by Mike Klepfer
On July 22, Mayor Charlie Hales announced that the long-standing houseless vigil in front of City Hall would be moved. The vigil, which began as a protest against the city’s camping ban, which is routinely used to target houseless people, has seen the most impoverished people in the city occupy the sidewalk in front of the building since late 2011. The next morning, the city went forward with the plan, sending unhoused people across the street to the federally-controlled Terry Shrunk plaza, and to the sidewalks around Chapman and Lownsdale Squares, as inmates from the county jail power-washed the sidewalks.
Not everything went the way the city wanted. After changing the zoning designation of City Hall to a “high pedestrian traffic area,” Hales initially believed the change would bar people around the clock from sleeping on the sidewalk. After some cursory research, however, it was determined that this wasn’t the case; now houseless people at the vigil are being rousted every morning at 7, and told to move. Hales has said he wants to replace people in dire need with food carts and bioswales. Yes, really. Food carts and bioswales. That’s literally what he wanted.
To further appease the greedy fucks who populate the Portland Business Alliance, Hales directed the Portland Police Bureau, the same guys who, you know, routinely kick the shit out of and Taser poor and mentally-ill people, to fan out around the city to evict temporary houseless encampments that week. Houseless people around the city were confronted by police, told to leave their spots, had their possessions taken and in some cases destroyed.
Here’s a little background: The PBA believes the presence of houseless people anywhere near their storefronts and hotels depresses shoe sales and other important commerce, so in an all-out campaign to prevent that from ever happening, they use the considerable power at their disposal to constantly lobby and create mass panic about the terror campaign being wrought by the poor against tourism and shopping. Last fall, the PBA lobbied hard in Salem to get some legislation passed that would allow Portland to reinstate the “sit-lie” ordinance, a rule deemed unconstitutional in Oregon in 2009, that barred people from sitting or lying on the city’s sidewalk, another law that police could use to harass houseless people. It didn’t go through. But Hales really wants to fuck with houseless people at the behest of the PBA, and he’s got the best police force in the country to do that, so actually looking at houseless people on his way into work every morning for months probably gave his feeble politician brain an idea.
After a few incidents where houseless people were accused of violence against housed people, the PBA got an assist from local press, spinning the incidents into a violent epidemic perpetrated by “gutter punks,” “road warriors” and other people from the hazy taxonomy of the houseless. Blithely ignored were the often uncounted and therefore innumerable incidents of routine violence directed at houseless people from above, or instances where people in extreme poverty victimize one another. A disruptive division occurred, “good homeless” versus “bad homeless,” and while PBA representatives and city officials fumbled around in an effort to sketch a portrait of the kind of houseless person who is the enemy (“aggressive panhandlers”), they were essentially able to oppress the whole class with all the power they could muster. Hales said the homeless sweep was about “lawlessness,” and the actions taken were against the unlawful existence of an impoverished class.
Amidst this week’s cynical campaign against poor people, fliers appeared throughout the city threatening to “expose” people who receive government disability assistance and some wannabe-vigilante jerkoffs are warning that they’ll conduct anti-homeless patrols in Buckman, as the St. Francis diocese and Red and Black were warned in a couple cryptic emails they received. Even fascist neighbors want a piece, it seems.
Victimizing the poor is also a tried-and-true government tactic during a down economy; if you want an extreme example, look at Greece. It’s a disgusting and cowardly tactic employed by people with no answers and no ideas, and it exposes the true values of those calling the shots. Instead of dealing with the underlying issues of systemic poverty and the oppression that it brings in this extremely class-stratified society, it is better to simply remove poor people from sight, denying them a chance to gain even a foothold toward a stable material existence, or even sniff any hope of a stable, healthful life. When you prevent houseless people from sleeping, they can’t sleep. When you don’t let them shelter themselves, as prevented by the camping ban, they die. The actions of the city and PBA just underscore their essential position within the status quo. They only conceive of a self-interest perceived in their role within the wider economy and, as such, are not only unwilling, but incapable of, granting meaningful social change. As guarantors of the status quo, they also have access to a surly militia, called cops, who are employed to terrorize expendable, surplus humans who serve no function to the rich, and in Portland the cops are really good at it.
In Portland, houseless people have shown amazing courage, tenacity and solidarity in their emergence as an active political class, going back to watershed moments like winning land for Dignity Village through an occupation in 2001. Right 2 Dream Too is a mutual-aid project by houseless people for houseless people, providing a safe spot to sleep for nearly 100 people each night, sheltered away from cops and other shitheads who would target them. The city, of course, scared of the grassroots power of a good example, has responded by levying fines against R2D2, accusing it of operating a “recreational campground.” The matter is still being decided in court, but R2D2 has been disciplined, creative, and tenacious in demanding their basic rights to survival.
Because of the houseless sweeps, people are responding to the city’s criminalization of poverty, with each push begging a bigger push back. Anarchists in Southeast have reached out to the houseless community, after people near St. Francis Park were harassed, and in light of the threatening e-mails. People are providing legal rights training to houseless people, distributing distress whistles, and encouraging houseless people harassed by police to keep a log of incidents at the Red and Black. Organizational meetings where houseless people are working to devise a long-term response are being held at the cafe.
Regardless of any act of solidarity by those more privileged, the fact is that people will get what they need to survive, and they will often resort to acts previously thought impossible when they are deprived of what they need to live. Clearly, an alternative is needed to the power structures that would casually deny people their basic needs, and if those people in power stay their course, they may learn that their hold on power wasn’t as solid as they thought.
What if Portland weren’t a place where attempting to paper over poverty with imagistic kitsch was acceptable? What if every time a hack politician or gated-community-ensconced, suburbanite store owner sics the cops on the poor, a hundred homes were occupied by people who need them? A place where every time a bank tries to evict those people with the aid of the county sheriff, the community shows up and tells them to go fuck themselves? What if houseless people in Portland continued to unify, and housed people had enough courage to fight with them? No one would be unhoused ever again.