The Right to Survive, The Right to Capital, & The Right to the City
“Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.”
- Isaiah 58:12
Thanks to the marvelous Bree “Coco” Davies, I got to be on my first podcast a few weeks ago alongside my friend and mentor in radical-ways-of-being Terese Howard. Live audience and all, down at every Denver punk’s favorite bookstore-coffee shop, Mutiny Information Cafe. It was pretty darn fun, and I’m really grateful for the work Bree’s doing to lift up marginalized voices and local issues.
Check it out here (apologies for some language…we get fired up):
I’ve worked for several years now on the criminalization of homelessness. It first came on my radar while I lived in Colorado Springs, as certain zones of the city were made illegal sites for panhandling. My disgust was intensified during my time in Fresno, where large camps were literally bulldozed. The city there lost a lawsuit and paid a few million in damages to homeless individuals (money that got many out of homelessness). It showed up again during my time in Berkeley — progressive bastion it claims to be — when the downtown business district, as BIDs like to do, successfully urged their city council to pass a sit and lie ban.
When I arrived in Denver in 2016, they were four years into the Urban Camping Ban. I was volunteering at a wonderful drop-in hangout spot (operated with a contemplative accent) for folks off the streets called Network Coffee House. A friend there brought me to a group of faith leaders that was gathering to advocate against this criminalization and for a more humane, effective set of policies. I showed up, my current job opening was announced, and the rest is history. I’ve worked on this in Denver, cities around Colorado, and at the state legislature ever since.
On May 7th, Denver voters get to decide directly on establishing a set of rights by voting on Proposition 300 — what us advocates call the “Right to Survive” ballot initiative. It seeks to set four rights in place:
the right to rest and shelter oneself from the elements in a non-obstructive manner in outdoor public spaces;
to eat, share accept or give free food in any public space where food is not prohibited;
to occupy one’s own legally parked motor vehicle, or occupy a legally parked motor vehicle belonging to another, with the owner’s permission;
and to have a right and expectation of privacy and safety of or in one’s person and property
Housing should be a fundamental right for all people, so far as the UN and I are concerned. I’m foolish enough to believe that the basic necessities of survival I was taught as a child—food, water, air, shelter—are things people should expect to enjoy. Seeing as we have failed to deliver on this basic human need for housing, it appears reasonable to me that we should at minimum establish a base-level of legal rights like the ones above.
Contrary to the opposition’s repeated messaging, and shored up by legal opinions from the University of Denver’s Sturm School of Law, here are some things this ballot initiative does not do:
It DOES NOT allow people to obstruct sidewalks or passageways
It DOES NOT allow access to parks or any areas when they are closed to the public
It DOES NOT protect people from enforcement of any existing laws that do not impede upon a person’s ability to survive such as littering, harassment, or violent acts.
It DOES NOT allow people to be on private property.
I’ll just riff on one more point before moving on.
Detractors often say of efforts to decriminalize homelessness, “this won’t solve ‘the problem.’” Meaning, this doesn’t end the problem of homelessness. We need to focus on real solutions, they say, and not get distracted.
No, it won’t solve homelessness, but that misses the point in at least three ways:
The thing distracting us from direct efforts to end homelessness is the grotesque, draconian policies criminalizing the poor — not the need to put a stop to such rights-violating state activity. Don’t misidentify the original cause.
The phrase “this won’t solve ‘the problem’” identifies only one problem — the existence of homelessness — and does so from the perspective of housed people. For a person in the midst of homelessness, the most immediately experienced problem may be the inability to sleep through the night or get warm because police keep asking them to move along and remove their blankets. Failing to see this refuses to take the perspective of the personal actually experiencing the problem.
“Homelessness” is a social phenomenon embedded in larger cultural-systemic crisis, and as a social phenomenon is composed of several key features — features that all have corresponding policy. Generally, these are causes (trauma, poverty, discrimination, unaffordable housing, etc.), homelessness itself (as in, the people experiencing it), and solutions (the provision of zero-barrier housing with/in community and with strong services, etc.). We have and need policy on each of these components. The question is: are the policies corresponding to each area just, humane, and effective? In terms of policies governing the condition of those attempting to survive on the streets, we must respond with an unequivocating, “NO.” And thus it is right for criminalizing policies to change, and not in conflict with the pursuit of “solutions.”
Ok, enough of directly addressing the measure. Vote yes on 300. Listen to the podcast for more. Terese is phenomenal on this stuff.
What I’m really interested in here is the context of this work, and why that context makes this work so frustrating.
The most direct problem is this. Despite how basic these rights sound, they are not, for the most part, pitted in neat symmetry against an opposition whose primary goal is ensuring poor people freeze, can’t sleep, and get their stuff confiscated. Rather, they are up against a set of so-called rights secured with far more intensity in the United States: the right to the security of private property and the right to make a profit. It has to be added, following historical American precident, that these rights are disproportionately enjoyed by and legally secure for white men. The right to capital is the unwritten supreme entitlement shaping life in this country.
