Friday, February 29, 2008

Weak Brain, Narrow Mind

Willie Dixon. An amazing human being and a musician's musician. A simple and beautiful song.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Grapes of Wrath

"I figgered about the Holy Sperit and the Jesus road. I figgered, `Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,' I figgered, `maybe it's all men an' all women we love; maybe that's the Holy Sperit - the human sperit - the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of."
— Jim Casey, Grapes of Wrath

The Minutes of the January 28 hearing on homeless encampments are up on the Human Services website, and you should read them. They're not just accurate. They're poetry. Someone cared.

Or maybe someone thinks that if we feel heard and affirmed we won't notice so much that we're being ignored.

On March 13, The Real Change Organizing Project wants to make sure that anyone who goes downtown will see and hear about the campsite clearances issue. We need lots of people. We want 200 of you to camp with us at City Hall to get the Mayor clear on our message as well. And that would be this:
Help. Don't Harass: The 2008 One Night Count found more than 2,600 persons surviving outside in greater Seattle on a winter night when emergency shelters were full. Meanwhile, the Mayor's Office continues to pursue a policy of demolishing homeless people's encampments and throwing away their property without providing any alternative shelter. It is inhumane and immoral to punish people for living outside when there is not enough shelter or affordable housing to meet the need. We call on Mayor Nickels to stop all non-emergency sweeps immediately and expand housing and services instead of criminalizing survival.
You can sign onto the statement at the Real Change website.

Meanwhile, much smoke has been blown, but as far as we can tell little has changed in City practice. The new policy is a kinder, gentler gloves off approach, but with a legal framework. Head of Human Services Pat McInturff is telling anyone who will listen that advocates concerns are being addressed, but if that's true, she hasn't told us. The only thing we ever get comes comes by way of Public Disclosure Request.

A March 13 Day of Action pledge form is on the Real Change website. There you will find details and where to go for more information. There will be public visibility shifts throughout the downtown during peak traffic. There will be an evening meal at City Hall served by religious leaders. There will be an overnight encampment. Our goal for that is 200 people. Then, Friday morning, there is one big final visibility push before the tents come down.

We need people. Lots of them. If you think that criminalizing survival has something to do with compassion or ending homelessness, then stay home. But if you think the City needs to listen to the poor and start talking about real solutions to the misery on our streets instead of hiding behind their damn Ten Year Plan, this is the time to come out and make yourself heard. Go to the website. Pledge your action.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Planet of Slums

In the not too distant future, if it hasn't happened already, the majority of the world's population will live in urban areas. By 2015, there will be at least 550 cities with populations of a million or more. In 1950, there were 86. While the number and size of cities in the developed world has risen comparatively slightly, the urban slums are exploding. Dhaka, one of the worst slums in the world, was in 1994 a city of 16 million, up from just 400,000 in 1950. Mexico City went from 2.9 million to 22.1. Seoul-Injon went from a city of a million to one of 21.9.

Mike Davis' Planet of Slums, published by Verso in 2006, offers an unblinking vision of a growing world of surplus humanity, where Structural Adjustment Programs plunder the poorest of the poor and the Pentagon grapples with a blood-soaked future of guerrilla urban warfare spawned by extreme exploitation and unremitting, nihilism-producing, misery.

The conditions Davis describes are nearly impossible for those of us who have only known first-world luxury to grasp. One of his most appalling chapters, the Ecology of Slums, describes the sorts of hazards with which slumdwellers typically live. Their land is, of course, the least valued anywhere. This might be a hazardously steep, earthquake prone slope, a floodplain, or a landfill. It may well be a garbage dump. It is almost always a hazardous waste site of one sort of another, most often several at once. Some exist amid vast seas of human filth.
Today's poor mega-cities — Nairobi, Lagos, Bombay, Dhaka, and so on — are stinking mountains of shit that would appall even the most hardened Victorians. ... constant intimacy with other people's waste, moreover, is one of the most profound of social divides. Like the universal presence of parasites on the bodies of the poor, living in shit, as the Victorians knew, truly demarcates two existential humanities.
Twenty years ago, global geopolitics offered some measure of relief to the world's super-poor. Industrialized economies fought over the hearts and minds of the world's dispossessed. Those days are gone, replaced by International Monetary Fund and World Bank policies that enrich the global elite at the horrific expense of the poor. Davis describes this as "the brutal tectonics of neoliberal globalization." As free trade and economic opportunism devastate local agriculture, traditional lifestyles are destroyed and rural existence becomes untenable. People are driven to the mega-slums, where there are millions of poor people but little regular work or formal infrastructure.

Employment and population growth have come unhinged. The urban explosion is calculated to continue through the century. By 2050, ten billion people, the vast majority of the world's population, will live in cities. The urban slums will double in size within a single generation. The more affluent will live, as they often do now, in electronically-protected gated communities that, almost regardless of their place on the planet, somewhat resemble southern California. The Third World bourgeoisie
"cease to be citizens of their own country, and become nomads belonging to, and owing allegiance to, a superterrestrial topography of money; they become patriots of wealth, nationalists of an elusive and golden nowhere."
This is a frightening look at an unsustainable future, where the extreme misery of a surplus humanity becomes a breeding ground for the wars of the future, and the logic of unregulated capitalism produces ever new extremes of inequality.

While Davis's book is almost entirely concerned with slums in the undeveloped world, I found myself wondering how soon this comes home, or whether it already has. As property values in Seattle have recently skyrocketed as a result of dense vertical development, homeless squatters are being brutally pushed out of the City's public spaces.

