Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty

The official 2007 Annual One Night Count of People Who Are Homeless in King County, WA, prepared by the Seattle King County Coalition for the Homeless is out, and it's an impressive document on a number of levels. This is the results of the early morning street and shelter count on January 26, 2007, which found 7,839 people homeless in King County at that particular point in time. 2,159 were without shelter. 2,368 were in emergency shelters, and 3,312 were in transitional housing. Over the course of a year, one might expect about three times that number to be homeless in King County.

Let's begin with the superficial stuff. The report is beautiful. I'm used to one night count reports being done in Word. Maybe a few cool tables, or some fancy-shmancy tabbing, a border of two, but this ... this is something else. Using just black and yellow ink on quality paper and a full bleed, the designers have transformed the annual SKCCH report into something akin to a work of art. It felt too nice to write on. Bonelli Design and Girlie Press, with funding from CEHKC, knocked this one out of the park.

Next, this report has, believe it or not, literary flair. You actually want to read it. Well, most of it anyway. The five pages of charts in the back that break down the characteristics of those in shelter and transitional housing didn't do much for me, although they were lovely. I'm probably just not a big enough dweeb to appreciate them. I compared the breakdowns to those of 2003 and 2000 to see if there was any news and found none. Numbers were either more or less consistent, or the fluctuations didn't tell any story that I could see.

Otherwise, it's the same old story. People of color are disproportionately represented. The vast majority of those in transitional housing are families with kids. About half are between 26 and 54 years old. Most earn less than 30% of median income. Blah, blah, blah. It's good information, but I've never been one to believe that drilling endlessly into the data does much to end homelessness. Rather the opposite, I think.

All the data in the world doesn't change the fact that priorities are driven more by funding opportunities and politics than by actual information. It's not like we're these completely rational creatures who weigh all the data and then make decisions. It's the other way around. Much of the time, decision-making is based on power relationships and institutional self-interest, and then justified by the data.

But some things are more obvious that others.

We need more affordable housing. Many people don't earn enough to pay area rents. Treatment and mental health services are pathetically inadequate to the problem. And on January 25, 2007, a night where temperatures hovered just five degrees above freezing, at least two-thousand-one-hundred-fifty-nine people in King County were literally on the street.

You don't need a federally-mandated Homeless Management Information System to tell you what to do with that. The needs are overwhelming, and we're a long way from needing a more finely calibrated response.

My favorite parts of the report is where the human cost of what this means comes across. And repeatedly we are asked to not lose sight of the fact that these are people, not just bits of data to be crunched for use in the next report to the feds.
As you read the report and examine the tables on these pages, please keep in mind that these numbers represent people living in King County. Every tick mark on every tally sheet that volunteers return with on the night of the count represents a person with the same hopes and aspirations we all share: for safety and health, and for an opportunity to make tomorrow better than today. When people volunteer for the Street Count they are often sobered and outraged by the sight of fellow human beings attempting to shelter themselves clumsily or ingeniously from cold, rain, wind, desperation, and hopelessness. The release of this report is an occasion to recall those emotions – to renew and strengthen our private and public commitments to act on the necessity of ending homelessness.
Scattered throughout the report are quotes from homeless people and impressions of those helping with the count that help to convey the colossal human tragedy that these numbers represent.
“The neighborhood where we counted seems more inhospitable to homeless this year than last. There are more gated, locked and brightly lit areas. People last year were sleeping and this year they were walking or sitting in bus stops. We saw 25 this year; 29 last year."

“We saw 49 people in our team. One person was in a car, others were in sleeping bags and blankets, sleeping on the pavement. There were men, women and children. One group I saw looked like a family, with two bigger bodies and two small ones. They were sleeping close together under the doorway of a large building. There was one small bag of possessions, and not much else.”

“We counted 76 homeless [people], mostly in cars and campers near the railroad tracks. There were four people who had climbed in behind a dumpster to sleep—guess it made a good wind block.”
But what I appreciate most about this year's report is that the information has been throughly contextualized. We hear about the new areas added and why. We are told that new security measures, fences, and bright lights in the city may have simply driven homelessness further out where it occurs unseen and uncounted. New interviewing techniques are added to help counter the deficiencies of the count itself.

We are cautioned not to make too much of fluctuations from year to year, as there are many variables that may cause these, and warned that the count is inexact. We are reminded that the goal of many who sleep outside is to not be found. We are informed that, since the count was moved from October to the last Thursday of January to coordinate with HUD, comparisons to previous years are not statistically valid, and the decreases of a few percentiles in 2006 and 2007 therefore tell us little. We are made aware that the federal definition of homelessness excludes many who consider themselves so, and that very few homeless people receive benefits outside of food stamps. Less than half receive even this.

We are advised to take this year's reported reduction of homelessness by four percent with a huge grain of salt.

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, however, has no interest in these finer distinctions. According to the USICH website, the United Way, riding on the heels of the success of the Ten Year Plan, needs our help to raise another $25 million.


SEATTLE, WASHINGTON. June 2007. The historic Paramount Theatre was the site for an equally historic announcement by United Way of King County President and CEO Jon Fine and 2007-2008 Campaign Chair John Stanton that the United Way will raise $25 million to provide permanent supportive housing to 1,000 of the county's most vulnerable citizens.

Since [the] launch of the King County 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness two years ago, street homelessness has been reduced by 10% each year. Funds raised through this dedicated campaign, will help achieve even more rapid measurable and visible results. The funds will be "highly leveraged through partnerships with the City of Seattle, King County, and the King County and Seattle Housing Authorities," said Mr. Fine. Additional case managers will be hired to do outreach to those being released from institutions and homeless people living on the street , and all housing will include wraparound mental health, and chemical dependency and employment services.

The announcement was made at the United Way of King County 2nd annual "Report to the Community" Breakfast attended by more than 600 business and community leaders. The keynote speaker, Boeing Commercial Airplanes President and CEO Scott Carson hailed the effort, and noted that while Boeing " is about making the impossible happen, ending homelessness is not something that is impossible. It's just hard." Campaign Chair and wireless technology entrepreneur Stanton said," We can end chronic homelessness in King County. It's not only the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do. It makes sense for all of us -- individuals and business alike."

Also speaking at the breakfast was Karen Marcotte Solimano, chair of the United Way of King County homeless planning council ("Out of the Rain"), who said that the community's success in ending chronic homelessness would energize efforts to end homelessness for all homeless people.
Awesome. I love the big round numbers and the bold vision. For just $25,000 a unit (because these dollars are so "highly leveraged") United Way is going to get 1,000 chronically homeless people off the street. And all they have to do first is raise $25 million.

At ten percent a year, we're pretty much right on track, huh? Just keep the dough coming to United Way, don't make anyone mad or uncomfortable with any talk about "inequality," and we'll make those numbers work somehow.

Anyway, I'm glad someone's being honest. The 2007 report is a nice piece of truth-telling that is clear on both its purpose and its limitations. It tells the story that needs to be told, and doesn't succumb to the self-serving propaganda that we see from the professional fundraisers at United Way and the political appointees at USICH.

Monday, July 30, 2007

It Could of Happened Here

Up 'til now, the classic fictionalized treatment of fascism in America was Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here, which gave us the famous line, "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross." While Lewis' 1935 book is an enduring classic, it is now joined by Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, which, published in 2004, is now showing up in remainder bins everywhere for six or seven bucks. If you haven't picked this one up yet, now is the time.

