Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Driving While Normative

The new movie, Nomadland, is getting a lot of attention lately.  I still haven't seen it, but I have spent probably most of my adult life living out of a vehicle in one way or another, and in the course of the pandemic depression or whatever this has been, I encounter more people than ever now who are doing so today.

As I talk to friends and hear press reports about Nomadland, I'm compelled to share some of my own experiences, in case they're interesting, informative, or hopefully both.

What is so abundantly clear to anyone who is paying attention are two things, to begin with:  there is a very wide variety of people living out of vehicles in one for or another.  And despite the wide variety of people living out of vehicles, that variety tends not to include large groups of people, such as Black people (in the US, anyway).  If there's a part of the country where that's not the case, I'd love to know about that place, but I haven't been there.  I assume the reason for this is as many Black people I've heard interviewed on the subject say it is -- they don't generally feel safe in the countryside, alone in a vehicle.

Of course, a lot of people feel safer in numbers, for lots of different reasons, thus you have no doubt noticed the phenomenon of people living in vehicles who are clustered together on particular stretches of road or parking lots.  This is partly about where you can park overnight legally in different places, and the safety in numbers effect, along with things like desire for community.

I don't know how many white people (or others?) have been fairly solidly on both sides of this invisible line, but in case you may be one who has only been on the up side of it, these words here might be particularly for you.

What I discovered a long time ago was how true it was about cops, and by extension a lot of other people who think like cops, that the rest of society falls basically into two categories that are especially relevant:  you're either a member of society in good standing, and thus basically invisible, or you're a potential criminal.  If you're in any kind of emergency situation, in need of help of any kind, and thus, particularly visible, then this schism is especially relevant.  If you're a person in good standing, then if you're in distress, you need help.  If you're a potential criminal, your state of distress is just further evidence of your criminal tendencies.

Looking back at my life of travel, a life during which I have driven tens of thousands of miles in many different vehicles in a typical year, and crossed many international borders as well, what I find notable is both how much I was profiled when I had a certain kind of look and drove a certain kind of vehicle, compared to how invisible I generally am to cops or cop types when I look more normative and drive a more normative vehicle.

What did not change throughout much of the time I have spent on the road are the various activities such as driving long distances, speeding through speed traps, sleeping in a vehicle overnight, napping in a vehicle during the day, or doing other things in a public space based out of a vehicle.

As a hippie teenager driving an ancient Volvo, it seemed like everything I did was suspect.  At that time, my license was valid and my vehicle was properly registered and insured, because I still lived with my parents, who helped me with all that stuff.  But it seemed like the police pulled me over every other week, for no reason other than that I was a teenager with long hair driving an old car.  If I was with a friend and we parked somewhere to have a conversation, this was suspicious.  If I drove past my own high school with several friends in my car, this was suspect behavior.  If I ever dared have things in my car that partially blocked the back window, that was an easy invitation to be pulled over.  I must have been pulled over a dozen times before I got out of high school.  Once it's true that I was driving in circles in a parking lot for fun.  That's as reckless as it ever got.

Living in Boston as a young gig worker, I could afford to keep a car running but I couldn't afford all the parking tickets, so after a year or so there, my Ford Tempo was taken, and I never got it back.  Years later, upon getting another small car, a Toyota Corolla, I racked up thousands of dollars in speeding tickets during my many travels around the country.  This was before I started traveling as a touring performer, and I couldn't afford to pay the tickets, so my car situation was completely illegal.  I was driving around for years when my license was suspended and my car was totally illegal because of so many tickets in so many states.

Time and time again, however, although I'd get pulled over in the first place for expired tags or speeding or having a tail light out or any of the other reasons people driving old cars often get pulled over, once they talked to me and determined that I sounded too literate and polite and looked too freshly-showered to be a criminal, I'd always end up getting to drive off, where someone else would get the car impounded and get arrested.  Which finally did happen to me, too, eventually, in Southbury, Connecticut, only a few blocks from where I was living at the time, during what I intended to be a quick run to the bakery.

Later, once I was a full-time touring musician, traveling in a fairly old, beat-up pickup truck with a camper top on it, I was making a decent living, and easily able to pay all the tickets I got, so I didn't have problems with keeping everything legal from then on, after the arrest and court process in Connecticut.  But I'd still get pulled over constantly for speeding and other infractions related to cracks in the tail lights or some other such nonsense.  This would happen as easily in Wisconsin as in Oregon or North Carolina.

Traveling in that Ford Ranger pickup, I often slept in it, just outside of someone's house, like whoever might have organized my latest gig, or a friend's place.  If I had access to their facilities, sleeping in the truck was familiar and comfortable.  But if I tried to do that in the wrong setting, it could be trouble.  Once it involved being met with men with shotguns, telling me to leave.  This was somewhere in Ohio, I think.  Another time camping on the edge of a farm in Minnesota, an identical experience.  Both times the men changed their attitude when they discovered they were harassing a sleeping couple who did not seem to fit their ideas of whoever they thought we were, and they said we could stay til morning.

Later, I would be touring so much in so many different parts of the world that although I was living out of a vehicle most of the time, the vehicle in question was a rental car.  But after the Ford Ranger died and before the rental car period began, I was touring the US in a big Ford Mark III van that wasn't that new, but it had been well-maintained, it looked especially nice because all but the front windows were darkly tinted, and it altogether looked pretty spiffy.

This was easily the nicest-looking vehicle I had ever owned.  It was a mechanical disaster, and I poured many thousands of dollars into it every year to keep it running, with all the miles I was putting on it, and it guzzled gas like nothing I've ever seen.  But the point is, it was an entirely new driving experience for me, as a touring musician.  I had suddenly become invisible.