This happened once in the Third World as well. Their poor were eventually pushed far enough to make the separation between the rich and the impoverished nearly total.

How long? Twenty years? Forty? Would Seattle still be Seattle if a sprawling megacity of poor squatters started ten miles south and went on for mile after horrifying mile? It's a long and bad ride to the bottom.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Inconvenient Math

My friend over at Whitney's Corner offers this homely urban scene along with his typically stunning nature photography this week. It's the Crisis Clinic suicide prevention sign, posted at either end of the jumper magnet that is the Aurora Bridge. He points out that the Crisis Clinic declined to be listed as the resource referral point for homeless campers on the very excellent grounds that no "resources" exist to which those displaced might be referred, and that this means you have better odds of being helped if you're a suicidal bridge jumper than a harassed and homeless camper. A reporter I recently spoke with tidily described this as the "inconvenient math" of the homeless encampment issue.

Since I flunked algebra twice in high school, I should probably get Dr. Wes to help with this, but let's try to render the equation. More than 2,600 people surviving outside during a recent One Night Homeless Count translates as >2,600. The number of full shelter beds that night are still being tabulated, but we do know that the emergency overflow capacity of about 100 beds was maxed out at 140 occupants. So max capacity might be represented for now as x + 140. So (x + 140) - >2600 = ->2600 mathematically demonstrates there are more than 2,600 people who were counted on one night surviving outside of a maxed out emergency shelter system.

It's almost painful to watch Patricia McInturff dodge C.R. Douglas's dogged line of questioning regarding this problem. She trips over her victim-blaming rhetoric as she visibly struggles to evade the obvious. No simple thing to do in public. No wonder she's retiring. Having spent whatever credibility she has telling transparent lies in service of the Great White Whale, a lanai in Hawaii must be looking pretty damn good.

Back to the Crisis Clinic, we have an email to the City from their ED Kathleen Southwick. If the City puts their number on the signs, she writes, displaced campers "will just be mad at us and we won't be able to help find their stuff and most likely won't be able to help them find shelter. ... I know the City's goal is to keep people off their property, but people are living there because they don't have anywhere else to go."

It's that inconvenient math thing again.

But Community Service Bureau Director Darby DuComb didn't have this problem. She just followed orders and listed their number. What's she have that the Crisis Clinic doesn't? Outside of a different boss?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Thoughts Upon News of McInturff's Retirement

"Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale!"
Moby Dick: Or, The Whale, Herman Melville, 1851

Actually said during the Mayors State of the City Speech:
“Every good idea must run a gauntlet of skepticism. The people of Seattle are a feisty bunch. They are protective of all that makes this city a great place to live, work and raise a family. We don’t change for change’s sake. Innovation must have a purpose -- to make a difference in people’s lives.”
This passage made me almost giddy. Maybe this is what happens to good ideas. But within the Nickels administration, really, really bad ideas get implemented in secret and true purposes often remain hidden. It's a good thing the people of Seattle are so damn feisty.

On March 13, the Real Change Organizing Project will sponsor a day of downtown visibility with morning, lunchtime, and evening rush hour shifts that culminates in a return to City Hall. This time, the goal is to camp on the Plaza 200 strong. Whether you spend the night or the lunch hour, we need to hear from you. Make a commitment to stand for basic human decency. Please email today.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Apesma's Birthday

It was a year ago today that I posted this Captain Beefheart spoken word bit and thus launched my great adventure in bloggery. At the time I really didn't get blogs. My limited experience was that most of them suck, and that the popular political ones were a little like on-line talk radio, but more geeky. I didn't see the attraction. My motivation was simple. I was a writer who wasn't doing much writing. The blog, I figured, would be a daily discipline to sharpen the skills. That was all.

Along the way, a few things happened. The first was that writing everyday changed everything. Between the blog and teaching my class on homelessness and poverty, I developed new insights into an issue I've worked for twenty years. I decided that the federally encouraged ten year plans had more to do with neutralizing than ending homelessness. I realized that homelessness and the changing nature of our cities flows from the logic of globalization. I started to see past all the layers of "compassion" bullshit to reality, and became more intentional about building alliances across class. I became a better speaker and a more forceful advocate. I embraced conflict as an organizing strategy. I made new friends. I began a personal biography project. I got a divorce. I started working on a book. Life changed dramatically.

Clearly, blogging is not for the faint of heart.

The other thing is that I gained readers. The map above offers a geographic snapshot of recent readership. The graph nestled at left shows the steady climb to more than 4,000 unique visitors a month. The late-March spike last year was the blogospheric event when I clashed with the Seattle Weekly. Since October, Apesma has rountinely exceeded those numbers. A very cool chemistry has arisen in the comments section as well, and several friends have started their own blogs.

Apesma's gone from a Technorati rank of up in the three-millions somewhere to below 250,000. I'm hoping that this year I break the top hundred-thousand blogs barrier. With well over a hundred-million of these things out there, I'd be among the blogging semi-elite. Otherwise, I hope things slow down. I don't know how many more years like 2007 I can take.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Warning: Violent Sexual Imagery

But nothing that didn't run prime-time in the late-60s. Below is Nine Inch Nails doing Closer to God over some very charged homo-erotic Kirk/Spock stuff. The video below is a more sensitive treatment of their love, over the Tim Buckley Hallelujah. It's a bit long, but it's a nice song.

