Cultural Autonomy vs. Cultural Suppression

In Berkeley, they say that it is better to refer to the homeless as “houseless” because it describes living on the street without derogatory connotations. It implies one has residency in the town, a home in oneself, and if lucky, a tent in one of the encampments. One has belongings, and neighbors in an encampment community, providing a sense of self-respect and friendship in a hostile society.

But in Berkeley, they act to reduce the houseless to being homeless. How do they do that? By attempting to destroy a person’s identity by dispossession, and by leaving them without past connections – that is, without connections to who they had been. And that is easy to do. The town hires a bunch of bureaucrats who then tell Public Works to bring some bulldozers down to an encampment, and they trash its inhabitant’s belongings. Never mind that the encampment provided solidarity, safety, and security — all those things that a person depends on socially, and for which they should have been able to depend on the city. Never mind that it offers company and comfort as a community, while providing assistance with physical and mental troubles – such as from harassment by the city. When the bureaucrats decide to take all that away, the encampment members will have no say, and no due process in the matter. At the city’s hands, they are rendered homeless.

It doesn’t matter that warnings are issued, or notices of imminent police raids. It doesn’t matter that the city provides a motel room after the raid to get one off the street. Those motel rooms are temporary. Each person gets 90 days in one, and then they are back out on the street. A level of psychological destruction always accompanies that bulldozing and its hypocrisy.

Thus, the city doubles the victimization. The homeless are victims of objective economic circumstances, factors with ugly names like “debt,” and “inflation,” and “unemployment,” and “impoverishment.” They are ugly because they name forms of servitude, of un-freedom and misery; events that occur generally with some form of bigotry. To see the ultimate effects of bigotry, look at the prison system. It is the largest in the world – with 5% of the world’s population, the US houses 25% of the world’s prisoners. And a black person has a nine times better chance of being imprisoned for the same offense (generally “disobeying an officer”) than a white person. Yet the city of Berkeley adds to all that; forgetting that those caught in debt servitude, and those reduced to homelessness by inflation, are also real prisoners who fit the mold.

When the city decides to destroy a community, that community’s members face a form of political derogation. Their Constitutional rights — namely due process as guaranteed by the 5th and the 14th Amendments, and their right to sleep on public land according to the Boise decision — are displaced and ignored. The Boise Decision held that a city could not ban and thus criminalize sleeping on public land without offering shelter. And due process requires a hearing before depriving a person of their property or liberty. To be deprived of one’s rights is to be deprived of one’s “liberty.” One is dictated to by a political structure. In this case, one’s life is dictated by so-called experts who sit and discuss homeless-response strategies. They form panels on which the homeless have neither voice nor participation.

When a Harrison St. tent-dweller pleaded with the bureaucrat in charge of a raid to leave his possessions, including his meds, and his phone, and his computer, and his clothes, he was denied. It all ended up in a dump-truck. In that raid, those being torn apart socially were told to move to the other side of the street, where the city would give them other tents. A different tent?? The city had to destroy the community in order to give them something? If the city charged the encampment with uncleanliness, it could have more easily provided washing services and showers. But the policy it chose was destruction of community.

An anti-democratic process occurs when a political structure makes policy for people without their participation. People are deprived of their rights by being excluded from deciding their own destiny. To be so deprived is to be politically disparaged. (But then, who among us actually participates in their own respective destinies.)

When people lose the things they have collected, whether as mementoes, or souvenirs of the lives they have lived, or where they have come from, they are deprived of more than their memories. When the city comes to clear out an encampment, it is the ability to form community with others of their choosing, and to decide who to make common agreements with as to how to regulate their encampment, that is destroyed. Their choices of who to live with in community are prohibited, not by law, but by action. When they lose that, as homeless, they lose more than their past. They lose their right of health, to well-being, and to “housing.” These are all wrapped up in their need for a communal sense of being with others. The city will call its raids “cleaning up,” but it is a process of real destruction of people’s identity. When the encampments on Adeline St. (January, 2023) or on Harrison St. (October, 2022) were raided, all those social aspects of life were thrown in the waiting garbage trucks.

