February 19, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 8

Director's Corner

We must be committed, at the very least, to do no further harm

By Timothy Harris / Executive Director

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Protesters recently showed up at Portland’s City Hall waving torches and pitchforks in response to Mayor Charlie Hales’ recent crackdown on homeless people. Last summer, the Portland mayor initiated a series of campsite sweeps, and in recent months he’s moved to revive legislation aimed at clearing downtown sidewalks of the visibly poor.

“This is not about homelessness,” Hales said in Portland’s Oregonian. “It’s about lawlessness.”

“How noble the law, in its majestic equality,” said French Nobel Laureate Anatole France in 1894, “that both the rich and poor are equally prohibited from peeing in the streets, sleeping under bridges, and stealing bread!”

I remember when, about a decade ago, activists in San Francisco were enraged over then Mayor Gavin Newsom’s program of campsite sweeps. Crews would show up at campsites with little to no warning or apology to destroy and dispose of all that people had left in the world.

The brutality there was veiled by a consistent rhetoric of filth, disease, drug use and criminality. By playing to base emotions of fear and disgust, the city of San Francisco justified the criminalization of survival. 

And I thought, “Seattle is different. That won’t happen here.” And then it did. 

When the building cranes started to populate our downtown skyline with the residential high-rise boom of 2007, Mayor Greg Nickels initiated a stealth campaign of campsite sweeps and a “zero-tolerance” policy on urban camping. When advocates pushed back, the city doubled down with even more aggressive action.

A media analysis by a group of academics at the University of Washington found that Seattle officials employed a frame of “filth and contagion” that was widely adopted by the media.

We organized overnight protest encampments at City Hall. We blocked a downtown street with tents and got ourselves arrested. We insisted that if campsite sweeps were held, people should be provided with alternatives, given adequate notice and have belongings returned. 

Mayor Nickels mostly ignored us. Push came to shove between downtown interests and homeless folks, and force mostly prevailed over dialogue. 

Then homeless people and their allies started a new self-managed encampment in response to the campsite sweeps, and many people supported their efforts. When Mayor Nickels bullied host churches with threats of fines, he provoked a different kind of public disgust.

Nickels’ third-place showing in the 2009 re-election primary had numerous causes — a poorly managed Christmas snowstorm chief among them — but in the end, beating up on the poor and vulnerable won Greg Nickels more enemies than friends. To this day, Nickelsville bears his name as a reminder.

Mayor Mike McGinn’s administration, with its defining veto of new anti-panhandling legislation, brought a reprieve in Seattle’s hot war on the poor, and the detente seems to have held. There is little appetite here for the aggressive prosecution of poverty crime. 

Understandings have been built within the ecology of downtown interests, cops, courts and homeless folks and their defenders that respect our common interest in real solutions. We have committed, at the very least, to do no further harm.

But that is not to say that all in latté land is well. There are more homeless than ever: The poor, they keep coming. 

Even as the economy improves, those on the bottom are left far behind. This is the radical inequality cold war — a state of rivalry or tension that stops short of open, violent confrontation but produces casualties nonetheless. Ours is now cold while Portland’s is hot, but it’s all the same war, whether we see it or not.

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