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OlySol Public Statement on “Terrorism” Smear Campaign:

Lately, Olympia Solidarity Network has been subject to increasingly normalized slander through a highly liberal application of the term “terrorism.” Downtown business/property owners, Olympia residents and Olympia City Council member, Lisa Parshley, have all directly participated in this jingoistic smear campaign. These claims have been amplified by The Olympian and right-wing talk radio station KVI. Both of these media platforms interviewed Amy Evans, of real estate firm, Kidder Mathews. She has largely originated the local terrorism panic. Much of the fear-mongering has been in response to OlySol’s use of patrol disruptions, a tactic which yielded success in the campaign to suspend the anti-homeless Downtown Safety Team security scheme. However, comments on social media alluded to OlySol’s supposed “terroristic,” “threatening” and “bullying” tendencies long before even this tactic was used.

 

OlySol’s disruptions of the Downtown Safety Team nightly patrols have been labeled “terrorism” despite the fact that they were clear legal expressions of first amendment rights. When Amy Evans was asked on KVI what kind of threats were made to the guards during the disruptions, Amy Evans admitted that she did not actually know of any examples.  No physical altercations occurred and no one was harmed during these disruptions. The same cannot be said about the Downtown Safety Team’s efforts. These efforts inflicted harm upon houseless people by sweeping alcoves and actively contributing to cycles of displacement and criminalization that cause adverse effects to their health and wellbeing. Moreover, OlySol and CopWatch members experienced assault on multiple occasions from Safety Team guards while attempting to legally monitor their activity. OlySol does not dispute claims that Safety Team guards felt uncomfortable during the disruptions. However, terrorism isn’t reducible to discomfort and if it were the term’s pervasiveness would yield it inconsequential.

 

The use of masks by demonstrators has largely been cited as evidence of terrorism.  It is true that many demonstrators wore masks and costumes. It is also true that some of these people wore black clothing.  However, many chose not to protect their identity. Everyone has their individual motivations for wanting to remain anonymous, but the widespread use of masks was largely motivated by attempts to falsely incriminate demonstrators in the past by the former Safety Team, the Downtown Ambassadors, and the Olympia Police Department.  There is still one demonstrator facing trumped up felony charges stemming from a patrol disruption in October. Rather than spend months or years unexpectedly navigating the legal system due to false accusations, many opted to protect their identities.

 

As is often the case, the term “terrorism” is employed as an expression of hysteria and desperation. Divorced from any consistent and meaningful definition, “terrorism” is used solely to condemn, skirting further critical investigation. “Terrorists” become the scapegoat, preventing the exposure of more fundamental, underlying social issues. At its worst, “terrorism” is the justification for incarcerating the innocent, torturing detainees, and slaughtering civilian populations.

 

In the context of OlySol’s Safe Sleep campaign, it is important to not only analyze OlySol’s conduct but also the nature and content of the campaign’s subjects, the Downtown Safety Team particularly and the downtown business class generally.

Before the disruptions, OlySol used tactics such as demand deliveries, phone zaps, postering campaigns and street theater. These tactics were labeled as “threatening” and “bullying” on social media and by Olympia Downtown Alliance director, Todd Cutts. These tactics were perfectly legal expressions of first amendment rights. The question of whether OlySol exhibited such behaviors is not the real question though. What should be asked is who initiated the cycle of such behavior and relations? OlySol did not initiate the mass displacement of houseless people from one of the few and inadequate options for safer sleeping. OlySol did not hire muscle to threaten and bully people who often do not have the means to access consistent shelter. OlySol does not mobilize large groups of business/property owners to City Council meetings to threaten and bully elected representatives to in turn act as the bullies toward the houseless on behalf of the business class. What should one do if they, their friends and/or their family were being categorized as undesirable by a connected and influential class of people and then slated for removal by them? Why are small business/local property owners exempt from criticisms, even as they systematically exhibit the behavior they accuse others of?

 

Right-wingers online have gleefully taken advantage of the escalating rhetoric of “terrorism” to level death threats against OlySol members and houseless people. Comments on social media have suggested far-right and notoriously violent vigilante groups, posses, and mercenaries assume downtown security patrols in lieu of the former Safety Team. There have also been calls for OlySol members to be “hauled off”, “cleansed” from downtown, shot in the streets, and suppressed with fire hoses. One person claiming to be a business owner expressed interest in forming a patrol with “relaxed rules of engagement” and “Sherman’s type of warfare.” Local business owner Casey Carlson is one commenter who called for mercenaries and cleansing. There has also been a call to starve the houseless, to let them all overdose, and “send the bums packing” regardless if “a few get hurt in the process” in response to the OlySol campaign. Also in response, local landlord Darin Richards has stated, “Push those worthless bums into the sound #crabfood.”

 

Another instance of reported violence originating from the business class was perpetrated by Brad Beadle, the owner of Pizza Time’s downtown Olympia location, and two others at a meeting primarily attended by business/property owners and ODA representatives. They physically attacked an individual at the meeting assuming this lone person was protesting it. This person had arrived to the meeting late and was silently observing until he attracted the attention of attendees who thought he should not be there. The vast majority of business/property owners who witnessed the attack felt emboldened enough to lie to police and say the observer initiated the assault. The police released all involved parties since the vast majority of statements made to them contradicted the physical evidence of the assault.

 

Accusations of terrorism levelled at OlySol have served to legitimize threats of violence and violence against anyone who even appears to oppose the business class’ agenda. It is an attempt to limit freedom of expression and speech with the threat of violent retaliation from the state, vigilantes, and the business class. It is a damaging trend for all those who seek to stand up for themselves and others in the face of injustice and disregard. It should not be tolerated by anyone who wishes to see significant movement from the status quo in this society and the world.

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Reflections on Olympia Assembly: An Experiment in Popular Power

Reposted from Institute for Social Ecology

By  David Goldman

What Is Olympia Assembly?

Olympia Assembly started in March of 2017, amidst ecological and political catastrophe. It was created as a communal assembly project, coalescing around points of unity such as direct democracy, non-hierarchy, ecology, mutual aid, and direct action. The goal of the organization is to build the new world in the shell of the old by creating the building blocks of a libertarian socialist dual power project. It seeks to meet people’s needs and decentralize power, leading to a crisis of legitimacy for the state where people powered institutions are posed against hierarchical structures.

Olympia Assembly (OA) has launched a variety of collectives, mutual aid projects, direct actions, and educational projects in our city of 50,000 people. At our assemblies and general meetings, people deliberate and co-author decisions to be implemented by the group according to the principles of deliberation, direct democracy, and participatory relationships. We have embedded collectives and delegates that implement decisions within the limits of the policy made at the base of the general meetings. At meetings, people bring discussion topics and proposals to the table and we create a participatory agenda. When there are proposals, we deliberate, filter decisions through our points of unity, and then vote. During deliberation, people can bring forward questions, concerns, amendments, critiques, and dissent. This lets us round out decisions, and as a result, we almost always come to a unanimous or near-unanimous agreement – even during mass assemblies. When there is disagreement, we use simple majority decision making. We are working on fleshing out our bylaws.

