Tuesday, September 29, 2009
I know something about panhandlers. For fifteen years, I’ve worked at Real Change, in Belltown. We’re across the street from DSHS, a few doors over from a residential program for low-income mentally ill people, and half a block from a convenience store that does a brisk trade in malt liquor and fortified wine. When I walk down the street, I get asked for change and cigarettes about every hundred yards. Sheer volume dictates that I mostly say no.
There’s a few regulars and a rotating cast of familiar types. There’s the elderly mentally ill woman who never seems to remember the answer is no, and the whiney guy who smokes about three packs a day of Other People’s cigarettes. There’s a few sharp operators, with stories of bus trips to Tacoma and cars out of gas, who possess more advanced skills. There are the tweaky junkies, whose eyes shine with sad desperation, and a regular crop of alcoholics who rarely get more than a few blocks from their next bottle.
How many of these are “aggressive?” I can only think of a few minor incidents over the past fifteen years. With these, the everyday misery of the street comes with more of an attitude. It’s a little amazing this doesn’t happen more often. For the most part, Seattle’s very poor endure their suffering rather too politely.
Councilmember Tim Burgess will soon introduce legislation to the Seattle City Council to restrict panhandling in Seattle. He says his proposal simply sets a few minimal standards of behavior in the interest of public safety. Not true. Tim Burgess is sucking up to money, pandering to fear, and punishing the poor.
Laws that target the visible poor are in increasingly popular municipal strategy for managing the contradictions of radical inequality. They lead to deepened poverty and the expanding incarceration of the very poor. These laws represent an immense failure of political and moral imagination, and simply sweep the wreckage of a failed system out of sight. We have to do better.
Life in the Big City
If you want to see what comes of thirty-plus years of growing inequality, take a walk downtown in any American city. Great wealth and enormous misery exist in parallel universes that uncomfortably collide.
Over the past three decades, the manufacturing jobs that were at the core of most urban economies left, leaving cities to either reinvent or die. Seattle is a shining exemplar of the post-globalization urban center. One is either a professional or a service worker, with little opportunity in between.
For those who struggle with addiction, disability, mental illness, and illiteracy, the lower rungs of the wage ladder are often out of reach. Their numbers are growing, and their survival depends upon the urban-based services that surrounding towns and rural areas are ill-equipped to afford. They are the result of unconscionable system failure, they are here, and they are not going away.
Meanwhile, the downtown has been reinvented as an urban professional’s paradise, filled with shopping, dining, and cultural opportunities aimed at attracting conventions, tourists, and downtown condo dwellers.
The politics of downtown development in Seattle have always been linked to the harassment and repression of the visibly poor. The Sidran sit-lie ordinances were passed as the capstone to the Rhodes Project, the early 80’s downtown revitalization that gave us Nordstrom’s and Westlake Center. The construction of Benaroya Hall a few years later came linked to an uncompromising attack by downtown interests on a proposed urban hygiene center less than a block away.
More recently, the downtown condo boom brought a zero-tolerance policy on urban camping, systematic homeless sweeps, and the removal of public toilets. And now, the collapse of the housing market, with its clear threat to the very survival of downtown condo developers, has brought a new round of class warfare dressed up as common sense.
The Burgess proposal, which hasn’t yet been submitted to council and is not yet in writing, bans panhandling near ATMs and cars, at street intersections and freeway onramps and anytime between the hours of dusk and dawn. These “time, place, and manner” restrictions have, unlike more straightforward attempts to ban panhandling, held up well to constitutional appeal.
As the economy has slipped into what may be a permanent contraction, the ability of localities to offer the services that the feds won’t has been further eroded. The shrinking human services safety net is being replaced by a prison state for the very poor. One in ninety-nine Americans is now behind bars. One in three African American men live under the supervision of the Department of Corrections. If none of your friends or family have been locked up, odds are you’re not Black or poor.
Do we need more excuses to arrest poor people in Seattle? Tim Burgess thinks the answer is yes.
Milking Fear is Easy. Change is Hard.
Recently on KUOW, Tim Burgess described a frightening encounter with a freeway on-ramp panhandler who banged on his car window that very morning in pursuit of a handout. Despite my ample experience with onramp panhandling, I’ve never had this happen, and wonder how many of us have.
Panhandlers do, however, make us uncomfortable. Even I, sitting in my car awaiting the on-ramp timing light, will sometimes avoid the gaze of the sign-holding needy. To be made fidgety, however, is different than being threatened. The only threat here is to the well-padded comfort zone of affluent Seattle.
Aggressive panhandling is already against the law. If someone taps on my car window looking for a dollar, I’m free to call 911 on my cell phone to report the incident. If the police have nothing better to do, perhaps they’ll eventually respond.
The Burgess plan pre-empts the very possibility that someone might make us uncomfortable. The “broken windows” theory upon which his proposal rests identifies visible public begging as a variety of “social disorder” that leads to a downward spiral of urban decay. Allow panhandlers, the theory goes, and you will soon have AK-47 toting drug dealers ruling the streets in Jeep Grand Cherokees.
These laws, which identify visible poverty as an indicator of social disorder and seek to eliminate potential sources of urban discomfort, pander to fear and deny the collective responsibility we have to one another. They solve nothing, and are a victim-blaming short-term response to wholesale system failure.
The answers, while not easy, are hardly rocket science. Drug decriminalization and increased support for drug and alcohol treatment. Hedges against gentrification and deeper commitment to affordable housing. Economic stimulus spending to create work for the poor. Universal health care and adequate mental health services. Fair taxation to increase the burden of social responsibility upon the rich.
The Burgess proposal to ban panhandling is a mean-spirited attack on the visibly poor, and takes Seattle further down our twenty-year path of pandering to the affluent at the expense of the most desperate. This is not a solution to anything. It is the problem.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Men walkin' long the railroad tracks
Goin someplace there's no goin' back
Highway patrol choppers comin' up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin' round the corner
Welcome to the New World Order
Families sleepin' in their cars in the southwest
No home no job no peace no rest
The highway is alive tonight
But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
Searchin' for the ghost of Tom Joad
He pulls a prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag
Waitin' for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box 'neath the underpass
Got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and gun in your hand
Sleepin' on a pillow of solid rock
Bathin' in the city aqueduct
The highway is alive tonight
Where its headed everybody knows
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
Waitin on the ghost of Tom Joad
Now Tom said mom, wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there's a fight against the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me mom I'll be there
Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand
Or a decent job or a helpin' hand
Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free
Look in their eyes mom you'll see me.
Well the highway is alive tonight
But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad
Thursday, June 11, 2009
This one evolved over a week. After I got comfortable with the bass line and then got inside it to work my way out again the song began to happen. Once I put the lead in there, it became a thing to behold. This is supposed to move like a black 79 Buick Skylark with a body in the trunk, doing a steady, unobtrusive, 62 MPH.
Monday, June 1, 2009
Here's a tight interview that ran today on America's Disappeared, a program of the Prisoners Education Network that airs monthly on KSER 90.7 FM in Everett. I go into the links between homelessness and incarceration, talk up the Initiative 100 campaign to stop Seattle's proposed new city jail, and describe what would happen if I were in charge.
