Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Wrath of Browning

I seldom see Dr. Wes get mad. Not about political stuff anyway. He mostly finds things amusing in their transparent stupidity, and that keeps things from getting too serious. Not tonight though.

The topic that made Wes' go all apoplectic was, of course, the campsite protocols. Wes is Real Change's resident genius. I won't go into why I think Wes is a genius. He just is. His column has graced our paper for about ten years. When Adventures in Poetry began, his writing — which vacillated wildly from brilliance to drek — was an acquired taste for most. But we had space to fill and he wrote for free. It was a deal we couldn't pass up.

Over time, this guy with a math PhD who had been homeless four times during his time in Seattle — sometimes living in his car, sometimes in greenbelts, and during that final episode, in the Real Change office — became a very good writer. His decent to lame column ratio dramatically improved. Now even his lame columns are pretty good.

I still have one of the first poems he wrote committed to memory. The last part is sung to the tune of My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.
Home was a '52 Rambler.
I left it by the side of the road.
Home was a '52 Rambler.
Until the State ha-ad it towed.
Oh bring back, oh bring back,
Oh bring back my Rambler to me, to me.
Oh bring back, oh bring back,
Oh bring back my Rambler to me.
There is additional evidence of his genius, but I'm not here to go into that. I'm here to talk about what made Wes' face go dark and his voice begin to choke, which, I think I've mentioned, is a rare event.

Tonight at an RCOP meeting, we were talking about what the goal should be in regard to the camping ordinances. I'd volunteered that the loopholes undermined the validity of the policy. If a policy designed to outline rights and protections for campers defines most campers as unprotected, then that policy is not legitimate, no matter how many kiss-ass City Councilors and lazy-ass reporters say it is. This, I said, needs to be where we hold the line.

Wes had a different idea. No policy that affects homeless people, he said, can be considered legitimate if homeless people had absolutely no say in it's creation. There is a word, he said, for policies that are simply imposed, and that is "repression."

We had planning to do, so we moved on. But as we did, my thought was, "This is actually worse that that."

Formulation of this policy didn't just exclude homeless people. It excluded their advocates as well. For more than six months, every effort at dialogue was rebuffed as the Mayor's Office kept all the policy cards to themselves. Then they released their evil plan for the obligatory two weeks of public comment. At the public hearing, the policies were panned 65-0, after which the secret planning continued, with more of a focus on how to make it sell.

A few liberalizations were made while they double-checked with City legal to ensure the plan was on just this side of the law. A few months later, City communications strategists buried the story in the Saturday papers. The Seattle Times allowed their reporter a fifteen inch news hole. After all, the Dalai Lama was in town. Space was at a premium.

But while no one was looking, they snuck in two huge loopholes that weren't in the draft released for public comment: the three camp threshold and the recurring encampment clause. If you are unfamiliar with these terms, please refer to the Criminalization Flowchart.

Wes is, of course, right. It's repression. Dressed up in sickening shades of compassion and hidden partially out of sight by Ten Year Plan fairy dust. Everybody who has their feet on the ground knows that things on the streets are getting more desperate. But from the 7th floor of City Hall, it apparently looks like homelessness is being solved. How nice for them.

They think that this is going to be like the Sidran Ordinances. That they'll peel off the more mainstream opposition with some token concessions, marginalize the rest of us, and then wait us out. By the time most everywhere in Seattle has permanent No Trespass postings due to the recurring encampment clause, everyone will be so sick of this issue no one will care that the Department of Corrections is sweeping all the sites on a schedule, unencumbered by the need for notification, storage, outreach, or services.

When I told City Council Human Services Chair Tim Burgess this, he said I was cynical. Where the hell has he been? This is just how things work in this town.

They underestimate us. These are not the Sidran Laws. Those outlawed sitting on a sidewalk. These outlaw survival. There's a difference. Repression is too gentle of a word.


Dr. Wes Browning said...

I mumbled. The actual wording was, government that doesn't involve the people it rules over in the making of its rules isn't true government, it's oppression.

By excluding the people directly effected from the process of deciding rules that severely impact their lives, to the point of risking their health and safety, the Nickels administration has relegated those people to roles of non-citizen.

It's one ingredient for a pogrom. First you treat people as non-citizens, then as non-human. We've reached that stage.

For another ingredient, you conduct your oppression of the people you want to degrade in the dark as much as possible, to keep from alarming decent people. You do this by violating a central tenet of democratic government. By obstructing oversight through initial secrecy and continued refusal to reveal details of operation and decision making, by the deliberate vagueness of the rules themselves, the Nickels administration promotes oppression.

Transparent government is not a luxury. It is essential to prevent government abuse. The deliberate obstruction of oversight shows the intent to oppress. They do it to not be caught, and they do it knowingly, and with malice.

This is oppression, nothing more nor less. The Nickels administration is a disgrace for perpetrating it. The city council is a disgrace for not standing up forcefully for oversight and accountability, and for not calling out oppression when it is obvious. Why do we even have a city council, if they won't stop the administration from violating the civil and human rights of of thousands of citizens? What other job do they have that's more important?

Sally said...

We shouldn't villify the City Council. They are working very hard on very important things. The exact height of incredibly tall buildings in South Lake Union, and fees for plastic grocery bags, for example.

David said...

There is a quote from Herman Melville that underscores Wes's comments about the city making policy about encampments without input from those who are affected or their advocates.

"Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed."