Sleepless on Skid Row

The measure of personal freedom in society, to a great extent, can be demonstrated by its treatment of the least privileged citizens.

Recent events in Los Angeles provide an instructive case in recognizing power, and a stark illustration of where we continue to head as a society, not a trivial matter, if we demand to live in a just societyfor everyone.

Meet Robert Lee Purrie: Sleep Criminal, Guilty of Being Homeless!

Robert Lee Purrie has lived on Skid Row, long a decrepit and neglected area of downtown Los Angeles, and “home to the largest contingent of homeless people in the western United States,” including Robert for the last “four decades,” where he “sleeps on the streets because he cannot afford a room in [a single room occupancy] hotel and is often unable to find an open bed in a shelter.”

According to a September 19, 2006, Los Angeles Times front-page article, entitled, Plan Would End Homeless ‘Tent Cities,’ by Richard Winton, Robert was cited twice by Los Angeles police for the heinous act of sleeping on the sidewalk, before he was arrested by police officers in 2003. The City of Los Angeles, recognizing Skid Row as a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts, enacted an “anti-camping” ordinance criminalizing the act of “sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks.”

For Robert’s act of sidewalk sleep crime, the unquestionably honorable judge in the case, meted out a sentence of, ironically: one night in jail — mercifully suspending the remaining 12 months, then compounded the irony with insult, dutifully imposing a fine of $195 in restitution and attorney’s fees on a man who, lest we forget, can’t afford a single night’s stay in a downtown hotel slum.

Obviously, this jurist has a keen sense of justice and heartfelt compassion. No doubt to ensure that Robert understood the seriousness of his indiscretion, LA’s finest dispensed yet more callousness, discarding the tools of Robert’s criminal enterprise: his blankets, cooking utensils, and tent.

Procedural History: the Federal Court, the U.S. Constitution, ACLU, and Robert Lee Purrie vs. the Good Guys in the State/Private Power Consortium.

Trespass, the crime of entering upon, to sleep or otherwise, another’s private property without permission, having long been established, the police and business elite in Los Angeles, using the anti-camping ordinance, attempted with stark clarity to openly declare sleeping on public sidewalks off limits, leaving the already weary homeless with a literally impossible choice: Remain perpetually awake, upright, and constantly on the move or be harassed, criminalized, incarcerated, monetarily sanctioned, and pilfered of what little personal property they may own.

On behalf of Robert and five other sleep criminals, the American Civil Liberties Union, in their customary subversive effort to uphold the annoying constitutional rights of the voiceless, powerless, and now sleepless, filed suit in a federal appeals court and in April 2006, the Court ruled in favor of the ACLU and the camping confederates, stating that, “the LAPD cannot arrest people for sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks in Skid Row.” Writing for the 2-1 majority, Judge Kim M. Wardlow held that a lack of homeless shelter beds made enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance, prohibiting homeless people from sleeping on the streets, tantamount to a violation of the 8th Amendment clause barring cruel and unusual punishment.

Establishment reaction to the Court’s ruling is instructive. On the hawkish end, LAPD Chief of Police, William Bratton said the case had stymied his department’s effort to “fight against crime” and “clean up skid row.” Predictably, Winton showed impressive journalistic restraint, devoting no analysis to the obvious question of how police are any less able to enforce the law, simply because the homeless would be unchallenged for sleeping on the sidewalk. During sleep, we are led to believe, is when most crime occurs.

A cynic may point out that Bratton is absolutely correct in his assessment, given his perception that sitting or sleeping in public, is by definition, a “crime,” a direct contravention to the Court’s holding, known also from the case forward as the law. Thankfully, Winton leaves nothing to logical deduction as he relents with, “the focus on skid row has also coincided with a boom in residential development downtown with luxury lofts and condos rising on the fringes of the district,” a revealing concession he cleverly positions as a concurrent overlap, borne of happenstance perhaps, thus not within the state/private power association, surely.

We see at once what Bratton’s primary concern in the “fight against crime,” is. He is stymied by his definition of crime, not crime as we understand it, but sleeping, like all people need to do whether they can afford shelter or not. Bratton worriedly proclaims, “if we wait two more years, the area will be gone,” in a suddenly desperate desire to “clean up,” a euphemism in this context for state transgression in blatant violation of individual rights. For Bratton, the law is an obstacle to his institutional charge of faithfully serving the interests of the privileged class.