What We Do

Olympia Assembly working groups are often ephemeral and geared towards a particular project – seasonal assemblies, mutual aid events, protests, or other periodic events – and then disappear. However, it has also created some ongoing projects such as the Olympia Solidarity Network, Mutual Aid Mondays, and Olympia Community Medics.

Olympia Solidarity network, or OlySol, is an anti-capitalist direct action working group connected to Olympia Assembly. It has had four direct action victories since starting in the late summer of 2017. OlySol won back a tenant’s stolen deposit through a demand delivery and an office picket. We won back a worker’s stolen wages through a fifty-person demand delivery. Using direct action, we won repairs for over 100 tenants at a low-income housing complex. This involved flyering door to door at the apartment complex, meeting with tenants, picketing the management office, flyering against the local management company and at the houses and neighborhoods of the management in Seattle. OlySol just won a campaign against a private security firm hired by building owners to sweep houseless people out of alcoves at night. That campaign involved everything from flyering multiple cities, picketing outside of businesses, phone zaps, mass leafleting, bank shutdowns, and disruptions of the private security force.

Mutual Aid Mondays is a weekly project that provides houseless camps in Olympia with free food, clothes, hygiene materials, tarps, tents, blankets, sleeping bags, coffee, first aid supplies, and literature. Emerging from an alliance between Olympia Assembly and four other organizations, Mutual Aid Mondays provide material assistance to those most in need and helps build relationships between radicals and the houseless population. Occupying public space, these camps provide houseless people with a place to stay –although not an ideal one – and are the vanguard against encroaching rent increases and real estate investment.

Incubated at the 2018 Spring Assembly, Olympia Community Medics (OCM) is a medic collective for street protests and houseless people. OCM has helped with multiple marches, protests, and anti-fascist demonstrations as well as providing weekly medical supplies to houseless people around downtown. The collective works closely with Olympia Assembly, OlySol, and Mutual Aid Mondays.

Olympia Assembly has also helped on several other actions and events. We have worked with Just Housing, a local houseless solidarity organization, on civil disobedience campaigns. Over twenty people from our first Assembly participated in a camp-in organized by Just Housing that broke the city’s unjust “no sitting/laying” ordinance. Throughout our first summer, we helped with weekly non-violent direct-action campaigns at city hall, providing people, promotion, and material support for the actions. We have also recently started working on creating a tenant’s assembly focused on the Eastside region of Olympia.

Olympia Assembly has initiated other mutual aid events that provided free tools and food to people, especially houseless people, including a neighborhood block party with free food, music, clothes, and literature. We have also thrown benefit shows for Rojava that became among the biggest DIY parties of the year, distributing libertarian socialist literature, screening a documentary about Rojava, and raising money for Afrin. We also put on a benefit show to support Just Housing’s work.

We held a community forum on gentrification and a new condominium complex being built downtown. We have handed out thousands of pamphlets throughout the city about libertarian socialism and related issues. We have used our networks to help with action projects throughout the city and beyond. OA helped the local IWW and DSA chapter put on a May Day event in 2018 that had over two hundred people. Our popular education reading group has read everything from Bookchin texts to Jackson Rising by Kali Akuno.

In 2018, Oly Assembly helped organize people in the Pacific Northwest to attend the Institute for Social Ecology Summer Intensive in Poulsbo, Washington. Olympia Assembly and Solidarity Network members spoke at the Fearless Cities conference in New York and at a communist forum in Seattle that featured Kali Akuno from Cooperation Jackson. Olympia Assembly has helped inspire multiple other projects; our assembly model, solidarity network, and Rojava solidarity projects have been emulated in other cities.

One of the most important aspects of Olympia Assembly has been training people in how to structure participatory and democratic meetings. People have also learned how to do promotion, relationship building, and implementing policy made by the base. Learning from our successes and failures, these organizational skills provide tools and insights that we can take into other projects and other organizations.

Although there are limits to our organization and area that require improvement, we have done pretty well for an organization that is only a year and a half old.

Challenges of Communalist Organizing

One fundamental issue with Communalist organizing is how to apply the general principles to particular contexts. Doing this in your city in 2018 will be distinct from applying such principles in Rojava in 2011 or Jackson Mississippi in 2016. Some important questions to ask when starting a Communalist project are: What forces are opposed to a Communalist project? What institutional and cultural infrastructure exists in your region that is sympathetic to it? What relationships do you and fellow organizers already have? How can we best apply these general principles to particular contexts? And how do we embed our daily work in a larger political strategy?

In our own local work, Olympia Assembly has confronted a variety of challenges. One of the biggest was an initial organizational identity crisis. There were radically different visions for what Olympia Assembly ought to do – some people wanted OA to be a vague assembly project whereas other people wanted OA to reflect specific libertarian socialist principles. This was compounded by the fact that the organization grew too fast and launched too soon so that we were unable to appropriately use the first few assemblies to meaningfully reach out.

Another hurdle was that OA did not have a stable meeting space for the first half year. As a result, we had to have meetings to plan the meetings, which led to logistical nightmares and a lack of stability. This made it more difficult to get involved in OA, especially if one didn’t have much time. We have had a consistent meeting space for the last year, but by not having stability during the first few months, we missed a crucial opportunity to grow our organization. But due to the identity crisis of the organization, we were in many ways not ready to grow. A slower approach to building organizational stability, including basic stuff like consistent times and locations for meetings, would have allowed us to be more effective.

We have had outreach issues; we don’t have a working group to promote the monthly meetings, only for the seasonal assemblies. This has led to a lack of promotion and a lack of reaching out to people. A few people do promotions informally with little to no coordination. Reaching out to friend groups for meetings, making social media event pages, and sending emails to list-serves is essentially reaching inwards. Most of our outreach for monthly meetings comes from informal conversations. We desperately need an outreach committee between each monthly meeting if we want to meaningfully grow. We need to be doing consistent flyering and door-to-door work, as well as more face to face conversations with acquaintances and strangers to invite them in. At this point in the organization, we have enough of an organizational infrastructure to start that process in a more meaningful way than when we first began. We also have sustained direct action and mutual aid projects people can join that are already off the ground and rolling that new people can easily plug into.

There are multiple left-leaning communities in Olympia that have been essentially neglected in our outreach. We haven’t made a meaningful effort to flyer in parts of the city we don’t frequent and don’t do enough door-to-door work. There are groups with relatively similar politics to us, yet which operate in different social groups and do not work with us on shared ideals – such as some anarchist groups, some left groups, Quakers, and Unitarians. We have made some basic mistakes regarding bread and butter organizing methods.

A related issue concerns inclusion versus political coherence, and the relationship of general assemblies and revolutionary political organizations. Although Olympia Assembly has reached out beyond the revolutionary left, including apolitical people and left-liberals, it remains an organization that mainly speaks to people who already share our politics. On the one hand, this is not surprising given that we have specific points of unity that spell out a broadly libertarian socialist orientation. While clearly stating our politics and vision, it also limits its appeal.