Roth fictionalizes his own childhood growing up in Newark, NJ to consider how his family history might have looked in a different sort of America. In Roth's alternate version, instead of FDR being re-elected for a third term in 1940, he is defeated by isolationist Charles Lindbergh, who blames the Jews for trying to drag America into World War Two. Roth isn't making that part up. Lindbergh was indeed a anti-semitic isolationist, as this speech, delivered in 1941 at an America First rally clearly attests. While Lindbergh did become active in politics and was encouraged to run for high office, his isolationism and pro-Nazi statements made him politically radioactive after Pearl Harbor settled the intervention question once and for all.

The back of the book contains a number of historic chronologies of main characters, as well as briefs on the more minor persons involved. Henry Ford, the father of the assembly line, had a soft spot for fascism as well, and his Dearborn Independent newspaper, to which Ford dealers were forced to subscribe, ran a regular column called The International Jew, The World's Problem. These were later published in a four-volume set in a book of the same title.

In Roth's book, the election of Lindbergh unleashes and legitimates an undercurrent of American anti-Semitism that leads to pogroms and culminates in an unsuccessful fascist putsch that features a near war with Canada, imposition of martial law, and the arrest of leading Jews and even Roosevelt himself.

While Roth has been criticized for slandering the dead, it seems to me that those such as Lindbergh who were unkindly fictionalized richly deserved their treatment. It's always interesting to consider the big historical What Ifs. In this case, there were clearly those in America who favored an isolationist course and admired fascism. America's non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War and treatment of those who fought in Spain as "premature anti-fascists" is evidence that things could have gone a different way.

The fact is, however, that America turned on the Lindberghs and Fords, and was disgusted by their pro-fascist and anti-semitic sentiments. Fascism is nothing if not opportunistic, and a fascism of today would look differently than that of the thirties and forties. While we now see many alarming signs, I still believe that any American leader who grabs for power in this manner will ultimately find himself disgraced, out of power, and reviled by history.

Rich Lang has called an emergency meeting at Trinity United Methodist Church, on Aug. 1 at 7 p.m. to discuss an appropriate response to the President's latest Executive Order. These are serious times. Be there if you can.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Scenes From Lunch

I didn't take nearly as many pictures of the North American Street Newspaper Association conference as I should have, and all but three of them sucked. The guy above was at the Portland State University farmers market where we had lunch Saturday. He had his Rogue Creamery booth next to the artisan bread people that I bought my little olive roll from, and I asked him if I could just buy enough cheese for lunch. His smallest quantities were about twice what I wanted. He thought a minute, and poured some of his cubed jalepeno samples into a little plastic tub for me, and then refused to take any money for it. When I insisted, he motioned to my NASNA conference badge and said, "No, you do good work." It kind of made my day. The cheese was awesome.

The photo below is three guys from Vancouver, BC that I worked with over lunch to help them think through their relaunch of Street Corner, the paper there. Is it just me, or are Canadians way nicer than we are? Anyway, what's been a struggling and sleepy paper has received a huge injection of energy and support, and they're looking to take the thing up several notches to make it more like what we do here in Seattle. We had a great conversation that ended too soon, but I'd do anything for these guys. When I took their picture, I asked them for a hipster band pose and they pulled it off brilliantly. Look for a cool new paper in Vancouver soon. These guys rock.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Emperor Bush II

Today I opened a conversation with the line, "So, on the drive up, I was thinking of Emperor Constantine ...," and my good friends Wes, Anitra, and Bonnie thought that was pretty damn amusing. Once they stopped laughing, I expounded upon my great insight over lunch.

President Bush, as you are most likely unaware, recently criminalized the anti-war movement by signing an Executive Order that clears the way for the seizure of your property if you interfere with the war effort. While this probably wouldn't actually be used unless, oh, say, martial law were declared, it's there, and the vice is closing.

As one analysis on the website of the Centre for Research on Globalization put it,
This latest executive order criminalizes the peace movement. It must be viewed in relation to various pieces of "anti-terrorist" legislation, the gamut of presidential and national security directives, etc., which are ultimately geared towards repealing constitutional government in the case of an impending "national emergency".

The war criminals in high office are intent upon repressing all forms of dissent which question the legitimacy of the war in Iraq. The executive order combined with the existing anti terrorist legislation is eventually intended to be used against the anti-war and civil rights movements. It can be used to seize the assets of antiwar groups in America as well as block the property and activities of non-governmental humanitarian organizations providing relief in Iraq, seizing the assets of alternative media involved in a critique of the US-led war, etc.
Which brings me to Constantine. As I grew up Catholic, I learned that Constantine was the benevolent Roman Emperor who found God, ended the regrettable practice of feeding Christians to lions, and made theirs the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire, thus paving the way for Catholicism for which we are all eternally grateful.

Jacob Burkhardt, the great classicist and historian who had the distinction of being Friedrich Nietzsche's mentor, offers a more nuanced version in his astonishing work The Age of Constantine the Great. In this, he describes a Rome coming unglued at the seams. Religious practice in 300 CE varied so widely as to be almost incomprehensible. What united them all, however, was a hatred of the Christians, who offered a convenient scapegoat for the many military setbacks that assailed the Empire.

Constantine's genius was in recognizing that a.) this negative blood lust was an unsustainable downward spiral, and b.) that the dizzying array of pagan cult practices that typified Roman religion had no center and was incapable of offering a unifying idea. Christianity, however, had this straight line of authority from God thing going on that was rather appealing, and offered numerous other points of unity as well. But only if some uniformity could be created, for there were a number of unsettled issues.

It's been said that the law is like a sausage. You really don't want to know how it's made. The same can be said of Christianity.

Among the outstanding issues was the question of whether divinity was innate, or something external and in need of mediation by a third party. There being power to be derived from the latter formulation, Constantine acted decisively, giving us the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which Catholics everywhere now treat as if it were pretty much the entire fucking Bible.

The Gnostics, on the other hand were screwed. It was Great to be a Christian under Constantine, but only a certain party-line-towing sort of Christian. For the others, the killings continued. To make things interesting, after he killed you, he would destroy your family as well by seizing all of ones property and assets. All heretical texts were to be destroyed, under penalty of death and penury for your family.

So, apparently, this is just what Empires do.

It's interesting that the property seizure tactic was pioneered against those accused of drug crimes, which few will step forward to defend, and has now been cleared for use against the rest of us.

A few months ago, I'd have argued against impeachment proceedings as being too divisive and tactically stupid. I no longer believe this. The greater evil, I think, would be to allow the legacy of this Presidency to remain unchallenged, and leave in place the considerable damage he has done to Democracy and the constitution.



Q: What do you get when you cross Vice President Cheney and a potato?
A: A Dick-tater.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Welcome to Portland

I drove to Portland today for the North American Street Newspaper Association conference. Cruise control at 78 MPH is a wonderful thing. Especially when you get to accelerate. In case anyone's curious, it takes three Leonard Cohen CDs to get from Seattle to Portland. Songs of Love and Hate, Ten New Songs, and The Future. Actually, I listened to Democracy (the video of this live posted above nearly brings me to tears every time; click link for lyrics) and Always twice, but that's just how that CD is supposed to be played.

There are around 50 people from 17 papers from around the US and Canada here. It's a pretty DIY affair. Most of the food is donated. We're in the University of Portland dorms. The whole conference is taking place in some classroom space on the 2nd floor. There's like 4 cheap places to eat across the street. I could go through the whole conference without spending more that twenty bucks or walking more than half a block. Street Roots organized the thing on about $8,000. They're amazing.