Across town in City Hall, at the extreme dovish end, in the office of the Mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, where previous pronouncements made to appeal to voters, of “improving skid row by increasing housing and improving homeless services” as a top mayoral priority, have been ineffectual. The Court’s ruling, quoting a “City officials’ own words” that, “the gap between the homeless population needing a shelter bed and the inventory of shelter beds is severely large,” exposes Villaraigosa’s not so “top mayoral priority.” The Court also revealed that while the “homeless population has increased (at annual rate of 10%), the availability of low income housing in Skid Row has shrunk.”

What’s ultimately most revealing is that Villaraigosa’s politically opportunistic utterances, though ringing substantively hollow, were sufficient to trigger the endemic paranoia of the propertied class and with good reason, as we are about to see

The Much Heralded, So-Called “Compromise” Plan.

Though the Court ruled in favor of the ACLU, Robert, and the otherwise voiceless community of homeless people on Skid Row, declaring sleeping to be legal, thus arrest for such to be illegal, effectively preventing the LAPD from enforcing the anti-camping ordinance as Bratton’s frustrations mount, the parties entered into mediation to “settle their differences,” a euphemism in this context meaning private power demands service of their business interests, via “compromise,” another euphemism meaning a superficial veneer, by way of agreement, to minimally satisfy the Court’s ruling, while addressing what really matters.

The ACLU seemingly would have nothing to gain in a compromise, except that the Court’s ruling is only as effective as the compliance to it by police and local officials, who have plenty of discretion at hand and a secure leash around the their collar, bound in subservience to the privileged ones.

After several months of mediation addressing business interests, details of the compromise plan began to surface. “Sources said” the compromise permits the homeless to sleep on the sidewalk, provided they are not “within 10 feet of any business or residential entrance” and only “between the hours 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.” Notably, the plan transparently limits constitutional rights the Court seemingly upheldthat absent sufficient shelter services, enforcement of the anti-camping law is a violation of the 8th Amendment.

The organs of state power, now within reach of eliminating the Court’s ruling, pressed for immediate ratification of the compromise plan. Bratton revealed his impatience, stating, “Wednesday (September 20th) will be very crucial. I hope they (LA City Council) decide to vote in favor of this.” Mayor Villaraigosa’s office was also in heavy favor, while LA City Councilman, Jack Weiss went further, declaring, “If the ACLU and LAPD have reached an agreement, it would be foolish for the council not to follow suit,” warning that additional time to seek successful judicial appeal by the city officials would hamper LAPD’s efforts to “enforce the law on skid row. That would be disastrous.” Like Bratton, Weiss ignores the law, or at least hopes tosince an important aspect of the compromise is to request the Court to set aside the ruling, eliminating it from the law, forbidding its use to decide subsequent cases.

Weiss understands perfectly from what master’s hand he feeds, ominously warning of “disastrous” results, as he perceives the benefit of quick passage. Conveniently left without comment is the resultant suffering of Robert, detriment to the constitution, and violence to the Court’s ruling, matters of little to no concern for an obedient public (private) servant like Weiss.

Though decidedly favoring the private/state consortium by eliminating the Court’s ruling, not to mention Robert’s survival options, the compromise received endorsement from all parties to the controversy, with the exception of the explicitly rigid demands of private power, not to be over-looked.

Enter The Invisible Hand: 3rd Party Interference.

Our system, whether within or without the institutional structure, gives rationality to those with privilege in their endeavor to concentrate wealth without restraint, a lesson we would be well-served to recognize. To eliminate any resistance to their goals, certain rigid but fairly straightforward rules must apply; there can be no moral or legal impediment to acquiring profit through increasing concentration of wealth.

Winton describes the predictable reaction of the propertied class to the compromise, writing “Downtown development business interests were immediately skeptical of the plan. They had hoped the LAPD would be given more sweeping powers.”

The actual reaction is more direct and enlightening. Estela Lopez, the CEO of the Central City East Assn., an organ of big business, decried “such rules (set hours allowing the homeless to sleep on the sidewalk) would set a dangerous precedent and worsen crime and filth in the area,” a claim for which she produces no evidence, not only because none exists, but because she knows Winton will not ask and why would he? Lucky for her, Winton doesn’t concern himself with such trivial issues as evidence. Only after one considers whose interests Lopez is advocating, can her remark warning that any legal recognition of a transients’ constitutional rights, be understood in the proper context, as posing a truly “dangerous precedent.”