I'd heard of Kirk/Spock fan fiction before, but never wanted to look. Today was the day. Wikipedia gives a decent overview, but it's a bit dry. Let's edge our way forward with browser settings on "safe" to the All Ages Kirk/Spock Archive.
The philosophy behind AAK/SA is simple -- there's nothing pornographic about being gay, and nothing obscene about love between men. There are no links to sites with explicit content here; no pictures of naked men; no sex scenes. Rather, it is a celebration of the love between Kirk and Spock that is accessible for a wider audience.
That is so nice! I little strange, but totally cool. Ok. Safety off. Farfalla's Adult Star Trek Fanfiction site has the stuff that you're afraid to ask for. Here's a bit from the beginning of Inside Jim, where Spock worries about an upcoming liaison.
Soon, I will be with him in a way I have never before experienced, in a way that many humans deem to be the most profound of all sexual activities. Soon, we will become so close that our bodies will overlap, occupying the same physical space in the universe. It is the closest physical equivalent of the Vulcan mind-meld, and I anticipate that it has potential to be as physically rewarding as the mind-meld is mentally rewarding.

However, I am not with my apprehensions.

I have considered myself a scientist since my father walked me through designing my first experiment at the age of four, testing each trinket and seed I found around the house to see if it would float or sink in a basin of water. And no scientist of biology can easily be ignorant of the immense microbial cosmos that exists within the human rectum.

It is not that I find Jim unclean, unsuitable, it is merely that... I find his internal microflora distasteful. After all, I fell in love with *him*, not them. And I do not consider them one unit, as if they were colony organisms like the Terran algae Volvox.

Wow. Hot. And no brief survey of the genre is complete without the kirk-slash-spock deviantART page, which isn't really all that deviant, unless you think it's weird to fantasize about Kirk and Spock having sex. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Narrows

Half-assed blogospheric journalism alert: The video above and the website below is a different The Narrows than the band I had in mind. I should have known when I saw that they never seem to have left Michigan. There is good news and bad news here. The good news is that the real Narrows are from Bellingham and their website is more like what you'd expect and actually has info on where to get their music. Quellish starts playing as soon as you get to their MySpace page, and it's worth the trip. The bad news is that there is nothing from them on Youtube. If that ever changes, you'll be the first to know. I'll leave the post below, with the wrong Narrows, the way it is, because they're kind of cool anyway.

My friend Barbara has turned me onto more amazing music than one would think humanly possible. She, like me, is a bit obsessive. Her's takes the form of prowling favorite alt-music websites checking out sound clips and a narrow focus to her consumerism. I get to see her once or twice a year, and it always involves iPod ripping. She was here a week or two ago and left lots to think about.

Benjamin, the new CD by The Narrows is pretty much my sound track these days. I chose the above video, not so much because it does them justice, but because I loved the college dorm cafeteria venue, and the sound wasn't as poor as the others. Be sure to get at least a third in when the wall of sound thing starts to happen.

On their website they call themselves "a groovy psychedelic lollypop band from the mid-west," but they're more than that. Here's what Barbara wrote.
The Narrows’ sound is incredibly satisfying in and of itself – the down-tuned guitars, the constant rumble and intermittent roar, the vocals that teeter between whisper and wail. The soft-loud dynamic is spectacular over the course of each song and the entire album. Motifs split up and rejoin like the inner dialogue of an obsessive mind – thoughts examined from every angle, put away for a while, only to be pulled out again for another look. These ruminations have a meditative aspect, too, as themes come in and out of focus, the repetition serving to deepen their penetration. … This band has a way of taking the darkest of human emotions and deconstructing them sonically, unflinching. I wonder if, Rorschach-like, each listener hears his or her own dark thread unraveled (in my case, an infinite capacity for disappointment). … Fucking gorgeous and highest of highest of highest recommendations.
Yeah. What she said. I keep telling her she should start a music blog but she worries it would take over her life. My reply: "and …?"

Their new EP is available from their website for free download. The first few tracks felt like an experiment with more of a pop style (for them, this is relative) but Red Light/Blue Light is what I'm talking about, and Two by Two shows off their metal chops nicely.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Who's Side is Bill On?

I think I've watched the City Inside/Out episode focusing on homelessness in Seattle about five times now because I can't get over the fact that Committee to End Homelessness in King County Director Bill Block managed to go on a show devoted entirely to the homeless encampment issue with Human Services head Patricia McInturff and not have a word to say on the topic.

But I have a correction to make. Up till now, I've been saying that Block has been silent on this issue. That's not true. I recently remembered that he was quoted in a PI story on the release of the draft protocols.

"The proposal covers a number of key components that concerned advocates," opined our leading homeless advocate. This is a classically neutral non-statement. Could he possibly have been more lawyerly?

"The proposal covers a number of key components that concerned advocates." Let's parse this slightly, since it won't hold up to much more. The verb-tenses, for example, are interesting. Covers is present, and concerned is past. Are we to draw from this that these concerns have been met? I haven't talked to a single advocate who thinks so, but Bill isn't saying. He's only implying.

So why does this matter? I mean, we all know that Bill needs to walk a line to keep the access to funding open. But where that line is matters. When the major institutional players can't or won't challenge the City when the chips are down, the Mayor thinks he can just ride the riff-raff out. The bet here is that power conferred by power can be taken away, and power that isn't can be safely ignored.

We need to build a different kind of power that is less beholden and afraid.

It's not that this issue doesn't come before the CEHKC. Real Change vendor Michael Garcia sits on the Governing Board. He fought to get this on the agenda at a recent quarterly meeting and was shut down and ignored. If there was any ambiguity as to his token status before, this clarified it for him.

From what I hear, United Way Director Jon Fine can be relied on to forcefully assert the encampment issue's irrelevance to CEHKC whenever it arises.

