Sunday, June 15, 2008

Pitching A Tent In Downtown Seattle

I was with over 100 people in downtown Seattle on Monday morning and I don’t know if anyone had the same feeling that I did. When the Women In Black finished their service in front of City Hall, for those who’ve died homeless on the streets, everyone began scurrying around the corner where 15 people were about to get arrested protesting the city’s sweeps of homeless encampments.As I turned the corner I was overwhelmed by the site of Mike Smith, one of the leading members of the Real Change Organizing Project (RCOP) sitting in his wheelchair next to a tent that read “Stop The Sweeps.” It was actually one of the coolest moments in my life. This wasn’t something I was watching on TV but something that I was personally involved in. Almost since I joined RCOP on March 26 (and thanks for the invite Rachael), we’ve been working towards this moment, Our Camp4Unity. The service and the arrests were preceded by our third campout on City Hall the previous night. About 125 people walked through City Hall on Sunday night and many camped overnight – homeless, activists, students, Catholics and Buddhists. Why all the fuss?

Well, the city’s approach to homeless encampments used to be the same as the police approach to streakers in the Fremont parade. Nothing was really done unless someone complained. But then last summer the city started to take a pro-active approach; the city invaded the camps, chasing people out and destroying their property. The city kind of wants it both ways, they don’t want people camping out but there are no shelters and low-income housing is dwindling.

The arrests last Monday were very ritualistic. 20 cops stared down 15 advocates. Then there were two announcements in five minute periods by a cop with a bullhorn, “by Seattle ordinance you must disperse, blah, blah, blah.” Finally the police started arresting people. On this day at least, Seattle police weren’t wearing their Darth Vader helmets and weren’t handcuffing people. Each protester got a hand as they were led individually to a bus. I reverted to my Fenway Park bleacher days; yelling out the names of people I knew, as they led away.

Looking back, I don’t think anyone ever asked me if I wanted to get arrested. I guess I could have volunteered. Apparently, the rule of thumb is that if someone’s on medication they’re discouraged from civil disobedience. A guy in my book club reading group, who’s a veteran of the anti-war protests, says there was a famous case in New York City where they took the anti-depression meds away from jailed anti-war protesters. To the surprise of no one, the Camp4Unity people were back on the street within the hour. Now it’s up to the city whether to press charges but I think it just hopes RCOP goes away.

On a personal level, I wanted to make a contribution. Early on, I made up a list off Seattle media people who’ve written articles on homelessness, which Revel, our media guru, found helpful. I took a lot of pictures on Sunday night and kept an eye out for media people as they arrived. From a media standpoint the event was a success, with every TV station, both dailies, and one of the two weeklies giving us coverage. But political activism isn’t always exciting, since most of the people who set up were arrested; I was part of the understaffed crew that had to clean up.

In the end, was it worth it?
I went to the Real Change offices a couple of days later only to hear about a volunteer who took some homeless campers over to West Seattle where their gear had been stored. The word was - their isn’t a lot of stuff there regardless of ownership. One of the campers lost all of his tools for work and the people at the storage center went into the backroom to find him some usable stuff.

Not very encouraging. But the most important thing I've learned - you can’t give up. Don’t let the bastards win.