Filed under: Analysis, Gentrification, Housing, Northwest, Police
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A critical look at the forces behind a push towards “broken windows” policing and cleansing the homeless from the streets of Seattle. Originally published on Puget Sound Anarchists.
On March 19, KOMO News released an hour-long documentary, Seattle is Dying. It portrayed Seattle’s ongoing “homelesness crisis” as stemming from the city being, essentially, too generous for too long. Every homeless person interviewed was cast as a criminal and a drug addict. Nothing more. While there was much preening over the opioid epidemic, no real agency is granted people experiencing addiction who are viciously dehumanized in clip after clip. The final solution discussed at the end of the documentary, seemingly the only way to give these people life: convert a former federal penitentiary on an island in the Puget Sound into a prison camp. And yet, so blatantly in your face that it couldn’t be ignored were superficial assertions of progressiveness; from painfully obvious shoehorning of diversity to the very attempt to frame calls for a police crackdown as a humanitarian endeavor.
It isn’t surprising that a Sinclair Broadcasting-owned ABC station based in a “liberal bubble” like Seattle would seek to capitalize on the city’s “crisis” in such a confused yet malicious way. What the documentary reveals is the emergence of a common narrative for what is fast becoming a united Law-and-Order coalition in the city of Seattle, bridging the gap between grassroots fascist currents and the “good citizens” of the business associations and the police.
Those of us who live and work alongside, who know, and who even are homeless can very well point to its causes. While it can be reductive to attribute Seattle’s profound, violent upheaval to “Amazon” or “Tech,” colossal corporations seizing whole neighborhoods serve as striking metaphors for the disruption and displacement that is inseparable from capitalism. The highly lucrative roots of today’s drug epidemic, a contributor to the problem if not its sole cause, can be found in large part in America’s deeply unequal and profit-driven economic and healthcare systems. Long legacies of colonial and racial apartheid still shape this city’s human geography, leaving working class BIPOC communities to suffer the harshest blows of development-driven displacement. Whatever infrastructure the city government puts in place to help is utterly inadequate due to an insistence that even “charitable” solutions need to be framed in the logic of the market, and undermined completely as ever-present police and increasingly “citizen” harassment makes the idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps into a sick, repetitive joke.
None of this is discussed in “Seattle is Dying.” Instead, we see a call to turn the “Homelessness State of Emergency” into another front of the “War on Drugs” as Mayor Jenny Durkan calls for a return to broken windows policing and SPD “Terry stops” (also known as “Stop-and-Frisk“. Just as decades of police violence and militarization have taught us, seeking to eradicate something like homelessness while outright defending the root causes of it can only lead to a literal War on Homeless People.
Fascism finds fertile ground in this sort of climate, and it is our belief that these issues have given fascism an ideological beachhead here in Seattle in ways that the Proud Boys and other far-right groups engaging in street action could not. It is clear to everyone that there is a problem in this city. The more tech capital flows in, the more people end up on the streets. Shoveling tens of millions into highly-restricted private landlord subsidies or top-heavy nonprofits acts, as always, as a small band-aid on a gaping wound that can simultaneously be attacked as “government waste”. From all corners, people cry for solutions, and even those well-invested in the current state of things feel confronted by the in-your-face consequences of their wealth. But even if they see the problem, the latter are wholly unwilling to give an inch of their hoarded privileges to solve it, mobilizing swiftly to take out even half-hearted measures like 2018’s head tax. For them, the solution must come by removing what, in their eyes, is the problem: the human beings who the system has shut out. They must simply be made to vanish, whether or not they have somewhere to go.
Until recently, this current lacked a “positive” message, as well as any sort of unity. They found it in increasingly numerous, and deeply interconnected, groups of “upstanding citizens,” like Safe Seattle and Speak Out Seattle. For several years, a milieu of NIMBY activists rooted in Seattle’s sprawling suburbanesque neighborhoods has grown through Facebook pages, Nextdoor groups, and small in-person meetings. As they have slowly built a base, they tested the rhetoric and pushed the boundaries now being blasted by KOMO on the national stage.
These activists themselves come from the very sorts of demographics that have a long history of uniting in these sorts of “Law-and-Order” coalitions. Business owners of all stripes, police officers, local conservative radio hosts, and wannabe politicians. As some make serious plays for City Council, their close collaborators outright call for and carry out vigilante violence targeting homeless people.
