Many years ago, Lisa Peattie, a brilliant Urban Planning professor emeritus at MIT who I had the great pleasure of knowing well, said something that became one of my most core convictions. "Dehumanization is evil," she said, "because once you define people as less than human, you can do anything you want to them."
This week, an interdisciplinary team of academics at the University of Washington, led by Gail Stygall, a Professor of English, released a multi-pronged analysis of the discourse surrounding the City of Seattle's homeless sweeps. They found that the city has "initiated and maintained discourses of fear, filth, and contagion about the homeless in the City's planning and execution of the "sweeps" of homeless encampments" since the Mayor's zero-tolerance policy toward public camping began midway through 2007.
The City's documents included language emphasizing "Unsanitary hygiene conditions, including the accumulation of garbage, human and animal feces . . . unsanitary hygiene conditions that increase the presence of rodents and other vermin . . . the presence of used hypodermic needles" (City of Seattle, No. MDAR 08-01) and "21 tons of debris including used hypodermic needles, rotting cans of food, bottles of urine, and human waste" (City of Seattle, News Release, 6/5/2008). This deliberate public relations strategy avoided deeper, structural explanations of homelessness almost entirely.
There is also some good news. One hopeful portion of the study found that public protest, much of which was driven by Real Change, was able to shift media coverage from the "fear-based" discourse of the city to a "structural" frame that addressed root causes of homelessness and poverty. While the city frame continued to dominate much of the press, an aggressive and consistent grassroots activism led to far more critical coverage of the sweeps and increased pressure on the city for a more compassionate approach.
Help us keep the pressure on. Since Nov. 1, we have received more than $135,000 toward our Winter Fund Drive goal of raising $180,000. An attack on the humanity of some is an assault on the integrity of us all. We can hold the city to a higher standard, but we need your help.
The full report is available for download at: http://faculty.washington.edu/stygall/homelessmediacoveragegroup/