Sanctuary: a place of refuge.
When the Seattle City Council unanimously voted in 2003 to declare Seattle a Sanctuary City, I applauded the noble, benevolent and protective decision. The city government’s commitment not to use municipal resources to enforce federal law pertaining to immigration enforcement was the right thing to do. In November of 2016, when then President-elect Trump threatened to withhold federal tax dollars from sanctuary cities, Mayor Murray stood up to him, reiterating the city’s earlier commitment.
As a longtime Seattle resident I’ve been proud of our city’s reputation as a forward-thinking municipality, in many ways creating a sense of refuge for people and for a range of social and political ideas likely challenged or even threatened in more conservative locales. Seattle has a vivid pro-labor history dating back to its early years. LGBTQ rights have been championed and celebrated for years with one of the biggest and grandest annual Pride Fests in the nation. A do-it-yourself culture of innovation and skill has produced musical, artistic, technological and literary breakthroughs and trends. The successful 1970 statewide referendum to legalize abortion was initiated in Seattle. Nature conservancy has been a priority as evidenced by the city’s pioneering, nationally recognized recycling programs.
On the other hand, it doesn’t take much study of our city’s history to uncover some episodes of less-than-welcoming attitudes and practices starting with the Arthur Denny party and others usurping Duwamish home lands. During the depression years Seattle hosted a Hooverville. In 1942 the city was not a sanctuary for the thousands of Japanese residents who were forcibly separated by the U.S. Army from their own homes, businesses and communities and relocated to internment camps. And it wasn’t until the late 1970s that the segregationist practice of red-lining finally, formally died in our city. Some would say the current demolition and construction craze, in which cranes poke above the skyline in every neighborhood, and rents rise with each new building, is fomenting another form of segregation – an antithesis of refuge.
The most egregious evidence that Seattle isn’t so much a sanctuary after all: municipal resources being spent on the sweeping of unsanctioned encampments.
The most egregious evidence that Seattle isn’t so much a sanctuary after all: municipal resources being spent on the sweeping of unsanctioned encampments. While the city government may prefer to use euphemisms, running a bulldozer through a place where people are trying to survive is categorically destructive, no matter what the action is officially called. Pushing people from one miserable location to another, destroying and discarding precious personal property, separating people who have built bonds is not providing refuge. Quite the opposite!
According to Real Change (Vol. 24, No. 44), “How much sweeps cost, their efficacy, even how many have been conducted is not only unknown, but unknowable.” What we do know is that the city government is spending large sums of money claiming to address very real public health concerns (as much as vocal ‘nimby’ objectors), only to create more chaos, heartbreak, dismay and despair, not to mention exacerbating public health issues, all the while coming no closer to a solution to the city’s gravest public health and human rights challenge: the obvious lack of affordable housing.
My old image of a benevolent Seattle is deflated, but still I want to believe that with its reputation for innovation and progressive ideology, not to mention booming economy, Seattle is able and willing to provide refuge to the vulnerable. Thanks to the reporting in Real Change, I know that many of our unhoused neighbors work hard to survive, to create and maintain immediate community and to organize and advocate for systemic change. And I know there are housed individuals and groups exhibiting kindness, generosity and support to the city’s unhoused residents.
What if the city suspended the sweeps and directed funds to take note of and work to support, replicate and expand on these efforts? SHARE/WHEEL is an obvious place to begin. How about more of Mark Lloyd’s portable potties? How about facilitated dialogue among neighbors to address everyone’s concerns? You know, neighbors listening to neighbors. Perhaps our reputation for refuge could yet be salvaged.
Cecilia Erin Walsh is a white, middle-class retiree in Seattle. She is a writer, “yardener” and volunteer for social justice concerns.
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