Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Fear The Poor

The trend toward criminalizing the poor has recently picked up momentum in Seattle, and we should all be very concerned.

Seattle’s support for the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness — which holds that housing is the answer, and any new shelter is a step backwards — is routinely held up to justify the criminalization of survival. The city’s homeless sweeps, which label all homeless campers with the lowest common denominator assumption of criminality and addiction, have aggressively targeted those who resist Seattle’s overcrowded shelter system.

2,631 people were counted outside a past-capacity shelter system last January. 35 new beds have been added to offset the removal of public sleeping options at night. Most campers will remain outside of Seattle’s overcrowded shelters, chased from sweep to sweep until they are ticketed, fined, and bench warranted into jail or out of town.

Seattle Councilmember Tim Burgess has recently released a new plan to attack “social disorder” through more aggressive policing. Seattle, by the standards of any major urban area, is not a threatening city. In fact, crime rates are down. This is Seattle’s newest iteration of Giuliani’s broken windows theory, which defines the urban poor as indicators of social decay and treats them accordingly.

Tim recently had the unfortunate experience of witnessing a crack deal in Belltown at 7 am.
Last Friday morning I stopped at First Avenue and Battery Street (Belltown neighborhood) to drop off my laundry. It was just after 7 a.m. A group of eight people - six men and two women - were standing near the door of the laundry.

One man had wads of cash in both hands. He was dickering with one of the women over price. She protested, "too much," and "more than last time." Here was an open-air drug market, unfortunately a less than desired yet frequent example of commerce in our city.

You know, if you think it sucks having to deal with crack addicts while dropping off your laundry, try being a crack addict. Having worked in Belltown for fourteen years, I've learned that the crackheads that roam the streets in packs until around 7:30 rarely notice civilians. They exist in a world apart, usually typified by desperate poverty, a near complete absence of opportunity, soul-devastating addiction, and a truly shitty circle of friends. Unless you're part of their world, you can pass through large groups of them like a ghost. If you're not of their crowd, you don't exist. It's like being on the Borg ship before one is noticed.

Blogging Georgetown analyzes Burgess' Safe Cities Initiative and concludes that the new council member is using the language of fear to expand police power, primarily that which targets the poor. Being the self-involved sort of guy I am, when I read something like this, I go, "Damn. I wish I'd written that."

On a related topic, the Mayor wants a new jail for misdimeanants, at a cost of $110 million to build and about $19 million to operate. Never mind that upstream alternatives to incarceration have reduced the jail population by thirty-eight percent. The City seems to anticipate a crime wave, and I doubt it has to do with the DUIs and domestic violence perps they keep talking about.

One in ninety-nine Americans are behind bars. Most of them are poor. This fact is still invisible to many of us, but at the rate we’re going, it won’t stay that way for long. Now there's something to be afraid of.


Anonymous said...

How ironic...a wealthy man dropping off his laundry to be done by someone else being upset that he has to encounter the poor. Perhaps a better response would be "if you don't want to see the crack addicts when you drop off your laundry, do your own fucking laundry and donate the money you're currently spending to organizations such as Real Change that are fighting to improve the lives of those surviving in homelessness."

NPMSRP said...


I think you've hit very close to the actual problem. In the opening paragraphs of Burgess' plan he admits that he's pushing for more aggressive police in response to the perception of a problem instead of any real problem itself. Crime rates are at a historic low in Seattle and when compared to other cities it's a pretty safe place to live.

The perceptions of problems are coming from the new influx of relatively wealthy people brought in by the development boom and white-collar technology jobs. Many come from suburban areas where they never had to deal with people outside of their income brackets. So, of course they will over-react to what otherwise is a relatively sedate urban area.

In essence, Burgess is pledging to respond to perceptions with real force instead of reason, and this is a scary prospect... at least it is to me.