A Note to Olympia City Council Regarding Hate Speech

Text of an email I sent to council this morning. If you agree, please send them a note as well – citycouncil@ci.olympia.wa.us


Mayor Selby and Members of Council,

At the February 7th Olympia City Council meeting, during public comment, a citizen referred to people experiencing homelessness as cockroaches.
“Cockroaches” is a commonly used slur against this segment of our community. It strips people, who are suffering, of their humanity, and makes us think of them as a disgusting pest, to be stomped on. I’ve heard it used since I got started as a street outreach worker, about a dozen years ago.
This doesn’t represent my values, nor the values I’ve come to expect from Olympia, and I don’t believe it represents the values you hold, as a governing body, or as individuals.
I ask you to rebuke the use of this hateful term, and other such speech against this unprotected and marginalized group of people, and reaffirm the values you set in December in both the Charter for Compassion and Olympia Sanctuary City decisions.
I also ask that at future meetings, if hate speech is used against any group or person, that you immediately call it out, and remind the speaker of this community’s values.
I thank you for the work you do, the time you put in, and specifically for being innovative and taking the lead in our region on the issue of addressing poverty. Though we have a long way to go, the work is made easier by being inclusive, not exclusive.
Sincerely,
Rob Richards

Camp Quixote Ten Year Anniversary Retrospective

In the fall of 2006 I had been a live-in volunteer at Bread & Roses in Olympia, Washington for about three years. That’s three years of experiencing and witnessing the direct effects of homelessness in the lives of people whom I had come to care for and love. Daily, they were tormented by predators, police, and policies – all things compounding to make it nearly impossible to recover from the cycle of homelessness. One co-worker described it as “being stuck on the side of the freeway, trying to pull into traffic, but cars keep whipping by, leaving you stuck where you’re at.” Resources were scarce and getting scarcer. Politics in Olympia had shifted toward a very pro-business/anti-homeless track. Getting rid of homeless people was the goal, as opposed to helping them to get off of the streets. This trend culminated in the summer of 2006 in the form of a Pedestrian Interference Ordinance that would strip people’s right to gather in public spaces – namely, our sidewalks – during certain times of day.

As an advocate, I felt powerless – which was a reflection of the powerlessness I saw in the faces of the people I advocated for daily. They were sad, scared, angry, and they didn’t know what to do – the typical thing would have been to just take their lumps without putting up a fight.

People were resigned to being relegated to second-class citizen status. My friend Tim (a particularly vocal member of our little community, who had been houseless off and on most of his life) was angry and wanted to do something about it. He and I had been regularly having a movie night with another Bread & Roses worker, Matt Kellegrew. We would watch political documentaries and movies, and then have long discussions about them and how they applied to what was happening locally.

It was during one of these movie nights, we watched The Battle of Algiers, that the conversation began about a political action in response to the ordinance. The three of us, that night, laid the groundwork for the birth of what would become known as Camp Quixote – a name which I’m proud to say I came up with, as a show of solidarity to a group in Paris, who were involved in a similar tent city protest. They called themselves The Children of Don Quixote. We also chose a name for our newly conceived conglomerate, the Poor People’s Union (PPU), which would serve as the organizing body of the camp.

The first meeting of the PPU was held on a Saturday afternoon at the Bread & Roses Advocacy Center. It drew (probably because of the coffee and pizza) about two dozen people. Matt, Tim, and I laid out our vision to create a tent city where folks could live in community, and work toward a permanent site that they owned, and could farm, free of the pressures of the social service system, able to recover at their own pace. We didn’t know how people would respond going into that first meeting, and I don’t think any of us were expecting the response we received. People bought in almost immediately. The idea that they could be in control of their destiny for once, and not sit idly by while more ordinances went into effect, while they just took it and did nothing – that instilled in people a sense of hope that the future held something more for them, and that they were a part of something; a community, a movement.

We then began having general meetings every Saturday, where we would plan every aspect of the camp. Different people were stepping up to coordinate the committees that would take on various roles in the camp’s management. We had committees handling aspects such as the Kitchen, Security, Camp Layout, and Communications. Each of these committees would meet independently and give progress reports at each general meeting. The camp was coming together, and the PPU was getting stronger and larger by the week. Members of the advocacy and activist community caught wind of what was in the works and offered up support. Those of us who were not members of the street community were very careful to make sure that all decisions were made by consensus and any decision that affected only the street community was made by only members of the street community. We didn’t want local activists to come in and take over, we wanted them to come in and take direction from the campers.

