Island Nightmares in the Neoliberal City

Brian Platt

On May 1st, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best announced a series of “emphasis patrols” aimed at “an attempt to reduce crime and fear of crime” in select Seattle neighborhoods. Curiously, the seven neighborhoods chosen for the patrols were not crime hot-spots, in fact, many had seen a steady decline in crime over the last year.

Asked about this anomaly, Seattle PD Assistant Chief Eric Greening responded that the neighborhoods were chosen after holding discussions with “neighborhood associations, Business Improvement Area groups, and the Downtown Seattle Association [a local business lobby].” Noting that “crime is actually down” in several of the cited neighborhoods, Greening argued that perception of crime is not and that SPD aimed not just to reduce crime, “but also to reduce the fear of crime.”

Many who follow Seattle politics knew instantly where the idea for the patrols and the choice of neighborhoods came from. For several years now, an anti-homeless crusade has been gaining steam in the city, reaching a fever pitch with the airing of the Seattle is Dying documentary on local network KOMO News. Beginning by claiming the homeless are “violating” the “beautiful jewel” that is Seattle, it ultimately concludes by proposing that the homeless be forcibly removed to a prison island. This documentary has aired multiple times and is central to the moral panic around homelessness dominating Seattle city politics in the run-up to November’s city council election in which business groups hope to flip the council.

Fear of urban poverty and crime – manifested in the single image of the homeless folk devil – is frequently used to marshal the forces of repression in the neoliberal city. Once marshalled, these forces are used to clear space for real estate capital and wealthy gentrifiers in the city core. Once the space is cleared, police are left behind to hold the territory so that property values can be fully realized and the space can be made sterile and orderly for the appreciation and pleasure of the urban leisure class.

It is no coincidence that Mayor Durkan, a former prosecutor, chose May 1st for the announcement of the emphasis patrols. For a decade now, May Day has been seen as a thorn in the side of respectable Seattle, which bristled at the civil unrest that frequently followed. After police rioted through Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood in 2015, then Mayor Ed Murray compared Antifa protesters to ISIS. Still angry a year later, The Stranger, a local alt-weekly, published an editorial crying, “Fuck everything about May Day in Seattle.” In this context, Durkan’s choice to use May Day to announce SPD’s emphasis patrols was a clear call for a return to “law and order” politics in Seattle.

“Island Nightmares”

In the early 1990s, San Francisco was experiencing a property and gentrification boom. Yet, as wealth flooded back into the neoliberal city, it was forced to confront the poverty that it had created. As rents and home prices increased, so too did the number of homeless. “It’s not just an issue of social concern but of San Francisco’s image and business climate,” the San Francisco Business Times writes in 1991, “Panhandlers make many of us uncomfortable.”

The Bay Area homeless panic made national news. Robert Gaskin claimed in the National Review that residents and tourists alike were forced to “run a gauntlet of panhandlers, drunkards, drug addicts, and the mentally ill” on the city streets where people were “being panhandled into penury.”

Gaskin warned that “every downtown park was becoming the property of the indigent.” However, the reality on the ground was quite the opposite. San Francisco’s property boom was producing a neoliberal enclosure movement, a great closing off of public spaces to the urban poor even as growing wealth disparities grew their ranks.

Australian Sociologists Jessica Gerrard and David Farrugia discuss the cognitive dissonance created by neoliberal capitalism with its “aesthetic cultures of consumerism” juxtaposed with “the sight and scene of poverty and homelessness” that its economic policies create. “Within the sea of consumption, the bodies of the visible homeless can appear as island nightmares,” Gerrard and Farrugia write, “these islands both expose and conceal the underbelly of capitalism.” Rather than confront the failures of capital, property owners direct their ire toward the homeless.

San Francisco’s response to the disgust created by visible urban poverty amongst the affluent was to get tough on crime, electing former police chief Frank Jordan in 1992. Staffer Kent Sims noted that the “fundamental problem” with the city’s policy on homelessness was that it centered the homeless rather than “the needs and concerns of the larger non-homeless community of businesses.” He urged, “We need to develop the reputation of a tough, not easy place to be homeless.”

Jordan was not going to be “soft” on homelessness. Journalist Christian Parenti summed up Mayor Jordan’s “Matrix” program, “From 1993 on, the ‘visibly poor’ were herded from one neighborhood to the next by teams of cops citing, arresting, and even jailing thousands of shopping-cart nomads, aged inebriates, and thrown away youth.”

Jordan’s get tough strategy was praised by the conservative press and mirrored the new punitive image that the Democratic Party wanted to create. It punished the poor and rewarded the wealthy. It did not, however, solve the problem of poverty in the neoliberal city.

Zero Tolerance for “Road Warriors”

Due to strict limits on available land for housing, Portland, Oregon became a magnet for gentrifiers in the housing boom of the early oughts. This boom featured a simultaneous rise in the number of homeless and in anti-homeless panic.

“We have seen a group of individuals, who some refer to as ‘Road Warriors’ or ‘Summer Travelers,’ begin to return to downtown Portland,” the Portland Business Alliance – the local chamber of commerce – warned in its newsletter. “They are approximately 18-30 years old, can be very unkempt, often have unlicensed or unleashed dogs, and regularly engage in illegal or aggressive behavior.”

