Sweeping the Most Politicized Park in America.

As another sweep of Cal Anderson looms, both police and organizers prepare for conflict. Neither focus on the park’s sorely-needed restoration.

Officers stand guard while a sweep of Cal Anderson Park and closure of makeshift community center ensues. September 1, 2020. Photo: Nick Lozier.

“Necessary for Public Safety.”

Now months removed from nightly teargas exhibitions, autonomous zone tomfoolery, and scores of police attacks in the area, today, Cal Anderson Park is home to dozens of unhoused Seattlites. With temperatures quickly cooling and residents increasingly eager to return to a sense of normalcy, both inundated with an overzealous police force mere blocks away, the fight over who can live in the upscale Seattle neighborhood is reaching a new level of conflict.

Rumors of an upcoming police sweep of the park found traction in recent days and are not unfounded. The park was swept of houseless citizens three times this year; once in July to effectively end the protest zone after multiple shootings in the area, and twice more since to deprive houseless individuals of shelter during a pandemic.

Out of the three attempts by the Seattle Police Department to end homelessness, September’s sweep and theft was most egregious. After removing residents from the scene, Seattle police officers were caught eating and drinking confiscated donations intended for the unhoused. They also eagerly attacked crowds who dared to call out their selfish behavior. The officers then threw away the rest of the food, water, and PPE, citing public safety concerns without a twinge of irony or self-awareness.

All of these sweeps play out in a similar fashion. Dozens of scarcely-masked SPD operatives arrive on-scene early in the morning, clear the park of any community members, using indiscriminate violence if necessary, fend off verbal assaults from nearby residents appalled by their actions, then return to the suburbs just in time for dinner and to put the kids to bed.

Despite persistent sweeps, the community living in this park usually reemerges before nightfall, distraught and in possession of less resources to live off of. Today, as winter approaches, the leaderless protest group Every Night Direct Demonstration (ENDD) is unwilling to let another sweep play out in a similar fashion. ENDD promised on Monday via Twitter to, “protect[ing] Cal & help to prevent a sweep by SPD & Seattle Parks”.

It is unclear how long this community watch and protection strategy will continue, but it may only delay the inevitable. When a sweep becomes “necessary for public safety”, SPD will vastly outnumber protesters (despite a supposed “mass exodus” of cops). When faced with resistance, the officers continually choose violence to squash dissent. Cue the outrage from progressives, chortling from Trumpian conservatives, and either say-nothing platitudes or absolute radio silence from the Mayor’s office.

This sweep, whenever it happens, will be a similar situation to those preceding it. Folks who avoid jail or hospitalization by SPD will return to the park, poorer and more tired than before. Another constant here, is the actual issue of park improvement will continue to be ignored.

So while I, the Southern transplant living in a building clearly brought on by the area’s recent gentrification, have only minor issues with the nearby homeless encampment, (the people I’ve interacted with in the park are oftentimes nicer than my rent-paying neighbors), my position of letting the tent-filled encampment stay is clearly the minority opinion.

And even I, the overly-idealistic progressive that I am, cannot deny the well-loved park is in a sad state.

Officers have been caught on scanners referring to the encampment and its residents as “the rat nest” and “vermin” respectively. While I would never go that far in dehumanizing people who disagree with my presence, I also have eyes. And what I see on my early morning walks to the Capitol Hill light rail station is a park is in a desperate place, full of desperate people surrounded by overflowing trashcans and litter. The park, like all of Earth, is full of natural beauty denigrated by human occupation.

Briefly a community center providing food, water, and PPE to individuals without homes, this structure is now closed due to public safety concerns. September 1, 2020. Photo: Nick Lozier.

“Just not in my backyard.”

The crisis of homelessness across the city and the country is, obviously, complex and not easily solvable. This is especially true for a city that must focus on cuts rather than additional spending due to the pandemic. That is where my sense of frustration with all sides of the situation stems from.