Eventually the Site Selection Committee determined that the best site we could choose would be a City of Olympia owned lot on Columbia Street in our Downtown. As a member of this committee I researched multiple locations, both public and private, before settling on the final lot. We had various reasons why we ended up where we did. First, our fight was with the City of Olympia, so locating on property they owned made sense. We would avoid having a dispute with a private citizen, and all of the challenges that could come out of that. Second, the lot was located in the Downtown core, on one of the busiest streets in Thurston County, so it was highly visible. That provided multiple benefits, but mainly exposure. Thousands of people would drive by every day that otherwise might not have known the camp existed. Many got curious and pulled off to ask us questions. Many of those people came back with supplies or to volunteer. That proved critical, for morale, as well as logistically.

After the PPU consented to the location, we set February 1st, 2007 as move-in day (also the day that the ordinance had been slated to take effect). That gave us only a couple of months to finish our preparations. Supplies needed to be stockpiled, and materials gathered. We spent those final two months busily staging materials and methodically crafting the action plan for move in day.

When February 1st rolled around, we set our plan in motion, first going in to set up the tents. Pallets and tarps were laid, tents erected and waterproofed. Simultaneously, I was coordinating the delivery of two port-a-potties, and the kitchen crew was setting up the kitchen tent, and prepping for dinner. By the end of that first day, we had over twenty tents set up, and we all were able to have a meal together.

Day two brought more people, and more tents had to be set up. The committee in charge of camp layout took on the newcomers and gave them jobs in the camp. Jobs included a rotating 24-hour security detail, kitchen crew, camp maintenance, and clean up.

On day three, we finished staging our materials for the community center that we had drawn up plans for, and the construction crew set to work. They built out the frames for the walls and roof, and just like an old fashioned barn raising, we all helped to pull them upright and hold them in place while others hammered everything together. While this was happening, the kitchen crew had been prepping a huge chicken dinner – a local grocery store had donate a couple dozen pounds of chicken and some other fixings – and veggies donated by members of the community.

That night was one of the most joyous nights I’ve ever experienced. We all ate together, danced, laughed, and enjoyed one another’s company inside of this grand hall that we had built together, as a community and as a family.

I’ve never felt more alive than I did that night. Seeing those faces that for years had been weighed down by the pressure of life on the streets, the constant fear, stress, humiliation – all of that lifted away and you could see their inner beauty shining through, what was inside them, what could be drawn out of a person if we just choose to bring people in, rather than push them away.

The response from the community at large to our presence, at least from our perspective, was for the most part positive. Ben Moore’s, a restaurant on the same block, brought us a huge batch of hot soup everyday – and a “We heart Camp Quixote” sign hung in their window. We were inundated with donations. Blankets, tarps, sleeping bags, warm clothes, food, and much more were coming in steadily. Parents would bring their children down to visit and have conversations with them about homelessness, and why the camp was there.

The City of Olympia, on the other hand, was not as supportive. They informed us that we were trespassing and were subject to arrest and confiscation of our belongings. From that point forward, there was a looming sense of inevitability that the camp could be swept away at any time. We quickly formed an intelligence gathering committee that would monitor the police band and scout out locations where the police would stage for such a sweep in order to have the earliest possible warning we could get, so that we could get people out who couldn’t risk arrest, or might be at greater risk if the police used violence, pepper spray, tear gas, etc. The majority of the Olympia City Council voted to instruct staff to serve notice to us that we were trespassing, and to vacate or they would send in OPD to disperse the camp.

The local media, The Olympian, was equally unsupportive. They ran an editorial urging the City to break up the camp and arrest those who remained.

We knew that the stress caused by the threat of a police raid at any moment was weighing on folks heavily, so we started creating a plan to move the camp. We began exploring many options, including moving to a different lot downtown, or finding a space hidden out in the woods somewhere. Finally, one member of our extended support network had the idea of asking a church, specifically her church, the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation (OUUC). The OUUC board was having a meeting the following evening and our supporter volunteered to attend, and request sanctuary on their property.

When the news came in that the OUUC Board had decided to grant us temporary sanctuary, the news hit the camp and spread fast. People were elated. We began making plans to move the next morning. We arranged for the port-a-potties to be moved and coordinated volunteers to help us start at first light.

It turns out that the City of Olympia had other plans for us.

At 5am the next morning, with everyone except the security watch sound asleep, OPD descended upon the camp in a loud, showy display of their might. An Olympian reporter was on the scene along with a photographer, no doubt tipped off by someone at the city. Maybe Steve Hall, who showed up to watch the festivities he created.

