Friday, 24 December 2010

Why is downtown dead? Homelessness, development, and resistance

The following is reposted from Modesto Anarcho's blog, because it offers a first-hand insight into the hidden class struggle going on in the United States.

In the early 2000's, the place for young people to be was one place: Downtown Modesto. The closed off street of 10th and J was not only a home for City Hall, but also the movie theater, upscale restaurants, coffee shops, and fast food places. For many of the pre and post-high school age kids that gathered in the area however, the reason to be downtown was not to buy anything. They came downtown to hang out, meet new people, and be with friends. While many saw this as a chance to be around other youth, the downtown also was a well lit, relatively safe place that was also used by a fair amount of adults. It was a regular sight to see parents dropping kids off in mini-vans, knowing that they were safer there than at a house party. The kids could have been home in front of television, doing drugs and drinking, but instead they were in an open area filled with hundreds of different youth from different neighborhoods, races, and towns. In only a matter of years, this would all be gone.

Go into the Downtown now, and you'll find a very different scene. Instead of young kids, you instead encounter largely young adults, mostly going to clubs and bars. Police have a much larger presence in the area than they did years before; they have a substation, surveillance cameras are everywhere, and police also block off and barricade the streets around 10th and J Street, stopping traffic. But if you aren't interested or because of your age can't go to a club or a bar, there's really nothing for you to do on a Friday or Saturday night. There are hardly any people other than the ones walking to a club or bar. There are certainly not very many young people, especially high school age, left in the downtown. How did an area of the city that was used by large amounts of young people become so dead? Where once public space served as a place for people to gather, laugh, and talk is now - completely devoid of any public life.  

Not Just a Mob, But a Mob That Doesn't Pay

10th and J Street was a developers dream. It featured a mix of government, retail, shopping, and restaurant property. City workers on the their lunch breaks could buy burritos and get a coffee at Starbucks. Those looking for fine dining could check out the Gallo owned Galleto's restaurant, Dews, wine bars, and a host other upscale eateries. One could take in a film at either the State or Brendan. And, the near by Double Tree Hotel kept the area awash in groups of convention goers, prom attendees, and a host of other possible customers.

A "target" audience
There was just one problem. The open area of the downtown itself and it's central location also created a convergence point for much of the cities youth. Once kids learned that they could come downtown, meet other young people, smooze with potential dates, and learn about after hours parties, 10th and J Street became the place to go on the weekends. Soon, upper middle class restaurant goers were having to rub elbows with grubby punk rockers, hip hop kids in tall tees, and metal heads playing yet another version of 'Enter Sandman' on acoustic guitar. What's worse, is that the majority of these kids didn't pay for anything! They weren't there to buy, they were there to hang out, and in doing so used the bathrooms of most of the businesses, put up stickers and graffiti in the area, and provided a nuisance to the 'business community.'

But who would act as a force of protection from the rabble for the business owners in the downtown? Who else, but the police. Soon, by the mid-2000's, police were doing sweeps of the downtown, ticketing young kids for smoking and 'loitering,' and when they could, 'enforcing' curfew laws. This was an attempt by the City Government to respond and cater to the interests of the business owners in the downtown, and also the associations of developers and business interests that were situated inside local government. For them, the community and atmosphere of fun that had been created around the downtown scene was problematic: these kids were taking up space downtown and simply not buying anything. The police, forever at the beckon call of the city and government interests, were quick to use a slew of "quality of life" measures to try and drive the kids out of the area. They could site them for being out past hours or simply for loitering. With this harassment, they could push back against the kids. The developers dream came with a price; it's desire to bring people out to shop had also brought them out to simply hang out. And while the rich used the police against the youth, the kids still had some cards to play.

If the Kids, Are United...

Kids in the downtown faced a serious challenge. The place that they all used to come together and hang out was being threatened from police harassment. Some young people responded at the time by organizing a Copwatch group, which monitored the police and video tapped them during interactions with people in the downtown. In this way, kids tried to create a buffer zone between themselves and the police. It also gave them another tool against harassment. While this caused the police to back off sometimes, in other situations, police issued tickets and turned on the Copwatchers, trying to drive them out of the area. Other times, police simply attempted to interfere with their recording, stepping in front of cameras.

Downtown Modesto
In one instance, a police officer told a young Copwatcher that, "If they weren't there to buy, they had to leave." The mission of the police and their relationship to the youth downtown was very clear: they were there to make things safe for capital and not people.

Anarchists in the downtown also worked within this tension against the police and helped organize weekend "Anarchist Cafes." These cafes featured live music or a boom box, free food, free literature, newspapers, books to read, films/movies, allowed people to make t-shirts, and in general tried to create a fun and open environment for young people. The cafes, which occurred on Friday and Saturday nights, were often harassed by the police, who attempted to get the young people to pack up their stuff and leave the area. They also attempted to get store owners who the youth were out in front of to complain so they could be kicked out of the downtown. Sadly for the police, this didn't work, and the cafe' space stayed, adding to the push against police evicting and harassing the youth.

