes–or whatever day it is that either Aqua America turns the park back over to the residents or offers them something that doesn’t require folks to liquify their retirement accounts in order to move–the meaning of the barricades changes. On that day, we decide to defend the Susquehanna. To defend the 3% of the water on Earth that counts as fresh water. And then the barricades take on a different character because on that day, we are no longer guests of the residents, but a serious problem for Aqua America. No doubt, Aqua thinks that once the park issues are resolved (at least if they’re resolved in their favor) we’ll see that our mission is concluded and will head back to the pre-Riverdale lives of the “dirty hippies” we all are. But, of course, because the Susquehanna River is still slated for 3 million gallons a day of water withdrawal for fracking, and because fracking remains an environmental catastrophe, well, those barricades become our first line of defense against the construction crews that will surely follow the pulling out of the last car full of working people and their stuff. After that, it’s our bodies that become the barricades. Our bodies.

So, what the barricades really represent is not merely our resolve, our purpose in defending first the Riverdale residents, and second the river–the barricades are the forward-facing bodies of the occupation. I don’t know that this will happen–we will make this decision in the way we have made all of them so far–through the slow but effective democratic process of discussion, debate, and one hell of a lot of thinking. But one thing I know for sure is that it will be our conscience–both individual and collective–that will govern the actions of that day. What I know for sure is that the voice of this blog is some moment of THAT voice, of that collective body and not merely my own.


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