I was also entering my thirties, and dressing less outlandishly than in my hippie youth.  From this point on, I stopped getting pulled over for speeding, although my driving had not changed.  If I was sleeping in that van, I was automatically considered to be a respectable person on vacation or something like that.  Harmless, if visible at all.  This would be the case with all the rental cars as well, not that I ever sleep overnight in them, but I often nap in them, anywhere, and this never raises an eyebrow.

Of course, this phenomenon is at play without vehicles involved as well.  As a teenager or young adult, I engaged occasionally in the practice of defacing public property with stickers and spray paint.  I was arrested for this twice and very seriously threatened with arrest another time.  These days, as a middle-aged, reasonably well-dressed and relatively shaven white man, even if I'm not pushing kids in a stroller, I can deface every sign from here to the other end of Portland without a cop ever saying a thing to me, or anyone else, unless it's to compliment the sticker.  (Except twice, near a police station in outer east Portland where there is often a lot of activity that includes Proud Boys roaming around in the neighborhood.)

As a teenager exploring the world of hallucinogenic drugs and eastern philosophy, I enjoyed the practice of trying to blend in with what we hippies called "straight society," while tripping hard on LSD, and engaging some random suburbanite in a conversation about the weather without raising suspicion.  As a cleanshaven, middle-aged, CIS white man wearing jeans and a t-shirt, I have frequently engaged in a sort of reverse practice to this one.  Thinking about it now, it would be a strange thing to try to do, but only 15 years ago it wasn't so unusual to smoke a cigarette while walking down the sidewalk in most American cities.  What was much less common was smoking things other than cigarettes.  I went through what I suppose was a bit of a reckless period, when I wanted to see what would happen if I walked through a business district of a city while smoking what was quite obviously a joint made entirely of strong-smelling cannabis (not mixed with tobacco, the way we smoke joints in this part of the world).  What happened was exactly nothing.

Just to explore that a bit more:  driving the old Corolla and the old pickup, I distinctly remember several occasions when my vehicle was searched for drugs by police dogs, or threatened with canine searches that I managed to nicely talk my way out of.  Driving a new car or a rental car or the nice-looking van, I've never been searched by dogs or threatened with searches by dogs, on the extremely rare occasions when I've actually been pulled over in such a vehicle.

Certainly the impression I'm left with is if the driver looks and talks like me and the vehicle is relatively new, that's the kind of person you want smuggling your drugs.  And if the person walks and talks like me and is smoking a joint while strolling down the sidewalk anywhere in the US?  I have yet to encounter a single cop who wants to bother with that situation, or who feels inspired by it to behave with brutality or anything like that.  I'm invisible, along with whatever I'm driving.

What's particularly telling about the lack of speeding tickets since I started driving newer vehicles -- rental cars are always new or almost new -- is that I still get just as many speeding tickets in Europe as I ever did, but never here.  It's true that I tour a lot more in Europe these days than in the US, so it's not an exact comparison or anything, but I do still tour regularly in many parts of the US.  What's notable is that in Europe, it's very unusual to be pulled over on the highway by a cop for speeding or other infractions.  If you speed, a camera will take your picture automatically when you go through the speed traps, and you'll get a ticket in the mail, because they can look your address up via the license plate of the car you're driving, basically.  In the US, it's up to the cops to decide who they're going to pull over for speeding, and so they don't pull over cleanshaven white men with short hair and no tattoos or piercings driving new cars.

So yeah, I guess that's what I wanted to share.  For all you people who have never had the experience of being someone other than a normative-looking white person driving a relatively new car, people who are not in that kind of situation have very, very different experiences than you do, when they drive, take a nap, camp overnight, or do just about anything else in this society.  And I can tell you that from personal experience, even though my own encounters with both cops and farmers with shotguns has so far not resulted in me being seriously injured.

And of course conversely, I can say from abundant personal experience, in case anyone out there needs to hear it, that for all of you who are driving old cars, driving with tattoos or piercings, driving with dreadlocks, driving with any other unconventional hairstyle, driving with too much luggage, driving with too many people in your vehicle, and of course as we should all know too well by now, for driving with dark skin, you are most definitely being profiled.  For some of you/us, that situation may be momentary, tied to fashion or a temporary bout of unemployment, and once you're sort of phased in with the normative, you disappear from view, like some kind of pale ninja.  For others, it's permanent.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

"They're Dirty" -- Standing Up At Kelly Butte


Standing near the top of Kelly Butte and looking toward the west, you have a great view of i-205, with a mess of six lanes of traffic and a wild combination of on- and off-ramps leading to major intersections, there just east of the highway, in between SE Division Street and Powell Boulevard.  Among the speeding cars and trucks lined by big box stores and crumbling class C apartment complexes, you will also see tents of all colors, in all possible states, from fresh out of the box to completely destroyed.  The same can be said of the many sleeping bags, and chunks of toxic insulation that perhaps once were stuffed away more safely inside a mattress, now blowing around like some kind of urban tumbleweed.  

As you look further to the west, such details aren't visible, and it's just a beautiful postcard of a city that, from a distance, is an especially nice place, with the many hills, parks, factories, warehouses, and slow-moving freight trains that populate what is known as "inner southeast" Portland, before it all ends with the expansive Willamette River, beyond which rises the mess of glass, steel, and plywood that is known as "downtown," where hardly anyone ventures unless they must.

Increasingly, there are many worlds within this city of Portland, Oregon.