So who are these bureaucrats? Recently, the city has formed a “Homeless Response Team,” which includes a “panel of experts.” None of these experts are homeless people. They are experts from above, persons with prior experience in “controlling” the homeless. They are people who have “studied” the question, and think they can speak for those who are the “problem.” To “speak for” someone is oppression, not democracy, when one also refuses to listen. It stands opposed to the very idea of democracy. Real democracy is based on the idea that those who will be affected by a policy must be the ones who make the policy that will affect them. The many forms of exclusion from policy-making that one finds in most cities simply obviate that.

Instead, the bureaucrats believe in a “pseudo-democracy” that is limited to a vote for what others have done. As officials, they have a seat at a policy-making table, from which what the people to be affected by their policy are excluded. Berkeley does not know how, nor does it have the will or intention, to really discuss issues with the people involved, to politically include those who will live the destiny discussed. The city protects itself from that kind of thing through granting “input.” In “public comment” periods, one gets to speak for a minute (e.g. to City Council), but only before they discuss an issue, not afterwards. In other words, without any possibility of dialogue. And one can write letters.

But with respect to the homeless, the city has designed a “team.” It is called the Homeless Response Team, and it works under the wing of the City Manager. Its role is to criminally dispossess the homeless, to abrogate their rights, and to subject them to the torment of identity deprivation. That is to say, it deals with the problem in a traumatic way. The creation of trauma is its “response” to real people.

How shall we refer to this “team.” It lists itself as an Assistant to the City Manager. Its initials are HRT. If we flesh that out a bit, it becomes HoReTe. So we shall call it Horete (perhaps pronounced like “whorette”). And it loves its work. It has been recorded as dancing on the roof of an RV prior to that being towed, and kicking the owner’s belongings onto the street from that roof so that Public Works can throw it in a waiting garbage truck and destroy it.

Preparatory to a raid, it gives an encampment only a few days’ notice. The encampment’s members are told what they can save, what they can take with them, and what they can become as a result of the city’s destruction. The encampment on Adeline St., a regulated intentional community of 7 years duration, was only given three days’ notice. It is a purely derogatory process, denying who and what that community had tried to be under their hardship conditions. (Its first name had been “First They Came for the Homeless.”)

In effect, the homeless are tortured to “convince” them to abandon their ability to live. They are tormented to forget their past, that period of their lives marked only by the few things they possess as mementoes. But they lose more than the materials of remembrance. They lose actual necessities, such as meds, and phones by which to maintain relations to others. To throw away a person’s notebooks is to already stomp on the testimony of those subjected to tyrannical behavior.

These are all things of resistance against the social, economic, and political forces of disparagement. All have been trashed once the Horete decides to call it garbage. To truncate the identity of people is clearly what the Horete loves to do.

No wonder we think of bureaucrats as mindless people who animate forms of AI. We see it in how they treat the people for whom they are the “institutional interface,” and how they make an experiential exercise out of it. They make it harder to read the accounts of how it feels to be tortured from houselessness into homelessness by a bureaucracy. The removal of the writings of the victims of this process is only another way of silencing them. A few are journalists, like Yésica Prado, from whom we get a sense of this identitylessness, and what it means. In hers and other’s writings, we get a sense of the shock and trauma involved in watching machinery tear what one had held as sacred into shreds. []

And for what? The Horete says to its victims, you will get a room in a motel that the city has leased while we look for real housing for you. But that is only a euphemism for the destruction of community. Nothing ever barred the city from looking for housing in the past. It has had years to do that. But the 90 day stint in a motel room actually implies that the person deprived of community must now do the looking for new housing. And, having replaced a community with a solitary existence, this Horete does not give a hoot about the isolation imposed, nor whether the person will be able to find any housing.

But the Horete gets paid a goodly salary for atomizing the people and throwing them into motel rooms. Like Blackwater or Vanguard; the corporations that make money turning empty houses into corporate assets, and get rich on the real estate inflation that they cause, the Horete’s imposed impoverishment is the real source of its salaries – the collateral damage of its money.