By running the group according to explicitly libertarian socialist principles rather than simply as a democratic assembly model, we have essentially created a libertarian socialist organization. This is distinct from calling for general assemblies of community members regardless of political orientation. Yet part of the strategy of Communalism is to use general community assemblies to propagate libertarian socialist content and by extension reach out to people and get popular assemblies to endorse and embody such principles. OA functions as an assembly based on shared points of political unity, but we have failed to operate as a forum for dialogue that reaches far beyond our general political milieu. The seasonal assemblies come closest to this goal, but outreach is still limited. OA needs to find other ways to engage with people who are not already sympathetic to libertarian socialist principles.

Yet people don’t have to be libertarian socialists to join OA; it is possible to agree to such principles within the organization while disagreeing with libertarian socialism as a broader social goal. Some liberals, Marxist-Leninists, and anarchists have worked very well within OA. Our actual work and functional structure can also function as outreach; it has engaged some people who weren’t initially sympathetic to libertarian socialist ideas. In part, our points of unity exist because while direct democracy is necessary, alone it is not sufficient. It must be rounded out by the political content of freedom and non-hierarchy, clearly enshrined in the organization’s points of unity and bylaws. Without a coherent ethical content and structure, it is possible to use democratic forms to vote on profoundly undemocratic and unfree measures.

We need to find a way for our organization to maintain principled politics while also reaching out to new people. This can be done by creating more ideologically neutral spaces and assemblies where dialogue can happen between people who disagree. We can also host more issue-specific forums on vital community topics. We can also engage existing neighborhood associations, some of which have interesting projects, including an organic community garden and a campaign to stop a 7-11 store. This could be done through organizing around a variety of issues based in common conditions that move towards building common political ideals. As housing is one such arena, we are currently organizing a tenant’s assembly. The more politically specific an organization is, the more exclusive it can be to people who do not yet agree with those politics. However, a democratic structure, ethics, and strategy can be attractive to radicals and non-radicals alike. It is ultimately difficult to navigate exactly how loose versus politically specific a particular Communalist project should be.

Demographics is another important factor; Olympia is a college town, and the people who started Olympia Assembly were mainly students between the ages of 18 and 30. Regardless of how hard we have tried to reach out beyond the student population, we remain much too youth- and student-centric. This is reflected among the founders of OA, who have most or many of their acquaintances, friends, and comrades in the student population. Even though the expressed goal of OA is to reach out to the Olympia community as a whole, it can easily look like a student-centric organization because of the composition of the group. We have made some progress in reaching beyond the student population, but it still haunts the organization and limits our capacity to reach out. The student population is disproportionately radical and have far more time on their hands compared to others. They are also disproportionately transient and subcultural. This could pose serious issues for OA over time.

Given this population, many core members of OA share the same social circle. This creates an issue where a large clique appears to have, and in fact does have, too much informal power over the organization. This inhibits the kind of comradeship that goes beyond friendship that organizations need. People who are not friends with core OA organizers can feel isolated and left out, even if they are welcomed with open arms into the organization. Although comrades might also be friends, we need to be conscious of these elements and how they can inhibit solidarity with strangers, even though friendship can also fuel momentum and outreach. Clearly, political projects must go beyond specific populations and friend groups if they are to become mass movements.

These previous concerns contribute to the problem of inconsistent membership. Our membership has been semi-consistent, but not stable enough. Our monthly meetings often have at least 10 regular members showing up, some semi-regular members, as well as a few new people at each meeting. Their capacity and willingness to engage varies due to factors like work, school, commitment to the project, and hope in the potential of Olympia Assembly. Thus, we have a few dozen consistent members alongside a large but inconsistent network of about 200+ people.

It is often difficult to get new people to take ownership of OA. New members often do not fully understand the principles and goals of OA, how to participate in meetings, or organize outside of meetings – all of which have a learning curve. Founding members often take skills they have learned for granted, and there is not enough orientation for new members about how to get involved. Without theoretical and practical knowledge about how OA meetings function over time, people do not see the reason or to participate. Furthermore, new people don’t always see the fruits of individual meetings or actions, as they almost never appear instantly. It is in large part through sustained meetings, and the legwork in between, that organizational gains become evident.

This situation is exacerbated by unfinished organizational bylaws. We have fragments – a skeleton of a decision-making process, some delegated roles and limits on them – but without a guide to how the organization is supposed to function, it is difficult for new people to fully comprehend what we are doing. Bylaws summarize our aims and structure and will allow the organization to be accountable to them.

Together, these dynamics result in a situation where the most vocal and committed members end up making most of the proposals. This exacerbates the lack of participation from less consistent and committed members. The issue of different levels of experience and engagement in an organization is inevitable, but increased participation and group ownership are desirable for both ethical and strategic reasons. One step towards rectifying this problem was the creation of an education committee.

Lastly, it has been noted that although the work that OlySol does is important and enjoyable, at times OA is perceived as too focused on the “more fun” components of militant direct action rather the “less fun” work of collective building. While the intense focus on direct action campaigns against bosses and landlords has been both warranted and successful, at times it has been over-emphasized at the expense of goals that reach beyond people already convinced of our ideals. This dynamic sometimes pits short-term goals against long-term goals instead of meshing them together.

Building Power, Moving Forward

To conclude, Olympia Assembly offers a democratic and non-hierarchical vision of the good society that is linked to a strategic orientation of building Communalist forms of dual power. At times we act as if this is shared common sense. Yet without spreading knowledge of our ethical and strategic vision, our aims can become obscure or invite skepticism. Although it can be simplified, Communalist praxis can be difficult to explain or understand, especially in the current political context. Questions like “What ought to be politically?” and “How ought we get there?” are complex and require complex answers. We need to find educational tools that express the basic substance of Communalism in a way that is easy to understand without distorting its core ethos.

Making concrete gains now while keeping the bigger picture in mind is a tall order for any group. This process will require a lot of experimentation, but there are also many historical experiments for us to learn from. We do not need to completely reinvent the wheel. We can sift through history to help develop a praxis that learns from the past as well as incorporating new insights. We must constantly adapt our strategy to our political vision, adapt our political vision to ethical means, and adapt all of the above to new relevant conditions to find out what kind of proposals ought to be decided on to get us from here to utopia.

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Class War on the Sidewalks: Gentrification and Public Space in Olympia

Reposted from It’s Going Down

On August 24, 2018, Olympia Parks, Recreation and Arts Director, Paul Simmons made the dramatic and near unilateral decision to shutter the Artesian Commons Park. The park is small, asphalt-covered, devoid of green space and features tables, a basketball hoop and the Artesian Well, a natural spring (which remains open). Most notably, and notoriously, the park is an important hangout for street youth and is most illustrative of the crises of homelessness and poverty afflicting Olympia. The Artesian Commons closure decision was issued on the unusual basis that threats from park users had been directed against city staff. The absurdity of such a basis is abundantly clear in the lack of any obvious parallels; sidewalks aren’t closed when muggings, public intoxication, or street harassment are reported, for example.