There are the real estate moguls and investment bankers who are experiencing the greatest profits in the history of civilization, if that's the term.  Every day on the news they tell us how the prices of houses have never been higher, and no one is even selling for asking price.  Buyers have to engage in bidding wars, and the one who can pay in cash, no questions asked, tends to win.  It's a great situation to be in if you're rich.  And even if you're what some people call "middle class," if you managed to buy a house when you were younger and you played your cards well, all you need to do is sell your house, and retire.  (The economist, Henry George, complained about exactly this same phenomenon back in 1879, when he wrote the book that sold more copies than any book in US history aside from the Bible, Progress and Poverty.)

Then there are the many homeowners in name only, barely able to keep up with their mortgages, hoping someday to be able to join the ranks of those who managed to pay off their mortgages before they died, whose experience with homeownership is more likely to end in foreclosure than in anything else.  And along with them, the half of this city's population who are not even homeowners on paper, but are renting, often in class C apartment complexes such as those that line most of the major roads and highways in this city, where the land was cheapest and the air was the most toxic, paying two or three times what they would have paid in the same apartments only 15 years ago.

The strain felt by this latter group is so palpable, it can be literally seen on the streets and sidewalks, as the city continues its decline.  With every passing month, despite the eviction moratorium, people get evicted, or they "self-evict" for one reason or another -- conflicts with roommates, fear of a future of having an eviction on their records, a violent boyfriend, or because of any number of other situations.  And then they move, so often, into vehicles.

Soon enough, the vehicles get towed and broken into, as they look older and more lived in, and many people are living in vehicles that are obviously no longer mobile, no longer really vehicles at all, in the traditional sense.

What I am describing is most neighborhoods of Portland today, some more than others.  As with the paving of the city's streets or the building of other forms of infrastructure, the city's policies when it comes to policing and trash collection vary wildly depending on how much money is in the neighborhood.  If the city, county, or state governments were to engage in honest advertising, their motto could be "screw the working class and kill the poor."  It's no exaggeration at all to describe their policies this way.  Yup, we got good health care, and that ain't nearly enough.  We need housing, too.  Not housing with some kind of adjective preceding it, but just housing -- immediately.

Of course, many people -- probably including some people reading this -- don't think the progressive politicians of Portland or Salem are so bad.  That's probably because they're not living in their cars, or they comfortably own their own homes, or they blame themselves for all of their economic problems.

And the same sorts of people who blame themselves for their problems also tend to believe that everyone else is individually responsible for their own problems, too.

Let's be very clear:  this blame-the-victim orientation has, in no uncertain terms, aided and abetted genocidal policies, throughout the history of "civilization."  And these kinds of statements can be found everywhere -- coming from the mouths of people as they walk downtown, all over local Facebook Groups, the Oregon Subreddit, just about anywhere on Next Door, even on my own personal Facebook posts, coming from people who presumably at some point considered themselves sufficiently within my sphere to follow me on the platform in one form or another.

What is happening in society is because of various forces -- chiefly the capitalist investor class, finance capital, banks, real estate holding corporations, and so on -- housing has become impossible for millions of people to afford.  There are many other factors at play, but this, combined with a virtually nonexistent welfare state (at least for several decades prior to the pandemic), a corporate-engineered opiate epidemic, the slow or rapid collapse of so many different industries, replaced by nothing more than more minimum-wage service jobs or "gig economy" delivery shit, has conspired to re-create the kinds of conditions that the New Deal alleviated for a significant chunk of the population almost a century ago.

At literally every level of society, without exception at least with concern to class, you can hear and read people expressing their views of the people who live on the streets of their city, in ways that are completely indistinguishable from the way Jews and Roma were described in Europe for centuries (and, I'm sorry to say, the way Roma are still viewed by many people in Europe today).  The chief complaints always revolve around issues of cleanliness.  "They're dirty people."  And of course, criminally inclined in all kinds of different ways.

I'm sure for most people reading this, little explanation is necessary as to why dehumanizing a group of people largely on account of the conditions they're living in is problematic.  But briefly, as with Jews and Roma historically (and to a large extent with Roma, presently) in Europe, dirty conditions are imposed from outside, not embraced from within, unless you're mistaking resignation for desire.

And the actual conditions that do exist on the streets and sidewalks of this city are appalling, far beyond any term such as "dirty" can possibly encompass.  I regularly walk down sidewalks where even from across the street, the stench emanating from some broken-down RV or tent encampment is overwhelming.  It is indeed hard to imagine living in such conditions, and even hard to imagine what it might be like to be one of the people living in one of the class C apartments lining the thoroughfares which were already toxic shitholes before the houseless encampments came, where now residents are not only stuck inhaling the exhaust from passing trucks and motorcycles along with the black mold in their bathrooms, but they have to smell the urine and sweat from just outside their windows, 24/7.

The obvious solution to dirty conditions is to clean them, and so the authorities here (and around the country where conditions are similar) engage in the practice known as "sweeping," which is more like some combination of an eviction and a home demolition.  Sometimes citations are posted, occasionally they're read, but oftentimes a "sweep" is a matter of subcontractors with a garbage truck and hazmat suits throwing tents and all their contents in the trash -- sometimes, according to many houseless people, after stealing anything nice that they find, as many people living in tents possess all the kinds of portable electronic devices that the rest of us are familiar with.

Of course, this isn't the kind of "cleaning" required here.  As with evictions and home demolitions, the "sweeps" only create problems.  They solve none, unless moving a disaster from one block to the next is considering a solution to anything.

As I have been informed repeatedly by anyone who I talk to who is living on the streets of this city, the police (or subcontractors) will move them or tell them to move from the sidewalks, and then if they go stay somewhere remote and out of the way, the park rangers will come and tell them to leave -- no overnight camping in the parks, they'll say.

