Last year we wrote about the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, a group of largely white north-end homeowners formed for the single purpose of getting police to immediately remove the homeless, drug dealers and criminals from their neighborhoods. Despite the differences between these unique subsets of the street community, the group’s law and order message routinely draws several hundred to its public forums to excoriate elected officials for being too tolerant on crime and failing to crack down, lock up, or otherwise remove these “undesirables” from their community.
In order to broaden their appeal, leaders of the group recently formed Speak Out Seattle (SOS), a new coalition of Seattle “residents, business owners and community groups,” to fight legalizing homeless camping, oppose legalized drug-consumption and treatment sites, and demand as many as 300 new police officers by the end of the year. They’ve been sending out letters and emails to leaders of the neighborhood movement we are a part of, asking them to join their nascent effort.
We’re not knocking the need for adequate police response to real crime. But if there’s no effort to understand and address the disparate impacts of increased police enforcement on people of color, low-income people and the homeless themselves, and no response to the actions of local government that have caused the loss of low-income housing and driven increasing numbers onto our streets, then SOS is little more than a hysterical reaction of people seeking quick fixes.
Worse, by their actions, who they're fixated on, and solutions they're calling for, SOS practices a classic form of victimage and scapegoating — targeting a whole class of people (in this case the homeless, disproportionately people of color and those with disabilities), conflating homelessness with crime, casting a net over all, not just the few who cause the problems.
Over 100,000 Seattleites marched in our streets in January because we know we must stand up and make a strong statement now against the prejudice and hate and stereotyping and victimage and scapegoating in all its forms that Trump represents. We know that if we don't, then over the long haul, our democratic values of fairness, equality, tolerance, religious, racial and social justice will be eroded, even destroyed.
The fact, that several hundred mostly white, middle-class homeowners from wealthier north end neighborhoods — likely well intentioned and given the demographic of these areas probably quite progressive in all other respects — can get sucked into innocuously-titled groups like the Neighborhood Safety Alliance and Speak Out Seattle suggests that our city may not be as far removed as we might think from the values that Trump represents. The scapegoating, stereotyping and targeting of vulnerable groups indeed has a foothold here in liberal Seattle.
At least two local reporters confirmed that four key founders of the Neighborhood Safey Alliance and SOS were seen recently in at the University of Washington’s Kane Hall, in the VIP section, giving right wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos several standing ovations. Hundreds of area Yiannopoulos backers attended while an even greater number protested his speech outside the venue. (One person, a “peacekeeper,” was shot outside but thankfully survived.)
Yiannopolous is a well known purveyor of what most rational people could only describe as hate speech. Women, Muslims, and immigrants are his favorite targets. A former editor of Breitbart News, he’s a darling of white nationalist ‘alt-right’ groups and outspoken Trump supporter.
In 2001 Seattle almost elected Mark Sidran for Mayor. As former City Attorney, Sidran like Trump built his political career out of stereotyping and scapegoating a whole class of people, (in Sidran's case the homeless), and calling for "law and order". We formed "The Sidran Truth Squad” to send a clear and strong message his values were not Seattle's. Anyone who treads on the civil rights of one group, treads on the civil rights of us all.
The reality is that we are not so far removed here in Seattle from the forces that give rise to hatred and prejudice we’re seeing played out on a national and international stage. Those forces start small at the local level, seeking out first the most vulnerable, most defenseless and easily scapegoated. It’s when they are allowed to grow that they mushroom into what we’re seeing now on a national stage.
Some may think Martin Niemöller’s famous quote to be trite or not applicable to Seattle. We disagree. Just add the homeless to the list.
"In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist; And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist; And then they came for the Jews, And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew; And then … they came for me … "
JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition, a low-income housing organization. More information on the coalition can be found at www.zipcon.net.