But collateral damage is not enough for the bureaucrats. At the Adeline St. encampment, the Horete took pictures of what it called Rodent-signs, and blamed it on the residents. When the residents responded that they had cleaned up the area and that the rats were brought back by “outsiders” (sent in by the city police?) to disrupt the encampment, the Horete refused to listen. The stories the residents tell cover the gamut of police set-ups. They are about people sent in to start fights, create chaos, and leave loose food around in open waste buckets that cause a rodent problem. The Horete, like any other cop, does not care what any of the people say in opposition to its charges. Though the city has had the resources to make the life of a homeless encampment livable, it has chosen to destroy these structures of autonomy.

And it doesn’t end there. The trash-job continues. As reported by one woman living in the motel, when she goes out, she sometimes comes back and finds her room had been entered, checked out, and that things had been taken that apparently the city decided she should not have had. So along with deprivation of identity, there is a loss of privacy.

We need not mention that the bureaucrat salaries are moneys that could have been used to provide better services for the encampments, such as trash removal, medical attention, dental care, porto-potties, electricity and clean water; you know, stuff that the “official” residents take for granted in a city in the world’s richest country. The city, with resources, takes a person’s personal resources away, and then tells them to find what the city has been unable to find for them for years. After the actions that derogate, that disparage, that deprive people of their chosen community and their identity-under-duress, the inverted ethics of the city become clear.

It is a criminal and hegemonic ethics, based on the hopelessness of impoverishment that the city confirms and exacerbates by dispossession. The 90 days given a person signifies the envisioned end of the process for the city (its “final solution”?). And where was the city all the years that these homeless people have been living on the streets? The city thinks that 90 days will suddenly produce housing for them? It has all the resources to rectify the homeless situation, and it refuses. Yet, all of a sudden it finds a rat problem where none had been, and uses that to bulldoze the sites of homeless culture and security. It is a real bait and switch job.

The Horete, with its “response team” logo flashing, has no response. But what it does signify is that the city, and the City Manager, have finally found a loopholes in the Boise Decision. The city had fallen all over itself looking for one. It had created harassments, regulations, limits to the amount of sidewalk space a person could use, what they had to take with them when they went anywhere (like to the bathroom). It gave the police the ability to cite (give tickets). And it hired the Horete. Now, it provides its next stage of answer, to threaten people with illness or death from exposure to the elements, and to the social hostility that the city represents. And through isolation, it puts the onus on the homeless person, that the failure is really theirs.

Make no mistake, none of this is not intentional. The Horete and its “panel of experts” have studied this problem of the homeless, the strength they acquire from their collective autonomy, their ability to work together, and take care of each other. It was to disrupt that that it sends druggies in to the encampments, to start fights, to create a rat problem, to make racist statements so that neighborhood people would turn away from them. The cops had done that before. It is a familiar tactic. When “First They Came for the Homeless” were being driven from pillar to post, and they got a temporary surcease from police harassment by joining up with the “Save the Post Office” movement, the cops sent some tweakers to camp nearby to give the cops an excuse to raid.

A replay of that was enacted with respect to an Adeline St. encampment member. The Horete told him he could stay in the motel. But when the man said no, all his property was thrown out. His reason? The city had moved one of the disrupters to that same motel. The man feared for his safety. Rather than listen to the homeless person, who did not want to be in the area of someone who started fights, and created chaos, the Horete sought to punish him.

Now we can see what the city and its Horete are buying by giving people a new tent, or 90 days in a motel. It is their submission to police rule; “either you do as we say, or we will try to harm you.” It is called “social control.” To its disgrace, the city council has adopted this position, as the loophole it sought in the once-upon-a-time constitutional right to sleep.

The city is committing a crime in destroying the communities that the homeless build for themselves, as their main way of surviving living on the street. This Horete is committing and committed to the destruction of that culture. And unfortunately, we are all much too familiar with the word that sums that up.

Steve Martinot is Instructor Emeritus at the Center for Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance, Forms in the Abyss: a Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (both Temple) and The Machinery of Whiteness. He is also the editor of two previous books, and translator of Racism by Albert Memmi. He has written extensively on the structures of racism and white supremacy in the United States, as well as on corporate culture and economics, and leads seminars on these subjects in the Bay Area.