“You’re a soulless maggot, Robin!” I typed, angrily.
“Tired of items being stolen,” she replied, playing the victim, not an unusual reaction from the sort of fearful and reactionary citizens who have been targeting the homeless in Seattle. This war has been waged on many fronts in the Pacific Northwest since the tech boom, but particularly Seattle. When Jeff Bezos set up shop taking advantage of Washington’s lack of income tax, he ruined the culture of Seattle. When hordes of tech bros started pouring into Seattle to work for Amazon and, to a smaller extent, Microsoft, it ruined just about everything I loved about the place in a matter of five years.
Tech slime got preferential treatment, driving up the rent. Not only did this raise the rent, it also caused a housing scarcity. This housing shortage led to the demolishing of punk and collective houses which were torn down and replaced with soulless grey boxes. Punk venues were soon shut down due to rezoning. Seemingly overnight, the Seattle I knew was unrecognizable. My friends left for more affordable places or else had to work so much we never saw each other. But they were the lucky ones. If you were less lucky, you might end up in a tent in one of the many homeless camps that started popping up everywhere as a result of all this austerity and unaffordable housing.
All of which brought about this minor battle in the class war, the one between me and Robin. This battle is being held on her turf, Nextdoor, a social media site based around the neighborhood a person lives in. I signed up to Nextdoor a couple years ago to mooch a SCOBY—symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast—off my neighbors. A SCOBY is also referred to as a “mother” and is the fungus that—when combined with sugar and tea—makes kombucha.
It was successful endeavor, but Nextdoor rubbed me the wrong way. The loudest voices on there were the worst of NIMBY’s—not in my back yarders—dead set on posting warnings to their neighbors of every homeless person or person of color seen in the neighborhood. The ads on Nextdoor are usually hawking some Orwellian surveillance system with a questionable amount of black folks in the closed captioned footage. I logged out and pretty much forgot about it until a couple years and a few hundred kombucha batches later when I—out of boredom or procrastination—logged back in to Nextdoor for no real purpose other than to dick around. That’s when I saw Robin snitching on a homeless encampment in the neighborhood. Perhaps it was because she was my neighbor, but it could have been anybody. I’d just had enough.
“You don’t have to be homeless to steal, Robin. I can confirm this because I live in a house and I stole your items.”
“Well, the police will be happy to know about that, won’t they?” she replied.
“Not from you, Robin. I think the police would be overjoyed if you lightened up on the phone calls even a little bit.”
Now I know lashing out at Robin probably isn’t good look for me. After all, she’s just fallen into the huge propaganda campaign that’s been going on this city—one that’s been totally exasperating and maddening in its blatant refusal to get at the core of what the actual problem is: astronomical rent hikes and a complete dearth of affordable housing.
Instead of attacking the source of the homelessness problem—the arrival of Amazon and Jeff Bezos—there’s been a huge backlash against the homeless in Seattle, recently. But NIMBYs are too blinkered by capitalist rhetoric and deferential to law enforcement to get at any real solution to the problem. Like Funkadelic said, “If you don’t like the effect, don’t produce the cause.” Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like freeloading assholes, either. But my ire is aimed at freeloading corporations. Amazon pays no federal taxes and very little state or city.
Maybe my ire is based around survivor guilt, as I’ve watched my friends and neighbors have their lives brutally altered.
Bezos even erected his balls—the Amazon Spheres, a space age series of circular structures that are part of Amazon headquarters—in downtown Seattle on our tax dollars, flaunting the wealth and prestige of our resident psychopath and probably-the-world’s-first trillionaire. Since 2007, when Amazon’s presence began taking over downtown, the rent hikes have been massive. After building their headquarters, Seattle’s rent average went up 39.8% in five years. I’ve been lucky enough to live in a house where rent has stayed the same over the years, so maybe my ire is based around survivor guilt, as I’ve watched my friends and neighbors have their lives brutally altered.
An artist friend of mine got on a waiting list for several low-income artist buildings that were around $650 a month. When she was at the top of those lists six years later, the rent was $1,200. Others have moved constantly and put up with terrible situations just to stay in the city. And, really, my situation hasn’t been the best, either. The rusty handcuffs of stasis rent has had me put up with a roommate who gets so drunk he pisses all over the floor around the toilet and then, like Dr. Jeckyl, forgets it so his sober self doesn’t have to take responsibility for it.
Still, so much of Seattle is completely myopic. Instead of thinking, “Well, the horrible homeless people have been squatting in our streets and parks ever since, hmm, the tech boom. Maybe there’s a correlation,” they see it as a personal affront to them. It’s impossible for them to see that wages haven’t reflected these huge rent hikes. It’s sickening and it pisses me off, but if you were to ever challenge the biggest squatter, Jeff Bezos, they’re quick to defend him.