               Protesters occupy the closed Artesian Commons

The decision to close the Artesian Park was informed by class and the political pressures of gentrification. In fact, in a follow-up to his original statement, Simmons claimed, with astounding honesty for a bureaucrat, that, “Our parks are supposed to enhance the quality of life for people around them. It’s supposed to make businesses better, it’s supposed to make property values increase. Unfortunately the challenges surrounding this one are doing the opposite.”

A few weeks later on September 22nd, protesters cut locks, tore down the fence and over 100 people subsequently occupied the Commons. Street kids, activists, anarchists, and other community members played basketball, shared a meal from Food Not Bombs, hung banners and streamers and chalked the concrete. In just a few hours this festive and joyful expression of defiance was juxtaposed with riot cops, arrests, pepper balls and concussion grenades. Although obviously outflanked, protesters temporarily re-opened the Commons a second time following initial expulsion and police failed to fully disperse the crowd for hours. Three people were arrested during the protest, a few more would be picked up in its aftermath; others sustained injuries from concussion grenade shrapnel.

Concussion grenade deployed during the Artesian Commons protest.

The Artesian Commons closure and attempts to re-open it with direct action are significant events in a wider historical context of general anti-homeless and criminalizing tendencies in Olympia as well as periodically explosive social conflict over questions of homelessness and public space in the city.

This essay seeks to both analyze homelessness and public space under capitalism generally and in Olympia in particular and provide an historical account of the criminalization of homelessness and struggles for homeless rights. In so doing it is hoped that readers will conclude that conflicts between the homeless and municipal governments and business owners are an often analytically and practically neglected but potent dimension of class struggle found throughout urban capitalism. Moreover, contingent upon that hope is the hope that radicals and leftists will support or join movements in solidarity with the homeless. Despite the fact that homeless individuals compose a fraction of the general population, the class dynamics of homelessness fundamentally characterize the nature of municipal governance and gentrification, and thus have implications for society at large.

Gentrification and the Politics of Public Space

Gentrification is a process of urban and neighborhood change characterized by displacements of established, lower-income residents and (usually) influxes of newer, wealthier residents, with accompanying alterations in racial demographics – people of color are disproportionately displaced by gentrification, often overwhelmingly so -, economic compositions and physical infrastructures. From this definition political conclusions are frequently forged that indict individual consumer habits or entire lifestyle categories, such as that of ‘hipster’ or ‘yuppie.’ While understandable, these assumptions are analytically shallow.

Most fundamentally, gentrification must be understood as a process inherent to capitalism. Under capitalism, the dictates of profit determine all economic decisions, including within the realm of housing. How much housing is built, where it is built, and who it shelters are all decisions made in the interest of profit. Gentrification, at its core, involves fluctuations in levels of capital investments in property markets in given areas, causing some neighborhoods or cities to experience increasing property values and the attendant effects of rising property prices, rents and other basic living expenses, i.e. to “gentrify.” The inverse of increasing investment levels in certain regions occurs simultaneously with disinvestment in other regions, causing areas to experience underdevelopment. This inverted relationship between gentrification and underdevelopment occurs at a range of geographical scales, from that of the metropolitan area to the global level. Property investment flows are mediated and facilitated by states which encourage gentrification in the respective territories they govern as a means to stabilize economies, increase profit rates and secure sources of taxation and revenue. Governments offer tax credits and subsidies to developers and, as discussed below, actively criminalize marginalized residents and certain behaviors while enclosing and policing public space in an effort to make areas more attractive to investors.

“WHILE RARELY OWNED BY PRIVATE ENTERPRISE OR UTILIZED AS SITES OF DIRECT PROFIT REALIZATION, PUBLIC SPACE IS GOVERNED ACCORDING TO THE INTERESTS OF THE STATE, WHICH IN TURN REPRODUCES ITSELF BY PROTECTING THE INTERESTS OF CAPITAL WITHIN PARTICULAR GEOGRAPHIC TERRITORIES.”

‘Public space’ refers to places relatively open and accessible such as parks, public bathrooms, public libraries, sidewalks or squares. Public spaces are usually owned and managed by municipal governments, although some are ‘privately owned public space’ (POPS). While rarely owned by private enterprise or utilized as sites of direct profit realization, public space is governed according to the interests of the state, which in turn reproduces itself by protecting the interests of capital within particular geographic territories. Public space according to the dictates of private business and the state exists to ensure consumption in the formal economy. These interests exist in sharp tension with the reality of public space’s uses, which are varied and contradictory. Along with formal workers and consumers utilizing public space to access their respective workplaces and sources of goods and services, public space is also utilized as living space, locations for subsistence in informal economies and sites of subcultural expression. Homeless people use public spaces, such as benches and parks as dwelling space, skaters, punks and others use squares as sites of recreation and lifestyle experimentation, and street vendors, sex workers and drug traffickers and others in the informal economy use sidewalks as sites to procure an income.

In the context of gentrification, with increased investment and commerce in formerly underdeveloped areas, an ever greater emphasis is afforded to efforts to police certain behaviors and activities and the people who exhibit them in public space. Municipalities increasingly enact and enforce ordinances and regulations that criminalize public camping, loitering, sleeping on benches or in cars, skateboarding, or smoking in public. Moreover, public spaces are increasingly inaccessible or being removed entirely, from the shuttering of public bathrooms to park curfews and removal of benches.

The Particularities of Olympia

Olympia is currently experiencing waves of gentrification and property investment. As property values increase, area rents and home prices skyrocket, and with them general price inflation. While this phenomenon is increasingly geographically widespread throughout the whole city, property investment remains particularly concentrated in the downtown core. Downtown Olympia is distinct from many urban centers with its relatively low quantity of housing. Downtown is also somewhat distinct with its highly visible and concentrated homeless population, estimated to be in the hundreds in the daytime. Although downtown is amidst a luxury development boom, most construction is occurring on previously vacant lots. Thus these developments are not directly displacing lower-income renters through the redevelopment of low-cost housing (though they contribute to displacement indirectly because such large influxes of investment in property markets leads to near universal property value increases in a given region.) Like elsewhere, the city government incentivizes luxury development through tax credit schemes.

Along with luxury developers, business owners, their political front groups and the municipal government are also fundamental agents of gentrification in Olympia. These actors seek to boost commerce in the downtown core through a range of initiatives. There is a push to orient Olympia’s economy towards tourism through various municipal-sponsored projects, such as the bi-annual ArtsWalk events and promotion of cultural activities at Percival Landing Park, while other parks and public spaces are neglected. The business front group, Olympia Downtown Alliance (ODA), hosts “Third Thursday” monthly business booster events, lobbies for pro-business policies and provides technical assistance to member businesses.

The most conflictual component to gentrification in Olympia, however, has been over questions of public space and the intimately related efforts on behalf of the municipal government and business owners to criminalize and displace homeless individuals.  As noted earlier, downtown is home to a visible and concentrated population of hundreds of homeless people. The homeless presence downtown is an obstacle to gentrification in Olympia (and elsewhere) for a number of reasons. Firstly, anti-homeless prejudice runs exceptionally deep, despite the fact that huge swathes of American society currently are or are on the brink of experiencing housing instability. Olympia is no exception to this trend, with many residents reporting to business owners that they refuse to even venture downtown due to homelessness. Secondly, many homeless people seek daytime shelter in warm businesses and nighttime shelter in the alcoves of storefronts. Business owners have a material interest in banning or displacing homeless people from establishments simply on the basis that they don’t consume commodities at the same rate as housed people. Thirdly, municipalities, Olympia or otherwise, also have a material interest in displacing homeless people in an effort redirect funding from social services into more promising revenue-generating investments.

