By Mike Rhodes
About 200 people went to Fresno City Hall on Sept. 29 to demand an end to the criminalization of the homeless, following the passing of a No Camping ordinance. The demand for house keys, not handcuffs, for the homeless was met by a large contingent of police who surrounded the protesters and threatened them with arrest.
Larry Donaldson, an attorney who is a City of Fresno liaison with the Fresno Police Department, mentioned several times that night that he was interested in charging us with conspiracy, which could have resulted in a $10,000 fine and one year in jail. All of this for having the audacity to challenge public policy at City Hall, which we thought was our First Amendment right.
The night ended rather well for the homeless and their allies, who only saw one person arrested and the entire group of police back down in the face of determined protesters. This is the story of how we prevailed, what lessons were learned and how this could lead to a legal challenge that ends the Homeless No Camping ordinance.
The Standing in Solidarity with the Homeless event started rather late (9 p.m.) on a Friday evening and was scheduled to go until 8 a.m. on Saturday morning. The idea was for homeless allies to stand with their homeless brothers and sisters, risking arrest on the day the No Camping ordinance was implemented.
A statement issued about the purpose of the event stated that Fresno needs “a safe and legal place where homeless people can go 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Homeless people need a place to go and the same basic public services that everyone else in this city has—drinking water, a place to go to the bathroom and trash bins. In short, the homeless need to be treated with dignity and respect, because they are our brothers and sisters and in some cases our mothers, fathers or children.”
The statement continues, “But having a safe and legal place to go is not enough. After we establish enough safe and legal places that are available to the homeless, we need to start finding them permanent housing. We also need to provide the resources for whatever social services they need. That might include, but is not limited to, job training, education, recovery from drug or alcohol addiction and mental health services. Every situation is unique, but every homeless person can live a healthier and happier life if we pull together as a community and provide the resources needed to end homelessness.”
Tim Kutzmark, the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Fresno, spoke to the protesters who were risking arrest. As the event was getting started, he said that “civil disobedience is OK in the face of injustice and wrongdoing.”
Kutzmark said that “you stand in the shadow of Gandhi. Things only change when Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and so many others said no to unjust laws and they broke those laws; they risked arrest. They put their bodies on the line to say no to what is wrong.”
Abre’ Conner, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union in Fresno, talked about how the Homeless No Camping ordinance is criminalizing the homeless and how that is unconstitutional. The ACLU and other legal groups in Fresno are looking at the ordinance to determine the best way to legally challenge it.
Carolyn Phillips, a local attorney in Fresno, conducted a Know Your Rights presentation for the homeless and others risking arrest. Desiree Martinez, director of homeless in Fresno, talked about the important work her group is doing to help the homeless and then introduced several homeless speakers who told us about their lives and how the ordinance would affect them.
Before the Standing in Solidarity with the Homeless event got started, Fresno Police Captain Burke Farrah contacted me (I was one of the main organizers of the event) and strongly encouraged us to get a permit. If we got a permit, which they would move heaven and earth to give me, that would make this a legal event and I was told there would be no arrests. Farrah even suggested they would help get portable toilets and maybe even a big movie screen. Who knows, maybe we could all sing Kumbaya together.
It could have been a big love fest, except then we would not be facing the same threat that the homeless face every day. The threat of arrest for the simple act of sleeping. I told Farrah that I would accept a permit because we did not want to get arrested and we did not want the homeless arrested, but he would need to extend the date of the event from one day to one year. His response was that “getting a one-year permit would effectively turn City Hall into an encampment zone. We can’t do that.”
When I asked if he could help us find an acceptable location for the portable toilets, he was no longer Mr. Nice Guy. “I do not anticipate the City allowing uninsured equipment placed on city property for an unpermitted demonstration where the intention of the participants is to break the law. A legal option has been rejected; I do not expect the City to facilitate an illegal option.”
The police and the city wanted the Standing in Solidarity with the Homeless event to be permitted so bad that they ended up asking one of the social service providers they work with to get a permit on our behalf. An interesting suggestion seeing as how difficult the city has made it for some groups, such as the Pride Parade in the Tower District, to get a permit. The social service provider decided not to be the city’s patsy.
All the threats and intimidation came to a head as the speakers at our event were finishing up. Donaldson told one of our legal observers that the police were planning to enforce the No Camping Ordinance at 12:01 a.m., which was about two hours away at the time.
Until that moment, we had not been told to expect arrests. I certainly thought there was a good chance that the police would not arrest anyone at the event. At 12:01 a.m., nothing out of the ordinary happened. Although there were a lot of police everywhere, they were not taking any steps to immediately arrest us. They had an extremely bright light on us from across P Street on the Mariposa Mall. It was similar to a light used to light up a football field. I would estimate that there were 50 officers monitoring the situation.