Which isn't surprising. United Way thinks they own homelessness in this town and have a $25 million fundraising campaign that depends upon results for it's success. The metrics here are less than complicated. Numbers going down good. Numbers going up bad. Campsite clearances, and other measures such as no parking from 2-5 a.m. signs in known car camp areas and Park Rangers with a mandate to harass, should bring those numbers down. So you won't hear a peep out of them. Or, by extension, Bill "currently on vacation in France" Block.

He also said this: "The ultimate solution is to create enough housing and services so we don't have to face that issue. That's the hardest part for everybody."

News flash Bill: We do have to face this issue, because there isn't enough housing and services and people are suffering in ways that few of us can begin to understand. Is there something I'm missing?

Whose interests are being protected here? Clearly United Way's. Probably the Mayor's. I'm guessing that the business interests approve.

But raising money to house chronically homeless people and building a sort of a consensus for homeless mitigation among the government, business and institutional non-profit elite isn't the same thing as being a homeless advocate. For that you need a grassroots strategy that builds for power and listens to the poor.

Bill's a politically connected fundraiser and perhaps one of the few people in the City who can manage the institutional contradictions and inside politics of CEHKC. But he's not a homeless advocate. To do that, you need to pay more attention to the "homeless" part.

Which brings us to this week's poll. What does it mean that the Committee to End Homelessness in King County is sitting out the worst thing to happen to homeless people in Seattle since Mark Sidran? Who's side is Bill on? The Mayor's? Or homeless people's? Both? Neither? As always, vote at top right. Multiple choices are allowed.

The people have spoken. Of 23 respondents, one felt Bill is a "homeless advocate" in the sense that he actually sides with homeless people. 43% said he is on the Mayor's side, which would make him a Mayor's advocate, and another 43% felt he was on neither side, which would make him no kind of advocate at all, and more of a careful bureaucrat. Just 13% said he straddles some sort of middle ground, in which he represents both homeless people's interest and the Mayor's. That would be hard.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Come Out, Come Out ...

The more the City’s crackdown on visible homelessness unfolds, the more I feel like the proverbial blind men feeling up an elephant. The aggressive City-owned property clearances that began last spring have continued unabated after advocates cried foul over brutal tactics and an absence of protocol. City policy that has emerged has more to do with addressing legal vulnerability than meeting public concerns.

Then there’s the Washington State Department of Transportation, with two unintended tragedies on their hands this year: Isaac Palmer, killed by brush clearing machinery last June in his sleeping bag, and now another “transient” dead on a construction site. WSDOT has pursued a shadowy but equally aggressive clearance strategy of its own.

The City has also placed No Parking 2-5 a.m. signs in known car camp areas. As recently as January 30th, Human Services head Patricia McInturff said on KUOW’s The Conversation that there is no real Department of Human Services response to car camping.

Well, someone somewhere has a “response.” What is this? Twenty-fucking-Questions?

Why all the bureaucratic hide and seek? What does it take to arrive at basic accountability? The practice of chasing people from place to place — while throwing away whatever survival gear work crews find — simply deepens the misery of the desperate without offering alternatives.

On March 13, the Real Change Organizing Project will sponsor a day of downtown visibility with morning, lunchtime, and evening rush hour shifts that culminates in a return to City Hall. This time, the goal is to camp on the Plaza 200 strong. Whether you spend the night or the lunch hour, we need to hear from you. Make a commitment to stand for basic human decency. Please email today.

Why Does Milk Taste Good with Cookies?

I just had this conversation with my four year old.

"Why does milk taste good with chocolate chip cookies?"

It just does honey. Everyone knows that.

"But why daddy? Why?"

I don't know honey. It just does.

"But why daddy? But why daddy?"

Well. It's because cows have brown spots, and chocolate chip cookies have brown spots.

I wait for her reaction to the internal logic of my bullshit. She looks thoughtful.

"And cows have white, and milk is white."

That's right baby. That's why.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Varieties of Holiness

This morning, I met with the Dalai Lama's people. Avid readers of this blog will of course recall that the Dalai Lama is holier than Barack Obama. So that made it extra special when former Seattle School Superintendent Raj Manhas and Cheryl Ellsworth of EnviroIssues introduced themselves today as the organizers of Seeds of Compassion, a five-day Lama-fest this April 11-15.

It's an amazing thing they're doing. Among the activities is 40,000 people at Qwest Field to see His Holiness. But they want the right people. We took 100 tickets. I said I'd write a one-pager for the Dalai Lama on the heartlessness of the Mayor's attack on homeless campers. We talked about the vendors and about how Real Change is about relatonships, and then I tried to get them to gossip about Amma by telling the story of my hug, but they didn't bite. Hadn't really heard of her. Suddenly, they had to go.

I tell staff and they're psyched. I tell vendors and they're psyched too. We speculate that the Dalai Lama's immense popularity and cross-cultural appeal are all about him being such a snappy dresser. I walk outside to smoke and my favorite vendor is there.

M is my favorite because his mind is so fucking blown he's achieved a kind of visible sainthood. And he likes to talk. His highs and lows are like nothing I've seen, and the mid-range is pretty spectacular as well. The smile is huge and electric and rides high on his gaunt face. My friend's got high octane wavelength.

He'd just discovered his descent from Okie stock and was ecstatic with the news. Flying.

"I'm so open," he declares, spreading his arms to the universe like a manic angel, "I'm inside God's Mind." I stare at him in wonder.

