In yet another attempt to get a persistent homeless camp and political protests out of Cal Anderson Park, Seattle police and city park workers descended before sunrise on Friday, and before noon had arrested 21 people, taped off the park and begun clearing the huge numbers of tents.
The camp has more or less existed in the park since this summer, when it sprung up connected to the “Capitol Hill Occupied Protest” zone nearby. But when the protest zone was taken down in July by city crews, the camp stayed, and has resisted efforts since then to remove it. Each time, police arrest protesters, and campers have returned.
As construction crews took down barricades and removed tents on Friday, a small group of protesters helped homeless people move their things and yelled at the police. A few protesters held signs reading, “Mayor Durkan, City Council, SPD — May you have sweep dreams tonight!”
The city had planned to clear Cal Anderson on Wednesday but held off after Seattle resident Ada Yeager filed for an emergency restraining order and more than 100 protesters gathered at the park. U.S. District Judge Richard Jones denied that request Thursday. On Thursday night, a Jeep Liberty parked at Cal Anderson was lit on fire with an “incendiary device,” a city spokesperson said.
“Individuals experiencing homelessness should be in safer spaces like shelters and hotels, especially during the winter,” Rachel Schulkin, a Seattle Parks and Recreation spokesperson, wrote in an email.
“Our parks should not be places with illegal and unsafe conduct like fires, makeshift barricades blocking access to residents and first responders, or individuals who are threatening city workers conducting routine maintenance, and breaking into city facilities.”
Homeless advocates decried the city’s action, saying it contradicts guidance by the Centers for Disease Control that encampments shouldn’t be swept except under extreme circumstances.
Although the city said it tried to get campers into shelters, Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness, said it is “frankly beyond outrageous” to portray shelters as easily available right now.
“The reason this sweep doesn’t make sense is there’s been abundant evidence that, unless the city plans to fence this park off for the foreseeable future as an open public space, it will be a place that people return to,” Eisinger said.
A camper who goes by the name Sunday has been living in the park since July — through six sweeps, she said — and slept through police announcements Friday morning to clear out. When she woke up, she said police were “chainsawing” the perimeter fence open and telling everyone their time was up.
“This one was a lot more militant than the last ones,” Sunday said. Some officers carried airguns with pepper balls, she said.
Sunday said she will likely check out a shelter nearby and then head back to Cal Anderson when the police are gone, like every other time police have swept.
“I wish people would stop politicizing the homeless,” Sunday said. “Just let us live outside. … people keep asking, what are our demands? Our demands are: give us housing or leave us alone.”
Craig Swanson, who owns a property management company headquartered next to Cal Anderson, wrote in an email that he used to walk his dog at the park during lunch, but the park has become “disgusting and intimidating.” But he doesn’t believe it’s up to the police to keep the park clear.
“It’s a city issue, and I hope the city can offer those folks a reasonable option for the people who have squatted there, while the rest of us can enjoy the park we all pay for,” Swanson said.
Schulkin said city employees will “continue to be present at the Park in the coming days as the City tries to reopen the park” in an email.
Seattle has largely suspended work to clear large encampments during the pandemic. This fall, during a protracted and controversial budgeting process, the Seattle City Council defunded the Navigation Team, a team of police and outreach workers that manage encampment removals, in favor of a less coercive model. Durkan and Seattle’s business community strongly opposed the move.
Just like that budget season, protests on Friday swirled around the issues of homelessness, policing, and the Black Lives Matter movement together.
Quanshie Maxwell, who lives close to the park, took her daughter out to the protest Friday morning to show her what was happening, she said.
“It’s better to have her see it rather than me say it,” Maxwell said, as behind her, police chanted “move back” and pushed protesters up 11th Avenue, away from the abandoned encampments.
Maxwell has been homeless in the past, and she understands the concerns of the neighboring businesses that have pressured the city to move on the people living at Cal Anderson, but says many people in the park are mentally ill and police action doesn’t help.
“What kind of intimidation is this?” she said. “It’s sickening. It’s sad.”