The Downtown Explodes

E-40, hyphy music act
But while the crowds of downtown youth presented a problem to the business interests in the area and thus drew the wrath of the police - the bringing together of so many people in the area also represented a possible point where people could explode into larger rebellion. In 2006, police attacked young people coming out of DJ event for high school age students in the downtown as they were looking for a robbery suspect. Police arrested, beat, and tasered several young people, who according to the police, fought back. Video of the event was recorded, but never released to the public. All charges against those arrested were later dropped, and the police did back flips trying to blame the brutality on the fact that the event was a 'hyphy' music concert. Hyphy they argued, was a form of black music from Oakland, which involved outrageous dancing and car sideshows which often ended in fights against the police. Thus, their attack was warranted because of the threat the genre played to the good citizens of Modesto. Of course, this is all laughable, and was just the police's attempt to use racism to justify their attack. However, with the 'Hyphy Riot,' the point had been made, people could fight back against the police in the downtown.

In 2008, people coming out of bars on St. Patrick's Day fought back against the police trying to move them out of the area. Over a 1.500 people fought the police, threw bottles, and chanted "Fuck the Police!" More than 100 police from various agencies had to be called out to the area to quell the riot. Political demonstrations also were a continuing headache for police in the downtown. For instance, in 2005, over 100 protesters against Bush marched when he went into office for a 2nd term, taking the street and shutting down traffic. Police attempted to arrest several marchers and drove the people out of the streets. The amount of people simply in the streets during the weekend made the act of harassing various people problematic for the cops. Whenever they attempted to arrest, harass, or move along a group of people, they feared a possible riot.

The Rich Respond

Another night on the town
The combination of a bunch of youths in the downtown that were more interested in hanging out than buying things and the periodic eruptions of people taking to the streets and fighting the police drove many of the elites in City Government to come up with solutions to the problem. Those within the City’s Citizens Redevelopment Advisory Commission and Board of Zoning Adjustment in their five year plan of Re-Developing the downtown pointed out several measures that have helped to end many of the problems that the police and elites ran into in the early and mid 2000's. First, a police sub-station was placed in the downtown area, which helped in driving away kids from the downtown. Police were even quoted in the Modesto Bee as stating that the goal of the sub-station was to drive many of the youth away from the downtown. And, for now it seems to have worked. Furthermore, the groups representing developers have helped to put in a system of real time surveillance cameras. These cameras help give the police greater control over downtown and also make it harder for groups of people to amass without the police knowing about it. Lastly, the police have developed a system of blocking cars around 10th and J Street which gives them greater control over traffic in the area and the movement of crowds. Again these are all measures laid out in the downtown re-development plan, which you can read here.

All of these efforts have resulted in youth leaving the downtown in droves while the area has become more of a hangout for those going to bars and clubs on the weekend. But in doing so, those that direct and control the police forces which are responsible for killing the downtown youth scene have also made the area once again more comfortable for businesses. The abilities of large crowds to also gather in the downtown unless they area attending a large event such as X-Fest which is highly policed and then rioting or holding a rawkus demonstration - is also nil. In July of 2009, when a fight broke out at the Downtown Fat Cat night club, we can see all of these parts of the puzzle coming together, as police responded to the fight which had spilled into the street in full riot gear, pushing and roughing up many within the crowd. Here the police were quick to show the extent to which they would respond to a small disruption of social order.

Clearing Out the Homeless

Paperboy Park, a public park that Council member Muratore helped close
Those that have drafted plans to remove the downtown of youth also have similar plans for homeless throughout the downtown. For instance, Vice Mayor Brad Hawn who helped write the 5-year downtown development plan is also a part of the Safety and Communities Committee, which helped push for the closing down of Paperboy Park. The Committee also includes Joe Muratore, the City Council rep for District 4, who also was is involved in the La Loma Association, a anti-homeless homeowners association that has pushed various anti-homeless initiatives in the city. The La Loma Association called for harsher criminalization of the homeless, surveillance cameras in public parks, the criminalization of dumpster diving, and many other measures aimed at street people. Muratore, a Harvard grad, is also a businessman with developer ties and many connections in Real Estate. As regular readers of this blog know, those from within the Committee spear headed a push to close the park after business owners complained that homeless people were using the park to much (IE, sleeping in it and resting there). The City then responded by shutting down the park, only allowing the public access to it from 11am - 1pm, or if a person paid a fee. This is Modesto, where business interests direct government and the rest of us pay the price.