The City of Olympia actively criminalizes homelessness through the enforcement of a number of ordinances and codes. A No Sit/Lie ordinance prohibits loitering, a camping ban forces people out of parks and off sidewalks and a range of parking regulations effectively bars sleeping in vehicles.  The city government vigorously enforces obscure codes against property owners that are seen as too homeless-friendly. Property owners who allow homeless people to sleep on their property are targeted by code-enforcement for allowing sub-standard shelters (lack of sanitation, running water etc.) on their property. Moreover, social services are dismal. The discrepancy between the number of shelter beds available and those in need continues to increase. What services are provided, either via the municipal government or non-profits, are constantly under threat of closure due to financial difficulties or political pressure.

On the Offensive: Current Homeless Solidarity Movements and Battles for Public Space

Just Housing-hosted “camp-in” in front of Olympia City Hall

Olympia has witnessed an impressive historical array of homeless solidarity and public space struggles, now spanning decades. From illicit mutual aid projects such as needle exchanges, to occupations of parks and parking lots that forced the development of affordable housing and limited legal camping options, struggle on the terrain of public space has been perhaps the definitive feature of class conflict and anti-gentrification resistance in Olympia.

Like in other locales, political activity in Olympia vacillates, with periods of heightened struggle often followed by significant lulls. Currently, conflicts over homelessness/public space are assuming explosive dimensions. As noted earlier, the battle for the Artesian Commons has recently caught headlines, but it is merely the tip of the iceberg. It is occurring within a wider context of struggles against anti-homeless municipal ordinances, campaigns against private security contracts, anti-eviction camp defense and new mutual aid projects. To adequately understand the current moment, it is necessary examine more closely its foundational preceding years.

Protesters confront WA State Patrol during the Heritage Park bathroom occupations

Although homeless solidarity is a relatively consistent political issue in Olympia, efforts have been progressively intensifying over the past two years. This in large part is owed to the efforts of Just Housing (JH). JH was formed in the autumn of 2016, with a politically loose but solid base of homeless individuals, disaffected social workers, students and others. Initially, JH organized weekly city council speak-outs, an important popular education endeavor. During the last few days of 2016, JH staged direct actions on three consecutive evenings, boosting the organization’s profile immensely. Protesters occupied the Heritage Park public bathrooms after hours, in an attempt to force their operation on a 24/7 basis. The protests provoked significant police response, leading to arrests, minor scuffles and the use of the dispersal weapon, pepper balls. The bathroom occupations concluded in the partial victory of the installation of 24/7 port-a-potties adjacent to the brick and mortar bathrooms. Soon after, JH launched a series of demonstrations against the downtown location of Olympia Federal Savings after the bank evicted a small encampment on its property. For the following 6 months, JH hosted dozens of camp-ins, sometimes combined with anti-eviction camp defenses, in defiance of Olympia’s public camping ban. During this time JH continued to consistently engage in advocacy and popular education.

                                 Protesters block OlyFed bank entrance

For approximately the last year JH’s strategic orientation has shifted away from direct action and more exclusively to mutual aid and advocacy. Much emphasis has been afforded to encampment support, such as weekly garbage collections and needle exchanges. Numerous meaningful relationships with camp residents have been forged, allowing more homeless people to directly participate in organizing projects. Due to heightened public support and the threat of further direct action, JH has been able, at times, to directly intervene in municipal policy changes. Many alterations to the Tent City Ordinance were permitted upon request from JH, for example. While this more recent advocacy-centric approach from JH has led to tangible improvements for homeless people via policy changes, there is also the clear danger of accommodation that could discourage the very direct action tactics that legitimized JH in the first place.

“STRUGGLE ON THE TERRAIN OF PUBLIC SPACE HAS BEEN PERHAPS THE DEFINITIVE FEATURE OF CLASS CONFLICT AND ANTI-GENTRIFICATION RESISTANCE IN OLYMPIA.”

This short but significant historical dropback lays the foundation for the contradictions and tensions currently flaring. Responses from the City Of Olympia have been inconsistent and internally conflictual. While initially conciliatory, City approaches changed later, as described below. In May, 2018, the Olympia City Council unanimously approved resolutions committing the city to important, though limited reforms, including legal camping options and the implementation of a low-barrier day center. This was followed a couple months later with a unanimous homelessness emergency declaration and a stay on an imminent camp eviction. These relatively progressive council decisions indicated to many that the City was finally on the right track, and attention shifted to the virulently anti-homeless and increasingly combative downtown business class and one of their political front groups, the Olympia Downtown Alliance (ODA).

The Olympia Downtown Alliance engages in “business advocacy” and has been crucial in cohereing the downtown business class’ line on homelessness. The ODA has mobilized for speak-outs at city council meeting and lobbying sessions in an attempt to pressure the city government into halting the development of social services in the downtown core, a strong desire amongst business owners. The most tangible support the ODA has offered business owners was through its Downtown Safety Team initiative. The Downtown Safety Team was a nightly security walking patrol, staffed by Pacific Coast Security and funded through individual contracts from businesses, building owners and property managers participating in the initiative. The nightly patrols trespassed and swept homeless individuals seeking refuge in alcoves and alleyways and was been effective in displacing many in the downtown core. Many of those displaced relocated to the ballooning encampments adaject to Olympia Transit Center.

The Olympia Solidarity Network (OlySol), along with technical assistance and input from CopWatch and other organizations, assumed the initiative in resisting the security patrols. OlySol’s campaign targeted participating businesses, the Olympia Downtown Alliance and Pacific Coast Security itself, with pickets, street theater, poster campaigns, mass copwatch and PCS patrol disruptions, and phone zaps. These were effective in suspending the nightly patrols for 9 days in early October. The resumption of the patrols was accompanied with new security staff, including a regional supervisor. OlySol continued the campaign with more phone zaps and two more disruptions of the nightly patrols. In early December, PCS withdrew from the security scheme, signaling the suspension (and possible end) of the Downtown Safety Team. This victory is an important step forward in efforts to secure safer sleeping options and is testament to the power of collective struggle and direct action.

October 4th Picket at Harlequin Productions (a contract holder with PCS)

More recently, the city government has seemingly committed an about face, taking more repressive and criminalizing measures against the downtown homeless population. Firstly, attempts were made to evict three large downtown encampments. All of these eviction attempts were indefinitely stayed due to the potential legal implications of the Martin V. City of Boise case of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Secondly, the city temporarily intensified enforcement of the No Sit/Lie anti-loitering ordinance leading to a few arrests. Thirdly, this all occurred approximately in tandem with the Artesian Commons closure, noted in detail earlier. Significantly, these decisions were issued by city bureaucrats with minimal or no consultation from elected city council members, generating internal political conflict.

A variety of actions were taken in response. Graffiti proliferated throughout downtown condemning the Artesian Commons closure and banners were draped on the fence erected at the Commons. In early September a small sit-in was staged on the sidewalk in defiance of the No Sit/Lie ordinance. Days following, a larger rally and march to city hall was organized by Just Housing and OlySol, with a subsequent speak-out at the city council meeting and large mutual aid event outside city hall. This demonstration leveled three demands on the City of Olympia: 1.) Re-open the Artesian Commons 2.) Repeal the No Sit/Lie ordinance 3.) Repeal the public camping ban. Finally, on September 22nd, as described in the introduction, the Artesian Commons was temporarily re-opened in a large direct action that was violently repressed by police.

Much of September’s organizing was informed by knowledge of the internal political conflict affecting the city government. It was hoped that protests would exacerbate divisions between city council member and city staff and bureaucrats and compel the council to react favorably through legislation. Unfortunately, this strategy was fruitless; city council made little gestures towards satisfying the demands. The optimism afforded to an advocacy/legislative approach was unfounded and proved ultimately a distraction. A more focused, direct action-informed strategic orientation could have yielded better results.

As autumn progressed the political terrain upon which homeless solidarity movements operate has only grown more complex and unpredictable. The City of Olympia, bounded by the contradiction of maintaining an anti-camping ordinance but also simultaneously subject to the Ninth Circuit Court ruling charging such ordinances unconstitutional, is currently trying to skirt legal scrutiny through the development of “mitigation sites.” Mitigation sites will be relatively controlled and managed camping areas on public property. Many details are lacking as of this writing, with only one site under construction at the parking lot located at Olympia Ave/Franklin St. However, there is widespread concern that the existence of mitigation sites could be used as a basis for displacement from non-sanctioned public property sites, though this too could be in violation of the court ruling.

The current state of effectively decriminalized camping on city property has only contributed to the furious anti-homeless class hatred of the downtown business class.  Some of this fury is now being directed towards the city government. A crew of business owners are contemplating suing the city government for “damages” caused by the City’s response to homelessness, namely over the enforcement of the camping ban. At a recent meeting of these downtown business owners, a homeless advocate slipped into the meeting and apparently was subsequently confronted and physically assaulted by a couple of business owners. While these growing cleavages between the downtown business class and the city government present opportunities for social gains, the increasing vulnerability afforded to both players could also entail adverse consequences, from heightened police repression to vigilante harassment or violence.

On a concluding note, mutual aid efforts have strengthened. The Olympia Community Medics, which was formed through a seasonal popular assembly hosted by Olympia Assembly, organizes routine provisioning of medical and hygiene supplies to homeless individuals and seeks to coordinate a network of first-aid trained downtown workers and residents who can respond to drug overdoses or other emergencies without police interference. A collaborative effort has been forged by OlySol, Olympia Community Medics, Just Housing, Olympia Assembly and Olympia IWW for the recurring Mutual Aid Mondays. Every Monday for the past 2 months, food, clothing, hygiene and medical supplies have been distributed, primarily at the largest downtown encampment on State Ave. and Franklin St., but also at other downtown locations. This increased mutual aid activity complements the much older and very consistent work of Olympia Food Not Bombs, Emma Goldman Youth and Homeless Outreach Project (EGYHOP), and Just Housing’s Rolling Refuse Removal garbage collection initiative.

Moving Forward: Consistency and Organization in Direct Action and Mutual Aid

Direct action tactics have frequently been deployed in in the recent upsurge of Olympia homeless solidarity organizing. However, this deployment has occurred outside of a coherent strategic framework, often lacking consistency, organization and focused escalation. While the dramatic protest to re-open the Commons was an important display of popular discontent and should not be discounted, the informal and inconsistent nature of organizing around the park is likely partly to blame for a lack of follow through. On the other hand, Olympia Solidarity Network, with its organizational commitment to consistent action and strategic escalation, and maintenance of a strong mobilization infrastructure, was effective in suspending the anti-homeless security scheme mentioned earlier. Either way, as it is clear that Olympia politicians and bureaucrats continue to drag their feet on important policy questions and the downtown business class grows more steadfast in its anti-homeless bigotry, a primacy must be placed on direct action moving forward.

Mutual aid too must maintain its centrality to our strategic orientation. Mutual aid projects can meet material needs, expose the inabilities of the market and the state to mitigate inequalities and strengthen personal and political relationships across a range of differences. As social services are gutted, homeless and other marginalized populations are increasingly vulnerable and susceptible to the pressures of displacement. By filling a resource void left by the state, mutual aid projects can become a form of direct resistance to displacement.

Mutual Aid Mondays, EGYHOP, Olympia Food Not Bombs and Rolling Refuse Removal are all highly consistent and decently organized. Increased efforts should be devoted to further politicizing these projects, seeking to transform them into sites of direct political organizing as well as sites of grassroots service provision. This could assume a range of forms, from heightened attempts at information-sharing and literature distribution (Food Not Bombs already does this) to hosting skill shares or small meetings and assemblies at provision locations.

  1. For the Simmons quote: https://www.kiro7.com/news/local/threats-and-violence-force-city-to-close-artesian-commons-park-in-olympia/819970711

  2. Info on Artesian Commons protest: https://itsgoingdown.org/the-struggle-for-the-artesian-well-in-olympia-wa/

https://pugetsoundanarchists.org/olympia-autonomous-crowd-reopens-the-artesian-commons-police-respond-with-force/

  1. For more on the political economy of gentrification the following texts are recommended: Short Circuit: An Anarchist Approach to Gentrification, The New Urban Frontier by Neil Smith and In Defense of Housing by David Madden and Peter Marcuse.

  2. For more on the politics of public space check out: The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space by Don Mitchell.

  3. On the OlySol campaign: https://olyassembly.org/2018/12/05/pacific-coast-security-withdraws-from-anti-homeless-security-scheme/

https://itsgoingdown.org/olympia-campaign-advances-through-direct-action-mutual-aid/

https://itsgoingdown.org/protest-zap-disrupt-olysol-campaign-expands-against-displacement/

6. On the court ruling and park closure:

https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/homeless/court-criminalizing-homeless-for-sleeping-outdoors-is-cruel/

https://itsgoingdown.org/olympia-anger-grows-as-city-comes-down-on-homeless/

7. On mitigation sites: https://www.king5.com/article/news/local/homeless/olympia-tries-new-approach-to-homelessness/281-613147782

8. Learn more about Olympia mutual aid!

https://olyassembly.org/2018/11/27/mutual-aid-mondays/

https://www.facebook.com/olyfnb/

https://www.knkx.org/post/bike-based-anarchist-public-health-project-s-keeping-people-alive-olympias-streets

Uncategorized

Direct Action Gets Satisfaction: Anti-Homeless Security Patrols Suspended

We are glad to announce that Pacific Coast Security (PCS) has indefinitely terminated its participation in the anti-homeless Downtown Safety Team security initiative. This signals the suspension and hopefully the end of the security initiative. The Downtown Safety Team conducted nightly patrols throughout Olympia’s downtown core between the hours of 8PM-12AM, trespassing and sweeping homeless individuals found resting in alcoves and under awnings. The security scheme was funded through individual contracts with business owners, property managers and building owners, and coordinated and facilitated by the business front group, Olympia Downtown Alliance (ODA). Suspending the patrols is a crucial step in the wider movement to secure safer sleeping options for houseless residents in downtown Olympia.