So I was more than a little disappointed to see how Willamette Week welcomes a poor people's conference to town. They ran an unbelievably snarky article painting this as some kind of a poverty pimp conference because we're not all homeless.

The Seattle Weekly has met their match. Reporter Rachel Schiff fastened on the fact that small, cash strapped, organizations prioritize sending staff people instead of homeless vendors to paint a picture of streetpapers gone corporate. Then she uses the recent growth and success of Street Roots to support her thesis. If they're succeeding, she implies, it must be because they've sold out.

I spent an hour with her on the phone over the course of three phone calls, gave in depth answers to her questions, and emailed her the NASNA strategic plan and the background document behind it that describes a severely under developed movement with a dire need for technical assistance. What does she print?

Street Roots' success contrasts with many street papers that are struggling or showing no growth. Former NASNA president and current board member Timothy Harris attributes that stagnation to failures to improve content or to operate as a small business.

"Novelty gets a paper off the ground," Harris says. "Then the product must evolve or die."

I'm quite sure I never said "the product." I heard one of our staff do that once and told him it bugged me. It's just not a phrase I would use. But it's a nice way to make me sound like some kind of a dick with an MBA hanging on my wall.

I do this work for fifteen years without ever seeing this sort of thing, and then in the space of four months, we see articles asking if street papers are too successful in the Seattle Weekly, Utne Reader, and Willamette Week.

What's up with that?

Instead of being effective and actually helping people, we're supposed to fulfill their romantic fantasies about the poor by being these little rags that homeless people put out on old typewriters as they're trying to keep warm on a steam grate somewhere. Fuck that. And Fuck the Willamette Weekly.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Bringing Up the F-word

It's hard to talk about the threat of fascism without sounding like an alarmist crank. But more and more, the F word is showing up. Robin Meyers used it last year in Why the Christian Right is Wrong. Kevin Phillips, a one-time Nixon speech writer is also concerned with "proto-fascist" tendencies in the Christian Right. Local journalist David Neiwert tracks developments on the extreme right on his excellent Orcinus blog. Chris Hedges, the distinguished war correspondent with an M.Div. from Harvard has a scary book out, and then there's the new book on the Blackwater Security forces to keep you up nights as well.

And that's just what comes up on the Real Change site.

Reinhold Niebuhr's The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness, published in 1944, is a discussion of democratic theory that expands on many of the ideas first published in 1936 in the landmark Moral Man, Immoral Society. The book examines what was the key question of the time: how did this happen?

It's a question that almost always gets asked too late. Niebuhr described the blindness of liberals to what in hindsight is often all too obvious in a passage that is as relevant today as it was 63 years ago.
According the the scripture, "the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light." This observation fits the modern situation. Our democratic civilization has been built, not by children of darkness but by foolish children of light. It has been under attack by the children of darkness, by the moral cynics, who declare that a strong nation need acknowledge no law beyond its strength. It has come close to complete disaster under this attack, not because it accepted the same creed as the cynics, but because it underestimated the power of self-interest, both individual and collective, in modern society. The children of light have not been as wise as the children of darkness.

The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will. They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will. ... Modern democratic civilization is, in short, sentimental rather than cynical. It has a ... fatuous and superficial view of man. It does not know that the same man who is ostensibly devoted to "the common good" may have desires and ambitions, hopes and fears, which set him at variance with his neighbor.

It must be understood that the children of light are foolish not merely because the underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness. They underestimate this power among themselves. The democratic world came so close to disaster not merely because it never believed that Nazism possessed the demonic fury which it avowed. Civilization refused to recognize the power of class interest in its own communities.

My friend Rev. Rich Lang at Trinity United Methodist Church in Ballard has called an Emergency Meeting at his church for August 1, at 7 pm. I'm going. Rev. Lang has been concerned with the growing signs around us for some time, but a recent Executive Order signed by the President has him particularly concerned. His column from today's Real Change is reproduced below.
We are in a grave constitutional crisis with a President who seemingly wants to be a king, and a Congress unable and unwilling to oppose him. This administration is building, plank by plank, the framework for military dictatorship. Already in place is a global governing philosophy that uses the military as muscle for invading other nations for the purpose of social engineering and massive corporate profits. The Defense Authorization Act of 2006 empowers the President to impose martial law in the event of a terrorist incident. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2007 permits the President to command National Guard troops without the consent of state governors. The National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive gives the President dictatorial powers in the event of a “catastrophic incident.” The Military Commissions Act suspends the right of habeas corpus. This short list doesn’t include widespread wiretapping of citizens, construction of concentration camps, private armies, an ever-expanding military budget, increased government secrecy, non-cooperation with Congress, and the inevitable bankrupting of domestic budgets. And, now, the latest grab for power has the Executive announcing that “our property” can be seized for dissent against the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

We are in a very grave constitutional crisis, folks. I encourage every one of you to make a noise in the offices of Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and your congressional representatives. Silence is the death of democracy.

But I think we also need to begin the process of organizing some form of resistance, protest, and/or strategy for impeachment. Our politicians are fiddling while democracy burns. Feeding from common corporate money sources, they are no longer worthy of our trust. Indeed, they have betrayed us.

For example, almost daily some media figure or political operative drops a hint that our country might be hit again by the terrorists. Ask yourself: In the event of another catastrophic occurrence, can you trust this government to stay true to the idealism of democracy, and the laws of limited checks and balances of power, encoded in the Constitution? Can you trust Congress to represent the people?

I certainly cannot. We are, I repeat, in a grave, surreal even, constitutional crisis. We are dealing with a spirituality of tyranny, an unleashing of ruthless, arrogant power that corrupts all it touches.

It’s time to get angry and cast out this unclean spirit from our land. Such a statement can now get me arrested, disappeared, and stripped of all assets. Is this America? Is this the country in which we have been raised? And how long, friend, until you yourself awaken only to discover that there is now a knock on your door?

I call upon all who care to assemble at Trinity United Methodist Church, on Aug. 1 at 7 p.m. There we will begin to strategize how to reclaim the power of the people, the birthright we share from our heritage of democracy.

Knock. Knock.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Definition of Insanity

On Tuesday, I went to a press conference at the Lora Lake Apartments in Burien, where, for once, the news was good. Representatives from King County, the Committee to End Homelessness, and the Church Council of Greater Seattle stood behind Port Commissioner Bob Edwards and offered a united front on the question of preserving affordable housing.

If Edwards can bring the other Port commissioners and the City of Burien around, there will be 162 fewer units of affordable family housing lost to market forces this year.

This region now has less rental housing available than two years ago. Over that time, 4,000 rental units were lost to condo conversion. Add another 3,000 for this year, and you have a market where vacancy rates are at a 20-year low, and rents are up by 10 percent or more.

One may visualize the housing market as a huge ladder, where more and more people are struggling to hold onto fewer rungs. When housing gets more expensive, those who have more resources but can’t afford to move higher begin to occupy the lower rungs. Those with the weakest grip fall off. Some landings are harder than others.

Market forces do not stand still for the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. As the years go ticking toward the number 10, it is plain that the King County goal of 950 new and upgraded housing units each year, without any real assist from the federal government, is somewhat beyond our reach.

This is a symptom of a larger problem.

For more than a decade, homeless advocacy has suffered from a pathetic absence of vision. The 20th anniversary of the McKinney-Vento Act, the landmark legislation that provides nearly all federal funding for homeless services, offers the perfect occasion to revisit basic assumptions.

While federal funding for housing has been cut by $52 billion since its 1979 peak, McKinney-Vento funding to mitigate homelessness has never been more than $1.5 billion annually. We win minor battles while we ignore the larger war.

