King County employees gather outside the courthouse downtown to protest for safer public spaces, Aug. 6, 2021. (Photo by Hannah Krieg)

March to ‘Protect Public Spaces’ Meets Anti-Sweep Protest at City Hall Camp

by Hannah Krieg

(This article was originally published by Real Change News and has been reprinted under an agreement.) 

On the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 11, two residents of the City Hall Park encampment gingerly pulled their belongings out of what was among the site’s last remaining tents. In and out of the tent, they emerged with blankets, a pink backpack, a shopping bag — things that made up their home in the park at the foot of the 14-level King County Courthouse.

One of the residents borrowed a lighter from a couple on a nearby bench. They talked like neighbors.

Behind them, a Seattle Parks and Recreation truck was parked and appeared to be hauling away garbage. One of the residents asked a worker in a vest a question that was ignored.

A group of young men passed a football back and forth at the south end of the park. To their left was the aid tent, which was stocked with water bottles and Coca-Cola. To their right about a dozen older people sat along a rounded concrete ledge that overlooks the corner of Yesler and Third Avenue.

A woman with a chin-length bob who has experienced homelessness herself is something of a regular at that ledge. And she knows today was anything but regular for City Hall Park.

“They’re all gone,” the woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said of the former residents. “It’s like the aliens came down and took them away.”

Fifty-two people used to live here.

On Tuesday, Aug. 10, shuttle buses came to take residents to the various shelter options coordinated by outreach organization JustCARE and its partners, according to KING 5.

On Aug. 12, fewer than 10 people remained in the park, according to Chloe Gale from REACH, one of the organizations involved in what they believe to be a more humane alternative to the cruel practice of police-led sweeps. As of that morning, JustCARE had moved 65 people, park residents and others, into shelter. Gale said the majority of the shelter is long-term transitional spaces.

“I’m happy for them, though,” the woman added as she adjusted her sunglasses. “It’s not permanent, but it’s something.”

Friday, Aug. 13: The park closed. Despite JustCARE insisting there would be no sweep of City Hall Park, three eyewitnesses told Real Change that over 30 police officers came to remove three remaining tents. Another eyewitness said, “The City can try to paint it however it wants. It’s a sweep — it’s inhumane, and it doesn’t help anyone.”

For six weeks prior, outreach workers coordinated individualized plans to relocate residents as tensions between the courthouse employees and their unhoused neighbors recently mounted. On June 25, after a fatal stabbing in the park the week before, 33 King County judges signed a letter pleading for the park’s closure. The same incident also prompted Republican King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn to introduce legislation that asked the County executive to shut down the park.

Before the closure project began, King County Executive Dow Constantine told The Seattle Times that the County would pay to get “every single person out of that park and into the supportive services they need.” These services would be organized by JustCARE. Constantine also asked Mayor Jenny Durkan to “make sure not one more person comes back and plunks down their tent there” and that the City “restore” the park.

King County employees again asked the County to address safety concerns at a rally on Aug. 6 that followed an attempted rape in a courthouse bathroom. Police reports said the perpetrator was unhoused. It is unclear if he was living at City Hall Park.

For the employees, this was a final straw with the context of previous cases of assault and harassment, which many say has been going on for years.

“This rally is about workplace safety,” said Darrah Hinton, the president of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Association. “It’s not about blaming our houseless and permanently excluded members of the community, who are often underserved and historically excluded, because county officials and City officials have underserved them and have caused this problem.”

The crowd was a sea of teal shirts with the text “Aware of my surroundings. Still not safe.” The rally’s speakers said that in the face of these incidents, employees were told to “be aware of their surroundings” and given safety tips that harken back to sexist victim-blaming tropes.

The courthouse employees did not specifically demand the park be cleared. However, at the event, representatives from JustCARE and REACH spoke of their agencies’ efforts to connect the park’s residents with shelter.

“The safety issues at the courthouse are not limited to [City Hall Park], and most of whom — who are living here — are not posing the safety concerns,” Tiara Dearbone from JustCARE said to the crowd. “Dispersing folks across the neighborhood will not alleviate courthouse safety and could make things worse. Many folks landed here because of nearby sweeps. Public safety means placing as many people as possible into lodging with providers who can meet their needs, oftentimes very complex needs.”

Gale said REACH wanted to be at the rally to give the residents of the encampment a voice so they would not be unduly blamed for the violence.

“People conflate homelessness — visible homelessness — with public safety concerns, and they are different issues,” Gale told Real Change.

Employees and their supporters — among them pro-Charter Amendment 29 mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell and Republican city attorney candidate Ann Davison, who My Northwest reports is committed to “protecting public spaces” when it comes to people sleeping outside, began the march around 12:30 p.m. As the protesters filed down the stairs toward the sidewalk, they were met with two counter-protesters adamant on drawing attention to what they believed to be anti-unhoused sentiment.

One of them was Lydia Sigo, armed with signage that said, “Who is allowed to exist in the city?” and “Racist Redlining + Gentrification + Criminalizing Homelessness.” Sigo is a frequent visitor to City Hall Park. She brings food and clothing from her Native tribe.

“I’m friends with the people at City Hall Park and I go there alone as a woman all the time,” Sigo said. “They’ve never hurt me. They’ve never scared me.”

Sigo continued, “As a Duwamish Suquamish person, I’ve seen them run my ancestors out of the city, and I feel like they are doing the same to Black people.”

One attendee, who works at a nearby shelter, said the event may appear from an outsider to be “anti-unhoused,” but he believes it is simply “pro-safety.”

“My concern is safety downtown,” said Erica Conway, who has worked at the courthouse for over 20 years. “This has been going on for years — way before City Hall Park.”

When asked if her concerns about safety downtown could be attributed to the growing homelessness crisis, Conway said, “I don’t know.”

The protesters walked along Jefferson Street, the road between the encampment and the courthouse. Jamal, a regular at City Hall Park who would not provide a last name for legal reasons, was sweeping the steps near the park’s aid tent. He did not even realize a protest had passed by. “What protest? There’s a lot of protests,” he said.

Jamal barbecues for the residents and volunteers with the encampment’s bible study. He does not believe the residents of the encampment pose a safety concern.

“I don’t think they should sweep this — that would be totally wrong,” Jamal said on Aug. 9, a week before the park was swept by police. “They’ve built a little community here. It’s their community. Let them have it. We got rid of all the riffraff; everybody’s cool with everybody; everybody knows each other. Let them be.”

Jamal kept sweeping the steps. A resident of the encampment walked over, and the two made small talk like neighbors. Real Change spoke to several residents of City Hall Park. One said he did not care that the park was closing, but most wanted to talk about something other than leaving.

“This may be the only place they feel safe in the city,” Sigo said of the residents of City Hall Park. “Did these people ever think about that?”

Hannah Krieg is a Seattle-based journalist dedicated to news coverage that puts people first. Hannah enjoys writing about local and state politics, social issues, and anything that lets her talk with activists. You can find more of her writing at Crosscut, the International Examiner, and Real Change News.

📸 Featured Image: King County employees gather outside the courthouse downtown to protest for safer public spaces, Aug. 6, 2021. (Photo by Hannah Krieg)

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