A Who’s Who
In many ways, “Seattle is Dying” was a convergence of all of these different elements. Among its interview subjects:
The Social Media Groups
Among the prominent interviewees were Chris Paddon, creator of the page “Seattle Looks like Shit,” and Ari Hoffman, a city council candidate in South Seattle’s District 2 who has intimate ties with the page “Safe Seattle” and its founder David Preston. Countless posts from these pages and others such as “Intentional Blight of Seattle” and “The Burien Voice” (also run by David Preston) are pictures of camps and people framed in order to vilify, sometimes with explicit calls for vigilante action. They have also helped normalize the idea that addiction is the sole cause of the current crisis, coupling it with calls for heavy-handed police intervention.
Safe Seattle shows their direct connections and affinity with District 2 city council candidate Ari Hoffman.
Post on Safe Seattle suggesting vigilante violence against the unhoused as the only logical outcome.
Multiple examples of calls on Safe Seattle and Intentional Blight of Seattle posts calling specifically for violence against the unhoused.
David Preston is probably the most prolific organizer among these groups, having his hand in a multitude of Facebook pages centered around neighborhoods and cities he does not even live in which strangely all push the same exact narratives and share the same posts one after the other. He was a primary source of racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric in Burien during the issues there around the 2016 election and through his networks, he has encouraged the systemic and misogynistic harassment of local women who have been reporting on these issues for years. Recently, local researchers discovered the image directory on Preston’s “investigative” blog was visible. It should come as no surprise that it was chock-full of racist and Islamophobic memes, a picture of a nazi flag, weird pornographic images, and an entire folder dedicated to socialist city councilwoman Kshama Sawant. Preston has also incited his networks into mass-reporting political opponents to law enforcement and even the Secret Service. The fact that anybody who ostensibly has some actual experience in working with the unhoused and people experiencing addiction is willing to share a stage with him should be a source of great embarrassment and shame for them but careerism causes all sorts of otherwise reasonable and decent people to abandon any sort of ethical and moral guidelines they previously had for themselves when they sense a potential change in the political winds.
One recent incident involving Safe Seattle, just days before the airing of Seattle is Dying, was a blatantly fabricated claim of a drug-addicted homeless ax-murderer behind the QFC on Rainier. Ari Hoffman and Safe Seattle not only ran with the story but doubled down when it was proven false. As far as their rhetoric goes, though, it is not at all out of place. In addition to this, Safe Seattle incorporated using the same lawyer that both SPLC-recognized hate group Respect WA and the far-right, anti-union libertarian Freedom Foundation uses.
Intimately related to Safe Seattle is “Speak Out Seattle”. In many ways Speak Out has played the more respectable front, toning down some of the most outrageous claims, while still tapping into the same sentiments in order to build a constituency for hosting, among other things, city-council candidate forums and efforts to stack City Council meetings relevant to their reactionary agenda. More info on the crossover between these two groups can be found here.
The Business Associations
Business wants it both ways: ridiculous profits from exploitation and speculation, and a fantasy world in which those who get knocked down in the process simply aren’t a problem. But for all intents and purposes the latter can be achieved not by helping people out but by dividing them up and repressing the worst-off to the point where they simply can’t fight back. Good- and cold-hearted business owners alike close ranks when the “crisis” reaches its current fever pitch, and thus we see the heads of Ivar’s, Uwajimaya, and a few Small Business Owners fronting their capital, platforms, and local prestige for the cause, as interview subjects for the documentary, and by making it clear that they will shovel money into the pockets of any candidate who will carry out their agenda when it comes to homelessness.
Business is all-in this year on using the “homelessness issue” to effect a political change in a city that they claim is “hostile to them”, a claim which is absurd considering the fact that Seattle continues to grow at an exponential rate with some of the most powerful corporations in the history of humanity based here. Hundreds of thousands have already poured into the Chamber of Commerce’s coffers to fund choice candidates in this year’s council elections. Chamber President Marilyn Strickland articulated the view last Fall that any attempts to hold accountable those profiting from this city’s status as the nations biggest capitalist boomtown for the real trauma inflicted on those they displace will be denigrated as “address(ing) social problems by taking it out on business.” Business, it seems, would rather go further on the offensive.
