by Dae Shik Kim Hawkins Jr, Op-Ed Columnist
There were a dozen or so Seattle North Precinct bike cops surrounding the Ravenna Woods encampment on Dec. 4th. The residents (considered homeless by the city) were spending the afternoon packing their belongings before the bike squad arrived. The encampment had been notified on Nov. 29th. that they would be swept the following Tuesday, Dec. 5th.
When I arrived at the camp and saw the bike squad, I almost assumed they belonged to a navigation team – a group commissioned by the city to provide last-minute resources to individuals set to be swept. My sense was that these cops weren’t supposed to be there though. They were detectably unsettled by my presence and taken aback when I began to ask questions.
Sergeant Sylvester confirmed my suspicion that he and his bike team had nothing to do with the navigation team. According to Sgt. Sylvester, they were completely unaware of the sweep happening the next morning and just “happened to be in the neighborhood.” He identified Ravenna Woods as a “high crime” area, and stated that his team was conducting what he called “proactive law enforcement.”
There was no report sent to the bike squad that criminal activity had taken place. No phone call from concerned neighbors they were responding to. Only “crime analysis data,” or more accurately put a profiler’s instinct.
A resident of the encampment explained to me that before I arrived, the cops had run the names of all the residents in search of any existing warrants. He offered an explanation of the incident, recalling:
“We were all inside our structures when we heard the police announcing their arrival.They came up to the door with intentions of entering, at which point we told them they did not have permission to enter. Four of us stepped outside to speak with them. We asked them why they were here when we had already been notified that we would have to be out of our home by the next day. They responded saying they were investigating a crime. I asked, what crime? They said “trespassing” and they began running our names. While they were doing that, an officer started to enter our structure. We reminded him that they were not allowed to enter and the officer chuckled and said: “You think just because you put things together and call it a home, you now have rights?” Another officer told him that actually, I was right, they couldn’t go inside. The officer then proceeded to walk out the doorway and planted his feet right outside the entrance. He leaned as far inside as he could. He took his flashlight and started looking around inside. Two other officers proceeded to look inside our place in the same manner. When they finished running our names, my friend was told he had a warrant. We told the officers that his trial was tomorrow so they agreed to not arrest him. After clearing the rest of us and doing inventory on what we had, they left and went to the next camp.”
According to Seattle appeals court, encampments are to be protected under the same laws as any other home. The Stranger’s Heidi Groover reported that Washington State Appeals Court made this ruling last October.
“The temporary nature of a tent or tarp doesn’t undermine the privacy rights of the person living inside,” the judges write, citing past cases involving hotel guests. “Nor does the flimsy and vulnerable nature of an improvised structure leave it less worthy of privacy protections. For the homeless, those may often be the only refuge for the private in the world as it is.”
That same afternoon I visited the encampment at Ballard Commons. As I checked in with residents, I learned that the same bike team, again led by Sgt. Sylvester, had visited their shelter earlier that day. According to the residents of Ballard Commons, Sgt. Sylvester and his team had run their names that morning without direct cause. The encampment at Ballard Commons was also set to be swept later that week. They recalled that, a couple weeks earlier, the bike team had come to their shelter and confiscated their bikes.
The officers told residents that they needed to run checks on the bikes to ensure that they hadn’t been stolen. Despite residents’ claims that the bikes had been purchased at a Goodwill, the officers, nonetheless, took the bikes, promising to return them after checks have been completed. The bikes were never returned to residents. After nearly one week, residents found their bikes under the Fremont Bridge — trashed and unrideable.
This wave of “proactive policing” comes at an interesting time. The city has faced immense pressure to justify their campaign of sweeping encampments. #StopTheSweeps activists have demanded explanations for why the city chooses to target particular encampments. Pressure continued to build this past fall as Seattle City Council successfully passed a proviso on funds markedly devoted to homeless sweeps. It requires that the overseeing department (FAS) present a case before Council on why a sweep must be conducted before they take action. This is mandatory and will take effect starting January 2018.
As of now, the city is only to sweep encampments if they can prove at least 1 of the 6 things listed in the Seattle Times graphic (below).
- Proximity to special facilities such as schools.
- Safety hazards
- Serious Criminal Activity
- Large quantities of garbage
- Damage to the natural environment
- Health hazards like rats or hypodermic needles, which could spread disease
By these standards, the Encampment at Ravenna Woods and Ballard Commons shouldn’t have been swept. Not one of the six reasonings required to conduct a sweep were present at either encampment. Ravenna Woods even had a working heater at their camp that provided warmth for many unsheltered people.
