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Will Drug Use at Occupy Wall Street Become the Pretext for Eviction?

In Zuccotti Park, occupiers do their best to handle drug use on their own terms, but it may stretch beyond their resources and give police an excuse to intervene.

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As I learned after interviews with dozens of people, it appears that the movement's "leadership"—a notably vague and nebulous entity—felt that the encampment dodged a bullet—and a likely bloody showdown with police—when it escaped eviction October 13. They managed o hold on to the park after an impressive show of resistance by the occupiers and the hundreds of supporters who flocked all night to the scene forced the city to back off. That attempted eviction sparked a round of negotiations between the real estate company that owns the park, complaining neighbors, the police, and the city, which resulted in the OWS's new  "Good Neighbor" policy. Yet despite the "zero tolerance," policy that emerged from these talks, some medics interviewed at the scene admit that drugs remain a growing problem, despite their best efforts to keep the park clean in all senses of the word. 

So how much of a drug problem is there at Zuccotti Park? That may depend on which side of the park you happen to be in. According to police and organizers, there are “two sides of town” in Zuccotti Park. The park itself is about a half-acre of granite in the midst of towering skyscrapers—a not especially comfortable or attractive public space in which thousands of workers in the city's financial district gathered every weekday to eat their take-out lunches. But for over a month now, almost every square inch of the space has been packed with a diverse array of people; on weekends, the park is so jammed that the police have trouble containing the human mass inside the boundaries of the protest. On most weekdays, it is navigable but very busy. But it's at night that the differences between the two sides of the park become most vividly apparent. The side of the park adjacent to Broadway, where the main protests are held and where the media center and library are, forms the clean, public face of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Long after midnight, a frenetic burst of activity continues under the bright lights.

By contrast, the other side of the square, adjacent to Trinity Place, has become an unlit camping area for overnight protestors, where sleeping bodies occupy pretty much every available space. Anyone who wants to spend the night can do so. Obviously, nobody asks people about their history with drugs and alcohol, or mental health before allowing them entry into the public space. The lack of oversight means has allowed less savory elements to set up shop among the mostly law-abiding protestors. Street medic Paul Kostry, a 27-year-old volunteer from New Mexico,  told  The Fix on Sunday that several drug dealers had taken over a few of the sleeping tents on the dark side of the park, selling drugs from cocaine to heroin to marijuana. "We've got our own set of drug lords here, unfortunately," Kostry says. "We know what tents they're operating out of, and we're doing our best to deal with them." But Zuccotti Park, he adds, is a microcosm of New York City itself—including people with drug problems and those who prey on them. "Everyone recognizes that we cannot allow the drug dealing, and there are certainly steps being taken to deal with that," Kostry says. "But we are here to help the victims of that. There's a reason the medical tent is where it is."

The makeshift medical tent—easy to take down and put up, covered on four sides with opaque white plastic—provides free health care to all the occupiers, and is staffed by volunteer medics of all backgrounds—doctors, nurses, EMTs, mental health professionals, and street medics, some of whom accompany the protesters on street marches and other direct actions, when they often need medical attention due to violent responses of the police.