The experience is one of being constantly kicked around, constantly having your things stolen or destroyed, until you either manage to find somewhere safe to live, leave town, or die.  And die many do -- lately over a hundred people every year do just that, living on the streets of only this one city alone.

At this point in the decline of this society, it's very obvious to anyone spending time on the streets that things like safe housing -- of the sort that involves access to clean running water and cooking facilities -- would only be filling the most basic of the unmet needs teeming on every paved surface of the city.  After only a little time living in such conditions, pretty much everyone becomes traumatized by them.  Trauma often leads to things like depression and other forms of mental illness along with physical ailments, alcoholism, and addiction to hard drugs other than alcohol that serve similar escapist purposes, such as heroin, meth, and various products popularized by pharmaceutical companies and the entire medical and legal establishment that facilitated the industry's unfettered greed and, certainly on the part of Purdue and the Sackler family, outright malevolence.

The needs are so great, and what's being offered is very much like the cliche band-aid on the bullet wound.  Less than two weeks ago, a houseless man was gunned down on a street by Lents Park, by a cop who was a US military sniper in Afghanistan.  As hundreds of people from across the region came to stand in solidarity with this slain man, Robert Delgado, including me, I heard the shouts of the people driving their sports utility vehicles as they passed by -- "he had a gun" -- it wasn't a real gun, but apparently that doesn't matter, they don't know, or don't care.  He wasn't wearing a shirt, and he was in the street.  For them, that seemed to be enough.  Call in the snipers.  Shoot him down.

As people live and die on the streets of Portland, many among us who are housed wonder when we'll be the next ones to have to move into our vehicles, while the more privileged among us who are profiting from the real estate market that created this calamity in the first place wonder when the authorities will feel like their police budget is large enough that they can finally "deal with the trash problem."

Of course, truly dealing with the problem will require an end to the system of real estate-driven capitalism, which has seen the cost of land and housing inexorably rising throughout the history of this country faster than peoples' earnings, always making sure prosperity remains an "American Dream," never a reality, for the majority.  Truly dealing with the problem will require a government that's not bought and sold by the capitalist class.  One that is capable of regulating the housing market the way some other countries do, where housing is actually affordable on a widespread basis.  Countries, of which there are at least several very familiar to me, where virtually no one is living on the streets.

In the meantime, treating the housing crisis like an actual crisis would be a first step in the right direction.  A first step that has not yet been taken here or anywhere in the US, to be very clear.  At least not in reaction to the housing crisis.  But in reaction to other crises, what has been done?

In the US and around the world, what do the authorities and the emergency response networks like the Red Cross do, at least if they're doing what they're supposed to do?  

They take over parts of public spaces such as parks and other publicly-owned lands and buildings, they erect canvas tents and other structures, they set up mobile kitchens, showers, toilets, first aid tents, and sometimes even a lot of other things.  This is what they do in response to wars, earthquakes, floods, fires, and other disasters around the world.

The last piece I wrote in Counterpunch was about the mutual aid efforts still ongoing at Laurelhurst Park, where the city's citation was posted and went unenforced, due to the presence of those efforts.  The needs of the people living there are far greater than anything the largely black-clad youth are able to provide, though the efforts made by those with so little to offer themselves is very impressive.

Predictably, the Laurelhurst encampment is growing beyond capacity, at least if it is to stay in that precarious, extremely dangerous and toxic little strip of land between the sidewalk and the street that is sometimes allowed to be occupied by people with nowhere else to go.  

Between the time of my last report from the streets of Portland, uniformed police accompanied by men who appeared to be members of the far right came in the middle of the night with flood lights to shout at certain members of the tent encampment who had apparently come to their attention as radicals.  (The red and black flag flying beside the tent could possibly have tipped them off.)  Before that, there were the aggressive driving incidents I mentioned in the previous piece about Laurelhurst.

Privately, there was discussion in some circles on the streets about forming a community somewhere practical, not between the sidewalk and the street in the middle of a residential neighborhood, beneath a bridge, or next to a busy road, but on land where facilities like toilets, showers, and a kitchen could be set up -- facilities effectively not being provided elsewhere, for all practical purposes, to any degree that's worth mentioning (no insult intended towards the beautiful people from the churches and other networks who are making valiant and entirely inadequate efforts).

Now, over the past several days, while the blood is still drying nearby on the corner of Holgate and 92nd, where the latest police killing of a houseless person has taken place, park rangers have been harassing folks elsewhere in outer southeast Portland living on Kelly Butte, where people living in tents there are in the process of trying to set up an encampment where it's possible to do things like make a hot meal, take a shower, and have a dignified place to shit, known as a toilet.

While the community there was hoping not to be public yet, the authorities have taken notice, and so the PDX Houseless Radicals Collective put out a statement.  Here's part of it:

If there is a place to make a stand and force the issue that people with no place to go have a right to occupy an unused public space, this is the place to do it. It’s 30 acres of forest. 
 
If enough people come out here and stand with us, we’d not just be saving our home, but also opening a place for anyone else who needs a place to live. We have a small kitchen, and chemical toilets. A community campsite for anyone who needs it. 
 
To get here, from SE Division turn south on SE 103rd then follow the road until it ends at a closed gate. Hike in from there, or cut the fucking lock off replace it with your own and drive, your choice. Please come out here and help us, not for us but for anyone who needs a safe place to be. The city won’t provide it, but we can do it ourselves. If we hold this place, they won’t have a choice.

Aside from Kelly Butte being a largely unused but spacious patch of high-altitude land next to a major highway, with a camp that generally can't be seen or heard from any residential neighborhood in the area, there are many other aspects to the place that make it an ideal location -- really the Alcatraz of Oregon.  (This month, folk punk icon Jane Reynolds and I put out a song about this history as well, called "Kelly Butte.")