“Our area was clean, and they just literally strewn everything that was in our structure … to where it just looked like a big trash pile,” the camper at Ravenna Woods said. “It’s really inhumane, especially on Christmas, to take everything from someone who’s already had everything taken. Kind of kick them while they’re down. [I am] just wishing I could move back to that spot or be told where I can go.”
However, a blog post released right after the sweep of the Ravenna Woods encampments showed that the city had a different perspective:
During inspection and outreach, the Navigation Team observed several large structures, excessive amounts of uncollected garbage and used hypodermic needles, human waste, rats and fire risks. Additionally, the encampment’s placement on a steep slope and near trees was causing damage to the physical environment, as well as risk to the campers themselves, who could be injured by falling limbs. These conditions, which pose risks to the public health and safety of the campers and the surrounding community led to remediation of the encampment. During encampment clean-up, team members found an extension cord spliced into the power-grid of a nearby apartment building, which further raises fire and safety concerns, and is illegal.
My mother used to tell me that if someone used more than one excuse to explain their behavior, they are probably lying. The city’s response to justifying the Ravenna Woods sweep included all six of the possible reasons to sweep an encampment. The city was saying Ravenna Woods supposedly broke all encampment codes and was a danger to society. When I reached out to FAS for documentation/photo proof of the “danger” Ravenna Woods presented, I was told the city’s blog post had all the information I needed.
The city enters these communities and destroys their belongings during the coldest months of the year. The heartbreaking photos shown below were taken an hour after the sweep at Ravenna Woods. The city eventually came back the next morning to clean up the area, but the belongings of these residents were lost forever.
This is what our progressive city does to our homeless.
Examining the pattern, timing, location of these sweeps, and further facets of such discriminatory over-policing, it’s beyond reasonable to infer that “proactive law enforcement” is mere pretext for criminalizing poverty and homelessness. This is portrayed to the public through establishment media’s propaganda that frames homeless encampments as cesspools of crime, drugs, and sewage and further portrays these humans as disposable.
SPD routinely policies homeless encampments, oftentimes without even a reported crime. For this reason, their initial task at encampments is to find a reason to ‘justify’ their presence, which has been for the purpose of destroying the shelters that people of the most socioeconomically vulnerable need for the winter months ahead.
They aren’t just relying on the sweeps to displace the houseless either. Even after the 72-hour notice had been posted at Ballard Commons, police from the North Precinct made a trip down to the encampment to hand out tickets that ranged from $500-$1000.
This ticket was issued on Dec. 8th. The sweep notice was posted on Dec. 7th.
This seems very counterproductive. Why notify the encampment of a sweep if you’re just going to force them out during their grace period given by the city? How is the city’s navigation team supposed to provide resources if there aren’t any residents left when they arrive?
90% of the residents had already fled the scene before the actual day of the sweep at Ballard Commons. The residents did not want to further risk arrest, and they knew these tickets would eventually turn into warrants that many of them already had. One of the residents even got arrested by the North Precinct for refusing to provide the officer his name during their so-called “crime search.” After being released from jail the next morning, the resident hurried back to Ballard Commons so he could finish packing his belongings before the sweep.
It seems there is a class war developing and it’s gaining strength. Over the period of a few days, I witnessed the needless policing of poverty and the criminalization of survival, all perpetuated as means to justify the destruction of a home and a community.
It’s Christmas tomorrow and many are just hoping to keep their homes through the cold holiday season. One resident at Ballard Commons, a 65-year-old woman, thought her Charlie Brown Christmas tree could convince the city to leave her house alone until at least after the New Year. Unfortunately, her tree failed to do the trick. And now, like many who have gotten swept, this elderly woman is wandering the streets, wondering why her progressive city continues to take everything from her.
This is what progressives do with their homeless.
DAE SHIK KIM HAWKINS JR. currently lives in Seattle WA and is a member of the Seattle Peoples Party. He is involved with many advocacy coalitions and grassroots community organizing groups. Dae Shik is a freelance writer that covers topics around religion, race, justice, and politics. Some publications that have published his work include Sojourners, Inheritance Magazine, The Establishment, and The Nation. Dae’s column, The Political Pulpit, can be read on the South Seattle Emerald every other Sunday. Follow him on Twitter @daedaejr
Featured image by Dae Shik Kim Hawkins Jr.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.