It caused a tremendous amount of stress to the campers, some of whom fled and abandoned their belongings. Others stayed but were shaken and fearful from the shock of such an unexpected and violent awakening. Some of the people who fled weren’t seen for weeks because they were afraid to be seen in public, afraid that OPD was after them.

As morning broke and the shock subsided, our volunteers arrived to help us move things and get the new camp set up. I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment and sharing it with the campers and volunteers. It was the end of the first chapter in what would be a story with many twists and turns.

A couple of weeks later the congregants at OUUC voted to allow the camp to stay. Work began to create structure and formalize the relationship. The City of Olympia got involved, and the Thurston County Health Department, in order to regulate health and safety at the camp. The Panza Board formed, and like the famous sidekick of Don Quixote, was there to support the camp in its journey, not to govern it (in keeping with the camp’s intent to be self-governed), an ideal that has held firm throughout the years.

Personally, I stayed involved with Panza and the camp for a couple of months after the move, and then decided to let it go. It had evolved, there was new energy, and I didn’t want to risk holding it back by taking too much ownership over it. The faith community had stepped up and seemed eager and excited to support the camp, setting up a hosting rotation among them, and working with the City to make a homeless encampment a part of their land use codes. My job, for the moment, seemed done.

Years, seemingly lifetimes later, I had gone to college, was working as Director of Communications at a software company, and my civic engagement had progressed to the point where I had a seat on the Olympia Planning Commission, a body that makes land use and long-range planning recommendations to the Olympia City Council. It was as a member of that body that the camp came back into my life.

The matter before us was whether or not to allow a permanent homeless encampment inside the City of Olympia. I obviously had no problem with it, but my fellow commissioners weren’t all with me. I was in a position where I needed to make sure I had enough votes to float a motion to allow Camp Quixote to have its site. I succeeded, and when the meeting came, my motion passed. It was an incredibly fulfilling moment and one I’m proud to have been a part of. A vision that we all created, all those years ago, of having a permanent site, with little houses and a garden, was becoming a reality.

When the day of the groundbreaking came, I stood on the empty lot that one day would be Quixote Village, and watched my old friend Kevin, one of the original campers, plunge that golden shovel into the rocky soil, breaking ground and initiating the final phase of the Camp’s evolution, I could not have been prouder. I fought tears as I relived in my mind those eight days in February of ’07.

And now on the 1o year anniversary of the camp I think of those beautiful people, so often marginalized and kicked around. They were the bravest people I’ve ever met. They displayed such vigor and resilience and it instilled in me the drive to swallow my own fears and fight harder for them.

The camp succeeded, and is living out its ultimate dream today because we allowed the campers to lead us. That I got to play a small part in the camp’s formation, and then years later another small part in its continued success is something that I will never forget. I will always keep with me the lessons I learned from this experience – especially that the power of love and community will always persevere, and if we draw on the strength of our community in our own times of need, and be there for them in theirs, no obstacle is insurmountable and no goal is unachievable.

Love and Respect.

The Resistance According to Elizabeth

On February 4th, Elizabeth Warren gave a speech that could go down as a defining oratory here at the outset of our resistance to the Trump Regime. Inspiring words from the Senator from Massachusetts.

I’m going to cut to the chase: We’re gathered today in Baltimore during a moment of crisis – for us as progressives, for us as Democrats, for us as Americans.

We’re in a moment of crisis, and I want to talk honestly about it. Let’s start with a simple fact: Our moment of crisis didn’t begin with the election of Donald Trump.

We were already in crisis.

We were already in crisis because for years and years and years, Washington has worked just great for the rich and the powerful, but far too often, it hasn’t worked for anyone else.

We were already in a moment of crisis because for years and years and years, the economy has worked just great for those who have already made it, but far too often, it hasn’t worked for anyone else.

We were already in a moment of crisis because for years and years and years, we’ve been living in a nation where opportunity is quietly disappearing. A country that is giving fewer and fewer kids a real chance to succeed.

We all know that this country was never perfect. That systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, and bigotry meant opportunities weren’t spread equally. But over the past generation, we made a shift – a shift from a country bending in the right direction to one where the door to a better life – to a middle class life – has been getting further out of reach with every passing year.