Expertly carrying out his expected role of mouthpiece for the propertied class, Winton sees no reason to research, investigate, or challenge Lopez’s old fashioned gambit of fear-mongering, absurd on its face. Instead, he simply fills space in the article with statistics detailing the growing number of homeless on Skid Row, meaningless unless the mere existence of homeless people, is by itself, a cause to take action against them.

Carol Schatz, CEO of the Central City Assn. (CCA), who’s website introduces the commercial cartel as a “business membership organization representing over 450 businesseswhich worksto market and revitalize Downtown L.A. CCA’s strong policy leadershipeconomic development and marketing resources, have proven to be an incredibly powerful team. Building on a strategic vision and solid relationships with key business and government leaders.” Schatz minces no words and gets straight to the point, proclaiming; “Any settlement that leaves people living on the street in filthy conditions and permits chaos from 9 to 6 (a.m.) every night in one critical area of the city is unacceptable.”

Schatz sends a clear message to her lapdogs in state power; Any outcome recognizing the constitutional right to sleep without sanction, is “unacceptable” to the CCA, who employ genuine Orwellian doublespeak on their website, proudly boasting of having “taken the lead on issues from development reform to affordable housing to homelessness,” a most peculiar statement, at least for anyone who appreciates logic or honesty.

So it was that on Wednesday, September 20th, the Los Angeles City Council voted to reject the compromise over the endorsement of its own public figureheads. The council’s vote ensured more suffering for Robert and other poverty stricken, powerless, and sleepless folks who call Skid Row home, but power has spoken, thus acceptance of the compromise is “unacceptable;” unfortunately that doesn’t sufficiently satisfy the appetite of the powerful for wealth. The rules dictate that any outcome must include the transfer of all social risks to the state in order to assure maximum private gain. The hope that “the LAPD would be given more sweeping powers,” in the “fight against crime” to “clean up” Skid Row, must be realized.

The power elite are fully aware that arrests of homeless people for sleeping on the sidewalk adds social cost by further burdening a criminal justice system already at its limits, serves no legitimate crime fighting purpose, misappropriates public safety funds and police resources, and would never be tolerated if the police were targeting anyone other than the least privileged among us. No matterit is demanded by the elitists and faithfully delivered by state power, who just previous to the vote by the LA City Council, were singing the praises of the compromise; a reckless and premature posture considering the declaration of the business elite that the, “CCA is known as the Voice of Business in City Hall,” a disconcerting statement, if even that were the actual limits of their influence, as the subsequent televised performance of Villaraigosa and Bratton, followed by Bratton’s immediate move to “crackdown on campers,” made devastatingly transparent.

Reaching deep into the Orwellian memory hole and recalling Mayor Villaraigosa’s previous pledge on, “improving skid row by increasing housing and improving homeless services” as a top mayoral priority, we see a truly remarkable duplicity, only possible in a culture where Villaraigosa is aware, as we should be, of the pervasive dominance of the private/state power syndicate.

What “Compromise” Plan? LA Media & State Power Co-Star in a Magnificent Display of Mendacity as they Inverse Reality!

At a hastily arranged press conference a few hours after the council’s vote to reject the compromise plan favored and heavily advocated by Mayor Villaraigosa and Chief of Police Bratton, an Oscar worthy production ensued.

First up was Bratton, who just recently said, “I hope they decide to vote in favor of this (compromise),” calling it “crucial.” Obviously suffering from a severe bout of amnesia, Bratton now was squarely of the mindset that the council’s rejection was proper, vowing to diligently “fight crime” and “clean up skid row,” knowing City Attorney, Rocky Delgadillo’s office was tirelessly working to undermine the Court’s ruling in furtherance of business interests, especially in the wake of the council’s vote to reject the very compromise he thought was “crucial” to pass.

Too deeply in awe of the shiny metal trinkets affixed to his uniform, reporters let pass a crucial opportunity to ask Bratton an obvious question; Who does the arrest of sleeping homeless people on the sidewalk protect? The answer is abundantly clearprivate power.

Next came Mayor Villaraigosa, who triumphantly took the podium, confident there would be no critical challenge from an allied media, and there wasn’t, to his two-fold hypocrisy: fraudulent pronouncements to help the homeless while working feverishly to undermine them, as detailed, and backing of the city council’s summary rejection of the one-sided compromise plan he was intimately involved in crafting and advocating.

