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End the Criminalization of the Homeless!

by PETER BOHMER

On Tuesday evening March 5, 2013, seven of us were arrested for trespassing in the parking lot of the abandoned Washington State Fish and Wildlife Building on Washington Street, near the Farmer’s Market in downtown Olympia. In addition I was arrested on the charge of assault for allegedly assaulting State Trooper Wiley. I did not assault anyone.

The context is as follows. In mid January, 2013, the City Council of Olympia further criminalized homelessness by banning camping on city owned property. This ordinance went into effect in early February. There has been widespread community opposition to this law.  In addition, on March 1st, 2013 the main homeless shelters for men were closed because the evening weather had risen to 38 degrees. There is no shelter for homeless men in Olympia. In response, the Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace (OMJP) began an encampment at the Artesian Well in downtown Olympia where we provided food, a 24 hour bathroom, discussion, music and an enclosed tent with clean mattresses.  6 people slept there Friday night, March 1st; 14 people slept there, March 2nd, and 22 people slept there on Sunday, March 3rd, showing the clear need for shelter and more affordable housing. I attended the encampment every day, fully supported it, attended some meetings there, as a member of OMJP,   although was not a major organizer of the encampment.

We were ordered to vacate several times, principally by Steve Hall, the Olympia City Manager. Based on a Sunday, March 3rd meeting at the Artesian Well, we drafted a letter requesting the city provide a temporary shelter for two weeks that we offered to staff with experienced people while longer run shelter was being worked out. We offered to close our encampment by Wednesday morning, March 6th if this offer was accepted. In a Monday meeting with Gene Hoover, a long time homeless advocate, the city manager, Hall,  totally rejected our offer and said he would use the Olympia police to clear the encampment at 5 P.M. even though the encampment had been clean, peaceful and clearly served a need.

Before 5 P.M., Monday we took down the tent and moved it to the unused parking lot of the Washington State Fish and Wildlife building.  We rented another bathroom. 16 people slept there that Monday night and were served food. On Tuesday, May 5th, we were given an order by the Washing State Police to leave the parking lot by 6 P.M.  Six people who were in or near the tent we had constructed at 6 P.M., were arrested for trespass.

I had finished teaching at 4:30 that afternoon, March 5th.  I then spoke to a few students in my class about the significance of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s death as we were studying Venezuela that week and Hugo Chávez had just died.  I consider Chávez a great leader who did a lot to reduce poverty in Venezuela and who was very misrepresented by the mainstream media. I stopped at home after my teaching and then got to the Homeless Encampment about 6:20 P.M., Tuesday.

Upon entering the parking lot, I was told by Washington State Patrol Officer Wiley, that if you assault me I will take you down and arrest you.  As can be seen from the enclosed YouTube video, I did not move any closer to Officer Wiley, did not touch him and tried to move around and away from him. I also removed my hands from my pocket as he requested.  Wiley grabbed my arms, twisted them behind my back and said I was under arrest. I did not resist at all. The plastic handcuffs were very tight.

Here is YouTube video, see minute six, fifty seconds.   There are also other videos that show my total innocence as well as the statements of many witnesses.

I was then put in a State Patrol Car together with another person who was arrested for trespass and taken to Thurston County Jail around 6:45 P.M.  I was not t booked until 4:30 A.M,   the following day, Wednesday,   nor allowed a phone call until then. With many other prisoners, including the others arrested for trespass, I was held in the holding tank. Bail was set at $1500 on my two charges: 4th degree assault punishable by up to a year and a maximum fine of $5000; and 2nd degree trespass, punishable by up to 90 days and up to a $1000 fine.

After being booked, I then changed into jail clothing and was sent to a dormitory in the Thurston County Jail at about 4:45 A.M., Wednesday, March 6th where I put my mattress on the floor. All the beds were full. We were awakened for breakfast shortly after 5 AM. After eating my breakfast, I was informed that my bail of $1500 had been raised and I was released at about 5:45 A.M. on March 6th.

I went to court on Tuesday, March 12th with the other six defendants, four of whom are homeless, and two who have homes.  All of us pleaded not guilty.  My next court appearance is set for Tuesday April 16th at 1:45 P.M. at Thurston County District Court.

This encampment and my participation in it are part of an ongoing campaign in Olympia to overturn the increasing criminalization of the homeless and for ongoing shelter and housing for all, where all people are treated with dignity. Housing is a human right. We are living in a country where there is mass unemployment of over 20 million, and an obscene inequality of income and wealth. The cause of this is an unjust system built to further the profits of the few at the expense of the many– locally, nationally and globally.  The main public housing program and policy in this country is locking up more people and building more and more prisons.  Sadly, the Olympia, City Manager and City Council are so far part of the problem and not part of the solution.

Enough is enough! Let us unite and act in ways big and small to make sure no one is homeless, that there is quality housing, education and healthcare for all, that we stop criminalizing and incarcerating the immigrant and the poor and particularly young Blacks and Latinos, and where there are livable wage and meaningful jobs for all.  Let us tax the wealthy, cut military and prison spending and use the money to serve human needs.

Let us create an Olympia and a country that puts the needs of those with the least resources first rather than one where the government is a government to serve the corporations and the privileged.

Statement by Peter Bohmer After His Arrest, March 14, 2013.

Peter Bohmer has been an organizer and participant in the struggle for social and economic justice since the 1960s.  In recent years, his political activities have taken him to Venezuela, Cuba, Greece and a number of US cities.  He teaches political economy and has been a faculty member at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. since 1987.

Peter Bohmer is a faculty member in Political Economy at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. He has been an activist since 1967 in movements for fundamental social change.

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