But the war doesn’t ignore us.

The consensus statement released last week by national homeless advocates is a welcome breath of fresh air. There is explicit recognition that McKinney-Vento is necessary but not sufficient. There is a call for the feds to dramatically expand their role in providing housing. There is recognition that the attack on poor people's programs must be halted and reversed. The civil rights crisis that exists for homeless people is named for what it is, and there is a call for a wage-led strategy to reduce poverty.

At one time, advocates approached homelessness as an extreme symptom of the broader issue of poverty. We all instinctively know that extreme poverty and ridiculous excess do not mix. Homelessness in America is a sweeping indictment of the federal priorities that privilege the rich over the poor.

But one rarely hears homelessness discussed in these terms. Federal funding priorities place our focus on the chronic homeless: the mentally ill, addicted, and alcoholic homeless who, in less enlightened times, were known as “bums.” In other words, it’s not the system that’s seen as screwed up. It’s the people.

Advocates need to stop playing into the federally-driven strategy of divide and conquer. We must instead look more to our natural allies: kids, single parents, the elderly, the uninsured, and the disabled. Homelessness is mostly about low wages and high rents. It was true three decades ago, and it’s true now.

Our movement has little commitment to addressing race and poverty. We act as though the prison-industrial complex, which is also about structural unemployment, doesn’t even exist. The selective blindness of most white people in this regard is nearly unforgivable.

Meanwhile, the growth in family homelessness is accelerating. The answer to this is already starting to emerge from Washington. That would be, of course, the Ten Year Plan to address family homelessness.

I wish that were a joke.

Philip Mangano, President Bush’s point man on homelessness, likes to defend the narrowly focused 10-year plan strategies to end homelessness by saying the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing year after year when we know it doesn’t work.

That’s rich.

Federal policy on homelessness is designed to distract, stigmatize, and divide. McKinney-Vento in the absence of a broader federal anti-poverty and pro-housing strategy just sets us up to fail, and 10-year plans that narrowly focus on chronic homelessness while ignoring the structural realities of poverty and inequality are cut from the same cloth.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Little Movement, A Lot of Spin

"It's a beautiful thing when someone changes his mind, said the Church Council's Sandy Brown at this morning's press conference. "Bob Edwards has changed his mind." Up to now, the Port Authority's response to calls to save 162 units of affordable family housing could be summed up in one or two words. Those would be "No," or "Fuck No," depending upon your interpretation. Today, that response became much more ambiguous.

While this is good news, we are still some distance from declaring victory. Today, Commissioner Bob Edwards will introduce a resolution to his fellow commissioners that opens the possibility for compromise. Should a majority agree, a proposal will be drafted for broader approval that "directs staff to explore compromise. This is not exactly the win we need, but it's a great start.

Edwards has shown admirable moral courage in taking this first step. The Port Authority has "come into the family," as King County Executive Ron Sims so graciously put it this morning, due to immense pressure from the County and the broader community. Like all development that happens at the expense of the poor and powerless, this is about money, opportunity, and power. We need to keep our guard up and the pressure on.

Civil Disobedience Like It Matters

OK. I know that I run the risk of offending friends here, but today I was at the Lamentation Service at Lora Lake apartments in Burien, and I just have to ask, "What the hell was that?"

Lora Lake is, of course, the 162 units of affordable family housing that are about to be destroyed by the Port Authority because they and the City of Burien have other plans for that piece of property. Last week, SHARE/WHEEL "occupied" the complex and nine people were arrested while ten supporters stood by to cheer them on. Today, about 15 clergy of various denominations held a lovely service, at the end of which ten people were going to do civil disobedience.

But apparently they changed their minds.

When I drove up, I saw about a dozen patrol cars with flashing lights parked on all sides of the fenced off neighboring lot. There were cops everywhere. But about fifteen minutes into the thing, they smartened up and went low profile. Cops got into their cars and hid behind barriers. The arrest wagon was out of sight around the corner.

The climactic moment arrived and we were all invited to lay hands on those who had decided to risk arrest. A nice touch. There was supposed to be some sort of cutting of a chain link fence with arrests to follow. Instead, they got the two most avuncular cops on the Burien police force to defuse the thing. We're talkin' Grandpa Walton here.

So the cops chat with Church Council leader Sandy Brown, and suddenly everyone's walking away. No one's looking very arrested to me and I'm having a tough time understanding what's just happened. The whole thing seemed to just fizzle.

I see Rev. Rich Lang walking away and I say, "So, are you arrested or what?" And he says, "I have no idea what's going on. Hey, take a new picture of me for my column. The one we're using is terrible." I take two. I'm wondering which one people like. My wife thinks the big smile makes him look like a doofus, but I like it. I prefer a Man-o-God with a sense of humor.

So then someone tells me that the police opted to simply escort them off the property, and to not make any arrests. Which is just weird. Once you've announced that ten people are there to get arrested and the TV cameras are out, there's only one thing that should stop you. That would be Bill Block's cel phone going off and him shouting, "Wait! It's the Commissioner! He's reconsidered!"

Which brings me back to my original question. "What the hell was that?"

If ever there was an issue that merited civil disobedience, it is this. For the Port Authority to tear down 162 perfectly good units of housing in the midst of a housing crisis is criminal.

Sadly, when people are planning demonstrations, they rarely say, "Quick, someone call Tim Harris! He'll know what to do!"

But maybe they should. I only have five arrests, but my wife has ten. Actually, what she said when I just asked was, "I got up into the double digits and kind of lost track."

I consider my crowning moment as an organizer to be the day that I found myself alone in a room with State Trooper, Statehouse Security, and Boston Police leadership, negotiating the terms of a major Boston Statehouse CD action. They set up a processing center for us in the basement. It was all very convenient.

My wife and I are unanimous in our opinion that recent events are well-intentioned, but that people could perhaps use a little technical assistance. So, assuming there will be a next time, I'd like to offer this brief primer on How To Commit Civil Disobedience.

Strength in Numbers
First of all, what was SHARE/WHEEL thinking when they showed up by themselves to occupy 162 units of family housing with NINE PEOPLE! There is a problem here with proportionality. I don't want to diminish anyone's risk-taking here, but lets get real. This doesn't communicate "We mean business." It says, "Swat me like I am an annoying fly." I hear people saying in outraged tones that the police showed up with fourteen cars to arrest nine people, and I think, well, duh. This is to be expected. They probably thought there would be a hell of a lot more of you. Had I been offered more than a dozen hours notice for either action, and known that others were on board as well, I'd have joined them. It's been a good fifteen years. The cause is right. I'm due. My hunch is that many others feel the same way. Where was the organizing?

Nonviolent CD 101
When you do Civil Disobedience, you say that moral laws trump human law. You say that some things are worth putting your body on the line for. You encourage others to step up their level of commitment to match yours. You are providing moral leadership that goes beyond words. You are drawing injustice out into the open for everyone to see. There are few people who have more community standing than middle-class clergy. You have privilege to spare. Unless you're at the School of the Americas, where the feds have taken to handing out lengthy prison sentences like candy, chances are that a CD arrest isn't going to put much of a dent in your credit rating or otherwise unduly inconvenience you. Our privilege is there to be used. This was a squandered opportunity.

Plan, Plan, and Plan Some More.