This guy, I'm thinking, needs to meet the Dalai Lama.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Another Secret "Policy"

Apparently, the Washington State Department of Transportation has some new draft protocols for clearing homeless encampments. Real Change has seen WSDOT campsite clearances as recently as last week performed with storm trooper-like gusto and no notice, and what appeared to be unbadged cops and unmarked cars. Personnel performing the clearances were told not to talk and the only thing the guy in charge would say was "no questions."

We've been told that there are linkages between WSDOT and city action and policy, but we've yet to find what those are. We're still working on getting the draft policy.

Many will remember Isaac Palmer, the man who died during a WSDOT clearance project early last June. Palmer was in a sleeping bag beneath some blackberry brambles when a brush clearing machine inflicted fatal head injuries. His death occurred at a time when campsite clearances by the city were escalating. While the WSDOT task was to rejoint a stretch of I-5, this came connected to a full-scale campsite clearance project of their own.

Now another transient has died on a WSDOT project, although the details of this are still extremely unclear.

Heavy machinery keeps running over homeless people. If people had better survival alternatives, maybe this wouldn't be happening.

The idea of there being a regional strategy on campsite clearances raises some interesting questions about where this stuff is coming from. Suddenly, homeless people are not to be tolerated. They can live in the shelters, if they can get in. Otherwise, it's open season.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Doors. The End. Live.

From the Hollywood Bowl in 1971. The classic Doors song, with feeling. There's nothing else to say.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Valentines Day, Boston, 1987

I recently came across this transcript of a Union of the Homeless speak-out in front of Boston City Hall on February 14, 1987. During my visit to Boston last November, Jim Stewart at First Church Shelter in Cambridge let me go through his files to see what history I could find. There wasn't much, but this made it worthwhile. The last time I'd laid hands on these speeches was more than fifteen years prior, and it was a bit of a thrill to find another copy.

As homelessness tripled and quadrupled in American cities over the 80s, the Union of the Homeless formed as the militant voice of the new dispossessed. They aggressively asserted the principle that homeless people needed to be in charge of their own movement and were briefly a presence in Boston. By the time I was working as a homeless organizer, the Union wasn't much more than their president Savina Martin, pictured above, and a handful of others. A few years later, the Union had pretty much flamed out entirely.

The transcript of homeless people haranguing a panel of their supporters was produced by Jill Nelson, the millionaire lawyer with Communist Labor Party connections who was founder and President of National Jobs with Peace. I've discussed the CLP's role in the Union elsewhere. Dan Satinsky, who pipes up toward the middle to give the background on the Union and praise their militancy, is a friend of Jill's and, I think, a lawyer as well. Mel King, who aptly quotes Frederick Douglas and is the only panelist identified, is a legendary Boston community organizer who even by then was a revered griot cum elder statesman of the Boston left. The photo here is of me introducing King to another activist I no longer remember at a 1989 Jobs with Peace event.

The Union of the Homeless had demanded that the City deed a house to them for use as an organizing center. The Flynn administration was smart enough to not say no, but they never really said yes either. This 1986 article from the New York Times gives the back story. Much of the testimony of the more than twenty homeless who spoke focused on their demands for the house and their frustration with the City's dilatory tactics.

Needless to say, they never got the house.

Homefront 88, the roving self-managed encampment that formed a year later. would make a house their central demand as well, and were managed just as deftly.

As I read the transcript, the pain of those who have lost so much, if they ever had anything in the first place, comes across loud and clear, but the downside of the identity politics that the Union of the Homeless adopted comes across just as strongly. The blustery rhetoric had little to back it up in terms of organized power, and the city knew it. The Union treated its allies like the enemy even as they sought their support. Homeless pride flips over to become a defensive shield, and some speeches inspire less than complete sympathy.

Yet, their militancy, if things had gone differently, could have lit a fire underneath the whole top down and often co-opted homeless advocacy movement. If their closest allies hadn't chosen to park their common sense at the door of "homeless empowerment," and had offered real resources and authentic partnership, things would look very different now.

Now, the boarded up homes they speak of have mostly been renovated or purchased as tear-downs, but the condos kept coming for the next twenty years. Again, you can download the thirteen-page transcript here.

Friday, February 15, 2008

No You Can't

This from my friend Andrew Boyd this morning. He describes No You Can't as "part parody and part homage" to the Barack Obama video. It's a "parage." Andrew is a founder of Billionaire's for Bush, has an occasional alter-ego as Brother Void, and has done cool guerrilla activism-type stuff for a few decades.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Shhh! Don't Tell the Advocates!

A May 18 memo that identified priorities for police action against homeless encampments got surfaced by a recent public disclosure request. A later list had a different set of priorities that included more purely urban encampments. These tend to be below freeways and visible from downtown highrises. Hard to tell where the focus is now, with so many clearances happening. Worse, the State, through the Department of Transportation, seems to have stepped up the pace of campsite clearances as well. Whatever level of coordination exists between city and state remains a mystery for now, but they seem mutually committed to placing all public space off-limits to survival activity.

