The Sweeps Stop Here?

Photo: David Rovics.

There is something beautiful happening in Laurelhurst Park, on the east side of Portland, Oregon.  In my more optimistic moments, I wonder if this might be the beginning of a real solution to the ever-worsening and extremely dire housing crisis that increasingly characterizes urban — and even suburban — America.

Whether or not that is the case, something important is happening.  There are new developments every day, so just describing what’s been going on feels like taking a picture of a moving train, but it seems like a good moment to give a little report-back.

As I describe what’s been going on, I’ll just note first that I don’t mean to be implying that similar kinds of efforts haven’t been ongoing all over the country for a long time — they have.  And even thriving, intersectional rebellions like Tompkins Square Park in New York City in the 1980’s could be crushed, with enough money spent on riot cop overtime.  But what’s happening at Laurelhurst has an energy about it that has many echoes of Tompkins Square.

As the person who answers the email for Portland Emergency Eviction Response (PEER) — the rapid-response-by-text-mob network me and some other folks have been working to build here — I got a message from a member of a new group called the PDX Houseless Radicals Collective.

PEER began as an effort to mobilize a rapid response to evictions, in instances where people facing life on the sidewalk want to try to physically resist eviction — or foreclosure (eviction by another name).  Building our forces to face the almost inevitable lifting of the eviction moratorium in Oregon is still a major focus.  The main point of this orientation is because we feel that the struggle for actually affordable housing in this country is the most fundamental representation of the deeply stratified state of our society, and will ultimately be the biggest flashpoint in the centuries-old struggle between the haves and the have-nots, otherwise known as the class war which the rich have been waging on the rest of us since we made them rich in the first place.

But there are forms of eviction even more despicable, perhaps, than throwing a family out of their house or apartment — such as throwing people out of their tents.  Criminalizing them for not having a house or apartment to live in.  More than half of all arrests made in the city of Portland are of unhoused people.  The statistic is very similar in many other cities.

So there should be nothing surprising about the possibility that a victorious struggle for universal housing should begin on the streets, where people have very little — if anything — left to lose.  In any case, upon receiving the message from people living in the latest incarnation of the Laurelhurst houseless community — after many previous police raids or threats of police raids by private contractors which are known as “sweeps” — that they intended to stay, and they wanted support, for us there was no question that we were now going to expand our definition of “eviction.”  Though as with evictions from buildings, the same principles of eviction defense apply — the people facing eviction need to want this kind of support.

So, this message from folks in the tents is how we got involved.  I don’t know the exact process for everyone else getting involved.  There are people in networks such as Stop the Sweeps PDX and the PDX Defense Fund who have long been involved in what is often a lonely struggle to be in solidarity with the ever-growing numbers of houseless people among us, as they face constant police harassment, arrest, imprisonment, the theft of their belongings, freezing to death, or being shot in their tents by vigilantes — as seems to have happened to a man named Harold, who was in a tent beside the running track at Cleveland High School, where my eldest daughter goes to school, only a few blocks from the two-bedroom apartment where I live with my wife and three children.  Harold was only one of the over 100 people that have been dying every year lately on the streets of this city.  (In Los Angeles, a much bigger city, the number is ten times that.)

It has been noted by many participants in local marches around Black Lives Matter, and against ICE detention of children, and around protests concerning many different local and national issues, that most of the people involved are on the younger side.  What is less often noted, because it’s harder to tell at first glance, is that many of the people involved are in precarious economic straits, and often living with their parents because they can’t possibly afford to live anywhere else, or, in many, many cases, they are unhoused.

There are many other reasons why such a basic struggle as having a place to live — and one with clean running water, electricity, heat, food, access to health care and public transportation — would attract anyone who cares about racial justice, or who cares about the welfare of immigrants and refugees.  What we saw with the effort to prevent the eviction of the Kinney family from the Red House in north Portland is there is a widespread understanding of the deep connections between racial justice and housing justice.  The end result of that effort, while the participants in it have been broadly vilified as violent anarchists by some politicians and media outlets, is we won, at least a temporary victory, and one that seems to have had ramifications far between Mississippi Avenue.  Now, clearly, the venue for this intersectional gathering of networks who have come together for a common purpose has changed, from Mississippi Avenue to Laurelhurst Park.

With some people living in the million-dollar mansions with faux Greek columns that line many of the streets beside the park, while others sleep just down the road in tents on the sidewalk, or in battered old vehicles of one kind or another, from cars to camper trucks, it would be hard to find a more contrasting view of the state of our so-called society.  (Discovering that some of the million-dollar mansions whose inhabitants regularly report “suspicious activities” to the police have Black Lives Matter signs on their lawns only make the whole situation that much more surreal.)

And then, at the intersection of a street separating the tents and the park from a row of mansions, is another sort of encampment, making use of canopies, folding tables, and a whole lot of other stuff, to do the beautiful work of mutual aid and solidarity.

The current iteration of the Laurelhurst Park encampment and solidarity effort basically began on the last Monday of March, when the citation the city posted on trees along the sidewalk would legally be enforceable.  According to the citation, the city has 10 days to enforce it, before they have to post another citation, at which point they’re legally obligated to wait two days after posting it, before they can begin to try to enforce it.  (This is when the cops are actually following this law, mind you — not necessarily what they might actually do in reality, where they can always come up with a pseudo-legal rationale to do just about anything.)