Friday, May 29, 2009
Tonight I found a cool groove on the Dylan classic that kind of takes it away from sixties folk dirge and makes it sound as though it was recorded maybe sometime in the past decade. The song is, after all, timeless. The photo is of General Peter Pace, Chairmen of the joint Chiefs of Staff. It links to an article about him saying homosexuality is "immoral." Dick.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
I've been staring down the piano I bought last December for awhile and got out my "You Can Play Piano" book about a month ago. The "Notes on the Keyboard" explanation on page 4 was very helpful. I haven't re-opened it since. A few days later, as I was absorbing the news of Michael Garcia's death the night before, I started playing with a minor key blues thing that became, in my mind, his song. This one's for Michael.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
I spent most of my drive time the last few days hitting repeat on this song off Nick Cave's Kicking Against The Pricks album. I'm pretty sure I've heard Bruce Springsteen do it as well. It's a goddamn metaphor for dislocation, desperation, and being swept away. After a few days, I got clear that this one's supposed to be hard, dark, and bluesy as hell. That's actually an acoustic guitar in there. Garageband is amazing.
Mary, grab the baby, the river's rising
Muddy water taking back the land
The old-frame house, she can't take-a one more beating
Ain't no use to stay and make a stand
Well the morning light shows water in the valley
Daddy's grave just went below the line
Things to say, you just can't take em with ya
This flood will swallow all you've left behind
Won't be back to start all over
Cause what I felt before is gone
Mary, take the child, the river's rising
Muddy water taking back my home
The road is gone, there's just one way to leave here
Turn my back on what I've left below
Shifting land, broken farms around me
Muddy water's changing all I know
It's hard to say just what I'm losing
Ain't never felt so all alone
Mary, take the child, the river's rising
Muddy water taking back my home
Won't be back to start all over
Cause what I felt before is gone
Mary, take the child, the river's rising
Muddy water's changing all I know
Muddy water's changing all I know
Lord, this muddy water is taking back my home
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
This is wrong on so many levels, but brilliant nonetheless. Take the best scene of the best horror movie of all time, make it into a sick musical, and then have some genius come along and do the whole damn thing in Legos. It's a cultural landmark by accretion. Amazing.
Friday, March 27, 2009
One of these days this blog will get back to substance, and I'll again recommend coming here to friends, but for now, here's a picture of my new 70's era Sears brand Harmony electric guitar with its groovy surfer-dude pick-up and the 1970 Silvertone tube amp (also by Sears) that I got along with it. They have a sound of their own that I'm learning to love. The amp comes with a cool little foot switch that kicks in the tremelo (it was a simpler time). Garageband kicks it up a bit in the Pablo Picasso version above, played on my new toy.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
I got on this today by messing with the little E run that starts this song, and it kind of went from there. This is what burn out looks like. It's not pretty. Above is an image from a Bloomingdale window display. Below is one of those sophisticated sexy twenties proto-Mickey Mouse cartoons that I can't get enough of.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
This blog has gone to hell since I started playing guitar more, joined Facebook, and got busier and more stressed than I've been in my entire life. But I do find time to play. Here's Pablo Picasso, by me, influenced by the Modern Lovers, John Cale, and possibly The Stooges. My staccato sixteenth notes suck, but that's why they call it "Garageband." Below is John Cale in 1984, being very John Cale.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Friday, March 6, 2009
My interview with the Socialist Worker published yesterday, and was a rare opportunity to describe my notions of how homelessness and incarceration link as issues and the overall landscape of our times. They did a really nice job of going to the core of a very long interview and making me sound smart. I'm beginning to get past my innate bias against the silliness of the sectarian left and am learning to love the International Socialists. God help me. Here's an excerpt:
IF SEATTLE continues down this road of criminalizing poverty and decides to go ahead with the new jail, what should we expect in the future?
WHAT'S FUNDAMENTALLY at stake here and everywhere is our vision of the future. We're sliding down a path of a continual increase in the numbers of incarcerated and homeless, continual impoverishment on the lower end of the scale, continual erosion of the middle class and the increased economic vulnerability that comes along with that. More vulnerability to falling over the edge, into that class of people who exist in the land of no return.
There is a lot of mystification around the homelessness issue. You get these complete BS reports out of Washington and the Department of Housing and Urban Development that have all this rosy news about how homelessness is being ended. Anybody who is on the ground dealing with homelessness and seeing the reality knows that there are more people, that the desperation has increased, that things are worse now than they have ever been. This rosy view that things are working is a big smokescreen to placate people.
Homelessness cannot be ended without addressing the root causes that are driving it, that have to do with the economies of labor, and who wins and who loses in this system. The government isn't going to address that, because it can't without threatening itself.
So the response that you see is one of appearing to address homelessness that is really about maintaining their own political legitimacy. They cannot ignore the moral crisis of homelessness without appearing unjust and illegitimate. They cannot address the crisis of homelessness without going to these root causes, which they're institutionally ill-equipped to do anything about.
A theologian named Walter Bruggeman says that situations of cultural acceptance breed accommodating complacency. I think that is the core insight that applies to the times we live in.
As a culture, we have accommodated ourselves to what, at a glance, should be a completely unacceptable reality. There are institutions in place whose primary purpose is to make that accommodation acceptable, to lull us into the sense that things are more or less okay, that the system is functioning normally, and that there is a kind of benign welfare state that is doing its best to take care of people.
That is all an ideological smokescreen. The reality is that about 10 percent of us have been completely written off, thrown to the wolves and have no alternative but to continually cycle through survival systems. Just bare subsistence survival activity--the desperation of which would blow most people's minds if they really understood it--vulnerability to incarceration, and very little prospect of ever escaping that system. That is the core reality of our time, that anybody who has a sense of universal love and concern for their fellow human beings should be completely outraged by.
What we see in the Third World should give us all nightmares. There's been radical growth of urban slums in the Third World over the last two decades--also a response to the global economy, where globalization has driven the rural poor into the containment of the urban slums. The larger ones are 25-40 million people who are living in these shantytowns, where people are living in toxic waste dumps of low-value land, which means floodplains, earthquake-prone slopes, cities built on shit, literally. Smells horrible, no infrastructure, rampant disease. It is a vision of Dante's hell.
The reason we don't have more of that here--although I do think we're starting to see it--is that some of those contested urban spaces are still being contested. And the containment systems are less visible, but are equally horrendous--for instance, the conditions within the prison system, where rape is casually accepted as an unofficial method of dehumanization, of discipline really.
The expansion of maximum-security institutions, in which people are subjected to a form of ongoing torture; the acceptance of dehumanizing conditions within emergency shelter systems--they're different containment systems that dehumanize in different ways.
So one future is continuing along that trajectory. And the economic collapse in the U.S. offers the potential that that curve will again shoot up. In recent years, the rates of growth in incarceration and homelessness have declined slightly--they haven't stopped growing, but they're growing less rapidly.