Here's some questions that the document raises for me.
  • With campsites busting out all over the city (remember, this is just a list of the "worst" sites) and the shelters full, where were all of these people supposed to go? My sense is that no one in the Mayor's office much cared, and that they still don't.
  • Why was the City pursuing a clearance policy this aggressive with no protocols to guide them? Through the summer and fall, clearances were performed with little to no warning, no guidelines regarding possessions, no outreach, and no provision of alternatives. While the new protocols are quite clear on tightening the law to criminalize the use of public space for survival, they are equally open-ended and exception-ridden when it comes to the City's responsibility to campers. The goal seems to be to maintain the gloves off approach, while pretending to meet the concerns of advocates.
  • This list was generated by Parks Security Supervisor Larry Campbell in response to a request from Sgt. Paul Gracy. Where did Gracy's orders come from? Tim Ceis knows better than to put things like that in an email. And why the sudden interest? The City's been saying that over 2006-2007, street homelessness went down.
  • From the "This type of focus may create additional attention from homeless advocates," statement at the end, it's pretty clear that this was a below the radar operation. Yet it also implies an escalation. When did the Mayor's secret campsite clearance policy really start?
So many public disclosure requests to make. So little time.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Last Night Sucked Life Again

Revel left this comment on a post where I linked to her blog. I found myself reading it over and over and decided to put it here. She's expanding on Last Night Sucked Life, her story of one night's medical crisis and getting left out in the cold.
On January 22, the scariest part was I was essentially a MIDDLE CLASS person (earned Medicare, not welfare Medicaid) when my ambulance arrived at Swedish Hospital (private not County). The medics kindly helped me get-in there when the ambulances were being rerouted (I mentioned I was a medic and a medical administrator before I got sick - no lie - pulled a favor).

STILL, afterward, I was sent out walking alone without a coat in fucking 22 degree weather at 4am. I lost eligibility for disability welfare and emergency taxi due to Top-Down budget cuts last year. And the hospital abdicates responsibility when you sign the release. In the cracks again. MIDDLE CLASS.

You can't get away from the breakdown in the system. Lower-Class, Middle Class. This is where it's going and it's unjust as hell. This is why we help the most vulnerable in the horrible sub-class of Homeless. Bottom to the top. This is how we are going to save ourselves.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Friends' Blogs Appreciation Day, Pt. 2

I haven't read any of my friends blogs for more than a month. I am consumed with guilt. My night time internet was limited for awhile to Cupcake Royale and street poaching. But last Thursday, I got broadband. Life is good.

I stole the Yes We Can John McCain parody video link up top from Hick with a Master's Degree, who I've missed the most. There's also this on the Time Magazine poll saying Clinton can't beat McCain, but Obama can.

From Gurldoggie we have a 1980's PSA of Laurie Anderson explaining the national debt, which has gone from around two trillion when the video was made to more like nine, and Josh Feit's unusually odd blog offers an up-close account of caucusing for Hilary.

Hylarious talks about covering the encampments story as editor of Real Change, and finally totally breaks it down for us:
But the big story, the story I could make my infant daughter understand in about two years, can be described this way:

1. Our city doesn't provide enough beds for people who need to sleep

2. Some of those people go sleep in the woods near the highway, or under the freeway overpass, or in the parks

3. Since remaining on this property — public property, as in owned by you and me — is not allowed, the city scares them off and takes their stuff.

Any three-year-old could then ask: Where are they supposed to go?

To which I'd reply: Good question.

I missed Up the Staircase too. Last Night Sucked Life, Revel's Jan. 22 account of medical collapse and getting kicked out of Swedish at dawn in below freezing temps with no coat makes me feel guilty for not reading her blog.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Confessions of a Class Straddler

I spent Sunday at a retreat I helped put together for some folks involved in Real Change's organizing project. For some twenty years now, I've been trying to figure out how to do powerful anti-poverty organizing with homeless people and their middle class allies. Homeless advocacy tends to either fetishize or tokenize those who don't have homes, or to exclude them altogether. We haven't figured out yet how to organize as allies based on our shared experience of economic vulnerability. Our movement too often descends into demagogic posturing that keeps allies at arms length and undermines our own power, or it is dominated by middle-class do-gooders who seldom recognize the role of their own institutional self-interest.

So we've made the decision that cross-class organizing is where it's at. We need to bring poor, homeless, working, middle, and owning class people together and understand what assets each of us bring to the table and figure out how to respect the differences that exist among us. None of this — in our class blind yet utterly stratified society — comes naturally to any of us, and yet, it's where the power is. And organizing is about building for power or it isn't really organizing.

And here we are, at Federal Way's austerely comfortable yet utterly affordable Dumas Bay Conference Center, talking about class. There are eight Real Change vendors, eight others whose class backgrounds are all over the map, myself, and our facilitator, who cops to being owning class but is an authentic ally with a long-haul social justice commitment. So we're a mixed bag over here, trying to figure out who we are, both alone and together, and how to make that work. It's been a powerful day, and I have huge respect for those who surrendered their comfort zones to be here to help figure it out.

We did a cool little exercise where each of us thought about the turning points in our lives that defined who we are in terms of class, narrowed the field to the half dozen or so that were most significant, and presented these to each other in groups of three before coming together to process our insights. My triad was with two of our vendors.

My own history is complicated. I'm what is known as a class straddler. My family should have been middle-class, but due to various complications wound up working poor and screwed up enough to drive me away at seventeen. Between my fucked up family and undiagnosed ADHD, I dropped out of high school, got kicked out of the Air Force, and spent a number of years working shit jobs and living in fairly desperate poverty. Until my mid-to-late thirties, the most money I ever made in a year was about $17,000.

But college led me to writing, and writing led me to activism, and activism brought me into close proximity to the middle-class. I gradually learned their ways and married into the professional strata. One day I woke up and realized that I'd become professional middle-class myself. I have status. I'm in control of my own work life. My job is fulfilling and intellectually challenging. And, while I'm not remotely wealthy, I live within the top American income quintile and can't much complain.