To summarize briefly, Kelly Butte was named after the wealthy "pioneer," Clinton Kelly, after whom Clinton Street and many other places around here are named.  The land was given to Clinton Kelly for free, literally for no other reason than that he was a white man who got here at the right time, and wanted land.  He got lots of it.  Then he sold it -- as always, at a huge profit -- to the city in 1906, so they could set up a rock quarry there, to split rocks for the purposes of paving the city, which now needed to be paved, to make way for the automobile.  The city decided that the way they would find workers to split the rocks and pave the city was by kidnapping indigent people off the streets and sentencing them to this particular form of back-breaking labor.  From 1906 until the 1950's, this is how the city of Portland was paved.

The very name, "Kelly Butte," used to strike fear in the hearts of the struggling "gig economy" workers of the day -- the majority of the workers of the time, to be clear, as we would call them today.  This was where you were sent when you were too poor to pay the rent.  Sent to work, sent to die.  All the people living on the streets of this horrifically gentrified and divided city may as well be the descendants of those sentenced to split the rocks at Kelly Butte.  

What has actually changed since then?  Now, people are not sent to poor houses to work in quarries, they are sent to prison.  More than half of all arrests made in this and many other cities are of houseless people.  Arrested for existing.

If the authorities are interested in real justice, it could begin with the Red Cross building and maintaining public toilets, showers, kitchens, and shelters in every park in this city.  This is not a matter of opinion, but is in fact what would be done if this crisis were actually being treated like a crisis.  Not just here, but anywhere in the world where crises occur.

The very least they could do, if they're not going to step up to the plate and do that, is allow the people to help themselves.

If this indeed is journalism, it is journalism of the advocacy kind:  come to Kelly Butte.  Join your houseless neighbors.  Bring all the things that are needed to build a sustainable community.  I'm not going to try to list them here, for they are too numerous.  And if the authorities try to destroy the community -- as they will likely try to do, or succeed in doing, perhaps repeatedly -- come back.  If this madness is ever going to change, it's not going to happen by itself.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

The Sweeps Stop Here?

There is something beautiful happening in Laurelhurst Park, on the east side of Portland, Oregon.  In my more optimistic moments, I wonder if this might be the beginning of a real solution to the ever-worsening and extremely dire housing crisis that increasingly characterizes urban -- and even suburban -- America.

Whether or not that is the case, something important is happening.  There are new developments every day, so just describing what's been going on feels like taking a picture of a moving train, but it seems like a good moment to give a little report-back.

As I describe what's been going on, I'll just note first that I don't mean to be implying that similar kinds of efforts haven't been ongoing all over the country for a long time -- they have.  And even thriving, intersectional rebellions like Tompkins Square Park in New York City in the 1980's could be crushed, with enough money spent on riot cop overtime.  But what's happening at Laurelhurst has an energy about it that has many echoes of Tompkins Square.

As the person who answers the email for Portland Emergency Eviction Response (PEER) -- the rapid-response-by-text-mob network me and some other folks have been working to build here -- I got a message from a member of a new group called the PDX Houseless Radicals Collective.

PEER began as an effort to mobilize a rapid response to evictions, in instances where people facing life on the sidewalk want to try to physically resist eviction -- or foreclosure (eviction by another name).  Building our forces to face the almost inevitable lifting of the eviction moratorium in Oregon is still a major focus.  The main point of this orientation is because we feel that the struggle for actually affordable housing in this country is the most fundamental representation of the deeply stratified state of our society, and will ultimately be the biggest flashpoint in the centuries-old struggle between the haves and the have-nots, otherwise known as the class war which the rich have been waging on the rest of us since we made them rich in the first place.

But there are forms of eviction even more despicable, perhaps, than throwing a family out of their house or apartment -- such as throwing people out of their tents.  Criminalizing them for not having a house or apartment to live in.  More than half of all arrests made in the city of Portland are of unhoused people.  The statistic is very similar in many other cities.

So there should be nothing surprising about the possibility that a victorious struggle for universal housing should begin on the streets, where people have very little -- if anything -- left to lose.  In any case, upon receiving the message from people living in the latest incarnation of the Laurelhurst houseless community -- after many previous police raids or threats of police raids by private contractors which are known as "sweeps" -- that they intended to stay, and they wanted support, for us there was no question that we were now going to expand our definition of "eviction."  Though as with evictions from buildings, the same principles of eviction defense apply -- the people facing eviction need to want this kind of support.

So, this message from folks in the tents is how we got involved.  I don't know the exact process for everyone else getting involved.  There are people in networks such as Stop the Sweeps PDX and the PDX Defense Fund who have long been involved in what is often a lonely struggle to be in solidarity with the ever-growing numbers of houseless people among us, as they face constant police harassment, arrest, imprisonment, the theft of their belongings, freezing to death, or being shot in their tents by vigilantes -- as seems to have happened to a man named Harold, who was in a tent beside the running track at Cleveland High School, where my eldest daughter goes to school, only a few blocks from the two-bedroom apartment where I live with my wife and three children.  Harold was only one of the over 100 people that have been dying every year lately on the streets of this city.  (In Los Angeles, a much bigger city, the number is ten times that.)

It has been noted by many participants in local marches around Black Lives Matter, and against ICE detention of children, and around protests concerning many different local and national issues, that most of the people involved are on the younger side.  What is less often noted, because it's harder to tell at first glance, is that many of the people involved are in precarious economic straits, and often living with their parents because they can't possibly afford to live anywhere else, or, in many, many cases, they are unhoused.