But our capacity to mitigate this disaster through the provision of human services--which at least offers some sort of a lifeline to those who are most vulnerable--is being reduced, and horrendous cuts are on the table. So we're very likely to see an acceleration in all these trends.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Tonight I went over to Interaction/Transition, an ex-offender re-entry program up in the CD, to hear Khalil Osiris, a man who earned two degrees from Boston University during his twenty years of incarceration in Ohio and went on to be one of the nations leading experts on prisoner re-entry and education. He's an amazing presence. A soul-driven soldier of the dispossessed. Brilliant, charismatic, operating from a place of love, and real as a block of granite.
I didn't go as a reporter, but I reached into my wallet twice to scrawl on the back of a bank slip. The first was in response to a question about compassion fatigue in the helping professions. After the usual advice about self-care, he said something brilliant. Listen to people, he said. Really listen. Listen deeply, listen intuitively, and then ask this. "Given that the situation is exactly as you have described, what is the best thing you can do for yourself, and how can I help you." You could see this hit people around the room like lightening. Powerful..
The other highlight was when he described human dignity as a force against reaction and repression. People who truly possess their own humanity, he said, will win. Then he walked over to a re-entry client standing near the wall, took him by the shoulders, and said "I believe in your worth and capacity for good more than I believe in the system's capacity to treat you with dignity." There's a sentence that you can sit with for awhile.
I/T Director Scott Washington and Osiris have a long history of working together, and he gets to Seattle a lot. Next time, I'm organizing him an audience and getting it on video. It's my damn mission. Anyone this good needs to be seriously seen and heard, and the two brief clips I found on Youtube just don't do him justice. I'm there for this guy, anytime.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
This morning I was focusing on my core priorities, which meant catching up on email and deleting spam, when I came across a PSA for a new website, AdultADHDisreal.com. I immediately downloaded the PSAs, visited the website, smoked a cigarette and remembered to take my medication before going onto five other things, playing a little guitar, and eventually coming back to the email clearance project.
As a guy who wasn't diagnosed until 48 despite a rather textbook ADHD life trajectory, I'm a little disappointed they didn't get someone a bit higher profile than Howie Mandel, "host of the show Deal or No Deal," on board for this. Robin Williams would have done nicely. I'm betting that half the comedians on earth share my superpower. I'd also have preferred the PSA focus less on the negatives.
Superpower? Hell yeah. It's only an "affliction" when you don't get it. Once you know the dynamics of flow and hyperfocus, you understand that the world is divided into hunters and gatherers, and we hunters, when we're not bored, live in a heightened state. An ADHD friend calls this way of being "The Passion." I like that.
Boredom, to me, is a sin and an insult to the universe. It's a lapsed-Catholic meets existentialist Buddhist on Adderall kind of thing. You wouldn't understand.
Here's Robin Williams, using his superpower to describe the French.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
This week’s $30 billion federal gift to AIG exemplifies everything wrong with government by
This is what economist Robert Kuttner has described as the “moral hazard” of economic bail-outs. Risk is socialized, profit is privatized, and the rules of the game more or less stay the same. Every time this occurs, the message to the high rollers is “go for broke boys, we’ve got your back.”
Big numbers make people’s brains go numb, but we need to ask, “How much is $30 billion?” The math isn’t hard. Divide $30,000,000,000 into about 306,000,000, the total U.S population, and you get about $96 for each man, woman, and child in America.
In itself, this doesn’t seem like all that much — about my monthly Verizon bill, once I’m raped for all the unsolicited corporate text message charges — but you know what they say. Thirty billion here and thirty billion there: pretty soon you’re talking about real money.
This latest public investment at economic gunpoint, where the governing structure of the company remains essentially in place with taxpayers having little to no guarantee of ever being repaid, isn’t something happening far away in Washington, DC. It’s happening right now. Right here, in your pocketbook.
If that’s not OK with you, it’s time to wake the hell up and say so.
I came across this on Facebook at 5 a.m. on a sleepless night and it ripped me open. Dayna Kurtz was a college housemate and friend back around the mid-80s that I'd lost track of until the miracle of social networking reunited us. She was a talent even then and played a bar here and there. Now, well, she's a hard working NY-based pro who's huge in Amsterdam and known throughout Europe. I had a pretty serious crush. It's been revived as of around fifteen minutes ago. Her geographically remote and totally married unattainability just makes it that much more fun.
This is a wide open spanish-inflected blues for America called Lady Liberty, performed live in Puerto de Santa Maria a few years ago.
You come at me, too human, and drag me down and leave meYou can follow the YouTube link to other stuff. She's something. Damn.
broken like a spine, split open like a melon,
that's been dropped from a high, high, place.
Saturday, February 28, 2009
Thursday, February 26, 2009
I've been obsessing over this song this week and got to the heart of it this morning. You know when you've nailed it, and this feels right. Meanwhile, I came across this: Smokey Robinson, on Sesame Street, where the letter U is holding him tighter, tighter, tighter ...
Sunday, February 22, 2009
This morning's 8 a.m. Garageband creation. I was doing my morning coffee and frozen waffles and picked up the guitar to do The Passenger in a single track, as opposed to recording guitar and vocals separately. More of an in the moment sort of an approach. I'm thinking I need to start playing bigger venues than my kitchen table. I may need to get dressed first.
Saturday, February 21, 2009
You know I'm way pressed when I drop back to posting once or twice a week. How busy is too busy? This is too busy. So, here's something I wrote today for the University of Massachusetts Amherst program in Social Thought and Political Economy newsletter, because the program director, who I adore, asked me to. I'm sure they won't mind being scooped.
How does one meet the immediate survival needs of those who are have nothing while building institutional power to fight the root causes of homelessness and poverty? This is the question that fifteen years ago led Tim Harris to found what would become North America’s premiere street newspaper.
Seattle’s Real Change now employs more than 350 homeless and very low-income people each month in street sales of their weekly publication. Last year, street vendors sold 722,571 copies of the progressive community newspaper that offers “opportunity and a voice to low-income people while taking action to end homelessness and poverty. “ Vendors buy their papers for thirty-five cents to resell for a dollar plus tips. In the process, homeless people find that they are not without friends.
“Over the years I’ve come to understand Real Change as an enormous web of human relationships,” said Harris. “People stop being afraid and find that they care for each other. That’s where the personal and social transformation really begins.
Soon after Harris graduated from the STPEC program in 1987, he became involved in alternative newspapers and direct-action style empowerment organizing with homeless people in Boston.
“I discovered that the formulas for community organizing just didn’t translate. Leaders came and went very fast, and were up against too many demons to be real effective. Meanwhile homelessness just kept increasing. The Boston years were about getting my butt kicked and organizing without a roadmap.” By the time Harris left for Seattle in 1994, he understood that homeless people couldn’t win without allies, and that street newspapers could bring people together.
Real Change is presently leading a multi-racial, cross-class coalition in a ballot initiative organizing drive to create alternatives to a new Seattle municipal jail. “People get that cutting school budgets while building new jails doesn’t make sense, and ever-increasing incarceration rates just deepen poverty and wastes limited public resources,” said Harris. The initiative has lured activists out of their single-issue ghettos to find a new, more unified, way forward.