But the eighteen year old who lived in a room over the Arrow Bar is still very much here, as is the twenty-five year-old squatter whose water froze in the bottom of the bathroom sink, and the thirty-five year old who was driven to the free dentist by infected gums and bad teeth. And these live side by side with who I am now: a guy who sometimes has lunch with City Councilors, has the luxury of thinking, writing, and organizing for a living, runs a respected non-profit, and has writers, lawyers, and other professionals for friends, but goes to work in sneakers, has an Army/Navy store wardrobe, drives a 92 Corolla, swears like a truck driver, and could probably use some cosmetic dentistry.

There's an inspiring complicated messy arc to my life that's interesting to think about. The two vendors who shared their stories with me couldn't really say the same. They were born poor, and after that, they were poor, and now, surprisingly enough, they're still poor. Throw in some horrible life trauma and you pretty much have the whole story.

Which helped me realize anew just how elusive opportunity can be for those who were born to lose. More and more, our society is premised less upon the value of equal opportunity and more upon the joy of kicking people when they're down. Then, we blame them when they bleed all over the fucking sidewalk.

Messy, messy poor people. Don't they realize we're trying to walk here?

One of the things that keeps me at Real Change after all these years is the admiration I have for those who keep trying, even when they know, deep in their bones, that they're screwed. This, for me, slides effortlessly into anger with a system that does so little to reward people's efforts and aspirations. People don't just lie down and die like they're supposed to. They keep trying to get up.

Those of us who have some privilege to spend need to start getting up with them. Then, together, we can go for a walk, maybe do some talking, and see where it takes us.

For some perspective, here's Dr. Wes' take on the same two days.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

City Inside/Out

CR Douglas' City Inside/Out episode on homelessness this week is worth seeing. We did a Lower Queen Anne greenbelt Parks Department tour that he uses as the set-up for a panel interview with Human Services press flak Patricia McInturff, Operation Nightwatch Director Rev. Rick Reynolds, and Committee to End Homelessness in King County honcho Bill Block. McInturff artfully ducks Douglas' pointed questioning on shelter capacity and does her level best to make City policy look reasonable. Reynolds, in his diplomatic way, doesn't buy it. Block gets defensive about Ten Year Plan success, delivers his Housing First rap, and, as always, has nothing to say on the encampment clearance issue. A lot of average people on the street seem mostly critical of how homelessness is being handled. I seem pissed off ("I think the city needs to have a policy that actually helps people instead of deepening their misery.") and sleep deprived, which is about right. I'm also fighting a cold. If you look at the KOMO interview I did in my office later that day, my voice is a good octave lower than normal. I kind of growl. When I apologized to the anchor later she said, "I've never met you, so I thought that was just how you talk."

As CR and I strolled through the greenbelt with the parks crew, we saw around a dozen structures that varied widely in terms of overall squalor. There were a few patches of appalling mountains of trash (mostly empty tobacco pouches and beer cans), and other spots where camp sites were clean and had thoughtful divisions of function. We ran into around three actual campers. The one who had the most to say is on film talking to CR through the wall of his tent.

This is the same tour that Nicole Brodeur got a few months ago, and then Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times, just prior to their first hateful editorial in favor of the Mayor's policy. I've spoken to a City Councilor who did the tour as well. Patricia mumbles something about the trash still being there because of difficult logistics or something. That's bullshit. It's a museum piece. They've preserved the most trash heaped camp in the City to show off to the press as representative, and they've even let people keep living there. Even as CR sees through this, he still can't resist the dramatic footage. That's why it works.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Another Reason To Love California

What city but San Francisco could spawn psychedelic krautrockers Wooden Shjips? If you're looking for great stoner music, this garage trance band excels at blasting loud layers of noise around a driving groove that, like some force of butt-rock gravity, keeps the whole thing from just kind of floating away. You can't listen to these guys without feeling high, with or without enhancement.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Thanks For Nothing AAA

I'm not usually one to whine about things other than homelessness, but Triple-A sucks. Tonight, in my moment of need, the piece of plastic in my wallet that's supposed to offer some measure of security turned out to be about as useful in the moment as my Safeway membership.

It's dark. It's raining. Visibility sucks. I have two four year-olds in pajamas and coats in the backseat. I'm giving my friend a ride downtown to her hotel in my trusty '92 Toyota Corolla. 167,249 miles and going strong. On 205th in Edmonds, heading toward I-5, the road suddenly curves and I don't see it. I hit the curb and my right front tire blows out. We thump our way into an apartment complex car port and I look to see what I'm dealing with. There's a hole in the thing the size of my thumb.

I open the trunk and dig to the bottom. There's a spare, sort of. And a jack. No tire iron. A guy pulls up in a Lexus and stares. I walk up and ask if I'm in his space. The answer's yes, but he thinks he has a tire iron. He does. The jack works. The bolts go off and back on. My friend has packed the trunk. We're good. The guy gets to park.

But there's a problem. The spare is one of those fucking little band of rubber things that are only designed to get you to where you can get a real tire (what is the point of this?) and it felt kind of squishy when I was putting it on. The car pulls hard to the right. The braking is weird. It doesn't feel safe.

I forget about I-5. My idea is to go to a gas station somewhere along Aurora and get either a tire or more air in the spare. As we drive it becomes apparent that all the gas stations that are open have beef jerky but no tires. I get down to the AM/PM at 85th and try the air. Not much happens.

Well, alright. Time to call Triple-A. I proudly take the card from my wallet. My wife gets us a AAA membership every year because her mom is the sort of person who gives a window breaker — the tool you would need if you ever find yourself in an automobile that has hurtled off a bridge into freezing water and you need to make a calm escape — to you for your birthday. In ten years, I've never used it. Tonight was the night.