Those select demonstrators that pretend a never-ending tent city/anarchist bloc-party is a viable option for city planning are, to put it nicely, incredibly misguided and unrealistic, both in goals and in messaging.

And those yuppy neighbors of mine, whose supposedly liberal values so quickly fall into cringe-worthy quotes like, “If they just listened to police they would be fine” and “We should house them, just not in my backyard”, are living in a separate and unequal fantasy. Pretending Capitol Hill is open for business again, despite record-breaking Coronavirus cases and the economic strain that comes with it, is a nonsensical farce.

And those Seattle cops, who most recently were held in contempt by a Federal judge for indiscriminate use of blast balls and pepper spray during BLM protests, are absolutely kidding themselves if they think their presence on the Hill, inside or outside of their cinder-block fortress, increases any resident’s feeling of safety. In Capitol Hill today, there is heightened feeling of outside occupation, not safety, due to both SPD’s and Black Bloc’s presence.

So, while I can seemingly find a bone to pick with everyone in the city of Seattle, pointing them out one-by-one does little to improve unhoused people’s lives. If you need an in-depth review of how more and more Seattleites on the Hill feel about their neighborhood these days, I highly recommend The Stranger’s I, Anonymous article, “A Pox on Both Your Fucking Houses”.

Posters from organizers appear around Cal Anderson Park as a fourth homeless sweep lingers. December 7, 2020. Photo: Nick Lozier.

“If not here, where?”

What is more important to me than yelling at cops as they drive by is the protection of the statewide rent freeze set to expire on December 31st. More consequential than the sick echo chamber burns and constant finger-pointing is the long-delayed second COVID-19 stimulus that show little signs of coming to fruition before January. What truly keeps me up at night, more than incessant shouting outside my window, is knowing hundreds if not thousands of others could join the ranks of those who sleep in Cal Anderson Park if our government does not act soon.

Single mothers, children, and people of all races are on the brink of poverty, not just in Seattle, but across the country, and their fight is far too often cast aside or trivialized by an uncaring and individualist American society.

While sweeping encampments right before temperatures drop for winter is not illegal, it is plainly both inhumane and immoral. That is especially true when homeless shelters are filling up quickly nationwide, food banks are seeing increased demand, and Americans are choosing to pocket whatever is left of their paycheck due to pandemic-related income insecurity.

Spending crucial city dollars on a sweep of Cal Anderson Park is not only morally frustrating, it is also incredibly wasteful. The funds spent on overtime for brutal and uncaring cops to sweep the area could be spent on housing, something that could actually solve the problem. Treating the park as a political revolution zone rather than a humanitarian crisis solves little, and actually makes it easier for those most affected to feel the ire of increased anti-homeless rhetoric and policy.

Cal Anderson is a wonderful park, and should be enjoyed by people from all walks of life. It is spacious and culturally significant. It is not, however, a suitable place for anyone to live, nor is it acceptable that anyone is viciously attacked by taxpayer-funded assailants there. The obvious problem with any attempt to restore Cal Anderson is echoed in conversation with organizers that defended the park’s residents Monday afternoon. “If not here, where? Where can these people go?”

Navigating this crisis requires both political courage and acumen. Mayor Jenny Durkan lacks both. Today, she announced she will not be running for reelection, and has largely given up on even acknowledging the neighborhood since the end of CHAZ/CHOP. Giving up in the face of adversity, following in former Police Chief Carmen Best’s footsteps, is the last thing Seattle needs right now.

We, being everyone living in Capitol Hill, must take part in empathetic direct action and stand against a possible sweep of Cal Anderson Park in large numbers. It cannot just be Black Bloc that shows up. We need conversation, unity, and a plan to fix the issues that plague our neighborhood. For now, all we have is division, ignorance and brutality, while we battle both a pandemic and increasingly cold and windy nights ahead.

Nick Lozier.

A democratic socialist and opinion writer living in Seattle. Volunteer blogger for SJEI. https://sjei.org/

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