Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tim Burgess' Class War

I know something about panhandlers. For fifteen years, I’ve worked at Real Change, in Belltown. We’re across the street from DSHS, a few doors over from a residential program for low-income mentally ill people, and half a block from a convenience store that does a brisk trade in malt liquor and fortified wine. When I walk down the street, I get asked for change and cigarettes about every hundred yards. Sheer volume dictates that I mostly say no.

There’s a few regulars and a rotating cast of familiar types. There’s the elderly mentally ill woman who never seems to remember the answer is no, and the whiney guy who smokes about three packs a day of Other People’s cigarettes. There’s a few sharp operators, with stories of bus trips to Tacoma and cars out of gas, who possess more advanced skills. There are the tweaky junkies, whose eyes shine with sad desperation, and a regular crop of alcoholics who rarely get more than a few blocks from their next bottle.

How many of these are “aggressive?” I can only think of a few minor incidents over the past fifteen years. With these, the everyday misery of the street comes with more of an attitude. It’s a little amazing this doesn’t happen more often. For the most part, Seattle’s very poor endure their suffering rather too politely.

Councilmember Tim Burgess will soon introduce legislation to the Seattle City Council to restrict panhandling in Seattle. He says his proposal simply sets a few minimal standards of behavior in the interest of public safety. Not true. Tim Burgess is sucking up to money, pandering to fear, and punishing the poor.

Laws that target the visible poor are in increasingly popular municipal strategy for managing the contradictions of radical inequality. They lead to deepened poverty and the expanding incarceration of the very poor. These laws represent an immense failure of political and moral imagination, and simply sweep the wreckage of a failed system out of sight. We have to do better.

Life in the Big City

If you want to see what comes of thirty-plus years of growing inequality, take a walk downtown in any American city. Great wealth and enormous misery exist in parallel universes that uncomfortably collide.

Over the past three decades, the manufacturing jobs that were at the core of most urban economies left, leaving cities to either reinvent or die. Seattle is a shining exemplar of the post-globalization urban center. One is either a professional or a service worker, with little opportunity in between.

For those who struggle with addiction, disability, mental illness, and illiteracy, the lower rungs of the wage ladder are often out of reach. Their numbers are growing, and their survival depends upon the urban-based services that surrounding towns and rural areas are ill-equipped to afford. They are the result of unconscionable system failure, they are here, and they are not going away.

Meanwhile, the downtown has been reinvented as an urban professional’s paradise, filled with shopping, dining, and cultural opportunities aimed at attracting conventions, tourists, and downtown condo dwellers.

The politics of downtown development in Seattle have always been linked to the harassment and repression of the visibly poor. The Sidran sit-lie ordinances were passed as the capstone to the Rhodes Project, the early 80’s downtown revitalization that gave us Nordstrom’s and Westlake Center. The construction of Benaroya Hall a few years later came linked to an uncompromising attack by downtown interests on a proposed urban hygiene center less than a block away.

More recently, the downtown condo boom brought a zero-tolerance policy on urban camping, systematic homeless sweeps, and the removal of public toilets. And now, the collapse of the housing market, with its clear threat to the very survival of downtown condo developers, has brought a new round of class warfare dressed up as common sense.

The Burgess proposal, which hasn’t yet been submitted to council and is not yet in writing, bans panhandling near ATMs and cars, at street intersections and freeway onramps and anytime between the hours of dusk and dawn. These “time, place, and manner” restrictions have, unlike more straightforward attempts to ban panhandling, held up well to constitutional appeal.

As the economy has slipped into what may be a permanent contraction, the ability of localities to offer the services that the feds won’t has been further eroded. The shrinking human services safety net is being replaced by a prison state for the very poor. One in ninety-nine Americans is now behind bars. One in three African American men live under the supervision of the Department of Corrections. If none of your friends or family have been locked up, odds are you’re not Black or poor.

Do we need more excuses to arrest poor people in Seattle? Tim Burgess thinks the answer is yes.

Milking Fear is Easy. Change is Hard.

Recently on KUOW, Tim Burgess described a frightening encounter with a freeway on-ramp panhandler who banged on his car window that very morning in pursuit of a handout. Despite my ample experience with onramp panhandling, I’ve never had this happen, and wonder how many of us have.

Panhandlers do, however, make us uncomfortable. Even I, sitting in my car awaiting the on-ramp timing light, will sometimes avoid the gaze of the sign-holding needy. To be made fidgety, however, is different than being threatened. The only threat here is to the well-padded comfort zone of affluent Seattle.

Aggressive panhandling is already against the law. If someone taps on my car window looking for a dollar, I’m free to call 911 on my cell phone to report the incident. If the police have nothing better to do, perhaps they’ll eventually respond.

The Burgess plan pre-empts the very possibility that someone might make us uncomfortable. The “broken windows” theory upon which his proposal rests identifies visible public begging as a variety of “social disorder” that leads to a downward spiral of urban decay. Allow panhandlers, the theory goes, and you will soon have AK-47 toting drug dealers ruling the streets in Jeep Grand Cherokees.

These laws, which identify visible poverty as an indicator of social disorder and seek to eliminate potential sources of urban discomfort, pander to fear and deny the collective responsibility we have to one another. They solve nothing, and are a victim-blaming short-term response to wholesale system failure.

The answers, while not easy, are hardly rocket science. Drug decriminalization and increased support for drug and alcohol treatment. Hedges against gentrification and deeper commitment to affordable housing. Economic stimulus spending to create work for the poor. Universal health care and adequate mental health services. Fair taxation to increase the burden of social responsibility upon the rich.

The Burgess proposal to ban panhandling is a mean-spirited attack on the visibly poor, and takes Seattle further down our twenty-year path of pandering to the affluent at the expense of the most desperate. This is not a solution to anything. It is the problem.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Ghost of Tom Joad

Men walkin' long the railroad tracks
Goin someplace there's no goin' back
Highway patrol choppers comin' up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge

Shelter line stretchin' round the corner
Welcome to the New World Order
Families sleepin' in their cars in the southwest
No home no job no peace no rest

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
Searchin' for the ghost of Tom Joad

He pulls a prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag
Waitin' for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box 'neath the underpass

Got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and gun in your hand
Sleepin' on a pillow of solid rock
Bathin' in the city aqueduct

The highway is alive tonight
Where its headed everybody knows
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
Waitin on the ghost of Tom Joad

Now Tom said mom, wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there's a fight against the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me mom I'll be there

Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand
Or a decent job or a helpin' hand
Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free
Look in their eyes mom you'll see me.

Well the highway is alive tonight
But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad

Thursday, June 11, 2009

State Trooper

This one evolved over a week. After I got comfortable with the bass line and then got inside it to work my way out again the song began to happen. Once I put the lead in there, it became a thing to behold. This is supposed to move like a black 79 Buick Skylark with a body in the trunk, doing a steady, unobtrusive, 62 MPH.

Monday, June 1, 2009

If I Were King ...

Here's a tight interview that ran today on America's Disappeared, a program of the Prisoners Education Network that airs monthly on KSER 90.7 FM in Everett. I go into the links between homelessness and incarceration, talk up the Initiative 100 campaign to stop Seattle's proposed new city jail, and describe what would happen if I were in charge.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Masters of War

Tonight I found a cool groove on the Dylan classic that kind of takes it away from sixties folk dirge and makes it sound as though it was recorded maybe sometime in the past decade. The song is, after all, timeless. The photo is of General Peter Pace, Chairmen of the joint Chiefs of Staff. It links to an article about him saying homosexuality is "immoral." Dick.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Blues for Michael Garcia

I've been staring down the piano I bought last December for awhile and got out my "You Can Play Piano" book about a month ago. The "Notes on the Keyboard" explanation on page 4 was very helpful. I haven't re-opened it since. A few days later, as I was absorbing the news of Michael Garcia's death the night before, I started playing with a minor key blues thing that became, in my mind, his song. This one's for Michael.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Muddy Waters

I spent most of my drive time the last few days hitting repeat on this song off Nick Cave's Kicking Against The Pricks album. I'm pretty sure I've heard Bruce Springsteen do it as well. It's a goddamn metaphor for dislocation, desperation, and being swept away. After a few days, I got clear that this one's supposed to be hard, dark, and bluesy as hell. That's actually an acoustic guitar in there. Garageband is amazing.