So every weekday, people who don’t live at the park have been coming early in the morning (especially early by the standards of your average anarchist teenager, who is usually nocturnal).  The city is only supposed to carry out sweeps on weekdays, between 8 am and 4 pm, I believe because those are the operating hours of the subcontractor who is involved with these operations.  When the subcontractors have shown up on a couple of occasions over the past two weeks, they have been followed around by several dozen black-clad youth and a variety of tent-dwellers, and they have departed, without carrying out any tent removals as per their contract.  A couple of uniformed officers walked through the park once, but basically there have been no police visits of any relevance, no riot cops.  Although it should definitely be noted that there have been at least two events involving rightwing men in vehicles shouting and driving aggressively in order to intimidate us.  (Whether they were off-duty or plainclothes cops, or Proud Boys, or all of the above, I don’t know.)

At other tent encampments in the city, it’s been a very different situation.  Sweeps are happening all over Portland.  Without the kind of organizing that’s been going on at Laurelhurst, anyone showing up to try to help in other parts of town have generally faced situations where all they could do was to offer to help evicted tent-dwellers move their stuff to another location.  But at Laurelhurst, the guys in their hazmat suits go away, so far.

And other people come — including some who were just kicked out of other encampments, who heard about what’s going on at Laurelhurst.  What is especially notable, from my conversations with folks, is it is a certain kind of person who chooses to relocate to a place where such a campaign going on, when they might have other options that are a bit less risky, even if there are no safe options for someone living on the street.  It’s a very special kind of person who makes this choice, generally.  Which is not to say that everyone else in the world isn’t special, too, but the atmosphere of resistance to the insane American status quo at this encampment is palpable.

This spirit of resistance is made possible, it seems to me, not only because of the dire circumstances so many people face, but because of the obviously very intersectional nature of the movement around stopping the sweeps and universal housing that has been developing at Laurelhurst.

Some observers who aren’t familiar with the scene might get a different impression of what’s going on.  If you might be one of them — if you see a crowd of mostly young people, mostly dressed in black, who probably look at you with a bit of suspicion if you’re an adult, especially if you’re white and dressed for work in an office, and they make you feel nervous, then please let me introduce you to the people you may be misconstruing here.

Everyone has had the experience of thinking a person they liked was being aloof, when really, they were just shy.  This analogy is imperfect, but it applies almost universally to everything that you might find going on, when you’re hanging around folks involved with a campaign like this one.  But once you get over the fact that these people are not necessarily going to smile and welcome you with open arms just because you want to be involved, but instead they may greet you with very legitimate and understandable skepticism and even suspicion at first, then you may stick around long enough to discover that you are basically surrounded by superheroes.

Not that anyone can fly unassisted or walk through walls, necessarily.  But if you spend time with the people who are cooking food for anyone who wants to eat some, or the others giving away literature and t-shirts, or the folks offering free medical services, or the folks positioned strategically in various locations looking out for cops or chuds, you’ll find the same thing you would have found at the Red House, had you engaged the black-clad youth there in conversation.  You’ll find some of the sharpest minds of a generation, and some of the most compassionate people you’ll ever meet.  You’ll also find a lot of trauma, as many of these nice people have been attacked by cops and chuds on multiple occasions over the past year alone, to say nothing of all the other forms of trauma life can dish out.

Another thing you’ll find, if you’re paying really close attention, is that the more select group of a couple dozen people who may, at any given time, be involved with the network of networks operating at Laurelhurst, is deceptively small.  I don’t want to inflate the potential here at all — on the contrary, we need your participation! — but if you know who some of these cool young black-clad protesters are, whether you know them by a pseudonym or not, you realize that many of them have thousands of followers on Twitter, and are not only extremely intelligent, but very well-connected with like-minded people across the city, the country, and even the world at large.

One indication of this connectedness can be found in the fact that some of the newest residents of the camp at Laurelhurst were recently forcibly evicted by a massive raid of riot cops on the encampment at Echo Park in Los Angeles, one thousand miles south of here.

The citation posted a week before last Monday expired on Friday, April 9th.  When the next citation will be posted is unknown, but two days after it’s posted, the next round at Laurelhurst begins.

For those of you not from Portland, Laurelhurst Park is a massive place with a lake in it, rolling hills dotted with ancient trees, along with the playground and tennis courts, beside which is the mainstay of the houseless encampment.  It’s a great place to visit, if you’re just looking to take a walk, feed the ducks, or whatever.  Come to the park — use the tennis courts, use the playground, show everyone you’re not afraid.  Do more than that even.  Bring tents, canopies, generators, batteries, sleeping bags, food, musical instruments, and all the other things a community needs to thrive.

Oh, and if you’re a fan of my music, Laurelhurst Park is pretty much the only place you’ll have a chance to hear me play the guitar live for the foreseeable future.  Let’s jam at the playground.


David Rovics is a frequently-touring singer/songwriter and political pundit based out of Portland, Oregon.  His website is