A squatters’ organizing flag flies amid the glittering towers of South Lake Union.
Like a ship claimed by pirates, the old Seattle Times building in South Lake Union is flying a guerrilla flag this week.
“Sweeps Make Squats,” reads an orange and black banner on the building, which has been overtaken by squatters. “Fight homelessness. Post photos and addresses of vacant properties.”
Another banner nearby reads: “You Sweep, We Occupy.”
It’s like a squatters’ organizing call. According to an online posting, the banner is the work of a group called “common cents.” The group says it’s pointing out the “absurdity” of the way Seattle treats the homelessness issue.
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“Namely, it is absurd to treat homelessness as a housing problem when there appear to be so many vacant, livable properties in Seattle,” the group writes.
The group is calling on people to post photos and addresses of Seattle’s vacant buildings on the Internet so the homeless and others can go there and occupy them.
“Instead of letting them go to waste, why not reclaim vacant buildings immediately? … Anyone in Seattle who is worried about the city becoming divided into homogeneous sub-units … should feel justified in demanding access to a vacant building.”
It’s unclear whether the call is catching on. Though squatters have been everywhere lately — in the vacant Times building, the old KING 5 TV studios on Dexter and in empty houses in neighborhoods from Ravenna to Ballard.
The call does seem inevitable. As crazy as it may sound, it’s also a predictable next step in how Seattle is dealing, or rather not dealing, with its homelessness crisis. And more broadly, in how America is not dealing with the growing divide between rich and poor.
There’s a pitched policy debate going on at City Hall about whether people should be allowed to camp in city parks and other public places. The city has been haltingly attempting to “sweep,” or clear out, unsanctioned encampments (such as under bridges), while some advocates have argued this is wrong as long as shelter is in short supply.
The ACLU recently said in a letter to a city councilwoman that the city has no right to enforce “no camping” or “no trespassing” laws anywhere that the homeless may be sleeping, such as under freeways and in city parks.
“Posting no camping signs in safe, visible places, such as parks, which the city has done, as well as prohibiting camping in unsafe places, leaves virtually nowhere for people to live,” says the letter, co-signed by Columbia Legal Services.
This stance was echoed in a brief filed last year by the federal Department of Justice that said if there isn’t enough shelter in a city, then it’s unconstitutional to ban camping in public places. The DOJ brief argued that “if a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”
That was about public property. But it’s not a huge leap to then suggest, as the squatter activists are, that vacant private properties might also be fair game. In their online manifesto, the activists quote urban planner Peter Marcuse, who has argued that the one sure way to end homelessness is to break any link between housing and private profit.
I don’t know where this is all headed — hopefully not in mass squatting, but also hopefully not in mass police clashes with the poor.
It’s yet another sign of the divided times. Within two blocks of the plywood-shuttered old Times building and its wind-battered squatters’ rights flag, there are now projects in the pipeline for nine new 40-story luxury high-rises. The chasm between the squatting and the glittering towers is so wide there may, at some point, be a rupture in the fabric.
Seattle has become like “a 21st century version of ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ ” Mayor Ed Murray said last week. Or, maybe we’re like the beginnings of a vision from two years ago by local gazillionaire Nick Hanauer, in an essay he wrote called “The Pitchforks Are Coming … For Us Plutocrats.”
In calling for aggressive attention to the forces unleashed by extreme income inequality, Hanauer speculated that upheaval is coming, one way or another.
“You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising,” Hanauer wrote. “There are no counterexamples.”