Militant Journalism

Greene County, Missouri, Sheriff’s Office war on the homeless with arson attack

The Sheriff’s Office of Greene County, Missouri, is waging all-out war on the local homeless population. Headed by Sheriff Jim Arnott, the department has routinely engaged in malicious actions. As of Feb. 11, those tactics have escalated to a new level.

As reported by Christie Love, pastor at The Connecting Grounds and a preeminent advocate for the homeless community in Greene County, several deputies from the Greene County Sheriff’s Office carried canisters of gasoline to a local campsite, telling residents that they had two minutes to clear the area, leaving them scrambling to gather what little possessions they had. The residents of the campsite then had to watch in horror and dismay as the deputies doused their homes in gasoline, grabbed any additional items laying loose on the ground and threw those items into the tents before setting them all ablaze. Among the articles lost in the fires were vital government documents, food stamp cards, medication, food, a brand new propane heater and sleeping bags.

All of this took place as temperatures were forecast to drop below 20 F overnight. These residents were then warned by the deputies that the same fate would befall any future campsites they set up. Love talked to four separate individuals who were at that campsite, and all of them reported the exact same sequence of events, including the threat of future arson attacks.

This was apparently the third such incident that Love and Connecting Grounds have been made aware of up to this point. 

Arson is part of a larger attack on the homeless

This is but the latest and most severe tactic displayed by Arnott, a rising figure in right-wing media spheres with appearances on Fox News and Live PD. Arnott is a member and cofounder of a far-right sheriff’s organization known as Protect America Now, which called into question the validity of the 2020 election, supported the Jan. 6 insurrection and engaged in various forms of COVID denialism. Although Arnott denies any connection, Protect America Now is considered by many to be a safer, more mainstream version of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, a group with direct ties to the Oath Keepers and other militia groups.

The sheriff’s office in Greene County has been engaging in sweeps of homeless camps as regular procedure for years, but the tactics and frequency of these sweeps has intensified since the announcement and passage of a new law in Missouri that took effect on Jan. 1, banning camping on state-owned land. While this only applies to state property, Arnott and his department have felt emboldened by a combination of far-right “constitutional sheriff” ideology and this draconian legislature, which seeks to criminalize even further the very existence of homeless people.

On Jan. 12, Arnott’s team carried out a raid on a homeless camp, which led to 11 arrests and trespassing charges. What is significant about this raid, as well as many others in recent months, is the lack of notice given before deputies move in to conduct the sweep. The local Springfield Police Department has a policy of giving 24-hours notice to residents of a campsite before clearing it, as well as contacting local aid organizations to provide residents of these camps with resources and places to shelter in extreme weather. While the police department’s policy is still harsh, Greene County Sheriff’s Office blatantly refuses to follow a similar policy, with Arnott stating, “If you called me and said ‘Somebody’s in my backyard, I told them to leave and they’re not leaving,’ would I say ‘Hey, why don’t you give them 24 hours notice and call me back?’”

Speaking on Jan. 12, Arnott stated on the Sheriff’s Office Facebook page, “Springfield is a great community that provides many resources and shelters to those in need. The Sheriff’s Office is committed to enforcing the laws and connecting those in need with these resources.”

However, Love says that she is not convinced that is happening. “Part of (HB)1606, that language actually reads, that law enforcement should offer them shelter and if they refuse shelter, then they can be arrested. The problem in Springfield is: there is not shelter to offer them… I don’t believe that we’re always offering shelter when the sheriff’s department is involved. When we simply arrest them and that’s the only option they have, it’s absolutely counterintuitive,” she told Liberation News. 

Springfield’s continuing struggle with homelessness and poverty

Springfield continues to rank as Missouri’s poorest major city. Currently, Springfield has a 22.9% poverty rate, compared to Kansas City’s 16.1% and St. Louis’s 21.8% rates. Springfield also has one of, if not the highest, rate of homelessness in the entire state. Depending on which study is used, Springfield has between 500 to 900 individuals living on the street or in a camp, and almost 3,000 people who meet HUD’s definition of homelessness. This places Springfield as having a higher rate of homelessness than St. Louis County. 

As alluded to by Love, there are currently only approximately 140 beds in crisis cold weather shelter, which are staffed almost entirely by volunteers and are only open when nighttime temperatures drop below freezing. The city of Springfield has continued to refuse to open any new daytime shelters, leaving the Veterans Coming Home shelter as the only daytime shelter. Despite this, the city recently found $16 million to purchase the stadium of Springfield’s minor league baseball team to keep the team from moving elsewhere. This is part of a larger pattern of the Springfield City Council which routinely prioritizes “development” (development for business owners, and not the average worker) above all else. 

Springfield is far from unique in these trends, however. It is just one of hundreds of cities across the United States facing extreme rates of homelessness and poverty, which is met with increased policing and incarceration.

Calls for transparency and accountability

“I would love to know if there is body camera footage of these interactions to confirm these actions or dispute the consistent stories and several locations of charred earth around our community,” said Love in a recent Facebook post. “I would love to understand if these ugly actions that set people back in their efforts to find stability and shelter in our community are the new accepted standard practice of our sheriff’s department.” 

The Party for Socialism and Liberation in Springfield issued the following statement on Feb. 21: “PSL Springfield echoes the sentiments of fellow community members and demands that Greene County Sheriff’s Office release any and all body cam footage of the alleged incidents. This is the bare minimum step that the sheriff can take towards accountability and transparency, neither of which Jim Arnott or his deputies have shown to any degree.”

Public actions to call for the release of the footage are currently being planned and will be announced soon. 

Feature photo: The Greene County, Missouri, Sheriff’s Office has escalated its war on the homeless. Liberation photo

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