PCS withdrew from the scheme soon after a protest disruption was staged that shut down the security patrol for the night on December 1st. This was the third time the nightly patrols were shut down through direct action. While yielding the most tangible effects, disruption was only one tactic deployed in a true diversity of tactics throughout this multi-month campaign. Demand delivery actions at contract-holding businesses/building owners, postering campaigns, informational leafleting and pamphletting at ODA-sponsored events, pickets and shutdowns of contract-holding businesses/building owners, street theater and phone zaps were all also utilized. This multifaceted strategy permitted community engagement to assume a range of forms and allowed participants to expend their energies and abilities in appropriate fashion.

While we recognize the immense progress made, we also expect that the Olympia Downtown Alliance and the downtown business class generally will maintain their commitment to vacating our houseless neighbors from the downtown core. We will remain vigilant to such efforts.

We would like to thank the numerous friends, supporters and community members who have collaborated in this campaign. This victory is testament to the power of collective struggle and direct action.

If comrades are reading this from other cities and are dealing with similar issues, get in touch! We would love to communicate and collaborate.

For more information on this campaign and on other recent conflicts regarding homelessness and public space in Olympia:

https://itsgoingdown.org/olympia-campaign-advances-through-direct-action-mutual-aid/

https://itsgoingdown.org/protest-zap-disrupt-olysol-campaign-expands-against-displacement/

https://itsgoingdown.org/campaign-to-end-anti-homeless-security-contracts-launched-by-olympia-solidarity-network/

https://itsgoingdown.org/the-struggle-for-the-artesian-well-in-olympia-wa/

 

Uncategorized

Pacific Coast Security Withdraws From Anti-Homeless Security Scheme

We are glad to announce that Pacific Coast Security (PCS) has withdrawn its participation from the anti-homeless Downtown Safety Team security initiative. This is a crucial step in the wider movement to secure safer sleeping options for houseless residents in downtown Olympia. Of course, we expect that the Olympia Downtown Alliance (ODA) will maintain its commitment to vacating our houseless neighbors from the downtown core. We will remain vigilant to such efforts. In the meantime, PCS withdrawal signals the suspension (and hopefully the end) of the Downtown Safety Team – a victory we couldn’t have won without the power of collective struggle and direct action.

Uncategorized

Responses to Frequently Asked Questions about OlySol’s Safe Sleep Campaign

 

 

“This drives people away from my downtown business!”

 

People who are homeless are not innately more dangerous or threatening than people who are housed. They simply don’t have a house to live in. When we begin to place blame on a specific demographic for any issue, including drops in sales, it is our obligation as community members to stop and think about whether we are enabling unfair prejudices about people who look a certain way. And if the problem is with an individual’s behavior, that should be addressed individually – we all deserve to be judged by our own actions and not by others’. Now, we know it can be uncomfortable for some folks to see people struggling with mental illness and drug addiction downtown, however until our system provides adequate help to those who need it (and it is woefully inadequate in those departments particularly), we don’t deserve to have the consequences of our failure swept under the rug. People have a tendency to not want to address problems until they’re right in front of our faces – displacing folks suffering from systemic issues within our society is just another way of kicking the can down the road. If we’re going to have a vibrant downtown, let’s build it on a foundation of justice and compassion and not at the expense of others.

 

Lets face the  facts: we are a poorer community now than we have been before. Wages are stagnant, not just here but all over the nation. Costs of living have skyrocketed, rents are at an all-time high, and the combined forces of online shopping and real estate speculation have sent a lot of dollars out of our community and into the bank accounts of large corporations. Faced with paychecks stretched thinner and thinner, spending habits have naturally changed. When you go downtown and see unhoused folks all over the streets, you are seeing what it looks like when a community is poor. It may feel uncomfortable to acknowledge that we are the ones that are struggling and not some outsiders looking for a handout, but it’s true. We are a community where many are now fighting to survive – and when we push houseless people out of downtown we’re simply keeping up appearances. These problems are systemic, and that means we will need the will and resolve to make big, fundamental changes to address them. If our current system creates suffering and poverty, we do not deserve the luxury of ignoring it, of pushing those it affects into the woods and the greenbelts – out of sight and out of mind. We will only have the resolve to change our system if we are forced to confront its consequences head-on.

 

We would also like to point out that lots of businesses are opening up downtown or have opened up recently. New construction is happening too. So there’s quite a few placing bets on being able to make money here. Not all downtown businesses deserve to survive, if they can’t show flexibility and follow the spending habits of those who live here, and the crowds of people moving in. And certainly they don’t deserve to literally change the demographics of who lives downtown to prop up old business models that worked 5, 10, or 20 years ago.

 

Ultimately, a crucial ethical question must be asked: Does the profitability of downtown businesses assume precedence over human survival? For individuals living on the streets, access to alcove space can be fundamental to protection from the elements. As temperatures drop and weather worsens it can become a literal question of life or death. Several folks die each year from exposure. If someone you cared about died in such a preventable way  would you be motivated to change things? Will we accept, like mass gun violence, that this is the new normal?

 

“What are business owners supposed to do when they are finding feces and needles outside their business every day?”

 

Instead of private security, what if we put our money into clean, safe 24/7 public restrooms in multiple places downtown and more downtown cleanup crews? More venues for needle exchange and disposal, and decriminalizing drug usage so that people aren’t forced to quickly dispose of rigs would also help with these issues and lessen the burden on individual business owners to keep their alcoves clean. Some business owners also choose to let individual houseless people who they have developed a personal relationship with sleep in their alcove, people who they know will be good stewards of the space. We strongly encourage getting to know your neighbors, housed and unhoused. There are groups in our community that are willing and able to help facilitate some of this relationship building.

 

“Why don’t you house them yourselves?”

 

Not everyone has the option to do that due to being a renter – and the majority of Olympia residents are renters. Some of us (OlySol)  have indeed provided housing to homeless individuals in our own homes. Usually this starts from forming personal relationships with folks on the street. For some business owners, a good middle ground has been to get to know some of their unhoused neighbors and to allow those folks who they think will be good stewards of the space to sleep there when the business is closed. If you work or live downtown, it’s important to get to know your neighbors – housed or unhoused. We hope that business owners downtown engage in this way and already have unhoused friends in mind that they may want to help out. And if you don’t have any, we would gently ask: Why? If houseless folks are a significant percentage of the human beings you see every day, we would challenge you to think about what may be getting in the way of developing personal relationships with some of them. If you’re already there, thank you.