Instead, Villaraigosa engaged in a cocksure, self-righteous invective about the need to “enforce the law,” declaring that all members of the community need to respect the law or be held accountable, boastfully adding (in paraphrase), “if the chief, I, or anyone else breaks the law, we would be held accountable,” knowing as an attorney, that he and the chief had already broken the law, as Judge Kim R. Wardlow noted in the Court’s unambiguous holding. To no one’s surprise, Villaraigosa’s glaring absurdity went without refute and not likely to be the subject of a response by the oft-described liberals of the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board.

Winton returned on Wednesday, October 4, 2006, with yet another mendacious front-page article titled, LAPD Arrests Skid Row Campers, brilliantly trivializing a rather serious scenario that would have been accurately titled, LAPD Breaks Law, Arrests Sleepers. As a loyal propagandist for those in power, Winton would probably have us believe the additional 3 words would be cost prohibitive.

Winton specializes in the art of distorting information then presenting it in a deceptive manner. Take for example the Court stating; “Recently, it has been reported that local hospitals and law enforcement agencies from nearby suburban areas have been caught ‘dumping’ homeless individuals in Skid Row upon their release,” citing a newspaper article dated Sept. 23, 2005. Now consider the following passage by Winton, nearly a year later in, Plan Would End Homeless ‘Tent Cities,’ on Sept. 19, 2006; “a flurry of legislation in Sacramento aimed at reducing the ‘dumping’ of homeless people downtown and beefing up law enforcement.” Carefully removed are the police and medical personnel culprits of the “dumping,” who’s “beefing up” is made to suggest law enforcement presence as a mitigating rather than, in actuality a documented aggravating factor of Skid Row’s problems. A reader may overlook Winton’s slight of hand or forgive it as a highly coincidental, yet innocent mistake, until one learns who the author of the article cited in the Court’s case, nearly a year earlier was; none other than Winton himself (co-authored by Cara Mia Demassa) and titled, Dumping of Homeless Suspected Downtown.

It’s deplorable, though it makes complete sense as Winton’s focus in the most recent article was to almost exclusively advocate the rationale of both state and private power, curiously excluding community activist voices on behalf of the homeless, ACLU excepted. Instead, Winton relies heavily on privileged elitists like the CEO of the CCEA, Estela Lopez, to make patently absurd denunciations of the homeless, without refute or investigation before publication.

This is the type of systematic agit-propaganda that has become all too common in the liberal free press. It is disconcerting for those interested in honest journalism, not public relations pamphlet’s for powerful interests. Winton deserves congratulation for an impressive effort in cynical manipulation that even Joseph Goebbels would surely be proud of.

A Fairy Tale Ending for the Privileged Class: LAPD Violates the Law as the Public Watches, Witness to an Instructive Lesson in Recognizing Power.

The record is crystal clear; the Court struck down the anti-camping ordinance as unconstitutional, saying “the LAPD cannot arrest people for sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks in Skid Row.” The ACLU, LAPD, and Villaraigosa agree to eliminate the Court’s ruling with a business friendly compromise, which was then summarily rejected by the LA City Council, or CCA who is “known as the Voice of Business in City Hall,” because homeless people sleeping on public property is “unacceptable.” Villaraigosa and Bratton immediately moved to distance themselves from their previous stance in support of the compromise with the invaluable help of local media propagandists like Winton.

Bratton moves at once to serve his propertied masters as “The LAPD on Tuesday (October 3, 2006) escalated its crackdown on skid row’s homeless encampments, for the first time in months arresting transients for sleeping on the streets.” Backed not by law, but a strained legal opinion issued by the LA City Attorney, interpreting the Court’s ruling as applying only to camping at night. Delgadillo’s opinion takes a tenuous leap, undoubtedly based on the Court’s overarching rationale, that as long as the numbers of homeless exceed available shelter beds, enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance is unconstitutional.

It is illuminating that instead of interpretation that seeks to meet or surpass the Court’s requirements for ensuring constitutionality, Delgadillo’s opinion seeks to limit its application. Remarkable, when we consider the Court’s criticism of the anti-camping ordinance as, “one of the most restrictive municipal laws regulating public spaces in the United States.” The Court was careful to craft only a narrow holding in favor of the ACLU, but refuted many common homeless stereotypes, noting that “14% are victims of domestic violence.”