“Taking risks only strengthens our support,” said Harris. “Our funding comes mostly from reader donations and paper sales, and this gives us huge freedom to tell the uncompromised truth. It’s a powerful position from which to organize.”
For more information, visit realchangenews.org, and nonewjail.org.
Friday, February 20, 2009
Thursday, February 19, 2009
My voice keeps getting more loose, ruined, and expressive. Here's the reason I only got 2 hours sleep the night before the I-100 launch party. Picking up my guitar and opening Garageband at midnight is always a mistake, especially when I'm committed to being downtown at 6. Happily, I do well under pressure.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
This ringing endorsement is echoed by others. Vanessa Ho and Scott Gutierrez at the PI did a solid piece on the choice that led with Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance saying "He's likely to be the best drug czar we've seen, but that's not saying much."
I guess we gotta start somewhere. Here's my own ill-informed list of reasons for the Kerlikowske appointment.
1.) First and foremost, he's got the Clint Eastwood squint. In a land where perception is everything, looking like a bad-ass detective is half the game.All of which makes him a likely candidate to steer the ship of state ever-sooo-slooowly to a five to ten degree deviation away from the Lock Up All The Black People policies of the past twenty-five years.
2.) In Seattle, a major American city with a liberal reputation, he has revealed himself to be a bit of a wuss in dealing with the mob-like police union, but other than that, has been neither great nor terrible. He is, first and foremost, a politician.
3.) He is also a bureaucrat, was in DC during the Clinton Administration, and knows how things are done there, or not.
4.) Kerlikowske has made little to no noise regarding drug policy, but also reportedly has a wonky side. He is uncontroversial enough to be confirmed, and yet smart enough to possibly create policy based on facts. This "fact-based" thing is a shift in DC, where up until very recently policy formation has been based on prejudice, emotion, and magic 8-balls.
Change You Can Believe in was for the campaign trail. Now, the real politik slogan rules: Change That Won't Freak Anyone Out Too Much. Domenic Holden, over at the Stranger SLOG, is more optimistic and calls the Obama choice "brilliant." Maybe so. But it's certainly safe.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Speaking of institutional racism, today I spent five minutes on the sidewalk with one of our vendors, and my sense of outrage us up to around a 9.7 on a scale of 1-10. Donald Morehead, a poster child for the screwed, poor, and dark-skinned if ever there was, had the misfortune to be standing while Black last month in one of Seattle’s drug enforcement zones. The arresting officer grabbed him by the face hard enough to extract a molar without anesthetic, but was kind enough to distract our vendor from the tooth pain by slamming his head against the car hood hard enough to leave permanent marks. Donald spent more than two weeks in King County Jail when he failed to accept the plea bargain.
“I’ve spent eight years in the brig,” he told me. “Three months is no big deal. I’m not going to cop to a nothing charge for this BS.”
Donald is one of our more politically involved vendors and is well known and loved around here, yet it was more than two weeks before he was able to get word to us through a lawyer of his problem. By the time we had his bail the next morning, he’d been released because, basically, the city had nothing. He spent two weeks in pain, courtesy of chez King County, where Blacks are represented in the daily average jail population at nearly ten times their numbers in King County. With this sort of targeting going on, it’s easy to see why.
Donald is one of those people who, not to put too fine a point on it, was fucked from birth. Raised Black, male, and poor in the projects of New York, he took his best shot at success by joining the Army just in time for the first Gulf War. When he came back, Donald found that he was still Black and poor, and all his military experience counted for was a case of PTSD.
Since then, most of his time has been spent homeless or in prison. Given that our system seems to delight in nothing more than kicking people when they’re down, I find this sadly unsurprising, and admire him for each and every day that he’s woken up without hating the entire human race
Our vendor was released to the street after 16 days, minus his twenty bucks from Real Change sales. Drug money and “evidence,” the cops said. But Donald got a decent lawyer, and at least got out. Given the math of poor people in jail on bullshit charges and funding for public defense, this was an improbability. Donald, believe it or not, was a lucky man.
“There’s a war going on,” he told me this morning,” and as the economy goes down, it’s only going to get worse.” Word
Monday, February 9, 2009
I keep playing this thing, and it keeps getting faster, harder, and further away from it's origins. Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here is about life in the checked out zone, where the peaks and valleys are slow and even and everything is safe. It's about illusions, loneliness, and the kind of narcotic comfort that never satisfies. This is a beautifully bitter song, and I'm trying to do it justice.
Thursday, February 5, 2009
Tonight I went to my cross-class dialogue group, a pretty cool bunch of folks trying to wrap their heads around who they are and where they fit in relation to others. Class is the subject we don't know how to talk about. It's just not polite. So we gather in each other's homes once a month and politely transgress. Tonight's postprandial discussion centered on this, The Story of Stuff. A lot of information, brilliantly delivered.
A few hours earlier, I went on Kevin Cole's show at KEXP to talk about Real Change. We're their featured Audioasis group this month, which means we get a bunch of PSA's, a couple of interviews, and a benefit show this Saturday at the Sunset Tavern. The two-minute scheduled interview went on for ten. Kevin was cool, I was on, and the thing just flowed. I got to talk about the I-100 jails campaign, say we do "kick-ass organizing," and utter the phrase, "The more hell we raise, the bigger the checks people write." Which, actually, is true.
When I got back to Real Change after the interview, I found that a public defender had called about one of our vendors. He hasn't been around. Turns out he's been in jail for about two weeks after being arrested for standing while Black. Apparently, it's a criminal offense to loiter in a high drug crime area. You don't need to have drugs, sell drugs, or even be on drugs. All you need to do is have low enough status to get tossed in jail for nothing and be powerless to do a fucking thing about it. And no one has lower status than a homeless Black guy.
The volunter who took the lawyer's phone call gave me twenty bucks toward his $150 bail. Someone from my cross-class dialogue book handed me another twenty. I'm thinking that if I ask around, by noon tomorrow I've got his bail and we can spring him. He could, from what I understand, sit there for months over this matter of standing while Black. I think I'm starting to understand why Seattle thinks they need a new jail so damn badly, and why there are nearly ten times as many Black people on average jailed in King County than are represented in the population.
As I was writing just now, The Story of Stuff was playing in the background, and the narrator reached her conclusion:
There are people working on taking back our government, so it really is by the people and for the people. All this work is really important. But things are really going to start moving when we see the connections. When we see the big picture. When people across the lines get united, we can reclaim and reform this system into something new. A system that doesn't waste resources or people. Because what we really need to chuck is that old school throw-away mindset. ... Some say it's unrealistic, idealistic, and it can't happen, but I say the ones who are unrealistic are the ones who want to continue with the old path. That's dreaming. Remember, it didn't just happen. It's not like gravity, something we just have to live with. People created it. And we're people too, so let's create something new.She was talking about stuff, but we throw away people as well. One leads to the other. And the mass incarceration system that has one in 99 Americans behind bars isn't mandated by natural law either. Just twenty-five years ago, that didn't exist either. We made it, and we can make it go away.
