By Robert Navarro
In George Orwell’s classic Down and Out in Paris and London, he memorialized his journalistic venture into the world of poverty during the depths of the global Depression. With great humor, he relates his miserable experience in Paris as a plongeur (dishwasher) under slavish conditions. When he returns to England, he joined the ranks of the homeless. In comic and also moving prose, he described the English system of dealing with the swelling ranks of the unemployed and poor. Keep them moving. “Tramps” were not allowed to spend more than one night a month in any of the available hostels and shelters on pain of being jailed for a week. So there was a constant parade of men and women on the road for long hours to the next shelter in a great circuit of hardship and hunger.
But at least Orwell’s homeless had a shelter waiting at the end of a long hard day. Those who govern the City and County of Fresno have tweaked the English system through an exquisite bit of cruelty: Destroy all the ramshackle and lean-to shelters the poor and homeless of Fresno have managed to construct for their own protection and a chance at some semblance of dignity and force them to relocate to another space where, with bureaucratic efficiency, they will be ousted once again in an endless circle of government-enforced inanity. And, most important, always, always, blame the dispossessed for having forced the government, against their finer sensibilities to be sure, to impose this repetitive displacement.
As readers of the Community Alliance know, the City of Fresno’s campaign to destroy the homeless camps has continued apace. Now, the county has proposed revisions to the ordinances for Courthouse Park. Courthouse Park, it should be remembered, is Fresno County’s designated “free speech” forum. The county acknowledges, implicitly if not explicitly, that the revisions are simply a means to oust the homeless and unsheltered in the park, and specifically to oust the few homeless folks who maintain the presence of Occupy Fresno.
One of the proposed revisions changes the basic description of the park itself. The current description contains the following sentence: “Courthouse Park does not include City of Fresno–owned sidewalks abutting the park, or the City of Fresno–owned portion of the parking lot to the immediate north of Tulare Street.” The revised ordinance omits this information. Why? Because several homeless folk who have maintained the Occupy Fresno presence in Courthouse Park have for the last two years dutifully obeyed the county’s midnight closure ordinance and move the Occupy materials and their possessions to the city’s strip along Tulare Street and as neatly and respectfully as possible set up tents for the night. Because they are homeless.
According to a city worker, the city’s property surrounding the edge of Courthouse Park has not been sold, transferred or otherwise ceded to the county. In her remarks to the Fresno Bee, Sheriff Margaret Mims clearly indicated that the revisions will be enforced against the Occupiers, apparently without regard to pesky issues of jurisdiction.
It was clear to all parties during the Occupy Fresno litigation and settlement that homeless Occupiers would move their gear each day before the closure hour of midnight over to the City’s property. It has worked well ever since. But the handful of tents constitutes an encampment that we know cannot be left undisturbed.
The real problem is the fact that Fresno government is displacing the already displaced, and now there is a much larger roving population of people who have no place to live. Many of them are seeking some succor by resting in Courthouse Park, and they have nothing to do with Occupy Fresno. However, Occupy Fresno’s presence, as small and quiet as it may seem, is a bona fide act of free expression, one which is especially critical to this county.
The New York Times recently ran a long article about the homeless situation in Fresno. This is the image of Fresno that predominates outside our borders: a population with a high level of poverty, a city and county government that cannot get its fiscal act together and a county that has one of the highest and most persistent urban homeless populations in the country where government officials are known for an aggressive campaign to continually displace, suppress and harass the homeless rather than sincerely and meaningfully adopting measures to alleviate their plight and to better the conditions for all of Fresno.
Occupy Fresno’s presence stands a vivid reminder that the core concern of the Occupy Movement has always been the obscene inequality in the United States and that it is nowhere more apparent than in this county. As economist Joseph Stiglitz recently wrote in the New York Times, “Ninety-five percent of all income gains since 2009 have gone to the top 1%. Recently released Census figures show that median income in America hasn’t budged in almost a quarter-century.” The county simply wants people to “get over it,” however, Occupy’s presence in Courthouse Park—specifically as an attribute of the homeless issue—is a First Amendment protected act of free expression and the seeking of a redress of grievances.
Other revisions include changing the closure hours to a 9 p.m. starting point, a revision that is likely unconstitutional and has no compelling purpose other than to target Occupy Fresno. Similarly, a new limitation on “personal property” is also highly suspect. It holds that personal property is limited to eight cubic feet, which is the equivalent of a small safe in which to put all of one’s worldly possessions, documents, medicines, clothing, food and water.
Welcome then not only to Orwell’s 1984 police and constant-warfare state but also to Down and Out in Fresno where, if you’re poor and have no home, just keep it moving buddy, keep it moving.
Robert Navarro is a criminal defense and civil rights attorney and vice president of Fresno Filmworks. Contact him at email@example.com.