Mary, grab the baby, the river's rising
Muddy water taking back the land
The old-frame house, she can't take-a one more beating
Ain't no use to stay and make a stand

Well the morning light shows water in the valley
Daddy's grave just went below the line
Things to say, you just can't take em with ya
This flood will swallow all you've left behind

Won't be back to start all over
Cause what I felt before is gone

Mary, take the child, the river's rising
Muddy water taking back my home
The road is gone, there's just one way to leave here
Turn my back on what I've left below
Shifting land, broken farms around me
Muddy water's changing all I know

It's hard to say just what I'm losing
Ain't never felt so all alone

Mary, take the child, the river's rising
Muddy water taking back my home

Won't be back to start all over
Cause what I felt before is gone

Mary, take the child, the river's rising
Muddy water's changing all I know
Muddy water's changing all I know
Lord, this muddy water is taking back my home

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Sick But Awesome

This is wrong on so many levels, but brilliant nonetheless. Take the best scene of the best horror movie of all time, make it into a sick musical, and then have some genius come along and do the whole damn thing in Legos. It's a cultural landmark by accretion. Amazing.

Friday, March 27, 2009

My Shiny New Retro Sears Guitar

One of these days this blog will get back to substance, and I'll again recommend coming here to friends, but for now, here's a picture of my new 70's era Sears brand Harmony electric guitar with its groovy surfer-dude pick-up and the 1970 Silvertone tube amp (also by Sears) that I got along with it. They have a sound of their own that I'm learning to love. The amp comes with a cool little foot switch that kicks in the tremelo (it was a simpler time). Garageband kicks it up a bit in the Pablo Picasso version above, played on my new toy.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Little Red Riding Hood

I got on this today by messing with the little E run that starts this song, and it kind of went from there. This is what burn out looks like. It's not pretty. Above is an image from a Bloomingdale window display. Below is one of those sophisticated sexy twenties proto-Mickey Mouse cartoons that I can't get enough of.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Pablo Picasso, Or The Further Devolution of Me

This blog has gone to hell since I started playing guitar more, joined Facebook, and got busier and more stressed than I've been in my entire life. But I do find time to play. Here's Pablo Picasso, by me, influenced by the Modern Lovers, John Cale, and possibly The Stooges. My staccato sixteenth notes suck, but that's why they call it "Garageband." Below is John Cale in 1984, being very John Cale.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra's Phaedra, by Tim and Revel. Don't ask me what this song is about. I don't know. But it's cool. Very cool.

Friday, March 6, 2009

I Embrace Socialism

My interview with the Socialist Worker published yesterday, and was a rare opportunity to describe my notions of how homelessness and incarceration link as issues and the overall landscape of our times. They did a really nice job of going to the core of a very long interview and making me sound smart. I'm beginning to get past my innate bias against the silliness of the sectarian left and am learning to love the International Socialists. God help me. Here's an excerpt:

IF SEATTLE continues down this road of criminalizing poverty and decides to go ahead with the new jail, what should we expect in the future?

WHAT'S FUNDAMENTALLY at stake here and everywhere is our vision of the future. We're sliding down a path of a continual increase in the numbers of incarcerated and homeless, continual impoverishment on the lower end of the scale, continual erosion of the middle class and the increased economic vulnerability that comes along with that. More vulnerability to falling over the edge, into that class of people who exist in the land of no return.

There is a lot of mystification around the homelessness issue. You get these complete BS reports out of Washington and the Department of Housing and Urban Development that have all this rosy news about how homelessness is being ended. Anybody who is on the ground dealing with homelessness and seeing the reality knows that there are more people, that the desperation has increased, that things are worse now than they have ever been. This rosy view that things are working is a big smokescreen to placate people.