Closed to the public
Now, Muratore is starting up a "Blue Ribbon Homeless Commission" in order to 'tackle' the problem of homelessness. The committee, according to the Modesto Bee, will be made up of a "seven-member commission...of representatives from service, business and neighborhood organizations." These of course, are the same people Muratore is already apart of or is a member to! Neighborhood organizations such as the La Loma Association want the homeless gone because they threaten property values and scare upper middle class members of their organization. Business organizations want them gone because the homeless scare away investor capital to the area. 'Service' organizations such as the Gospel Mission or various churches are more interested in 'saving the souls' of homeless than the are of stopping people being on the street. Nor are the churches going to kick up much of a fuss when people start to attack them. And of course, none of these people on the committee will be homeless themselves, nor will any of them have any desire to tackle the problems that cause homelessness in the Central Valley; poverty, foreclosure, unemployment, drug addiction, etc. They will however, have an interest in removing homeless people from the Downtown and continuing to make things safe for business.

Muratore has stated numerous times that his goal is to 'consolidate' homeless services and get them out of public parks, i.e. out of the downtown. To many people this will seem reasonable. Why shouldn't all the services be located in only a couple places? The problem is that Muratore's drive to do so is not caused by a love for the homeless - it's part of a push to develop and gentrify the downtown and remove undesirable elements from it. Such actions will also do nothing to end homelessness, which in the current crisis is only going to be on the rise, (boom, boom, boo-yah) and everything to do with removing the 'problem' from the area via harassment and force. For instance, senior citizen residents living in the high rise near five points have already been complaining about the homeless that hang out in the park outside of their apartments. When did these people arrive on their doorsteps? Around the same time that Paperboy Park was shut down. Muratore doesn't want to help anyone but those within government and the business community. And, in a time when so many of us are literally one pay check or one eviction notice away from homelessness, are we really going to let rich big-wings like Muratore practice 'business as usual?'

Ghost Town?

Capitalism has destroyed
all adventure; the only adventure left
is to destroy capitalism
In the end, the 'bourgiefication' of the downtown ultimately means not only gentrification, but - boredom. It means not having people to talk to other than over something that you paid for, watching a film where you are silent, at a city council meeting where people speak to you or for you, or to another worker who is on the clock. It does not mean meeting people randomly in the street, hearing music being played for the hell of it, picking up underground literature like Modesto Anarcho and meeting the people behind it, or simply kicking back with your friends outside without paying a goddamn dime. 

The reason for all of this; the police, the redevelopment plans, pushing people out or parks...of course is simply to make money. By 'cleaning' the downtown of the elements such as youth, the homeless, etc, neighborhood associations like La Loma can stay prestigious and attract new renters and keep their old ones. Businesses in the downtown will not feel threatened and capital looking to invest will not be scared away. City Governments looking to make money off of property and sales tax can be assured that their coffers will be filled. Police also, looking to 'keep the peace' by keeping the rabble off the grass also can find job security as repression becomes a boom industry. 

The people that lose at first are those that are the targets of repression. The youth kicked out of a place to hang out. Homeless people moved out of park. But moreover, those that lose out are all those who are denied access to the places where we can come together and talk, hang out, and organize from.

It's our city, let's take it back
There are several things to take away from the last decade of life in the downtown. The first is that the police are not neutral. They serve and work for the business and political interests that run this city. Remember the police officer that said, "If you're not here to shop, you have to leave!"? The police know full well who they work for. Second, we can see that the push to attack the homeless, push out youth, and develop and gentrify downtown are not problems of bad policy or 'mean' politicians. They are instead actions of an upper class that seeks our removal so they can make money. Lastly, we can also see that the drive by the ruling forces to stop people from coming together without buying things is not just an economic decision, but also a political one as well. The forces that want us gone because we don't buy things also don't want us coming together in the middle of town, talking, organizing, and resisting together.

Downtown Modesto, 2010. Parks are shut down. Places where people used to come together weekly now are guarded by police substations, road blocks, and surveillance cameras. This isn't just happening in Modesto. In Arcata, the square that once was filled with travelers and music is now almost silent, as police have cracked down on basic code infractions. In Santa Cruz, it's a crime to smoke on Pacific Ave. To many people these actions by the state are seen as simply poor policy, which is why it's important to understand that these laws are the first wave of an effort in developing and gentrifying an area. They don't care about people smoking! They want a reason to harass people and move them along. They want a reason to get in there and clean up the area for their own purposes. For the past 10 years, the rich have waged on ongoing battle against the poor and working people of Modesto in order to make sure that they get their money and we stay in line. Sadly for us, it appears that many of us aren't in the plans for the future other than as workers, consumers, or people that "used to live here."

Will the places where we live be open and full of life? Will we have public space be open to all, where music, food, and passion flow freely and we meet new faces, lovers, and friends? Or, are we going to allow our streets and public spaces where we gather to become simply boring, expensive, and heavily policed? The choice is ours.