Breaking the law is serious, so act like it. This isn't some kind of game where we're play acting our parts. Things are at stake here. I don't know what kind of prep went into this, but from the way it fizzled after Sandy Brown talked to Grandpa Walton, I'd have to say, "probably not much." I mean, what the hell is that in Sandy's hand? An electrician's wire cutter? A hedge clipper? If you're planning on slicing your way through a chain link fence, I've got two words for you: bolt cutters! You need to think through the various scenarios and know what you're going to do when things get confusing, which leads me to ...

They Don't Want To Arrest You

Hello? "Ten Clergy Arrested In Protest of Housing Demolition." Is that a headline that the City of Burien wants in its morning papers? Not really. So, you might need to work at it a little bit. I remember one arrest at the Boston Statehouse where the police did not want to arrest us at all. I watched Sue Marsh, the 5'6, distinctly nonathletic policy analyst and lobbyist who ran the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, literally propel her body into a line of Boston cops who were standing between her and her goal, which was to get arrested. We had occasionally had our differences, but at that moment I loved Sue as much as I'd ever loved anyone else in my life. Nothing could have been more out of character for her, but she rose to the occasion because it mattered. She was heroic.

The Media Reports Conflict
There were three or four TV cameras there, but when I surfed around online tonight looking for the story, predictably, no appeared to have run with it. An outdoor sermon minus the civil disobedience is just an outdoor sermon: it may be spiritually uplifting, but it's not news.

Many good things were said today, and I was happy to hear them. The assembled clergy were in fine prophetic form and Amos and Isaiah and all those other guys were well represented. But we must also remember Matthew 10:16. “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” We've got the harmless as doves part down, but the wise as serpents thing needs a lot more work.

The good news is that there's some major bureaucratic hard ball going on, with King County threatening to go all eminent domain on the Port of Seattle's ass. I have a press release that arrived in my email at 10:45 pm saying that King County and the Port of Seattle have a major announcement on Lora Lake for 10 AM tomorrow.

So maybe we win anyway. But lets not kid ourselves. This was lame.

One last thing. After I got back to my car, I pulled into a driveway to turn around and found myself face to face with someone's personal tank. What kind of people live in Burien anyway? I shot this photo out of my passenger window because, frankly, I was afraid to get out of the car. Who the hell owns their own tank? Can anyone buy one of these things?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Real Change's Biggest Fan

There is a very drunk woman about 1:15 into this Stranger video of the International Beerfest who is a little confused about who she loves.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Working Poor in Waltham: Part Two

As the summer in Waltham wore on, my car developed an alarming shake. The steering wheel vibrated so violently that its edges would blur. Apparently, Audi chassis of that era had a tendency to rot from within and the New England winter rock salt roads hadn't helped.

Worse, the thing was overheating, and a thermostat replacement had no effect. The temperature gauge would slowly climb into the red on the way to work, and just as the steam became threatening, I'd arrive. The car would cool, and eight hours later I'd drive home.

My Audi was literally falling apart. I had no money. I needed the car to last one more month.

After half a summer of working full-time and barely earning enough to survive, I asked my boss for a raise. He was a skinny guy with a new MBA who spoke enough Mandarin to broker parts deals with suppliers in China. The extra fifty cents an hour wasn't much, but it helped.

Meanwhile, the manager of the downstairs re-chroming operation — a lanky 6'5 African American whose deeply lined face, perpetually reddened eyes, and oil stained features gave him a vulcan aspect — took to harassing me for being gay.

Maybe it was the way I walked. Maybe it was how I talked. Maybe it was my long legs and the short shorts I often wore in the tropical heat of the warehouse. Whatever it was, this was a first, and my denials had little effect. Things became tense.

Eventually, I decided to respond in kind. My opportunity came when we were both in the air conditioned admin office and he started in. I pushed back hard. "I think you're gay," I shouted at him. "It's all you ever talk about. Just shut the fuck up and keep your faggoty bullshit to yourself. I don't want to hear it anymore."

The office went dead silent. His eyes narrowed murderously. Not another word was said. The harassment stopped.

Meanwhile, a new cold caller upstairs named Jeff had another sales gig on the side, and I was a prime prospect. Jeff was a Nichiren Daishonin Buddhist, and his belief system, which resembled an Amway pyramid, led him to pursue me relentlessly.

"Want to come to the Temple with me after work and chant for awhile," he'd say. Being basically polite, I never told him to fuck off directly, and being basically a sales guy, he never stopped asking. Eventually, I said yes.

My first exposure was at a private home in a walk-up near Fenway Park. Everyone was white, and appeared to be middle class and twenty-something. They knelt on a carpet before an alter with bowls of fruit, incense, and a beautiful scroll with Chinese calligraphy that they called a gohonzon. Chanting seemed to make them high.

This was prosperity Buddhism, and chanting, they said, brought them "benefit." A new car. A better job. That sort of thing.

I was lonely and my life kind of sucked. I bought a cheap gohonzon and a cardboard case with doors that could close when it was not in use. I chanted nam myoho renge kyo for an hour a day and more when I went to temple. I basically had no one to stop me.

My life continued to suck. I came close to finding a girlfriend, but it didn't work out.

Her name was Amy, and I met her at my gay Greek playboy friend's parents house, a beautiful beach front home in Northern Maine. We spent a weekend there. I remember little other than that we had the whole beach to ourselves.

I was long and tan and in great shape from a summer of running and work. She noticed. My beach reading was Camus' Stranger, which offered the illusion of being of her class. Amy was my age and worked at Shearson Lehman. I told her I was an aspiring journalist, which was a lie. We dated. Once.

She lived in a condo directly across from the Bunker Hill Monument, which provided the view from her living room window. The locals regularly vandalized her car. We got high and walked around Boston's North End and across the Charlestown Bridge back to her place, where we watched the sunset against the monument from her couch. The pot made me paranoid and quiet. I spent the night on her sofa. In the morning, she led me to her room.

I would only see her one more time. A week later, I came by after work. Since my car was only good for one way trips, I didn't go home to change. I arrived in my dusty work jeans and t-shirt. She wasn't impressed. I was no longer the sexy proto-journalist on the exclusive beach in Maine. I was now the working poor loser with the shit-box car.

After that, she stopped returning my calls.

Near the end of the summer, plans for college nearly went sour.

Before getting thrown out of the Air Force, I'd applied to UMass Amherst with two of my office buddies from Travel Pay. To my astonishment, we were all accepted. I was able to pull together a package of grants and loans to make it possible.

My parents agreed to help by co-signing a student loan. As fall approached, their signed paperwork failed to materialize. The deadline came and went and I called to see what had happened. They'd changed their minds. Were I to default, my mother explained, they might lose their house. They just couldn't risk it.

When I'd left home six years before, my parents made a big production of canceling my life insurance and "disowning" me. For me to ask for their help was a big reach. For them to renege was all the proof I needed that I'd made a mistake. It would be three years before I spoke to them again.

John Gallagher, the guy whose travel vouchers I'd pretended to audit as we worked nights in Travel Pay, rescued me from Action Crash Parts by loaning me the money I needed.

Near the end of August, as I was preparing to move on, I told the Buddhists I was leaving and that the whole chanting thing wasn't working for me. The last morning I was there, as I finished packing, two of them showed up at my door. They were a high pressure tag team and looked like they might be FBI. I finally relented so they'd leave.

"Let's chant on this," one said. We pulled my gohonzon out of a moving box and hung it on a nail. After an awkward moment, we all went to our knees for a quick ten minutes of nam myoho renge kyo.

They left, and John pulled up in his U-Haul. It took less than five minutes to load my stuff.