 

But housing is also systemic problem, which requires more than just letting people camp in our backyards or sleep on our couches. Dealing with homelessness is a complex task which involves increasing the supply of affordable housing, public and cooperative housing, providing free/low-cost healthcare, sexual violence/abuse prevention, drug treatment, and many other things that individuals cannot provide on their own. This is why in addition to our personal relationships with members of the houseless community, OlySol members also work with numerous other local organizations that address homelessness using tactics ranging from political advocacy, to overnight shelters, to cooking community meals.

 

At the heart of this seems to be the thought – “Do what you want with your property, I’ll do what I want with mine.” This argument rings hollow to us because many of those very same private property advocates are also the ones who advocated for the 2008 ordinance in Olympia, which banned private property owners from hosting homeless encampments on their land. The original ordinance only allowed 2 camps total – 1 hosted by the county and 1 by a faith-based organization. Very recently our city council amended the ordinance to allow any number of camps, but private individuals still can’t host them – only the city, churches, and 501c3 nonprofits. If a kind-hearted person in your neighborhood wanted to host a homeless camp on their land, would you support it? Surely they have the same rights over their land as businesses do over their alcoves. Many people opposed to someone allowing another to camp on their property  might claim that it doesn’t just affect the property owner but also the people who live nearby – and so they should have a say in whether it happens. To this point, we would like to acknowledge that kicking people out of alcoves seriously also significantly affects those who live nearby- particularly those who are unhoused and live downtown, So, shouldn’t others also have a say in whether that happens? Fair play.

 

“Why do they have to sleep downtown in the sidewalk/doorways? Why not go to a shelter?”

 

For hundreds of homeless residents of Olympia and Thurston County, sleeping outside isn’t a choice. Shelter space is woefully inadequate. Last year’s Point-in-Time Count, counted 835 people experiencing homlessness in Thurston County (with the brunt of people either living in Olympia or neighboring cities like Lacey and Tumwater). The general rule of thumb is that, due to the limitations of PIT Counts, they tend to undercount actual numbers anywhere between 40-50%. Keeping this in mind, we know that the actual number of people experiencing homelessness in Thurston County is likely closer to 1600. Meanwhile, there are only about 200 shelter beds available during the warm season and about 250-300 beds in the colder months, depending on the availability of emergency shelter beds.

 

Furthermore, depending on the demographic people belong to, there are even more limited options for shelter. For instance, There is only one shelter for families with children, one shelter for youth, 1 shelter where couples without children can stay together, 1 shelter that allows for pets, and only 1 adult shelter that is not facilitated by a faith based organization (this is important to note as many people surviving outdoors have had negative and/or traumatic experiences with faith based groups).

 

There are also many people who are unable to stay in shelters due to the stress, emotional, and mental health triggers that are overwhelmingly present in shelter environments.  When one stays in a shelter, they are almost always sharing a small space with a significant number of people. This can look like sharing a single space/large room with anywhere from 20-60 other individuals, depending upon the shelter. Keeping in mind that typically all of the people are dealing with significant life crisis and often medical, mental health, and substance use related challenges- these environments can be incredibly difficult for people to function in healthily. For some people, particularly those who have experienced trauma in their lives, this type of living situation is just not doable.  

 

Some people also choose to avoid shelters is related to the easy spread of sickness, bed bugs, lice, and skin infections- like MERSA. Others, particularly those with work schedules, cannot abide by curfew requirements. For example, most shelters close their doors between 7-9PM, so people who work evening shifts cannot make it to shelters by the time they close.

 

When it comes down to it, even though surviving outside is far from easy, healthy, safe, or un-traumatic- for some people it is a more suitable alternative to living in a shelter. However, even with this, for most people it isn’t about a choice- it’s about the simple math and the simple fact that we have nowhere close to enough shelter beds to meet the need.

 

“Why are you threatening these small business owners?”

 

We feel that the people being threatened are the houseless people who are being driven away from the only safe sleeping locations that they have by private security hired by wealthy business owners. We are not threatening, we are promising that if these violent and selfish actions against houseless individuals do not stop, we will continue to take action.

 

We would disagree that we are threatening anyone. Certainly, we’ve given no indication that we intend to do anything violent or illegal. We consider their actions unjust. Movements that many of the older generations among us are proud to say they participated in, like those for civil rights and equality for LGBTQ+ people, were not just about having debates on Facebook. They also took action, similar to many of the actions we have taken (picketing, flyering, non-violent direct action).  And when they meant to take action, they didn’t send out schedules of marches, sit-ins, and demonstrations, to let people know what would happen if they didn’t change their ways. Characterizing the demands of all protest movements as “threats” is a dangerous escalation of rhetoric that we hope to discourage.

 

This campaign is counter-productive. Sleeping in alcoves and on sidewalks isn’t a solution to homelessness in our community.”

 

We view permitting people to sleep in alcoves and on sidewalks as a necessary but insufficient harm reduction measure. Access to more space, particularly space that is relatively shielded from rain exposure, can help mitigate the most harmful health consequences associated with homeless living conditions. As winter conditions intensify, freeing up more sleeping space becomes ever more urgent and a literal question of life or death for many on the streets.

 

It’s true that merely securing our demand for increased safe sleep options won’t solve the crisis of homelessness in Olympia. Nor would similar campaigns in other cities solve homelessness in those communities. Homelessness and housing instability (which effects large swaths of American society) are inherent to capitalism. Capitalism treats housing as any other commodity: a product to be bought and sold on the market for a profit, blind to human need. Ending homelessness and the housing crisis entails a multi-pronged approach to removing profit interests from the housing system and eventually guaranteeing housing as a human right to all those who want shelter. This approach can include advocating for affordable and public housing initiatives, community land trusts, rent-stabilization and eviction protection laws and increased shelter, mental health and substance abuse services.  It must also include grassroots organizing among tenants, struggling homeowners and homeless people to directly confront the greed of landlords, banks and governments to ensure stable housing conditions (something OlySol has done in the past). OlySol members, inside and outside OlySol, in Olympia and in other cities, have contributed to an array of housing justice movements that seek to halt displacement and eliminate the very roots of homelessness. These include efforts to fight foreclosures, pass ballot initiatives to increase affordable housing options and force landlords to make necessary repairs.

 

Ending homelessness will always necessarily involve more short-term harm reduction organizing coinciding with more systemic interventions in the housing system. Thus, while this campaign doesn’t ultimately offer a solution to homelessness, it is still a productive and worthwhile undertaking.

 

“Why not pick up trash and feces yourselves? Why not engage in more constructive work?”

 

Many OlySol members are involved in a number of community-based initiatives to deal with the public sanitation crisis homelessness often entails. This includes work around garbage collection, needle exchange and the distribution of sanitary supplies. Members have also organized in other organizational capacities for increased public sanitation services, namely 24/7 public bathroom access throughout downtown.

 

Moreover, OlySol is an official collaborator of the Mutual Aid Mondays project, a food, clothing, medical and hygiene supply provisioning event that occurs every Monday evening at the camps adjacent to the transit center. While much of OlySol’s work is direct action-oriented, we also believe mutual aid must be central to our strategy. Mutual aid is crucial when the state and market fails to meet basic human needs and can be an important way to forge new personal and political relationships.