I forgot my cell phone, so we used Barbara's Blackberry. It rings the AAA in Washington, DC, because that's where her phone number is. After several minutes' confusion over whether I'm actually a member, although I hold a clearly valid membership card in my hand, I get transferred to Seattle AAA. I listen to 10 minutes of hold announcements about how fucking wonderful their service is and how much they care.

Twin A is asleep in the back. Twin B is chatting away, assessing the merits of large tires and small tires, and concluding that what we need is a medium tire. By then, we've decided to move to a Taco Bell parking lot, because Twin B's been saying she's hungry. She gets a cheese quezedila and she's happy. The lady from AAA comes on and asks if we're somewhere dangerous. I say we're in a Taco Bell parking lot. I have a flat and my spare is no good.

"Then you need a tow to a service facility."

No, I need a tire.

"We can't bring you a tire. We can only tow you to a service facility."

I can drive to get a tire if you can tell me where one is open.

"Oh, they're all closed."

So this is your "roadside service?" You're going to fucking tow me to a closed gas station? How can you be so useless? You're Triple-A!

"I don't know where you got the idea that we do tire installation!"

She actually said this. I don't know where you got the idea we do tire installation. Triple-A. Amazing.

Barbara took a cab downtown and I drove home at twenty-five miles an hour. It was fine. Tomorrow is another day, and one of Aurora Ave's forty-million tire merchants is sure to be open.

Thursday, February 7, 2008


Saturday was the last night of "my monastic cell" at Trinity United Methodist Church. For two months, once it was clear that my twenty year marriage was over, this room was home. It was really just an unrented office space that they were nice enough to let me have, but my monkish existence there, without the distractions of internet, television, or stereo, provided an uncomplicated space from which I could move toward clarity.

Last Wednesday, as I was putting Twin B to bed at their mom's house, I told her again that soon I would have a place, and she and her sister would have another bunk bed and another home. She looked me dead in the eye and said, "you keep saying that, but you never do it." She's four. She's that kind of a kid.

By Friday, I had the apartment. Four days later, I was sort of settled in. Today, I set up the bunk bed. A friend grew up in them. Another friend gave me a kitchen table, and yet another came through with chairs to match. Still others moved my 1,200 books and even put them away for me. Yay, friends.

The girls are asleep in their new room tonight. They live in two houses now. And have two parents who love them. They're happy.

As I prepared last Saturday to leave the room at Trinity for good, it occurred to me I'd miss the place. It was here that I came back to myself after the earthquake to renegotiate the shifting terrain of my life. The ground is still moving, but it feels more solid everyday.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


There isn't anything I can say about Super Tuesday that this video doesn't say better. Yes We Can. This is our one shot. Another four years of corporatocracy is going to fucking bury us in our own waste. Hope is contagious. Hope is revolutionary. Hope is real. Power to the people.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Out of Issaquah

It’s Tuesday, and a crew from KOMO just left the Real Change office after interviewing me for a piece scheduled for 6 pm tonight. Issaquah has followed suit after Tacoma and Auburn in enacting new panhandling laws to place “time, place, and manner” restrictions on public solicitation. Similar legislation is under consideration in Federal Way, and Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr has stated that our own city should perhaps adopt some aspects of the Tacoma approach. Carr seems to like the sunset to sunrise restrictions in particular.

The trend toward the criminalization of survival activity, whether it be panhandling or camping, is something that should concern us all. Issaquah’s legislation prevents solicitation within 300 feet of any freeway on or off ramp, as well as at thirteen other specific intersections. Tacoma’s is so comprehensive as to effectively ban panhandling altogether.

There is an inevitable logic to the cascading adoption of anti-panhandling ordinances by communities throughout the region. When a city like Tacoma puts the squeeze on panhandling, the need doesn’t go way. It just resurfaces someplace else. Nobody, apparently, wants to be that place.

As the options of the very poor become more circumscribed, the desperately poor will be driven further and further from where services are available, and possibly into more heavily criminalized aspects of the underground economy. These include shoplifting, prostitution, drug sales, and theft. This is in no one’s interest.

It’s time for communities to consider how they might more aggressively act to address the root causes of poverty, under-employment, and declining housing affordability. When we simply outlaw that which makes us uncomfortable, nobody wins.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Spiderwalk

Given the popularity of Marilyn Littlejohn's exorcism in my latest What Would Jesus Do poll, I thought I'd post the Spiderwalk scene from The Exorcist. I couldn't help but notice that Ellen Burstyn, as Regan's mom, bears more than a slight resemblance to Patricia McInturff. See the results of last week's poll here.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Bathroom Banjo

Here's a back-post to appease the OCD gods. Califone is best described as psychedelic country, and I love them. The sound quality of this clip leaves a teeny to be desired, but you can't beat the ambiance.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Twenty First Century Schizoid Man

OK. I admit to being in a mood. And not having much time. Here's some remnants of King Crimson, playing the fuck out of their 1969 classic. Enjoy. I have to confess to loving the beginning and the end and being a little bored by the geek stuff in the middle. I'm not sure which personnel here are original to King Crimson. I've placed another brief clip below from a 1969 Hyde Park performance. The video is out of synch with the music, which makes me think it's live footage set to the record. Nonetheless, the period is well-represented here.

Twenty First Century Schizoid Man

Cats foot iron claw
Neuro-surgeons scream for more
At paranoias poison door.
Twenty first century schizoid man.

Blood rack barbed wire
Polititians funeral pyre
Innocents raped with napalm fire
Twenty first century schizoid man.

Death seed blind mans greed
Poets starving children bleed
Nothing he's got he really needs
Twenty first century schizoid man.