I drove my car to a supermarket parking lot, took off the plates, and walked away. We drove the U-Haul to Sunderland, where the three of us had found a cheap student apartment. Things were finally looking up.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two

Saturday, July 21, 2007

My Enduring Crush On Patti Smith

I've been using Patti Smith as my work soundtrack this week. It's just the thing to boost the dopamine in my adderall-addled brain up into the happy zone where I'm capable of pretty much anything.


While I was looking around last night I stumbled across her MySpace page and learned that she's coming to the Showbox on August 11th with her longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye. I bought two tickets.

Smith is best known for her 1975 debut album Horses, but I'm more of a Radio Ethiopia guy. Released in 1976, this next effort was far more raw, dissonant, and experimental, and made all the more remarkable by the fact that the top Billboard release of that year was The Wings' Silly Love Songs.

Although a few of Radio Ethiopia's songs have tight pop rock structures, most are more improvisational, leading reviewers to charge that Smith lost control of her band. Lenny Kaye's guitar and Smith's ad libbed heroin inspired mutterings on the ten minute title track just kind of blow my mind every time I hear it. Critics gave the album a thorough trashing and hated this song in particular, but they're all idiots. To me, Radio Ethiopia is the 70s high water mark of rock & roll.

Born in 1946, Patti Smith blew into the seventies as the intellectual punk poet androgyn who would redefine cool for the next several generations. She was lovers with Robert Mapplethorpe (who shot the iconic photo of Smith that graces Horses), Jim Carroll, and Tom Verlaine. Smith wrote songs for Blue Oyster Cult, and in the early days earned an income as a rock journalist for Creem. She is the grande dame of punk rock and, as she's returned to the stage over the last decade, wears the role with great dignity and grace.

Maybe it's my age talking, but I swear she's sexier at 60 than she was at 29. Take a look at the clips below of her doing Free Money in 1975 and Dancing Barefoot in 2006 and tell me you don't agree.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Kay Noir

Twin A, one of my four year-old daughters, has been working on her James Cagney, so I produced a thirty-six second film noir masterpiece to kick start her film career.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

What Would Mitch Do?

On July 5, 1990, I was holding together a homeless protest encampment at Boston's Federal Building when I got the news that Mitch Snyder had hung himself in his CCNV shelter.

Just six years earlier, in 1984, I'd met Snyder for the first time. About ten of us drove a van from Amherst, MA to Washington, DC to get arrested during the culmination of CCNV's Harvest of Shame campaign. Snyder took his 51-day fast right to the brink and, with the help of people like us who had been mobilized to put our bodies on the line, won the building that would become the massive CCNV shelter.

Our affinity group refused to post bail for ourselves and spent three days in DC Central Cell Block on a diet of baloney sandwiches, donuts, and coffee before a judge dismissed our charges.

After college, I found my way into homeless activism through various encampments and other direct action style protests. By 1990, I'd walked across Massachusetts in a homeless march, organized buses to two Housing Now! mobilizations, and participated in a street brawl with Boston cops during a CCNV-inspired "Tear Down The Boards" housing takeover. I'd mastered the logistics of street feeds, makeshift encampments, and security.

Mitch Snyder, for all his P.T. Barnum qualities, knew how to get people to put their bodies on the line for a cause that mattered. He understood the dynamics of movement building. While Snyder was often accused of being too simplistic, in his hands this was a virtue. Homelessness wasn't a specialized social services issue. It was an unacceptable moral travesty of radical inequality in a land of plenty. His was an accessible language of outrage that asked for your commitment.

I remember that 4th of July weekend encampment for many things. Robert, a cross-dressing homeless Vietnam vet, insisted on doing security. I was sure he was going to get his ass kicked. As it turned out, nobody cared. Robert had a gentle air of authority, even while wearing hot pants and a halter.

There was also a hard drinking wheelchair-bound Marxist who lived in poverty about a block away and kept dropping in. He had a way of talking in camp meetings that fired people up. I thought he might develop into a leader but he turned out to be too far gone. There were a few good hours of vodka equilibrium — when he found his optimal balance between the shakes and oblivion — but his window of effectiveness was just too narrow.

But mostly, I remember that camp and the news of Mitch's suicide as the symbolic end of an era. The 1989 Housing Now! movement had failed to cohere and maintain momentum, and had dissolved into infighting among national groups over leadership and tactics. Meanwhile, homelessness was still growing, and the phrase "compassion fatigue" started to be heard for the first time.

There was a moment when the movement against homelessness could have combined direct services sophistication with direct action militancy, but instead, our moral outrage turned into complacency. As a movement, we lost our nerve.

A week or two after his death, we held a memorial across the street from the Boston Common at Park Street Church. There were all the predictable eulogies and reminiscences of poignant or revealing moments. Then my friend Lisa Kuneman — a line-worker at Pine Street Inn and an activist with our Homes not Bombs group — walked up to the pulpit.

She broke down as she talked about how much we needed Mitch, and how angry she was that he’d done something so selfish. Hers is the only speech I remember. She was right. She still is.

But I'm not angry at Mitch Snyder anymore. I'm mad at the rest of us.

Tonight I see that the Port Authority is hell bent on demolishing 162 apartments for low-income families in Burien, thus canceling out much of the progress that's been made in recent years to increase affordable housing stock in King County. It's the latest in a long line of outrages.

I wonder what Mitch would do?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Asparagus Question

I'd have missed this, but the only reading available this morning in the Real Change bathroom was a three week old business section from the Seattle Times. Apparently, they couldn't find enough workers to harvest the asparagus this year, and about 7.5 million pounds of the stuff were plowed up. The amazing thing was that the story went on for a full twenty paragraphs without saying why.

Analysis stopped at the tautological level: There weren't enough workers because there seems to be a worker shortage.

"It's strictly due to the lack of labor," said Jim Middleton of the state asparagus commission. Jobs R Us owner Christin Esquivel agreed. "We are having a lot of trouble finding people," she said.

I walked into the production room, where Rosette was racing against a Real Change deadline, and waved the page in front of him. "This story goes on for twenty paragraphs about how there aren't enough workers to harvest the asparagus, but it doesn't say why."

"I know why," he said, wrinkling his nose.

As a father of four year olds, I knew why too.

"Because it's yucky," I said!

"That's right."

Sensing there may be more to the story, I called Carlos Marentes at El Comite Pro-Amnestia General y Justicia Social to ask what was up with the asparagus.

He didn't know.

He did, say, however, that about a third of California's crops had been left in the fields as well, and that Yakima growers were now using employment agencies and resorting to the desperate measure of actually raising wages.

Part of the issue, he said, is that the raids have taken their toll. But the bigger issue is that fewer people are coming north. "A lot of people have accepted that there is no place for them in this country," he said sadly.

Finding data on the impact of immigration policy on farm labor isn't easy, but Washington Employment Security Commissioner Karen Lee confirms that there is a shortage, and that prices are going up as a result. She cites the strong economy, an aging agricultural workforce, high gas prices, and immigration policies that discourage migrant workers as causes.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Fighting the Good Fight in DC

Maybe there's hope after all.

Tony Lee thinks so. Tony is the lobbyist for Poverty Action and is one of the distinguished old men of our movement. When he says something, it's usually a good idea to listen.

A few weeks ago we found ourselves at the same event, and as Speaker of the House Frank Chopp went on about something or another in the next room, we retreated to the food table and went to work on those little fruit tart pies that always show up at these things. I tried to sell Tony on my Phil Mangano bounty offer, and described how the homeless ten year plans were misleading our movement, ignoring poverty, and providing cover for the federally led slaughter of the poor. I admitted to having gone a little bit insane recently.