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Today The Stranger ran their article on the filing of Initiative 100, Jailbreak: Activists fight jail, but do they stand a chance? As you might tell from the headline, it was a little disappointing. Reporter Jonah Spangenthal-Lee did some of the earliest and most critical reporting on Seattle's proposed new jail, so I had high hopes for something decent. Instead, his article focused on the siting controversy, and gave a mere paragraph to the issues of race and class disparity the initiative addresses.
Even more disappointing was the Strangeresque note of dismissive superiority on which the article ended:
The fate of I-100 remains to be seen. In 2002, Harris pushed an initiative to increase funding for homeless shelters to $400 million a year; that initiative was ultimately shelved when the group cut a deal with the city to increase shelter funding. So far, Harris says, organizers have collected "several hundred signatures." That's a long way from the 25,000 they'll need if they want to make a vote on the jail a reality.In the first place, he's sloppy wrong. $400 million is ten times the current annual city spending for homelessness and housing combined. Don't they have editors there? The initiative goal was to add 400 shelter beds. We gained the required signatures and qualified for the ballot on a budget of around $15,000. The deal with the city council added 200 shelter beds and ensured that the Seattle Housing Levy would focus on those at below 30% of median income. And this at a time when the bottom had fallen out of the General Fund and human services were very much on the defensive. We cut a deal from a position of power and poor people won. A little fucking respect, please.
Moreover, the fact that only "a few hundred signatures" have been collected mere days after the City Clerk's approval of a ballot title is hardly evidence of impending failure. More than 300 fired up people attended last week's panel discussion on this issue, and our campaign launch event is still more than two weeks away, on Thursday, February 19th, 7:30-9 am at Town Hall. Had Spangenthal-Lee wanted to be helpful, he might have mentioned this. If this is what progressive activists can expect from the boys at Seattle's premiere alt-newspaper, it's a damn good thing Real Change's circulation keeps growing.
Their photographer Kelly, on the other hand, totally rocked. When I whipped out my three-foot industrial bakers whisk, she was way into it, but took the straight shot just before leaving in case the art director wasn't so fun-loving. The whisk got vetoed, but at least one of them made the website.
The Stranger, and I say this as a friend, ought to loosen up, have more fun, check their facts, and get behind something that matters. They're starting to remind me of my dad.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
If I don't start writing more than once or twice a week soon, I'm afraid I'm going to lose all credibility as an obsessive-compulsive attention-seeker. I should at least be able to find an amusing 70s hair band video for you all. I'm not even trying.
An initiative campaign launched last week to shine a little light on the City's freight train approach to building a new jail in Seattle. It's the culmination of about four months of discussion and planning. The effort is much bigger than Real Change, and is fronted by a group of activists calling themselves Citizens for Fairness and Efficiency in Public Safety. I wish we'd discussed a bit less. We have until May to collect the 23,000 or so signatures needed to qualify for November's ballot. The big public launch is on February 19, 7:30-9 am at Town Hall. You're invited.
In my more hopeful moments, I think that this effort, and the opportunity for movement building across race, class, and issue that it represents, is just the kind of organizing that could lead to the new civil rights movement this nation so badly needs. In my less hopeful moments, I think of how overwhelming the odds against our success really are, and how this could be just one more example of institutional power and momentum overwhelming citizen participation.
So, the stakes feel high, and I'm working my ass off, trying to focus on what's important. Today started with a 9 am interview with the Socialist Worker. This arrived far too soon after yesterday's thrilling 1 a.m. conclusion of a 16-hour day. Today, I was at Real Change until 7:30. A mere ten and a half hours. I really should be working right now. No. That's not right. I really should be sleeping.
On the other hand, this is my idea of a really good time. Everyone should be lucky enough to live in the burning light of their passion, surrounded by people they love and respect. I have nothing to complain about.
Above is a two-part video of my speech at our packed forum at Seattle University's Pigott Auditorium last week. I was supposed to speak for 8 minutes. The evidence strongly suggests I went over my time, but at least I wasn't alone in this. This video, if you let it, will lead you to others. All of the panelists were wonderful. The Seattle Channel is showing the forum daily. Sometimes twice. It was that good.
Below is the "Directors Corner" I wrote for Real Change today in the time I had between the initiative steering committee meeting and the meeting of the Real Change board. This issue, in some ways, is about whether we have eyes to see and the courage to change. So, I wrote about that.
As I drove into work this morning, I was thinking of my 9 a.m. interview with the folks from the Socialist Worker newspaper, and what I might say. Here was a rare opportunity to dig a little into the connections between globalization and growing inequality, the war on drugs as a means of criminalizing the black and marginalized, shelters and prisons as containment systems for the surplus and abandoned poor, and how class and race are the unacknowledged third rail in this question of a new Seattle jail that the city is desperately trying to avoid.
This is a time when enormous possibility for change is colliding directly with the prospect of system collapse. This leaves one with a vertiginous feeling of combined hope and dread. As my car made its way down I-5, I drifted to the theologians who have addressed the times in which we live.
Walter Bruggeman, author of The Prophetic Imagination, talks about having courage and conviction, despite the many inducements that exist to just shut the hell up and go along with the program. “Situations of cultural acceptance,” said Bruggeman, “breed accommodating complacency.” When a ten-fold disproportionality exists in King County between Blacks that are jailed and their representation in the community, we are called to actively imagine a different reality
I also thought of Reinhold Niebuhr’s take on Matthew 10:16, “ which reads, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” Niebuhr writes concisely on institutional self-interest as a reflection of the human capacity for evil, and how liberals are often naive on this point. His work was enormously influential during the nation’s last civil rights movement and needs to be revived.
The new city jail is not about how our city handles misdemeanants. It’s about whether Seattle accepts an unacceptable status quo, and commits to a future of deepening race and class inequality as a response to system failure. For the questions behind the questions, the analysts often miss the point. The philosophers, on the other hand, have much to say.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
You know things have been crazy busy for me when I go nearly a week without posting anything at all. The stakes at work and home have been unusually high lately. Added to that is the recent notion that regular sleep, or at least making the attempt, may lead to higher productivity. I have not, however, been without ideas.
Last Friday, for instance. I was in my favorite coffee shop talking to my favorite barista on the planet when we got on the topic of drug stories. I shared that the last time I did hallucinogenics was in 1989, and that a small round piece of white quartz pulsed with life in the palm of my hand. The experience was much more than that. On that day, I achieved the Holy Grail of drug experimentation: a bona fide inexpressible moment of mystical insight that stayed with me the rest of my life.
But I had coffee to get and things to get back to and didn't go into all of that. I let it go at the quartz.
In return, my unnamed friend told me about a time she was at a Vashon Island Fair and met some hacky-sack playing moccasin-making hippy named Yum. She sat gazing intermittently into Yum's gorgeously dilated pupils as he put the final touches of turqoise on her new footwear. He asked if she'd like to try some shrooms. "Yes," she said. "Why ... yes!"