There are many other reasons why such a basic struggle as having a place to live -- and one with clean running water, electricity, heat, food, access to health care and public transportation -- would attract anyone who cares about racial justice, or who cares about the welfare of immigrants and refugees.  What we saw with the effort to prevent the eviction of the Kinney family from the Red House in north Portland is there is a widespread understanding of the deep connections between racial justice and housing justice.  The end result of that effort, while the participants in it have been broadly vilified as violent anarchists by some politicians and media outlets, is we won, at least a temporary victory, and one that seems to have had ramifications far between Mississippi Avenue.  Now, clearly, the venue for this intersectional gathering of networks who have come together for a common purpose has changed, from Mississippi Avenue to Laurelhurst Park.

With some people living in the million-dollar mansions with faux Greek columns that line many of the streets beside the park, while others sleep just down the road in tents on the sidewalk, or in battered old vehicles of one kind or another, from cars to camper trucks, it would be hard to find a more contrasting view of the state of our so-called society.  (Discovering that some of the million-dollar mansions whose inhabitants regularly report "suspicious activities" to the police have Black Lives Matter signs on their lawns only make the whole situation that much more surreal.)

And then, at the intersection of a street separating the tents and the park from a row of mansions, is another sort of encampment, making use of canopies, folding tables, and a whole lot of other stuff, to do the beautiful work of mutual aid and solidarity.

The current iteration of the Laurelhurst Park encampment and solidarity effort basically began on the last Monday of March, when the citation the city posted on trees along the sidewalk would legally be enforceable.  According to the citation, the city has 10 days to enforce it, before they have to post another citation, at which point they're legally obligated to wait two days after posting it, before they can begin to try to enforce it.  (This is when the cops are actually following this law, mind you -- not necessarily what they might actually do in reality, where they can always come up with a pseudo-legal rationale to do just about anything.)

So every weekday, people who don't live at the park have been coming early in the morning (especially early by the standards of your average anarchist teenager, who is usually nocturnal).  The city is only supposed to carry out sweeps on weekdays, between 8 am and 4 pm, I believe because those are the operating hours of the subcontractor who is involved with these operations.  When the subcontractors have shown up on a couple of occasions over the past two weeks, they have been followed around by several dozen black-clad youth and a variety of tent-dwellers, and they have departed, without carrying out any tent removals as per their contract.  A couple of uniformed officers walked through the park once, but basically there have been no police visits of any relevance, no riot cops.  Although it should definitely be noted that there have been at least two events involving rightwing men in vehicles shouting and driving aggressively in order to intimidate us.  (Whether they were off-duty or plainclothes cops, or Proud Boys, or all of the above, I don't know.)

At other tent encampments in the city, it's been a very different situation.  Sweeps are happening all over Portland.  Without the kind of organizing that's been going on at Laurelhurst, anyone showing up to try to help in other parts of town have generally faced situations where all they could do was to offer to help evicted tent-dwellers move their stuff to another location.  But at Laurelhurst, the guys in their hazmat suits go away, so far.  

And other people come -- including some who were just kicked out of other encampments, who heard about what's going on at Laurelhurst.  What is especially notable, from my conversations with folks, is it is a certain kind of person who chooses to relocate to a place where such a campaign going on, when they might have other options that are a bit less risky, even if there are no safe options for someone living on the street.  It's a very special kind of person who makes this choice, generally.  Which is not to say that everyone else in the world isn't special, too, but the atmosphere of resistance to the insane American status quo at this encampment is palpable.

This spirit of resistance is made possible, it seems to me, not only because of the dire circumstances so many people face, but because of the obviously very intersectional nature of the movement around stopping the sweeps and universal housing that has been developing at Laurelhurst.

Some observers who aren't familiar with the scene might get a different impression of what's going on.  If you might be one of them -- if you see a crowd of mostly young people, mostly dressed in black, who probably look at you with a bit of suspicion if you're an adult, especially if you're white and dressed for work in an office, and they make you feel nervous, then please let me introduce you to the people you may be misconstruing here.

Everyone has had the experience of thinking a person they liked was being aloof, when really, they were just shy.  This analogy is imperfect, but it applies almost universally to everything that you might find going on, when you're hanging around folks involved with a campaign like this one.  But once you get over the fact that these people are not necessarily going to smile and welcome you with open arms just because you want to be involved, but instead they may greet you with very legitimate and understandable skepticism and even suspicion at first, then you may stick around long enough to discover that you are basically surrounded by superheroes.

Not that anyone can fly unassisted or walk through walls, necessarily.  But if you spend time with the people who are cooking food for anyone who wants to eat some, or the others giving away literature and t-shirts, or the folks offering free medical services, or the folks positioned strategically in various locations looking out for cops or chuds, you'll find the same thing you would have found at the Red House, had you engaged the black-clad youth there in conversation.  You'll find some of the sharpest minds of a generation, and some of the most compassionate people you'll ever meet.  You'll also find a lot of trauma, as many of these nice people have been attacked by cops and chuds on multiple occasions over the past year alone, to say nothing of all the other forms of trauma life can dish out.

Another thing you'll find, if you're paying really close attention, is that the more select group of a couple dozen people who may, at any given time, be involved with the network of networks operating at Laurelhurst, is deceptively small.  I don't want to inflate the potential here at all -- on the contrary, we need your participation! -- but if you know who some of these cool young black-clad protesters are, whether you know them by a pseudonym or not, you realize that many of them have thousands of followers on Twitter, and are not only extremely intelligent, but very well-connected with like-minded people across the city, the country, and even the world at large.

