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Charity vs. Civil Rights for Olympia’s Homeless

Olympia’s new ordinance targeting the homeless became effective on Friday, 2-8-13. It not only effectively criminalizes the homeless for ‘camping’ (sleeping) on public city property, but prohibits the possession/carrying of camping paraphernalia. e.g. tents, sleeping bags, tarps, canteens, cooking/eating utensils, and sticks. On February 8th, homeless advocates and a few of the homeless themselves, gathered at the Artesian Well on 4th Ave to march on City Hall to protest the new law with a sleepover as an act of civil disobedience, knowing full well the premises are under 24/7 surveillance.

As the march proceeded down 4th Ave., led by the symbol of protest against state oppression, a black flag, traffic was temporarily blocked for several minutes. A number of marchers were masked in an effort to avoid persecution by the city’s security apparatus. A number of supporters engaged in discussion about the plight of Olympia’s homeless, a discussion that included at least one or two people were homeless themselves. (To hear audio recordings of those interviews, along with assorted images of the event, visit the Mason County Blog. ) At least one exchange erupted into raised voices and passionate demands between a local resident of 42 years and one of the protesters.

Much of the discussion focused on the services Olympia had made previously made available to the homeless, the fact public bathrooms remained locked after hours, whether crime would be reduced by locking them, and whether there were sufficient resources available to the homeless. Little to no discussion addressed the civil-rights implications of laws virtually criminalizing an entire class of people for being destitute or whether charity was a substitute for civil/human rights. (However in an interview after the discussion, one long-time worker of an interfaith homeless shelter named Lorian argued that charity and civil/human rights intertwined and inseparable, and cannot be meaningfully distinguished.)  

One Oly PD cruiser happened by during the sleep-in, but did not stop or question the demonstrators. Food was set out for the hungry, portable musak was played. Signs pleading for making ‘life legal’ were displayed along with others alerting the public to the city’s new version of Jim Crow laws targeting poverty. Nobody present believed the homeless were seeking recreation (camping?) on the cold hard dangerous pavement of Olympia’s streets. Already stigmatized by the humiliation and lack of privacy, the homeless now have been virtually labeled as criminals by a city which boasts of its charity while remaining curiously silent on the issue of civil rights. The mayor openly brags of creating ‘momentum’ through a strategy of management by crisis in passing the ordinance.

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