On the rainy morning of March 21, dozens of Seattle Police department officers gathered near an encampment to begin a planned “sweep” of a homeless encampment near the Little Saigon neighborhood. A truck loaded with barricades arrived along with a group of cops on bicycles shortly before 8 AM; when moved in, the barricades were as much to keep unauthorized volunteers and protesters out as to preserve traffic safety. The May 21 sweep followed a sweep the previous day in a nearby encampment under Interstate 5. As a resident of the neighborhood, I went to witness what was being done to many of my neighbors; what I saw was shocking and inhumane.
The sweep was announced on May 19 on the city website; the city also claims to have notified residents via flyers and outreach. “Public health and safety concerns” as well as crime were cited, but nevertheless the city has ignored Centers for Disease Control guidelines against clearing encampments during the pandemic.
When I arrived, many officers were not wearing masks, a common complaint heard at the scene. While the city has promised shelter for those cleared out, most of these are congregate shelter beds which are not the individual housing units recommended by guidelines. Some “tiny houses” were also promised, but a resident I spoke to who was promised one said he still hadn’t heard any details at the time of the sweep. He also stated that he had been through several sweeps before and his largest concern was confusion and lack of communication.
One woman, who was at the scene to assist a friend who lived in the encampment, stated that as far as she was aware portable toilets and handwashing stations had not been provided as recommended by the CDC until recently in preparation for the sweep. She was angered to only see them brought in now during the sweep. Broken promises were a defining characteristic of the day. SPD officers repeatedly refused to answer questions from concerned community members who were present. Many were dismayed that there seemed to be little to no social workers not affiliated with the police present and word on the street that some social workers were refused entry.
After many community members and volunteers were refused entry or re-entry behind the barricades, some began to protest with signs like “Move along to where?” and “De-police the Nav. Team.”
The mood was tense; residents shoved what they could into the bags that were provided (additional bags from volunteers were refused by police) as the rain came down and soaked their belongings. The temperature hovered around the high 40s and my fingers began to get too stiff to use from the cold and wet conditions.
Most were expected to carry what they could onto a bus. A member of the “Navigation Team” (comprised at least partly of SPD officers) went tent to tent to inform people that they had 30 minutes to pack up what they could. The city has promised to store “suitable items found” but I and other witnesses weren’t able to verify that this ever happened; mostly, entire tents left were simply broken down and unceremoniously thrown with their contents into the back of a garbage truck compactor. One man stated he was unable to retrieve all of his belongings in time.
Those being cleared out ranged in age from teenagers to the elderly, as well as some dogs. Many had difficulty moving all of their belongings. Police seemed to be in good spirits as I observed one SPD officer mock the encampment’s residents and laugh after telling a man to pull his pants up. By 10:00 AM. the street was largely cleared. During the day, Mayor Jenny Durkan remained silent on the sweep while pushing empty platitudes for a toothless new website initiative.
Community members were rightly outraged at this inhumane practice which further endangered some of the most vulnerable among us. Not even a pandemic is enough to stop the City of Seattle from criminalizing poverty and homelessness. It’s telling that a concern for property was cited as a reason; as long as the capitalist system continues, the ruling class will continue to wage war on homeless people while fighting for business interests. Seattle’s citizens don’t deserve to have their shelter taken away to face an uncertain future while housing units remain vacant. The city has made many promises to justify these sweeps, witnessing one left little confidence in any of these promises. Housing is a human right, but the Seattle Police Department fights only for the rights of the ruling class. Fight for socialism and stop the sweeps!
(For more on the scene coverage watch lawyer and activist Nikkita Oliver’s powerful livestream)