June 18, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 25

Director's Corner

Crushed glass and barbed wire are choices

By Timothy Harris / Executive Director

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Anti-homeless spikes have been in the news lately. These architectural abominations range from small concrete pyramids set beneath a freeway in China to steel arrows placed along ledges in Montreal, but their effect is the same: to deter unsightly surplus people from the use of public space.

Some line here has been crossed, and the blatant inhumanity has caused a stir.  Mayors in London and Montreal have taken high-profile stands and had them removed. We must be better than this, they have said.

This, however, is not new stuff. Wherever the privileged and the abandoned exist side by side, we see barriers arise. We become accustomed to these, and they become the landscape of our lives. 

“The Colonel,” Carolyn Forché’s 1978 poem about a dinner in El Salvador, describes the brutal extremes to which power will go when misery and wealth uncomfortably collide: 

The moon swung bare on its black cord over / the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in / English. Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to / scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On / the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had / dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for / calling the maid.

But that’s the third world. Here in Seattle, our version of crushed glass and barbed wire is more culturally appropriate. We have the passive-aggressive bench. 

Often, these are made of materials that militate against comfort, such as steel, marble, strips of wood, or wire mesh. They are nearly always too short for lying down.  Sometimes, the seat arcs gently upward, so that if one tries to sleep, they will likely roll toward the ground.  Or, they have no seat at all, and are merely a curved surface that allows only some sad compromise between a sit and a stand. 

When seats are present, they are typically bisected by a metal “armrest,” or some form of a sharp triangle, which serves to make horizontal usage painfully impossible.

These are everywhere. They are in our parks and public spaces, our bus tunnels and our streets. They surround our malls and infiltrate our shopping areas. They’ve been around for more than two decades and are so common as to be invisible. And they have multiplied.

And here is what they say: “If you care to sit, don’t do so for long, and god help you if you try to sleep.” Sleeping is for indoor people. 

Sitting and lying, when it might interfere with commerce, isn’t even legal. We’re used to that too. We accept these things as normal.

When we do think of them at all, we perhaps see them as regrettable but necessary. 

They are not. They are choices. 

But these miserable benches, along with the newer, currently less acceptable, iterations of the architecture of oppression, are not the problem. They are merely the symptoms of far greater evils. They speak to bloody wars of empire that rob the national treasury at the expense of our kids and their futures.

They speak to our economically devastated communities. The abandonment zones, where life is cheap and justice is rare.

They speak to the shame of a nation where more blacks are in prison than were slaves at the height of our national disgrace. 

They speak to these anesthetized times in which we live, where extreme, unforgivable poverty is the flipside of shameful, outlandish wealth at the expense of the many.

When we see these benches, these monuments to our indifference, we should think of these things. And we should not be resigned.

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