As soon as the bits of dried fungus hit her stomach, she thought of something, and it went kind of like this: "What the hell have I done? I'm a mom! I have a seven year-old running around here!"
I tried to imagine myself in that position. Scary. "Shit," I ventured. "If you don't do too much, at least mushrooms are a high where you can kind of maintain. What happened?"
"I hoped so too," she said. "But then I started getting these kind of waves coming in." She moved her palms back and forth beside her head to illustrate. I kind of knew what she meant, but not really. It didn't matter. I was hooked into the story.
"I went with my kid to this fenced in area where there were trees and other kids and things for him to play on, where he couldn't really get into trouble, and just outside of that was an exhibit booth on biodiesel fuel. I cornered the lady there and had the most intense conversation about biodiesel you could ever imagine."
"So, basically," I laughed, "you found the straightest, most boring person in the vicinity, and had her talk you down without her even knowing it."
"Yeah," she said, "that's exactly what I did. After awhile, I felt better and things were OK."
When I walked back to Real Change I dropped in on our editor, and he said something about how when he rides his bike in, the homeless camps in certain parking areas underneath certain overpasses were getting huge.
"I wonder," he said, "what the people in those expensive cars who want to park there think when they can't get a parking space because people live there instead?"
"Who knows," I said. "Most of them probably don't think anything, if they even notice. They're oblivious. They probably just get annoyed and park somewhere else. They're in their little comfort-bubble, and are more worried about the state of J-pod or the size of their carbon footprint."
"It's the slimy underbelly of Seattle liberalism," said Adam.
"Mmmmm," I drooled. "Slimy underbelly."
"Maybe," I continued, getting inspired, "they're licking the thing! And the slimy underbelly is like one of those psychoactive toads! And it changes how they see everything. Mayor Nickels transforms from repulsive pig who kicks around the poor to being a noble environmentalist in a hybrid SUV, and all the people in tents and on the streets start to look like recreational backpackers. And whenever that good feeling starts to fade, out comes the toad, and they lick it again and again until they feel better."
"Yeah," laughed Adam. "It's just like that."
I went back to work, visualizing toad-licking men in nice cars, expensive shirts and designer eye-wear, and thought that maybe it isn't that big of a stretch.
Friday, January 23, 2009
BE IT ORDAINED BY THE CITY OF SEATTLE AS FOLLOWS:So, running an initiative campaign is an enormous amount of work. Why do it? Speaking strictly for myself, here's my take.
Section One: Title and Subject.
A. This measure shall be titled the “Efficiency and Fairness in Public Safety Act.”
B. For Constitutional purposes, the subject of this Initiative is “public safety.”
Section Two: Preamble and Statement of Facts:
A. Seattle's decision whether to build a municipal jail for the first time represents an expensive commitment during a time of diminishing public resources. This choice for Seattle's future has long-term consequences, and deserves a thorough and public decision-making process.
Through this Initiative, voters exercise their right to be involved in this public safety decision by mandating that the decision consider cost effective alternatives and racial justice. Voters are also to have a final vote on this critical issue.
B. Citizens of Seattle hereby find that in deciding whether to build a new jail, important factors to consider include: public safety, alternatives that may be more cost effective, and issues of racial justice and fairness. Citizens further find that voters should have a final say on whether to build a new municipal jail.
Section Three: Policies and Process for Deciding Whether to Build a Municipal Jail.
A. Prior to deciding whether to build a new municipal jail, the City of Seattle shall take the actions and/or conduct the evaluations described in this section and publicly report on the same. These actions and evaluations and their outcomes shall be fully considered in the City's decision whether to build a new municipal jail, in addition to other considerations that may be deemed appropriate.
1. The City shall negotiate openly, publicly and in good faith with King County to explore alternatives to a municipal jail, including extending the existing City-County contract for jail services. Currently the City contracts with King County for provision of jail services, under a contract that expires in 2012. The City is considering a municipal jail to replace such jail capacity, despite the possibility that such contract may be renewable under State Law, RCW 39.34.180. Continued cooperation with King County may provide the most cost-effective and progressive public safety option. King County offers nationally recognized model programs for decreasing incarceration rates and recidivism, and already has the infrastructure in place to handle a regional justice system.
2. The City shall conduct a rigorous, public analysis of how incarceration rates could be decreased in the short and long term while increasing public safety and positive outcomes. The City shall analyze how a proactive investment in social service programs, including shelter, supportive housing, early childhood education, drug and alcohol treatment and mental health care, will lower crime and arrest rates in the future. Avenues that should be explored include alternatives to incarceration such as treatment and day monitoring, changes in sentencing guidelines at the misdemeanor level, and a commitment to law enforcement diversion programs that provide better outcomes for less public money in drug cases.
3. The City shall develop and make publicly accessible a strategy to address racial disparity issues in arrest and incarceration rates. Disproportionate incarceration rates among certain communities of color deepen inequality and poverty and are a form of structural racism. A new jail may perpetuate and deepen these inequalities.
B. The City shall place the matter of the new municipal jail before the electorate in a public vote. Voters shall have the final decision on whether to build a new municipal jail. Prior to making a final commitment to build a municipal jail, the matter shall be placed before the voters for approval or rejection. Prior to the vote, the City shall inform voters of the outcomes of the actions and evaluations set forth in Subsection A of this Section. This paragraph does not require voters to be consulted on any siting decision relating to such proposed facility.
Section Four: Definitions.
A. “Municipal jail” means a municipal jail facility that is or may be built and/or operated by the City independently or jointly through an interlocal agreement with other cities, but does not include facilities built and/or operated by King County.
B. A “decision whether to build” a municipal jail means a decision by the City on whether to commit moneys towards the construction and/or operation of a municipal jail, either independently or jointly through an interlocal agreement with other cities. Neither that term nor any part of this Initiative addresses decisions and/or commitments of moneys relating to potential sites, environmental review, and/or any component of the site selection process. Such term also excludes any decisions and/or commitments of moneys relating to facilities operated by the County.
Section Five: Construction.
A. This initiative is to be liberally construed to ensure that the City's major public safety decisions are based upon principles of cost-efficiency and fairness and subject to democratic oversight.
B. Nothing in this Initiative shall be construed or interpreted to influence or constrain the City Council's decision on where to site a municipal jail. If the City and its voters decide that a new municipal jail should be built, the City Council shall have the authority delegated to it under State Law to determine the location of such a facility.
Section Six: Severability.
The provisions of this ordinance are declared to be separate and severable. The Citizens of Seattle declare that they support each of the provisions of this Initiative independently, and their support for this Initiative would not be diminished if one or more of its provisions were to be held invalid. Specifically, Citizens would support this initiative even if it did not apply to jails developed through interlocal agreements. Thus, if any one or more of the provisions of this Initiative is declared to be contrary to law, then such provision or provisions shall be null and void and severed from the rest of this ordinance, and all other provisions of this Initiative shall remain valid and enforceable.