I’m passionate about decriminalizing homelessness and poverty in general. But we must recognize that this work is far downstream of a colonialistic, white supremacist, neoliberal capitalism whose interlocking tentacles have been refined over centuries. It’s a fight unfolding in a culture where self-interest-as-greed has been anointed the supreme virtue, and the quintessential mark of being human is exercising choice within a commercial marketplace (a marketplace in which choices are constrained by class, gender, race, and ability).
What we’re wrestling with here isn’t about whether or not someone should be able to keep themselves warm outside if they have nowhere to go. We’re up against the very pillars of American civilization. And this empire has no intention of laying down without a fight.
It’s no surprise, then, that over $600,000 have poured into the opposition’s coffers, led by developers and the downtown business district. This ballot initiative posses an existential threat to the unadulterated right to accumulate capital.
In The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America, Mark Lewis Taylor, following the work of Steven Spitzer, names two forms of “surplus populations” produced by capitalism, as described through the eyes of social elites: social junk and social dynamite. Social junk is a passive threat to our way of life and so we try to sweep these communities out of site and out of mind. They include “the mentally ill, drug addicts, lonely and frayed drifters, alcoholics, and cast-off impoverished elders.” Groups labeled social dynamite are considered an active threat, and so they are more actively pursued by the violent power of the state, often locked up or killed. Both are responded to through heightened criminalization.
Describing the impact of “social junk” on the dominant society, this passage gets to the heart of our problem:
“Though they rarely pose an organizing threat, they are nevertheless, as Parenti notes, a kind of ‘ontological threat’ to the system. They can arouse annoyance, even fear, because their very being discloses that something is wrong with the function of the economic order.” (172)
Unspoken but, I believe, seen by all at some level, is the searing light the poor cast back on us for our own failures. As much as the homeless may be derided, the simple fact of their existence drives a wedge into our collective conscience, opening a crack through which our communal short-comings and malformations are made visible.
The neoliberalism that “revitalized” downtowns like Denver’s is an extreme resurrection of the right to capital for elites — a right that has been spacialized into a further entitlement for the wealthy drivers of capitalism: the right to the city. Following the model pioneered in post-bankruptcy New York City since the 1970s, downtowns and disinvested urban areas have seen a massive return flight of capital spurred by the commodification, privatization and financialization of land, including and in particular land that we would consider “public space.” These private investments are secured by increased surveillance (going back to the NYC model - think: broken windows policing) and the rollback of social safety nets.
Put another way: in today’s privatized downtowns, the same bench could offer rest to a homeless person or a tourist. Tie goes to the person who will spend more money.
Truly we do not wrestle with flesh and bones but with the rulers and authorities, the powers and principalities of this world.
I would argue that these movements to control the city for the advancement of a wealthy, mostly white, elite is a resurrection of the white male landowning ideology on which this country was founded. Whiteness takes the self-declarative statements of God and applies them to itself. This is what, theologically, must be meant when we speak of the “supremacy” in white supremacy. That pattern is rarely as blatant as with God’s statement in Leviticus: “The Land is mine.” The white gaze has looked upon land for five centuries now, and said with violent assurance, “Mine.”
A final thought on rights. Individuals are a real thing, and securing their rights to person, property, and opinion are essential. Enlightenment thinkers still smarting from the oppression of a feudal system that denied such individual liberty were right to lift up these necessities. However, rights as they have been structured in the Bill of Rights are inadequate tools for justice — particularly in the face of deregulated capitalism’s ruthless plundering and exploitation. Achieving true social equity points to the need for what FDR called an “economic bill of rights” in 1944, and what economists like William Darity have proposed with fresh eyes for the 21st century. And again, such economic rights should be spacialized — if they don’t land on the ground of place, they likely aren’t real or effective. This means a universal Right to the City which claims that cities are for everyone, not just the wealthy (this idea was first articulated by Henri Lefebvre, further developed by David Harvey and others, and today comprises a powerful grassroots movement).
But a culture seeking to build justice who only uses the tool of individualistic rights can never achieve its goal.
Justice flows from restored and reciprocal relationship. As the fight for the city shows, the struggle for rights too easily devolves into mutually exclusive claims too easily won by those with more power. We must move on from the Enlightenment’s extreme framing of liberty as exclusively oriented to the isolated individual, and rediscover or reinvent or reintegrate into our culture a character of collective responsibility. Not the paternalistic notion of responsibility as duty many of us grew up with, but the deeper responsibility that flows freely from mutual love.
Photo Credit: Veronica Lee