Tony said I should relax, because the national poverty agenda had new momentum and unity and would basically outflank the "advocacy" whores who have sold out poor people in the name of growing the poverty industry.

He didn't actually say "advocacy whores." But I'm sure that's what he meant.

There's some encouraging evidence that he's right. This Thursday, a beltway press conference will be held to mark the twentieth anniversary of the McKinney-Vento Act. While an earlier post here compared national homeless advocates to yappy little dogs, that now seems unfair. It has been pointed out that yappy dogs have done little to deserve such a comparison.

But more to the point, a consensus statement of national level homeless advocates has been drafted, and the ten year plan strategy is nowhere to be found. In fact, the statement addresses the deficiencies of the federally driven policy alternative quite explicitly.

There is none of the rah-rah "we're winning against homelessness" crap that Mangano and company seem to live for. There is explicit recognition that McKinney-Vento is necessary but not sufficient. There is a call for the feds to dramatically expand their role in providing housing. There is recognition that the attack on poor people's programs must be halted and reversed. The civil rights crisis that exists for homeless people is named, and there is a call for a wage-led strategy to reduce poverty.

This is very good news. While the US Interagency Council on Homelessness and the National Alliance, by virtue of superior resources and political clout, have made the Ten Year Plan paradigm seem like the only game in town, a quiet revolution has bubbled underground.

I got a hint of this last week when a homeless advocate from a southeastern state called to talk. He found my blog when he Googled "philip mangano is the devil." Myself and the staff at WRAP helped him with material for a presentation at the NAEH conference.

Also revealing is the fact that an NAEH conference workshop on McKinney-Vento turned into a minor revolution. NAEH organizers had set up the workshop to only promote CPEHA (the version they favor), and dismissed alternative legislation with the following sentence: "There are two other proposals, the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act of 2007 (HEARTH) (HR 840) and the Administration's Homeless Assistance Consolidation Act of 2007, which has not yet been introduced."

Workshop attendees revolted, and shared their own comparisons of the competing versions of legislation. As one person relayed, "The folks that I talked to were disgusted. That is sloppy, misleading, and irresponsible. That is pretty much how they felt and I know first hand that they complained about it."

This week's press conference is more evidence still. The Ten Things to End Homelessness list is basically a big fuck you to Phil "I love Project Connect and Ten Year Plans" Mangano. Take a look:
1. Assist currently homeless people by reauthorizing and doubling funds for HUD McKinney-Vento programs.

2. Create housing for low-income households by enacting a National Housing Trust Fund.

3. Protect, preserve, and expand existing federal housing programs that serve the lowest-income people.

4. Appropriate funds for at least 5,000 Section 8 housing vouchers forhomeless veterans through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program.

5. Expand access to addiction and mental health services for people experiencing homelessness through reauthorization of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

6. Increase homeless and low-income persons’ access to healthcare by reauthorizing and expanding the Consolidated Health Centers program.

7. Increase homeless persons’ access to mainstream disability income, temporary assistance, and workforce investment services.

8. Provide homeless children and youth with increased services and support by reauthorizing the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program in the No Child Left Behind Act and the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act.

9. Require the Administration to develop and publish a coordinated federal plan to end homelessness.

10. Require jurisdictions receiving federal housing funds to protect the civil rights of homeless persons.

This is a major step in the right direction. I like number nine in particular, which calls USICH on its strategy to devolve all responsibility for homelessness to the localities.

Here's the thing though. Better positions only take us part way there. To get these ideas off paper and into legislation, we need to broaden our political base and vision, build for power, and make poverty into the kind of issue that political leaders have to address or else.

Gimmicky press conferences alone won't make much of a difference, but if the signers of this statement can figure out how to back these words up with the kind of action that makes people listen, then we'll be getting somewhere.

Monday, July 16, 2007

What's So Great About Violence?

Sunday night I read the first chapter of Peter Gelderloos' How Nonviolence Protects The State. Provocative title, huh? I thought so too. It's just out by South End Press, and I put in for my review copy the moment I got their postcard.

So far, my reaction is disappointment, amusement, and annoyance, but I'll try to keep an open mind. Perhaps chapter two, Nonviolence is Racist, will win me over.

The argument of chapter one, Nonviolence is Ineffective, rests on two prongs. The first is that the various wins generally associated with nonviolence — India's overthrow of colonialism, the civil rights movement, the non-nuclear proliferation movement, etcetera — weren't actually wins at all. They were all tactical capitulations to power that were spun as wins by the hegemonic victors.

Gelderloos dispenses with the civil rights movement, for example, in just four paragraphs.

The second is that nonviolence was not the only current within these examples, and whatever victories these movements did enjoy may be attributed to whatever more militant (read violent) tactics that may have been employed.

Writing this powerfully facile is best attempted by the very young. As near as I can tell, Gelderloos is about twenty-five. I found his affinity group photo from the Nov. 18, 2001 School of the America's action that put him in prison for six months, and he was 19 then. Since then he's shaved his head and become an anarchist. He's started the Signalfire site, and has developed an impressive activist resume.

His SOA stint led him to prison organizing, and for that alone I am grateful, since the attrocity of America's prisons seem to exist in some sort of magical twilight realm of which liberals everywhere are blithely unaware.

Yet, his book thus far just pisses me off. He moves way too fast from the position that working for change without building for power is useless to the notion that more violence is just the thing our movement needs.
Put simply, unless a movement is a threat, it cannot change a system based on centralized coercion and violence, and if that movement does not realize and exercize the power that makes it a threat, it cannot destroy such a system. ... The elite cannot be persuaded by appeals to their conscience.
So far so good. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. would agree. But his evidence for the ineffectiveness of nonviolence and the salubriousness of its opposite, at least in the first chapter, is weak.

He makes the mistake of thinking in binaries, which causes him to dismiss King as an ineffective sellout and to embrace the Weathermen as bold revolutionary tacticians. He also makes the elementary mistake of confusing nonviolence with the absence of militance. Nobody who is familiar with, for example, the history of the Freedom Riders would make such a claim.

At some point (I'm thinking French Resistance here) we may have no choice but to form underground cells and fight fascism with violence. But we're a long way from that moment. At present, the state has the monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and, as we saw here during WTO, violent tactics from a small romantic cult on the extreme left mostly just provide legitimation for the deployment of state violence against us all.

So let's not get ahead of ourselves, OK?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Working Poor in Waltham: Part One of Two

The summer between the Air Force and college was spent in a barely furnished third floor room in a Waltham SRO. There was a second floor bathroom shared by four of us. The landlord was a grizzled gray slob who had graduated to stretched out sweat pants. He managed a number of properties from a tiny Main Street storefront and would shove my weekly rent into a wallet the size of a doubled up fist.

Each week, the surly fat guy got about half my money. After a tank of gas, cigarettes, and food, the rest was gone.

I'd applied for state unemployment and been told that I didn't qualify, but might be able to get food stamps. I spent several hours in line, only to be humiliated by some state worker who looked at my military discharge and said "What's the matter? Couldn't you cut it."

That was enough for me. If this was what it took to get help, I didn't want it.

My hang-out buddy that summer was an impoverished gay balalaika-playing playboy who received a small stipend from his parents and lived on the floor below. His dad was a parking lot magnate in Maine. My new college dropout friend was embittered by the prospect of having to work for a living. His dad, he'd complain, should just give him one of the family lots. Then he'd be set.