At about 1:30 a.m., Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer walked across the street with a group of officers and started talking to people at our event. He said that he was assessing the situation and would decide what to do after he was done.
At the end of his tour, Dyer made some remarks that suggested arrests were imminent. I walked across the street to meet with him. I informed Dyer that we needed time to discuss our options, and he said that was fine. I asked what charges we would face if we did not leave or have them take us to the Poverello House or the Rescue Mission. Dyer said the charge would be that we violated the No Camping Ordinance (a possible $1,000 fine and six months in jail). Donaldson said that it could be conspiracy too. He said that if two people conspire to violate…blah, blah, blah. I turned to Dyer and said “the No Camping Ordinance” and he said “yes.” I asked him about the process. He said that his officers would approach one of our people and ask them to move on. If they refused to move on, they would be offered social services or a bed at a homeless shelter. If those options were refused, we would be arrested.
I challenged his decision to arrest us, saying that arresting us for an alleged violation of the No Camping ordinance, which is a misdemeanor, was up to him—he could do it or not. He said he had no choice. One of the other officers said they can’t discriminate about who they arrest. The officer said, “We can’t let you go and then arrest people in other parts of the city for this crime.” I said that it was my understanding that nobody at City Hall was pushing him to arrest us and in fact I don’t think they want us arrested. I said that he knows as well as I that this is a political protest, we are at City Hall to voice our opposition to the ordinance and that he does not have to make the decision to arrest us. He said he had decided that he can’t allow the current action to continue. Donaldson stood by and nodded in agreement.
I then moved on to the process of the arrest. I said that they should just issue a citation and release us on the spot. He said the problem with that is that “what if people don’t leave?” I asked him what would happen if they stay after getting a citation. He said they would be taken to the Fresno County Jail. I told Dyer that I would let the group know. I confirmed that this would be a citation for a violation of the No Camping ordinance. Again, he said “yes.”
I walked back to our group of protesters and explained what Dyer had told me. My position at that time was that we should try to come to an agreement about what to do and have as many people as possible stick together with a common strategy. Some people felt we made our point and did not think getting arrested was going to further the cause. Then, one of the young activists said, yeah, but if we go to the Poverello House or the Rescue Mission that will be a huge public relations victory for them. They have put everything in place to accommodate us at a shelter tonight, this will not typically be the case, but it will seem to prove their argument that there is adequate shelter space in Fresno. That is what convinced most of the people at the meeting to stay and risk arrest.
With only a handful of shelter beds available on any given night, the thousands of homeless people on the streets of Fresno simply do not have the option of going to a shelter. The No Camping ordinance effectively criminalizes the homeless for the act of sleeping, which is essential to life. If you don’t sleep, you die.
Our decision to stay was communicated to Dyer, and 15–20 officers crossed the street heading straight for the three or four people who were sleeping. We had tried unsuccessfully to wake them and make them a part of our conversation. The police are more persuasive in waking people up. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I think the police officers were pretty much going by the procedure they explained—ask them to leave, if they don’t leave offer them services and if they refuse they would be arrested. All the sleepers got up and either left, joined us or opted for a shelter bed.
Next, the police approached Dallas Blanchard who was lying under a blanket on the grass. They told him he was in violation of the No Camping ordinance and asked him to move on. He said that “it is an illegal and immoral law.” They asked him if he needed social services or a place to sleep, and he said that the city did not have enough shelter beds for all the homeless. They asked him again if he would leave, and when he refused they arrested him.
They took Dallas across the street, issued him a citation and he was released within 10 minutes. After that, the police shut down the big light, got in their cars and roared off. There was nothing left for us to do but talk about what had happened and try to get a few hours’ sleep.
The successful civil disobedience of the protesters could lead to a legal challenge of the Homeless No Camping ban. There are constitutional challenges that can be made as well as procedural reasons why individual arrests can be invalidated. If you are homeless and believe your rights have been violated, let us know. My contact information is below.
We also want to know what happens when homeless people are picked up and taken to Map Point or to social service agencies. Are you getting the help you need or getting the runaround?
Groups such as Food Not Bombs, Homeless in Fresno, the Dakota EcoGarden and the Sleeping Bag Project will continue their important work helping the homeless. Other allies will continue struggling against the No Camping ordinance and demanding that their homeless brothers and sisters are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.
Mike Rhodes is the author of the book Dispatches from the War Zone about the homeless in Fresno. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 559-978-4502.