One indication of this connectedness can be found in the fact that some of the newest residents of the camp at Laurelhurst were recently forcibly evicted by a massive raid of riot cops on the encampment at Echo Park in Los Angeles, one thousand miles south of here.

The citation posted a week before last Monday expired on Friday, April 9th.  When the next citation will be posted is unknown, but two days after it's posted, the next round at Laurelhurst begins.

For those of you not from Portland, Laurelhurst Park is a massive place with a lake in it, rolling hills dotted with ancient trees, along with the playground and tennis courts, beside which is the mainstay of the houseless encampment.  It's a great place to visit, if you're just looking to take a walk, feed the ducks, or whatever.  Come to the park -- use the tennis courts, use the playground, show everyone you're not afraid.  Do more than that even.  Bring tents, canopies, generators, batteries, sleeping bags, food, musical instruments, and all the other things a community needs to thrive.

Oh, and if you're a fan of my music, Laurelhurst Park is pretty much the only place you'll have a chance to hear me play the guitar live for the foreseeable future.  Let's jam at the playground.

Friday, April 9, 2021

I Heard A Rumor

The purpose of Portland Emergency Eviction Response is to make forced eviction a phenomenon of history, whether we're talking about mortgage foreclosures, evictions of renters, or "sweeps" of houseless communities.  We want to build a network that can effectively challenge these practices.

Organizing this network, and working with people facing eviction who want to resist eviction, is not supposed to be about the people who formed the network, but rather about the work of the network itself -- and its ability to continue as such, ultimately without the participation of its founding members, like any good network will do.  And, really, more importantly, organizing this network is about winning the struggle for universal housing.

However, as with any group involving actual people, who are intentionally not functioning anonymously, in the case of the Minister of Staple Guns, anyway, people in PEER are real people with real histories.  Recently, questions have arisen about who this guy is, and why so many rumors abound about him.  So I thought I'd try to respond to some of the more common rumors, and some of the ones that I believe might be common, at least in certain circles (particularly among anarchist youth on the internet), and I thought I'd do that in the form of a Q&A.  I particularly thought I'd do this because to try to follow all this stuff is mind-numbingly tedious and probably confusing, even if you're an old personal friend or a big fan of my music or writing.  And you should not need to be particularly familiar with me as an individual or as an artist, to understand or be part of PEER, or eviction defense in Portland or anywhere else.  So I'm going to try to be brief!

Who are you?

My name is David Rovics.  I grew up in Connecticut, and I've lived in a lot of different places (Boston, San Francisco, Seattle), since 2007 in Portland, Oregon.  I was raised by progressives in a largely Republican suburb.  My radicalization process began with opposition to nuclear holocaust under Reagan's presidency when I was 12.  I went through a Maoist phase.  By my late twenties I was a touring singer/songwriter, mainly playing for activist groups, mainly singing about what they're doing.  In that capacity I've been involved with social movements around the world, since the late 1990's.  I've never even remotely come close to having a hit or anything like that, but my songs are streamed millions of times a year, mostly by radical youth in countries where English fluency is the norm.  When the pandemic hit and I was unable to tour anymore, I started more fully pursuing my longstanding interests in both journalism and organizing around rent control and eviction abolition, since I have long been a class warrior above all else, and my rent has gone up by 240% since I moved to Portland.

Do you think all these rumors about you are because of Cointelpro and other nefarious activities like that?

Some of them might be, but others are definitely originating from real people, for real, and sometimes even very legitimate, reasons.  I'm way not perfect.  But what happens to the rumors after one starts spreading is often another matter.  It's in the many generations of what we used to call the "telephone tree effect" that things may get extremely distorted.  Add to that social media algorithms, trauma of all sorts, triggers of all sorts, and everything gets so much messier.

Are you a narcissist?  Why do you organize under your own name, instead of using a pseudonym?

I really do appreciate the many advantages of anonymity.  It can be very helpful for many reasons.  It can help to emphasize the cause, rather than the individuals who may be opportunistically trying to lead the fight, for one reason or another.  It can help prevent the rise of a leader that may become corrupt in one way or another.  It can help emphasize the importance of horizontal organizing, and how well it can work.  It can help you not have your house attacked by Nazis after they find your address.  All of this is very true.  On the other hand, being public for a public figure is kind of inevitable.  So I figure rather than going under a pseudonym and waiting to be recognized by any number of people who tend to recognize me in a crowd at a protest anyway (even when wearing a mask), I'll just be public.  Also, my hope was that as a known quantity, to some extent, this might actually help people trust the intent of the network I'm involved with forming.  I'm not sure about that yet.

Are you a Stalinist?  I heard you wrote a song praising Fidel Castro.

I'm very opposed to authoritarian regimes, and I have never written a nice song about Stalin or Pol Pot.  I politically align with tendencies generally characterized by terms like "libertarian socialist" or "anarchist socialist" or "anarchist," depending on who you ask, or what time period we're talking about.  However, I don't think Cuba since 1959 bears much resemblance to the USSR under Stalin.  There is a lot of nuance in the world, and not a lot of perfection.  It's important, I think, to see the differences between, say, Stalin and Castro.  Equally, it's important to see the differences between European-style capitalism and US capitalism, and to understand that one is in fact way better than the other, even if both leave a lot of room for improvement.

Are you a fascist?  I heard you interviewed one.