Homelessness cannot be ended without addressing the root causes that are driving it, that have to do with the economies of labor, and who wins and who loses in this system. The government isn't going to address that, because it can't without threatening itself.

So the response that you see is one of appearing to address homelessness that is really about maintaining their own political legitimacy. They cannot ignore the moral crisis of homelessness without appearing unjust and illegitimate. They cannot address the crisis of homelessness without going to these root causes, which they're institutionally ill-equipped to do anything about.

A theologian named Walter Bruggeman says that situations of cultural acceptance breed accommodating complacency. I think that is the core insight that applies to the times we live in.

As a culture, we have accommodated ourselves to what, at a glance, should be a completely unacceptable reality. There are institutions in place whose primary purpose is to make that accommodation acceptable, to lull us into the sense that things are more or less okay, that the system is functioning normally, and that there is a kind of benign welfare state that is doing its best to take care of people.

That is all an ideological smokescreen. The reality is that about 10 percent of us have been completely written off, thrown to the wolves and have no alternative but to continually cycle through survival systems. Just bare subsistence survival activity--the desperation of which would blow most people's minds if they really understood it--vulnerability to incarceration, and very little prospect of ever escaping that system. That is the core reality of our time, that anybody who has a sense of universal love and concern for their fellow human beings should be completely outraged by.

What we see in the Third World should give us all nightmares. There's been radical growth of urban slums in the Third World over the last two decades--also a response to the global economy, where globalization has driven the rural poor into the containment of the urban slums. The larger ones are 25-40 million people who are living in these shantytowns, where people are living in toxic waste dumps of low-value land, which means floodplains, earthquake-prone slopes, cities built on shit, literally. Smells horrible, no infrastructure, rampant disease. It is a vision of Dante's hell.

The reason we don't have more of that here--although I do think we're starting to see it--is that some of those contested urban spaces are still being contested. And the containment systems are less visible, but are equally horrendous--for instance, the conditions within the prison system, where rape is casually accepted as an unofficial method of dehumanization, of discipline really.

The expansion of maximum-security institutions, in which people are subjected to a form of ongoing torture; the acceptance of dehumanizing conditions within emergency shelter systems--they're different containment systems that dehumanize in different ways.

So one future is continuing along that trajectory. And the economic collapse in the U.S. offers the potential that that curve will again shoot up. In recent years, the rates of growth in incarceration and homelessness have declined slightly--they haven't stopped growing, but they're growing less rapidly.

But our capacity to mitigate this disaster through the provision of human services--which at least offers some sort of a lifeline to those who are most vulnerable--is being reduced, and horrendous cuts are on the table. So we're very likely to see an acceleration in all these trends.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Khalil Osiris

Tonight I went over to Interaction/Transition, an ex-offender re-entry program up in the CD, to hear Khalil Osiris, a man who earned two degrees from Boston University during his twenty years of incarceration in Ohio and went on to be one of the nations leading experts on prisoner re-entry and education. He's an amazing presence. A soul-driven soldier of the dispossessed. Brilliant, charismatic, operating from a place of love, and real as a block of granite.

I didn't go as a reporter, but I reached into my wallet twice to scrawl on the back of a bank slip. The first was in response to a question about compassion fatigue in the helping professions. After the usual advice about self-care, he said something brilliant. Listen to people, he said. Really listen. Listen deeply, listen intuitively, and then ask this. "Given that the situation is exactly as you have described, what is the best thing you can do for yourself, and how can I help you." You could see this hit people around the room like lightening. Powerful..

The other highlight was when he described human dignity as a force against reaction and repression. People who truly possess their own humanity, he said, will win. Then he walked over to a re-entry client standing near the wall, took him by the shoulders, and said "I believe in your worth and capacity for good more than I believe in the system's capacity to treat you with dignity." There's a sentence that you can sit with for awhile.

I/T Director Scott Washington and Osiris have a long history of working together, and he gets to Seattle a lot. Next time, I'm organizing him an audience and getting it on video. It's my damn mission. Anyone this good needs to be seriously seen and heard, and the two brief clips I found on Youtube just don't do him justice. I'm there for this guy, anytime.