Initiatives are the citizen's tool for when other democratic processes fail. Despite the overwhelmingly negative reception this facility has received in community meeting after community meeting, the Mayor's office has consistently characterized the new municipal jail as inevitable, with the only question on the table being one of where to put the thing. The narrow majority that was attained by Councilmember Nick Licata for a review of alternatives that includes community input is a weak brake at best on what has thus far been the Seattle process equivalent of a speeding locomotive.
A challenging economic environment makes prudent use of public resources that much more important. City plans to pay for construction of a $220 million facility with a bond issue is the household equivalent of putting an expensive but unnecessary remodel on the credit card when you're down to eating rice and beans and not sure you can still afford health insurance. A bond issue isn't free money. You pay later, with interest. In addition to construction, the facility will cost $19 million annually to run. That's about half of what Seattle spends each year on homelessness and housing. The economic outlook is bleak. Yesterday, Boeing announced a layoff of 4,500. Today, Microsoft announced a layoff of 3,500. The shit storm is here and no one knows when it will end. Let's use our limited resources where we need them most, and where they'll do good instead of harm.
The existing alternative of continued cooperation with King County is more than viable, but the City has spurned this option. Capacity exists to extend the current contract past 2012. The offer has been made and ignored. The County is a national leader in programs that reduce recidivism and minimize unnecessary incarceration. King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg is an enlightened public servant who gets that locking people up when better alternatives exist is a huge budget suck that does not improve public safety. Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr has turned out to be a punitive law and order dickhead who is on the wrong side of this issue. Who do we want to empower here?
Unnecessary incarceration deepens and further racializes inequality. A black male high school drop-out has a two-in-three chance of being imprisoned by the age of thirtyfive. The Seattle high school graduation rate for Blacks is 52%, and the schools slated for closure right now are mostly in communities of color. The extreme racial disproportionality that exists in incarceration deepens poverty in Black, Latino, and Indian communities by further reducing the economic prospects of those who are already economically disadvantaged. When people who have lousy alternatives sometimes make bad choices, the best way to make a real difference is to invest in creating better alternatives.
Emergency shelters, prisons, and jails are the dumping ground for those who can't make it in this economy, and their numbers are growing. Even a crappy minimum wage service job needs a high school diploma and a relatively clean police record. Those who lack these things, however inconvenient it may be for the rest of us, generally insist on living anyway. Low-level drug dealing and other forms of street crime are the inevitable result, and locking more and more of them up doesn't make the crime go away. There are many, many ways in which public resources can be put to the use of rebuilding lives. During the current budget cycle, King County's one drug and alcohol treatment center for indigents may well be forced to close. General Assistance - Unemployed, the $339 a month benefit for those certified as too disabled to work and having no other income, may well be eliminated. An expensive, unnecessary new jail isn't going to improve anyone's life prospects or make anyone safer, and the money is better spent elsewhere.
Attend the forum next week and find out how to get involved. "Question Inevitability: A Community Perspective on Alternatives to a New Jail" will take place at Seattle University's Pigott Auditorium from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Jan. 28. This forum by the Real Change Organizing Project will include a broad panel of respected and committed activists and experts on incarceration and its effect on communities.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Here's Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen backed by beautiful gospel singers at the Obama Inaugural celebration, doing This Land Is Your Land. Watch Pete's eyes gleam when he does the private property verse. A moment worth watching again and again. Looking at that gorgeous crowd, I'm feeling something like, what, can it be ... hope! Definitely hope.
As for Obama's speech speech? Perfect pitch. The sea of tear streaked faces said it all.
No blues skies everything-is-fine, no-sacrifice-necessary bullshit that we've heard for years on end. The assessment of the American moment was as real as real gets and came just moments into the speech:
That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.And then, the soaring announcement of a new day:
These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land - a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.
Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many.
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.
He affirms America's strengths and calls upon us to put aside narrow self-interest in the pursuit of a vision of hope, action, and change:
We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.Obama calls us to "a new era of responsibility," and invokes the values that we all share when we are true to our higher selves.
For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.And then, beautifully, he quotes George Washington to again say that we are in great crisis and danger, and that our hope and virtue are our greatest assets.
"Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."This is leadership and this is greatness. This is a man who speaks truth about our moment in history and articulates a vision to match. Obama calls us to personal and collective greatness, to set aside our narrow self-interests for the collective good, to accept sacrifice, and to rise to the many challenges before our nation. Obama inspires us to become our best selves, and to find meaning in struggle and sacrifice for the common good.
History has turned the page.
Meanwhile, The Onion's gleeful fantasies of a series of gruesome Presidential accidents is at an end: George W. Bush has died peacefully in his sleep.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Yesterday, as we are all aware, was ObamaDay. Unicorns with rainbows shooting out their asses grazed on the Whitehouse lawn to herald the new dawn. OK, I'm being facetious. I'm happy. Very, very happy. But my sense of elation is balanced by an competing sense of doom.
Tuesday morning, as I drove to Trinity United Methodist to join my friend Rich's flock in catching the festivities on TV, a dense fog limited visibility to around 200 yards. I was again struck by how the world always seems to offer up the right metaphor at the right time. The economy's gone to hell and local and state governments appear poised to balance their budgets on the backs of the poor. The feds are no better. The Mid-East situation seems perfectly calibrated to the Mayan Calendar, and I just know my transmission's going to go one of these days. I can see about a block in front of me. Beyond that? Who knows? Might be blue skies. Might be a twelve car pile-up with me in the middle.
The good news, I recently read, is that the US prison population only rose by a mere 2.5% last year, which is what passes as progress these days. Crime, by the way, fell by 4%. More good news.
In the afternoon, I made my way to Westlake Center to speak at an Inauguration Day student march and rally that was making its way down from Seattle Community College. I arrived before the march to find the police prepared for virtually any terrorist scenario one might imagine.
A black Command Vehicle, which looked like a cross between a tank and a semi, was parked near the Starbucks. About ten riot-gear clad cops — half of which had ominous black knit gear on their heads that revealed eyes and nose only and made them look like ninja gym rats — stood casually shooting the shit, awaiting The Threat. Plainclothes cops were everywhere as well, and not trying real hard to be inconspicuous. As the march made its way down Pike, a phalanx of police motorcycles came before and after. Bicycle cops diligently hemmed in the sides to ensure public safety. There were maybe 100 marchers. It was a sad spectacle. I estimated the overall student to cop ratio at around 2-1.
Democracy, apparently, scares the shit out of these guys.
I joked about this when I spoke. "What?" I said. "Were they afraid you were going to loot the Starbucks for their herbal teas?"
My speech was about Real Change's campaigns against the homeless sweeps and the new municipal jail. The root issue here, I said, is surplus people in a global economy, and a system that writes off the less skilled and educated as a form of human waste that just can't compete and therefore needs to be dehumanized, criminalized, and eventually imprisoned.
I don't really expect this problem to be on the Obama Top Ten issue list, but then, he's only been in office for the better part of an afternoon.
I congratulated them for "taking it to the streets," but said they needed to up the student to cop ratio to around 10-1 next time to make a more respectable showing. Taking it to the streets matters I said, because poor people only get taken care of when one or two conditions are met.