I wrote an Open Letter to Patriot Front and the Proud Boys in Counterpunch, and a college professor friend asked me if any members of the far right had given me any feedback on the essay.  I said no, but it occurred to me that I had been in touch with someone who represented himself as a former fascist.  He thought my open letter was very good, and the email he wrote me made me want to interview him about how he became a fascist and how he realized the error of his ways.  This was just in the wake of the Capitol siege on January 6th, and I thought (and think) it's important to understand what motivates people who would do that sort of thing.  I should have done more research, and should have reacted much less defensively to all the people on Twitter and elsewhere who attacked me for posting this interview.  After too long, I figured out I had fucked up in several different ways, and I took down the interview and wrote a mea culpa which I published in Counterpunch, if you're interested in the details.  But I'm definitely not a fascist, and never was one.

Do you support terrorism?  You've written songs that seem to endorse the IRA, the PFLP, the YPG and other groups like that.

I have never physically struck another person in anger in any form since I was 16 years old.  But in principle, I certainly understand that under various circumstances, people facing impossible situations decide they must resort to violence, such as killing the soldiers who are killing them when they protest nonviolently.  I also think it's important to understand different struggles, whether or not you would ever personally participate in such a struggle, and whether or not you're involved with supporting the struggle beyond trying to understand it, and humanize its participants.  If humanizing terrorists makes me a terrorist sympathizer, then I am most definitely that.

Are you really an anarchist, though?  You wrote a piece in 2010 criticizing diversity of tactics.

It's true that I have had a lot of criticism of what we have come to call diversity of tactics.  I still do, though I wish I hadn't written that piece in 2010, because it ended up being shared mostly by liberals who didn't like the black bloc in the first place.  I was more coming from a place of being part of the movement, but critical of using the tactic of trashing property and burning dumpsters at any given opportunity.  I was not saying in that piece, or at any other time, that militant forms of resistance of all kinds are somehow not necessary.  I was saying that tactics should be used strategically.

Are you an anti-Semite?

Most definitely not.  I am personally of Jewish lineage, and I'm not a self-loathing Jew either.  I am very critical of the state that represents itself as the Jewish state, the state of Israel, and its policies towards the Palestinians, which are more vicious than apartheid South Africa's treatment of Black South Africans, in the judgment of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and many others.  Particularly in the US, Germany, and Israel, being very vocally opposed to Israeli policies and supportive of the Palestinian-led global movement to boycott Israel can earn you enemies.  I not only never get gigs in the folk music circuit anywhere in the US, and never get any play on commercial or "public" radio, but I am frequently attacked by pro-Israel liberals, and by people associated with the anarchist youth scene in Germany, and occasionally in the US as well, who identify with a political tendency that has a dangerous amount of sway on the German left, called the Anti-Deutsche.  I have written a couple of essays about this political tendency in Counterpunch if you're interested in more details.

Are you a holocaust denier?

There have been many holocausts.  Some people freak out when you say that, but I guess they never heard of Armenia or Oklahoma.  Anyway, we're talking about the Nazi Holocaust here when people make this allegation.  And I'm certainly not a denier of any of those holocausts.  In the Nazi Holocaust, my grandmother and her mother, who was still alive back then, lost touch with all of their relatives in Europe.  All of them.  All killed.  So yeah, it happened, for fuck's sake.  However, over time there have been many questions raised about the Nazi Holocaust as well as about the holocaust in Cambodia, in terms of exactly how many people were killed.  These are legitimate areas of inquiry, but if you even talk to someone who is interested in this field of research, you will be called a holocaust denier.  I know!

Are you a womanizer?

I wrote a song called "I'm A Better Anarchist Than You," and folks who are digging up dirt on me often come across Tom Frampton's satirical version of the song, "I'm A Better Folksinger Than You," which is a song that documents my apparent habits of buying new clothes, drinking corporate coffee, and going to bed with groupies.  I don't know what Tom knew of my actual life at the time.  While it is absolutely true about the buying new clothes and drinking corporate coffee, and I won't bother explaining that, the part about going to bed with groupies is important, to me.  While Tom's song presents an over-simplified, one-dimensional view (which is no fault of the song, it's just a song, they're often like that, by nature), in retrospect, it is absolutely true that my polyamorous beliefs and practices were very convenient for me, and often very hurtful for others.  I was not careful enough, in so many ways, and I have many regrets.

Are you a transphobe?

Understanding the realities for trans people took me too long.  As late as 2013, I did not fully grasp the situation, and when some people were miffed that I had not done something about a certain song I had recorded that was about someone who no longer identified with their old name or gender, I reacted defensively, as I have done on way too many occasions, when criticized online by people I've never met.  In the course of what happened next, which included a lot of communication and a threat to picket a concert in Ireland, with the help of people both younger and wiser than I, I figured a lot of things out.  I recorded "Song for Chelsea Manning," but have found trying to erase the previous version from the internet to be impossible.  And I deeply understand why re-recording the song was an important thing to do, and I hope everyone else does, too.

Anything else?

I can probably think of other rumors that might be in the mill, but they'd probably be more in the realm of the bizarre or fringe.  For example, many of the more nutty wing of the 9/11 Truth movement don't like me because they say I'm basically brainwashed if I really believe 19 Arab guys hijacked four commercial airliners and crashed three of them into large buildings, killing thousands of people.  Not only do I really believe that, but I know someone who smoked cigarettes with Mohammed Atta outside the building where he worked, with a whole bunch of Israelis, in Florida.  But yeah, I don't believe Dick Cheney lined the Twin Towers with explosives.  They were planes, and that's what made the buildings collapse, including Building 7.  Even though I did write a song a long time ago that questioned all of that.  But I digress.  If there's anything else you hear about me, I'd love to address any potential concerns anyone may have about anything, and then can we please abolish evictions and stop the sweeps?

A Tale of Two Narratives

Was it a peaceful gathering, a riot, or an insurrection?  That depends on who we're talking about, and who's talking about them. Eve...