Fresh off of victory in their contract fight to strip away accountability measures, rank-and-file police officers have found a new organizing target: their most frequent victims. One of the largest task forces within Seattle PD is the “Navigation Team,” collaborating with civilian city as well as nonprofit employees. While ostensibly operating under the goal of “outreach” to help provide services, the team in reality is used primarily to sweep encampments. Everyday patrol officers also find themselves called in to enforce frequently petty laws against homeless folks on a daily basis.
Multiple current and former officers were interview subjects throughout the documentary, with answers from a questionnaire mailed to officers being inserted throughout. Officers have also taken to posting on local Reddit pages to offer their views on this matter. The refrain was unified: crack down.
Escalating the Fight
Those who declare Seattle’s demise feel that they have momentum. Business and NIMBYs make up parts of the core constituency of Mayor Jenny Durkan, the only candidate in the last election to unambiguously support sweeps. She has stepped up sweep action tremendously by shifting the framing of sweeps to instead call them “obstruction and hazard removals,” which her administration asserts requires no warning thus circumventing the 9th District’s recently-upheld ruling on sweeps. They have also found sympathy in the chief of the Municipal Court, Ed McKenna, who city prosecutor and public defenders office complain invited a KOMO reporter and a Safe Seattle/Speak Out Seattle member to his court to watch him give out a harsh sentence to one homeless man featured in the documentary as someone with a long arrest record.
Yet these forces are not united behind and single politician or party, and are also just as willing to play to the Republicans as they seek to build a platform for a Law-and-Order reaction in Seattle. The party sponsored a panel hosted on June 18 at the University of Washington featuring David Preston, business interests, the head of the anti-LGBT Family Policy Institute of Washington, the right-wing religious outsider in Seattle’s Homeless Nonprofit-Industrial Complex Union Gospel Mission, some guy who defined homelessness as anybody experiencing mental illness, an intervention specialist with an expired state counseling license, and the Vice President of the Seattle Police Officers Guild. Also on the panel and helping to moderate it were Seattle’s own Dollar Store version of Alex Jones, Jason Rantz, and John Curley of KIRO Radio (owned by another ultra conservative media conglomerate, Bonneville International) who began the forum with a joke about sexual harassment. The forum’s title, “Homeless and Addicted in Seattle: Whats the Endgame?” made the nature of the content crystal clear.
So What to Do?
Just as surely as escalating calls for militarized policing and incarceration dressed up as charity will not save us, the status quo is little better. Sweeps continue to shatter whatever foothold people can build, while a gargantuan bureaucracy emerges staffed by people who either see it as a ladder for themselves, or who quickly to realize that there are no solutions in the current system. The inability of this unwieldy and ineffective behemoth to present real and effective solutions to these crises in turn further reinforces the reactionary swing against those it allegedly serves. Thus our mandate is clear: in order to stop the fascist creep in Seattle we must stop the sweeps and organize to provide solutions ourselves!
There are many organizations, collectives, and individuals who have taken it in their own hands to provide real solidarity and mutual-aid to their homeless neighbors. From autonomous Popup Kitchens in Ravenna and Rainier as well as Food Not Bombs providing consistent food and much-needed free space to exist and build community, to the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance helping to connect with and serve people experiencing addiction from a place of genuine understanding, seeds are being planted across the city that, with support and wider participation, will blossom into a direct challenge to this rotten order. As those of us who are housed provide the tools and support to help those on the streets survive, get back on their feet, and ultimately fight back, we find ourselves changed in the process. So what can one do? Whatever one can do! Feed people, talk to people, support people, house people. Even if you don’t align 100% politically with a project, there is still much to be gained by linking up with them for a bit, learning how they are currently doing things, and using that as a springboard into your own projects using the knowledge and connections you make. Additionally, there are endless opportunities and a dire need for more confrontational and militant responses to the various processes and entities engaged in this project of exclusion and domination of the unhoused. This is an emergency, one that we will only solve by getting organized and breaking the bonds of our current world.
STOP THE SWEEPS, STOP THE FASCIST CREEP!
- Seattle Homeless Outreach: Organizes volunteers to provide non-contingent outreach to unhoused folks and encampments every second Saturday of the month.
- Facing Homelessness: Organizes friendly cleanup assistance for encampments.”