This was 1983, and AIDS had yet to become a public issue. Anonymous, unprotected sex between gay men was still common. He told me how to flag down truckers for sex, and — during our long weekend bike rides — showed me the local cruising grounds at Prospect Park. This was a new world. I wasn't interested in the sex, but wasn't really put off either. He was someone fun to ride bikes and smoke a little pot with. I became his unattainable "het" friend.

I found work, and drove my decrepit Audi each day to an auto parts warehouse near Central Square in Cambridge. This being Boston, I made a game of seeing how many lights I could run in eight miles. My record was six.

One day, as I walked around the neighborhood on my lunch break, I wandered into Revolution Books, the storefront of the Revolutionary Communist Party. I didn't know what to make of the place, and struck up a conversation with the guy behind the counter. Confronted with a real live worker, the bespectacled young man knew just what to do. He gave me a copy of Lenin's Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, and asked me to come back and discuss my findings. I took the book, but never returned.

I didn't need the RCP to teach me about class struggle and capitalism.

My days were spent packaging up pallets of radiators and fenders and such and putting away stock as it came in. There was a re-chroming operation downstairs where non-english speaking immigrants and other people of color worked with noxious chemicals all day in temperatures that made my warehouse seem balmy by comparison. It was common knowledge that acid and other chemicals were being dumped into the Charles River.

I worked alone. Three sales guys manned the phones in the adjacent air conditioned office while I'd sweat out the hundred degree heat. The dust that hung in the air turned to mud on my skin. Three days a week I'd drive a parts run to Springfield and back. I learned to speed without getting caught.

The administrative area had large offices for the owner and the head supervisor that overlooked a half dozen sales and accounting desks. This area was clean, well-lit, and air-conditioned. Their bathroom had fragrant soap and soft toilet paper. The laborer's bathroom, on the other hand, was filthy, smelled horrible, and had only paper towels.

My complaints were not well received. I hadn't been hired to advise management. I made a point of peeing where I wasn't welcome. Occasionally, the boss would mention that my bathroom was upstairs. I'd nod, but my rebellion continued. I knew something they didn't. In late-August, I'd be gone. The knowledge made me cocky. I was a wage slave, but I was a wage slave that was leaving soon for college, and that made all the difference.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Zero Tolerance for Dehumanization

Today the police brought formal charges against my friends Rainee and Bruce. I can't remember the last time I've felt so angry about anything. The details surrounding their case are so outrageous that it's hard to accept that they are in great danger, but they may well be.

They could go to prison, lose their daughter, and have everything that they've struggled to achieve destroyed. But they probably won't. Their counsel is the lead medical marijuana lawyer in the area, and the media, Real Change included, seems to be taking a keen interest. For now, I'm optimistic.

"How could anybody do that to someone?"

The answer lies in the word "someone." Drug users, like homeless people, are considered subhuman. So we're not dealing with "someone" at all. We're dealing with the dehumanized Other, who does not merit our empathy.

Heather left a comment on last week's Drug Users in Belltown post directing me to an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review entitled Your Brain on Drug Addicts. As it turns out, I'm a subscriber, and the article was in the pile below my coffee table.

Here's what it says. Brain imaging studies confirm what many of us already know. For most people, drug addicts and homeless people do not trigger empathy. They trigger disgust. They don't really even register as people.

With co-author Susan T. Fiske, also of Princeton, Harris chose which out-groups to show on the basis of stereotypes about them and the emotions they evoke. Fiske previously noted that the stereotypes of out-groups vary on two dimensions: warmth and competence. Warm and competent groups like American Olympic athletes inspire pride. Warm groups that are deemed unable to act on their warmth, such as the elderly or disabled, elicit pity. Cold groups that are nevertheless competent, such as the rich, induce envy. And groups that are low on both warmth and incompetence – drug addicts and homeless people – arouse disgust.

Fiske and Harris showed photographs of these four kinds of outgroups to 10 Princeton undergraduates as they lay in an fMRI scanner. To 12 other Princeton undergraduates they presented photographs of inanimate objects that aroused the same emotions as did the out-groups – for example, a sports car to induce envy, or an overflowing toilet to evoke disgust. They found that the pictures of the objects, homeless people, and drug addicts did not excite the mPFC, although they did activate brain regions associated with emotions.

So there it is. Were one actually dealing with another human being, the idea of manipulating an eight-year old who's beloved grandfather had just died to bust a couple who grow prescription medical marijuana for pain control would be unthinkable.

But if you're used to thinking of drug users as disgusting subhuman creatures who must be eliminated, then anything goes.

This is the issue that drew me to homelessness in the first place. Homeless people are widely regarded as subhuman. So are addicts and prisoners. When you have an expendable group of people who arouse disgust, terrible things can happen. The dehumanization of anyone leads to the dehumanization of us all.

Speaking of which ...

This week I fielded two press calls about downtown homelessness. The Downtown Seattle Association, as I said before, is on a new propaganda offensive over panhandling and public toilets. They are trying desperately to whip up some righteous indignation.

Thus far, they're not getting a lot of traction. But you can bet that they're not giving up. As the relationship between city and suburb changes, with cities becoming the new nucleus of upscale density, visible poverty is more unwelcome in urban centers everywhere.

Thus the fixation on "chronic" homelessness, and the companion stick approach, an escalation in the policing of the urban poor.

Being the angry sort of guy that I am these days, I'm finding diplomacy less and less appropriate to the moment. Last winter I had numerous conversations with the DSA's Peg Dreisenger and Anita Woo about the panhandling education campaign they had in the works. They were being reasonable, and so was I. I'm not wild about panhandling either.

They wanted an endorsement, but I wouldn't go that far. If they did their campaign in a way that focused on positive alternatives, as opposed to negative stereotypes, I said, I would not organize against them. They arrived at Have a Heart, Give Smart, and were rewarded with my public neutrality. I liked their brochure.

During our last meeting, Anita Woo, the DSA's communications staffer, told a story about a woman panhandler who was spotted hopping into her SUV to make a quick call on her Blackberry.

I laughed at her.

"You can't tell that story," I said. "It's like Ronald Reagan and his Cadillac driving Black welfare queens. It's apocryphal bullshit." We all laughed nervously.

She went on the radio during the launch of the campaign and told just that story. She punched away at all the buttons that the lit itself avoided. They're making a lot of money off of credulous do-gooders. It's all a big lucrative scam. They're mostly addicts. Etcetera. It's like they couldn't wait to take the fucking gloves off.

That was last January. Since then, they've escalated. Their position now is that, despite their panhandling education campaign, downtown begging is up by thirty-eight percent!

Woo trotted out the Blackberry story to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter just last week. You gotta love a good story.

Here's another one.

The DSA is also opposed to handing out sandwiches on the street. Here's a handy DSA guide to public policy: if it's visible downtown poverty, they want it to go away.

We were talking about downtown feeding, and Peggy Dreisenger, the affable manager of DSA's street program, told me the real reason one doesn't feed the poor.

Chronically homeless people have, through their years of alcohol and drug abuse, undermined the viability of their digestive organs. If one, therefore, feeds one of these wretches a sandwich, their body will reject it. They will throw up in the nearest bush, curbside, or sidewalk, and someone, probably one of her employees, will have to clean it up.

The do-gooders, she said, don't understand this.

I contained my amazement, walked back to Real Change, and told our editor what she had said. He knew. She'd said the same thing to him several weeks prior.

Since then, I've had the opportunity to ask the opinions of various health care professionals, each of whom were appalled at the story.

This story is about one thing. Dehumanization. This isn't something we should tolerate. Politeness, even here in Seattle, has its limits.