For a long time, I have shouted from every rooftop I could find about how the middle class was on the ropes. How it was evaporating. How if we weren’t careful, it could be like the Arctic ice – melting every year, until it’s gone completely, never to return. And make no mistake, as the middle class melts, the opportunities for the poor shrink to the vanishing point.
People don’t just wake up one day and elect leaders like Donald Trump because hey, “everything is awesome, but what the hell, let’s roll the dice and make life interesting.”

No.

People don’t elect leaders who break all the rules – who violate all the norms ― when things are going pretty well.

They don’t elect leaders who campaign for office by attacking communities of color, or religious groups, or immigrants, or women when things are just swell.

No.

Men like Donald Trump come to power when their countries are already in deep trouble. When the economies of their countries are deeply flawed. When people in those countries start to lose hope for a better future and start looking for someone to blame. And men like Donald Trump rise when those with money – and power – get a little worried about their own privileges and decide to help out one of their own who promises to look out for them.

In November, America elected Donald Trump.

Yes, the Russians helped.

Yes, the FBI director helped.

Yes, he lost the popular vote by three million.

But we cannot let ourselves off so easy. Not as progressives, not as Democrats. The excuses end now – right here in Baltimore. We hold ourselves accountable.

And we need to figure out what comes next.

There are some in the Democratic Party who urge caution. They say this is just a tactical problem. We need better data. We need better social media.

We need better outreach. We need better talking points.

Better talking points? Are you kidding me? People are so desperate for economic change in this country that Donald Trump was just inaugurated as President, and people think we just have a messaging problem? What planet are they living on?

This is bigger than talking points and tactics, and yes, even than Twitter.

This country is in an economic crisis. For more than 30 years, working families, middle class families, poor families, students, seniors have been squeezed harder and harder, and now they are at the breaking point.

Republican politicians have pushed one policy after another that has favored the rich and powerful over everyone else, and far too often, Democrats have gone right along. And no matter how extreme Republicans in Washington became, Democrats might grumble or whine, but when it came time for action, our party hesitated and pushed back only with great reluctance. Far too often, Democrats have been unwilling to get out there and fight.

That ends today. It’s time for Democrats to grow a backbone and to get out there and fight.

It’s up to us—the progressives. We need to make very clear that we, as progressives, as Democrats, as Americans, stand for a BOLD, progressive agenda. Stand for REAL solutions to this crisis. Stand for changes that will make a difference in the lives of millions of people. We need to make clear we will fight.

What do we fight for?

We fight for basic dignity and respect for every human being—everybody counts. All people are entitled to be treated with respect.

We fight for economic opportunity – not for those at the top, but for everyone. We believe that every one of our children deserves a fighting chance to build a real future.

We are not the minority party. We are the opposition party, and we need to talk about the key difference between us and them every day—and we need to say it in the plainest possible way:

Donald Trump has stirred ugly racism, sexism, and hatred in this country, and the Republican politicians smiled and climbed right into bed with him. That stink will be on them for decades to come. The national party that embraced bigotry. To every person in America, we need to say loud and clear: You don’t like how women are treated? Or Latinos? Or Muslims? Or African Americans? Always remember that the bigotry stirred up by Donald Trump is perfectly ok with the Republicans in Washington. They will confirm his Attorney General, they will look the other way on religious bans, they will shuffle their feet over a Supreme Court nominee who thinks employers should decide what kind of birth control women get. Republicans are afraid to stand up for what is right. Afraid to stand up for basic American values.

Well they can nurse their fear. We are not afraid. Democrats are the party of all the people – every single one. We believe everybody counts and everybody gets a chance. Nobody – nobody – gets cast aside. That’s the difference between Republicans and Democrats in Washington.

And one more: Donald Trump and the Republicans in Washington are on the side of the rich and powerful, and they are using every tool of government to help them get richer and more powerful. To every person in America, we need to say loud and clear: You think Wall Street has too much power in Washington? You think giant corporations call too many shots in government? You think billionaires get all the breaks while your family has to watch every nickel? Always remember: the Republicans are not on your side. They’re rushing to unleash the big banks. They’re rushing to gut the consumer agency that has forced banks to give $12B back to customers they cheated. They just pushed a backroom deal for giveaways to big oil companies and another for giveaways to investment advisers who cheat seniors. They’re ramming through a cabinet of ethically challenged billionaires with long histories of grinding working people into the dirt. And the corporate CEOs and the Wall Street bankers and the lobbyists are so happy they are doing little money dances in the halls of Congress.

The so-called “leaders” of the Republican Party can keep their rich friends.