Thus, only a city attorney that’s part of an “incredibly powerful team. Building on a strategic vision and solid relationships with key business and government leaders,” would promote such a labored reading of the Court’s holding.

Delgadillo’s opinion was immediately implemented as Bratton celebrated the difference his additional 50 officers made in class cleansing Skid Row, callously but accurately stating, “This isn’t about arrests. This is about changing behavior. If you control behavior, you can change an area for the better,” an important and illuminating confession we would all be well-served to understand intimately. Arrests are made for criminal behavior, not for natural behavior for which there is no other option, an obvious truth the Court confirmed in stating; “Undisputed evidence in the record establishes that at the time they were cited or arrested, Appellants had no choice other than to be on the streets.” “If you control behavior,” the behavior of having to sleep to survive, which is of no concern to Bratton & Co., you “can change an area for the better.” Indeed, class cleansing “can change an area for the better” especially when, “the focus on skid row has also coincided with a boom in residential development downtown with luxury lofts and condos,” which is why Bratton is busily directing his forces in Skid Row, doing his best imitation of a cross between Slobodan Milosevic and a construction site foreman.

Only in a case like this, where the disparity of power between the homeless and the state/private power cabal is so stark, can a figure like Bratton seem docile, even moderate when compared to a frothing zealot like LA City Councilman, Dennis Zine who said he is, “uncomfortable” with arresting the homeless only during daylight hours and not while they’re sleeping at night, warning it, “sets a terrible precedent. Are we going to say you can commit any type of crime if it’s a certain hour?” Zine would have us believe that little to no distinction exists between having to sleep on the sidewalk and recognized crimes like murder, rape, or robbery.

It’s disturbing to hear an elected councilman not only disregard the Law in the Court’s holding, but also reality, as voiced by homeless city constituent, “Edward Jones, a plaintiff in the original ACLU lawsuit who still lives on Skid Row,” lamenting LAPD’s draconian, class cleansing tactics, saying as the Court did, “I am out here because I can’t afford to live anywhere else.” As Henry Brooks Adams once said; “Practical politics consists of ignoring facts.”

Establishing Priorities and Striving for Greater Justice in Society.

Of course there’s nuance, but this article details one clear case on how power operates in a pure capitalist society, I think.

In a just society, the one we pretend to operate in, outside the shackles of private power, the City Attorney’s office would seek to meet the Court’s requirements fairly by advising Villaraigosa and Bratton (LAPD) to recognize the constitutional right of Robert to sleep without sanction. Villaraigosa would then move immediately to honor his previous pronouncement of giving top priority to “improving skid row by increasing housing and improving homeless services,” by perhaps proposing the unthinkable; Allocation of greater funds from the city budget to marginally renovate one of the many abandoned area where houses as a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, and vocational training center; clearly an act of betrayal towards his masters in “development and business interests.”

When personal freedom is blatantly violated to make way for increasing concentration of wealth, the least privileged among us are typically the first to suffer. Events like those detailed in this article serve as an ominous warning to those who value fairness and justice as well as those who at the least are interested in their own well being and can see beyond the moment.

We cannot expect the least powerful alone to effectively wage a struggle to secure our future and create a just society. It will take members of the privileged class, like me, to participate in the struggle. It is critical to recognize that more is required of us than empathy and honesty. We must also strive to free ourselves from the bondage of indoctrination that most of us suffer, to some degree anyway.

The first step is to tear ourselves away from calculated distractions and trivial pursuits like fashionable consumption. After all, we can think clearly when we really want to, as when our immediate best interests are at stake. The question then becomes, whether we have the courage and humanity to make the personal sacrifices necessary to forge a more just societyfor everyone.

GREGORY AFGHANI is a writer based in Southern California. He can be reached at: gregory.afghani@yahoo.com.

Citations: All quotes are from the two Los Angeles Times articles below, unless otherwise noted, as from the three remaining sources.

A Tuesday, September 19, 2006, Los Angeles Times article entitled, Plan Would End Homeless ‘Tent Cities,’ by Richard Winton.

A Wednesday, October 4,, 2006, Los Angeles Times article entitled, LAPD Arrests Skid Row Campers, by Richard Winton & David Pierson.

Edward Jones vs. City of Los Angeles, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, December 6, 2005.

KCAL, Channel 9 News: Evening Broadcast, Wednesday, September 20, 2006.

Central City Association of Los Angeles website. www.ccala.org/new/cca_home.asp

 

 

 

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