Over the decade, city officials in Portland fought to create new ways to criminalize the homeless. Their efforts centered on crafting a “sit-lie” ordinance that made sitting or lying on public sidewalks illegal. A 2002 ordinance was struck down by a Circuit Court judge in 2004 as unconstitutional, only to be resurrected with new window dressing in 2005. When the ordinance was again struck down in 2009, it was resurrected as part of a “Sidewalk Management Plan” a year later.

The main function of these legal maneuvers on the part of the city council was to put vulnerable populations in closer contact with Portland Police, with predictable results. In 2006, Portland police spotted James Chasse, an occasionally homeless man with a history of mental illness, in the gentrified Pearl district. Claiming that Chasse was “doing something suspicious or acting just, um, odd,” police chased Chasse down and beat him to death.

The officers involved received a two week suspension – later reversed upon appeal with the city being forced to pay back wages. Police Commander Donna Henderson wrote off the death of Chasse as the result of a “pretext stop” gone wrong. “There is no evidence that Chasse committed any crime. The worst he was accused of was urinating in public,” wrote Portland based journalist and police critic Kristian Williams, “James Chasse died because the cops decided that he did not belong.”

Efforts to hyper-police the urban poor lead to tragic results because they force police to choose between the rights of the property owner who wields tremendous influence in the community and the rights of populations held in little regard. Inevitably when these rights clash, police rush to protect the property owner. The lack of humanity that is granted to the urban poor leads police to take extreme measures to rid the neoliberal city of these island nightmares.

In 2011, six Fullerton police officers beat Kelly Thomas to death at a transit station while Thomas, a 37 year old homeless man, screamed for his father to help him. They were responding to a call from a business reporting vandalism to cars in the area. Two officers were put on trial for the murder, but were found not guilty. Two years later, Albuquerque police shot and killed James Boyd when they went to clear out his homeless encampment after receiving complaints from a neighboring homeowner. Despite damning video evidence, a mistrial was declared clearing police of Boyd’s murder – the homeowner testified in the defense of the officers during the trial claiming that he and his wife were “terrified” by Boyd.

Return of Law and Order in Seattle

Speaking to an audience of concerned homeowners last May in Seattle’s Bitter Lake neighborhood, Mayor Jenny Durkan reported that the city was utilitzing a new “clean and hold” strategy for dealing with homeless encampments in which “we move the encampment out [and] we hold it so that people can’t return.”

Of course there is nothing “new” about the “clean and hold” strategy. It is a classic counterinsurgency strategy – usually referred to as “clear and hold” – that dates back to the British efforts to contain the Malayan Emergency in 1948. It is also evidence of the ways in which population control strategies from the imperial periphery have a way of finding their way back to the imperial core.

What has followed Durkan’s announcement of a new campaign against the homeless has been a ramp up in camp sweeps. According to a 2017 city agreement homeless “encampments” – which can consist of a single sleeping bag – are to be given 72 hours’ notice and an offer of alternative shelter and services before being swept. Durkan has been able to reduce the lead time on sweeps to an optional 30 minute notice and no offer of services using a loophole in the rules that says camps can be immediately “cleaned” – in the dystopian language of the city government – if they present an “obstruction,” a term so broadly defined as to mean anything.

These sweeps put vulnerable and marginalized populations in greater contact with the Seattle Police Department with potentially deadly consequences. The murder of homeless woodcarver John T Williams by SPD officer Ian Burke in 2010 was one of the inciting incidents that led to SPD having to accept federal oversight for its aggressive use of force in 2012 – that oversight continues to this day. Three years ago, Seattle police shot and killed 44 year old Michael Taylor while sweeping a homeless encampment known as “the Jungle.”

This increasingly punitive approach to dealing with urban poverty is being supported by a growing anti-homeless movement in the city that seeks to dehumanize the homeless. “Seattle has become a dumping ground for millions of pounds of garbage, needles, feces, and biohazardous waste, largely emanating from the hundreds of homeless encampments,” Christopher Rufo, a self-appointed spokesman for this movement, wrote in City Journal in May. He goes on to accuse the homeless of creating an increase in HIV infections, typhus, tuberculosis, and trench fever.

“Seattle’s most elite neighborhoods… have avoided the garbage plague,” Rufo tellingly claims, “Neighbors in these enclaves have pushed back against tent encampments and, in some cases, hired private security firms to implement what is, in effect, localized Broken Windows policing.”

Business interests have seized on the moral panic being ginned up around homelessness to try and flip a city council that proposed and passed a business head-tax last year (*the council quickly repealed the tax after Amazon voiced its displeasure). Asked about what he would do about encampments at a recent candidate forum, Don Harper – one of fifteen millionaires running for the nine council seats up for grabs this year – responded, “What I think we have to do is we’ve got to get our city back, because just in the same way we treat our children, we have to give them [the homeless] discipline.”

And this gets to the heart of the struggle against the homeless in the neoliberal city. It is a process of enclosure, where the wealthy claim the city and all its environs as their own. The fact that homelessness cannot be removed from the city since neoliberal policies consistently create urban poverty, only strengthens the position of the wealthy by giving them the opportunity to publicly reassert their right and ownership of the city.

In this pageant, the police play a key role in establishing control through clean and hold strategies. “The raid , sweep, arrest, eviction, patrol, and police beatings and killings,” write David Correia and Tyler Wall in their book Police: A Field Guide, “are key weapons of gentrification that make possible the art galleries, yoga studios, gastropubs, and posh bars and restaurants frequented by affluent customers.” In Seattle, this process is well under way.