That’s on them. But what’s on us? We need to be the party of hardworking people – every single one. We need to be the party of every family and every small businesses and every person who hasn’t made it yet. We need to be the party of every person who believes we should all get a chance to build something for ourselves and our families.

We need to say what we believe in, then we need to fight for those beliefs.

The world has changed a lot over the past few months, and let’s be honest – there’s no hotline number we can call to learn how best to deal with rising right-wing extremism in this country. Like a lot of you, I’m still finding my way, finding my footing, day by day, step by step. We make mistakes. But with each passing day, we learn.

The lesson of history is that when faced with a danger like Donald Trump, opposition needs to grow. Opposition needs to be focused. Opposition needs to be bold. Most of all, opposition needs to be willing to fight.
Things are moving fast, and time is running out – for us to grasp what has happened, and for us to make clear ― in every way, from every mountaintop we can – that we will fight back.

A Muslim ban? We will fight back!

Ripping health care from millions of working people? We will fight back!

A Secretary of Education who doesn’t believe in public education? We will fight back!

Giveaways to giant banks so they can cheat people and blow up our economy again? We will fight back!

A budget director who wants to cut Medicare and Social Security? We will fight back!

A Supreme Court nominee who will take away women’s rights? We will fight back!

You bet we will fight back! And you better believe we’ll keep fighting for our progressive agenda.

Next week, many of us in this room return to Washington. Eyes will be on us. We do not control the government. Many times, our side won’t win.

But we have our voices.

And we will add our voices to the voices of millions of people in this country who are standing up to say that the character of this nation is not the character of its President.

No. In our democracy, We the People decide the character of this nation.

When we protest, when we make phone calls, when we carry signs and ask questions, when we make our voices heard – that is when we affirm our uniquely American character. We will resist every single effort to make America into a small and spiteful place. We will resist every injustice. We will resist every effort to divide us. We will resist every effort to disgrace our Constitution. We will resist every single step toward the takeover of our government by billionaires, bankers and bigots.

This is not the moment we asked for, but it is the moment we have been called to. This is our test.

The hour to fight is upon us – and we are ready. We will fight back, side by side. We will fight back.

What’s Next?

The sort of gatherings we saw across the country yesterday typically would shake a new presidential administration. Even your least favorite former president would set an agenda to reach out and build bridges, knowing that their power is a careful and precise balance and they can’t ignore half the people, but have to be responsive.

We can’t count on this administration to do that. The man at the top might be literally incapable of empathy or introspection. We know he doesn’t listen to advisors much, and so even reasonable voices around him will likely be ignored. We actually have to assume the worst.

I think we should keep all of our options on the table. There are particular issues that should be hard lines in the sand. We should define those now, and hold every elected official to them, by any means necessary…

…a Muslim registry is completely out of the question and while going down and signing up for it in solidarity is a nice gesture, and I’ll do that too, this is one issue where we get out our torches and pitchforks and go shut things down until they buckle…

…same with any sort of legislation or policy that renders people “illegals” or takes a hardline white-nationalist stance against immigrants or any people of color….

…abortion rights, the limiting of birth control, or women’s rights to choose. This isn’t just about access to healthcare, this is about subjugating over half of our population…

…any governmental move, especially on the local level, that targets a group of people based on their socio-economic status, ie, anti-homeless laws, regressive taxes, and including inaction on providing simple basic needs when the solutions are apparent…

These are just few of my lines I will hold, that I’d urge you to help me hold, whatever it takes.

What else?

Love is the Greatest Resistance

It’s been hard to watch, but sometimes you have to look your enemy in the eye, square your shoulders and steel yourself. Resistance is a word thrown around a lot these days, and it has been in my head a lot also.

Resistance happens in a thousand micro-decisions we make every day. It happens in our small actions. It happens when we stand with our neighbors when they’re struggling or targeted. When we treat people with love. In his speech, DJT said he’s going to put America First. MY first act of resistance is to choose to put Love First, and challenge you to join me. And love is an action, not just an idea.

Resistance begins in each of us. Decide to resist and you create the spark. Then find a way to cultivate that spark. You might gather your friends to make care packages for the warming center, volunteer for a local candidate who will fight for justice, pick an elected official and meet with them, tell them what you expect of them, and hold them to it. Get creative, get engaged, and build a movement.

Don’t let the fog and the spectacle of national politics distract you. Local and direct action is the quickest and most impactful way to make a difference. We don’t need to wait for someone on the national or state level to save us. Help is NOT on the way. It’s just us. Whatever way you choose to resist, I support you. We’re all in this together. I love you.