The first is when there's an expectation that the market will once again need the very poor for their labor. Under these circumstances, their stock rises, and they get to live.
Noone really expects this to happen, I said, so scratch that.
The second is when people are organized to the extent that they actually offer some sort of a threat to the system, which is why we really need better than a 2-1 student cop ratio. It might be ObamaDay, but the cops and the prisons are ready for us nonetheless. We shouldn't kid ourselves. The bar for organizing has been set rather high. Are you up for the challenge?
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
KEXP is doing a bunch of on-air PSAs for Real Change this month and a big benefit show on February 7. They tell me the line-up kicks ass. I wouldn't know. I'm old. But I believe them. I'll be there. Hope you can make it.
Monday, January 19, 2009
For more than two decades, I’ve struggled with creating an approach to homeless advocacy and organizing that does the issue justice. Over this time, there are four truths that have become more than obvious.
One: Homelessness is about the problem of surplus people in a global economy. The collapse and overseas exportation of most American manufacturing has hit the market for less educated and relatively unskilled labor hard. Communities that face racial discrimination have been hit hardest. This clear fact of our economy goes largely unacknowledged.
Two: The bottom 10-20 percent of those who struggle to survive in our economy have been more or less permanently marginalized. There is little expectation that a demand for their labor will ever return. There is an historic pattern of erosion of government support for those at the bottom. As a result, the past three decades have seen an exponential growth in incarceration and emergency sheltering. In times of growing economic desperation, even the most minimal supports that presently exist will increasingly come under attack.
Three: Homelessness and incarceration are fundamentally dehumanizing. Those who endure life at the outer margins of the economy are stigmatized and rendered invisible. They are a frightening reminder of the systemic failures of capitalism, and our response, all too often, is to distance ourselves through victim-blaming and denial. The conditions of the incarceration industry and mass homelessness erode feelings of self-worth and diminish our own capacity to regard those who endure the conditions of these institutions as beings who are fully human.
Four: Approaches to “ending homelessness” that ignore these realities cannot succeed. Until we acknowledge that America has a growing and largely permanent class of throwaway people, and make the connections between structural unemployment, racism, criminalization, and the erosion of even the most minimal safety net for the poor and disabled, “homeless advocacy” will, at best, continue to win the occasional battle while the war rages on. Despite our well-intentioned best efforts, the casualties will mount.
Since the advent of globalization, inequality in America has radically widened, and the trend is accelerating. Class war is being waged upon the very poor by the very rich, and the frontiers of this conflict are expanding to create new levels of vulnerability for an eroding middle class.
The realities of regressive taxation, unsustainable military spending, and government priorities that reflect the capture of democracy by corporate interests mean that the middle class and those who struggle at the margins have a common interest in systemic reform that places the realities of race and class front and center.
Bureaucratic, siloed approaches to ending homelessness, while necessary, are insufficient. We must look toward the more imaginative and holistic organizing opportunities that, all too often, are hidden in plain sight.
Here in Seattle, city plans for the creation of a new municipal jail brings together issues of race, class, a failed education system, economic marginalization, and misguided government spending priorities in a rather neat package. Thus far, public discussion of this issue has been mostly limited to the problem of where this facility is to be located. The larger question of a renewed civic commitment to a failed policy of expanding incarceration has gone largely unaddressed. This reflects a sad failure of moral and political imagination by Seattle’s homeless advocates and, more importantly, the broader progressive community.
The city’s unwavering commitment to expanded incarceration comes when we can least afford it. During a time of increasing economic uncertainty and large deficits at every level of government, the new facility will cost $220 million to build and $19 million annually to operate. Meanwhile, Seattle schools slated for closure are located mostly in our city’s communities of color.
The Department of Justice’s own statistics on incarceration are a travesty, and speak to the role of incarceration as a form of economic containment. One in 99 Americans are presently behind bars, and one in 33 live under the supervision of the penal system. An African American high school dropout has a two in three chance of winding up behind bars by the age of 35.
The Seattle school system’s high school graduation rate for African Americans is a mere 52 percent.
This reality of incarceration being a rite of passage for males who live in economically disadvantaged communities is a relatively new phenomenon, resulting from 30 years of war on crime and drugs. Incarceration rates bear little apparent relationship to crime rates, and are driven by the politics of fear and race.
Such racialized rates of incarceration feed a downward spiral of economic opportunity within already disadvantaged minority communities.
Meanwhile, according to the city’s own statistics, the demand for incarceration has abated. The jail population has declined by 38 percent while overall population has risen by eight percent.
Why, then, the rush to build?
Real motivations, given the opacity of city planning processes, are unclear. Perhaps the promise of new jobs in construction and incarceration play some role. Perhaps the increasingly repressive approach to immigration and limited Immigrations and Customs Enforcement facility space is in the mix somewhere. Perhaps the projected increase of community emphasis policing in Seattle, which focuses on low-level drug and poverty crime, anticipates new demand for misdemeanant jail beds.
A glance at the current environment offers an ominous look at the future. State level budget cuts threaten the closure of King County’s one drug and alcohol treatment center that serves the very poor. The governor’s budget threatens to zero out General Assistance - Unemployed. The GAU program offers a paltry $339 a month to around 9,000 people who have successfully navigated the challenging process of documenting that they, one way or another, are too disabled to work and have no other sources of income.
This barbaric approach to economic hard times will, unavoidably, create more instances of poverty crime and will undermine public safety for all of us. The primary victims of increased crime will be the very poor.
At the same time, homelessness in Seattle and King County is growing and becoming more racialized. The 2008 One Night Count documented a 15 percent increase in homelessness over the previous year. During this snapshot early morning January 2008 count, 5,800 people were in emergency and transitional shelter, and another 2,300 were found surviving outside on a night when the shelters were full. The count also documents that although Blacks make up just five percent of county residents, they make up 40 percent of King County’s homeless. This number is up four percent from just two years prior.
It’s been said that the definition of insanity is to continue doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. Seattle’s new municipal jail is a bricks and mortar commitment to continued structural racism and the economic marginalization of the most poor. It’s time to stop the insanity. Attend the Real Change forum on the new municipal jail and commit to being part of a new solution to poverty, homelessness, and structural racism in Seattle.
"Question Inevitability: A Community Perspective on Alternatives to a New Jail" will take place at Seattle University's Pigott Auditorium from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Jan. 28. This forum by the Real Change Organizing Project will include a broad panel of respected and committed activists and experts on incarceration and its effect on communities.
Silja J.A. Talvi , noted essayist and investigative journalist and author of Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System.
Aaron Dixon, co-founder of the Seattle Black Panthers and 2006 Senate candidate for the Green Party.
King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, active on issues of social and economic injustice for over 40 years.
Alexes Harris, who has worked with the highly successful Clean Dreams pre-arrest diversion program, a real alternative to incarceration.
Tim Harris, executive director and founder of Real Change
Jesse Hagopian, a middle school teacher in Seattle Public Schools and a co-founder of Educators, Students, and Parents for a better Vision of the Seattle schools (ESP Vision).