Story by Pete Shaw
Members of Right 2 Dream Too and Don’t Shoot PDX appeared before the Portland City Council on January 21 to demand action to ensure people without housing and people of color receive the same justice afforded the most privileged members of society. Their demands were laced with quotes from Martin Luther King in an attempt to remind council members that the King they–and other upholders of the status quo–celebrate is a far cry from the real King, who sought to tear down all barriers to justice, including the terrorism that was used by white civic leaders and their police henchmen to keep Black people and poor people in their place on the bottom rungs of society.
Prior to the council meeting, members of VOZ—the day laborers’ and immigrant organizing group—marched across the Burnside Bridge to Right 2 Dream Too. Both groups then continued on to City Hall for a short rally outside. It’s a solidarity march that has occurred for the past few years near Martin Luther King Day, and the added presence of Don’t Shoot PDX at the council meeting further clarified the common struggles faced by the many groups seeking to change a broken economic and social system. Particularly people of color, but also people without housing and people living in poverty, find themselves bearing the brunt of a police system designed to brutalize them and keep them in their place.
The three speakers from Right 2 Dream Too urged the council to support the Right to Rest Act which is being sponsored in the Oregon legislature by Representatives Chip Shields, Jeff Reardon, Betty Komp, Joe Gallegos, and Mitch Greenlick, as well as Senator Michael Dembrow. The act would establish the right of all people to use and move freely in public spaces; rest in public spaces and protect themselves from the elements; eat, share, accept, or give food in any public space; pray, meditate, worship, or practice religion in public spaces; and occupy a motor vehicle for any purpose. For people without housing, some of these rights would mean nothing less than codifying the right to survive.
The Right to Rest Act is the first bill of three that collectively form the Homeless Bill of Rights (HBR). The HBR is being promoted by various groups–including Portland’s Right 2 Survive, Sisters of the Road, and Street Roots–that make up the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP). According to WRAP, the HBR “strives to ensure that ALL people have the basic right to live where they choose without fear of harassment and criminalization.” The legislation making up the HBR will “overturn local laws targeted to remove people from public space.”
“Laws and ordinances that target the houseless community,” Amber Dunks told the council, “do not exist for the purpose of justice.”
“The issue is that there is a systemic problem that creates cuts in affordable housing and throws up more barriers for people to obtain the little affordable housing left,” Tricia Reed said. “In the midst of this crisis, laws and ordinances designed to target and criminalize the houseless and low income are created. Although we have made great strides in the struggle for equal rights for all, we cannot truly say as a nation that we treat all as they are created—equally—as long as it is still legal to criminalize and discriminate against the houseless community for carrying out basic activities needed for survival such as eating and resting.”
“Our bill would help ensure that no one would be targeted or criminalized for exercising their biological need to sleep, regardless of housing status,” said Jeremiah Johnson. “Our dream is that the houseless community no longer be targeted with unjust laws and ordinances that seek to discriminate against and criminalize people based on their perceived housing status. The laws and ordinances used to target the houseless community today are strikingly similar to the ugly laws, anti-Okie laws and Sundown Towns used to discriminate against people of color, the disabled, and the poor in the all too recent past.”
Along with those unjust laws, unjust police actions–such as the confiscation of houseless people’s property, including blankets, tents, and medications–continue under the eye of Mayor Hales (absent from the council session) who is in charge of the police bureau. In the case of harsh weather, when the police take people’s belongings, they may well be committing an execution. There is nothing new about this. As has been highlighted most recently by the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but has also been seen locally in the Portland police killings of Kendra James, Keaton Otis, and James Chasse just to name a few, that is part and parcel of the institutional function of the police: to oppress violently those left behind by the system who might otherwise rise up and overthrow it.
For months now Don’t Shoot PDX has been bravely taking creative, militant actions to force people to confront this reality of policing both in Portland and the United States. It has shut down streets and malls, and a few weeks ago took over Senator Ron Wyden’s dog and pony show town hall and instead conducted a real, substantive conversation about people’s needs and wishes. During all of these actions, they have kept the police on edge and often confused. This has sometimes resulted in the police helping activists bottle things up, such as when police shut down the ramps to bridges and highways for fear the activists might do the same thing.
Teressa Raiford of Don’t Shoot PDX presented a short video at council from Time showing people’s reaction in Ferguson, Missouri after a grand jury declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson for his murder of Michael Brown in August 2014. The message from Ferguson seemed simple enough: if you don’t like our acts of rebellion, then stop supporting racist policies enforced by racist police.
“You sit behind this desk probably thinking you’re doing something, but you’re not,” said Marcus Cooper of Don’t Shoot PDX. He then stated that the Don’t Shoot protests were “us knocking on the door before we kick the door down. Racism is a sickness that you can’t cover up with Martin Luther King quotes, Malcolm X quotes, and Rosa Park quotes.”
The public testimony was moving, haunting, and sadly repetitive. Pleas so consistently seem to fall on deaf ears, and even when something positive appears within reach–as when Councilwoman Amanda Fritz brokered a deal for Right 2 Dream Too to move to a space under the Broadway Bridge–it can too often fall apart under the weight of interests and citizens who demonstrate outright antipathy for those who have less than them.
In a scene that could not have been made up, Councilman Steve Novick, continuing City Hall’s celebration of the Decemberists, made sure every speaker received a cinnamon bun after speaking. The gesture came across as dismissive and demeaning, as if he were giving children a treat for a job well done. What it also revealed was the real dearth of attention this council has paid to the needs so many in the city.
Want to get involved? To help push passage of the Homeless Bill of Rights, go to the Sisters of the Road webpage at:http://sistersoftheroad.org/programs/whats-new-in-hbr/
To join the fight against police violence and accountability go to:https://www.facebook.com/DontShootPDX