An example of this propaganda campaign are a series of documentaries produced by telecommunications conglomerate, Sinclair Broadcast Group (FOX, ABC, CBS, NBC) and aired by right-wing network, KOMO: Seattle Is Dying and its sequel, A Tale of 3 Cities. These films damn the homeless, painting every one of them as violent drug addicts. (In one of the rare interviews with an actual homeless person, they only use the thirty seconds where she says 100% of Seattle’s homeless are drug addicts.) KOMO News struggles to paint itself as both caring for the welfare of the scourges of psycho fiends roaming the streets while at the same time calling for strict punitive measures and even suggesting the homeless get shipped off to nearby McNeil Island.
They smear legislation like the “head tax” that would have forced the top 3% of corporations (like Amazon and Microsoft) to pay a tax that would help the homeless problem they helped to create. KOMO pulls this off by implying through omission that the head tax would apply to all businesses, not just the giant ones—that have at least $20 million in annual taxable gross revenue—responsible for the city’s problems businesses.
I can almost feel KOMO’s glee as they show footage of the bought and corrupt Iron Workers Local 86 shouting down progressive Socialist Alternative councilmember, Kshama Sawant, at an outdoor press conference where she tried to present the legislation. I.W.L. 86’s business agent, Chris McCain, once defended Amazon, saying, “Amazon is a responsible developer that provides living wage jobs for the construction industry. They have provided more than one million man hours in the last year alone to provide family wage jobs for people in and around this community. Homelessness is an enormous issue, not just an Amazon issue. It needs to have a regional approach that is fair and reasonable—something that this is not.”
This repugnant, next-level bootlicking served up to Jeff Bezos sure was a boon to their fellow corporate shills at KOMO, providing them with the spin they needed—that the head tax wasn’t supported by the working class.
I implore you not to watch A Tale of 3 Cities while you’re eating, because it dedicates far too much of its screen time to close-up piles of shit on San Francisco’s streets. This film also has on as an expert, Dr. Drew of the call-in sex advice show Loveline, who’s become more and more of a right-wing shill over the years, recently downplaying COVID-19 until he contracted it. However, with some diseases, he’s not so flippant. In the documentary, he warns of the huge resurgence of disease we haven’t seen since medieval times like typhus and—I kid you not—a return of the bubonic plague due to the rat problem caused by homeless encampments. However, he doesn’t offer any solutions other than to displace the people who are really affected by the unsanitary conditions and exposed to this disease. If the unsanitary conditions are leading to infestation, then pick up their trash, put some government funding into improving their conditions or, better yet, get them housing. Or, how about some mental and physical care, doctor?
Along with—and perhaps inspired by—KOMO’s propaganda campaign, a group called Safe Seattle started spreading propaganda of their own. They called for stronger police oppression, punishment, and incarceration, but not once do they get at the real problem, that major tech corporations like Amazon and Microsoft have made it impossible for so many to survive in this city.
Over time, Safe Seattle proved to be little more than another far-right organization which attacks Black Lives Matter online and hold rallies (Blue Lives Matter) in support of police killing people of color. After a man was arrested for a racial attack on someone, they tweeted legal advice on how to get away with such an act, sympathizing with the attacker because he only yelled racial slurs. They targeted a black-run coffeeshop using coded racist language, as punishment for their hiring of Spekulation—a local rapper and the main whistleblower of Safe Seattle’s bigoted and classist agenda—but their main focus is the continued targeting of the homeless by manipulating NIMBYs, wealthy business owners, billionaire defenders, and pearl-clutching homeowners—like Robin—who completely swallow every bit of their hateful rhetoric.
All of this led me to lash out at Robin. Partly because she was my neighbor, but, really, it could’ve been anyone. I’d had enough. The next day I got an email saying I was kicked off Nextdoor until I proved—with a picture of my license—that the name I was using was really mine. I argued with them with feigned indignance. I tried to take the moral high ground, making it a privacy issue because, well, I wasn’t using my real name. Nextdoor is a forum based entirely around surveillance and the police state. There’s no way I’d use my real name. However, Nextdoor wasn’t having it. My pseudonym Johnny Was’s career as a NIMBY troll was over. They got me on a technicality.
I laid low for a couple of weeks before coming back under another alias. I was having too much fun trolling NIMBY’s to stop. Short-lived (and petty) as it was, I’d found an outlet for my frustration and I wasn’t ready to give up. I signed up with my old home address again. But this time, in case they’d blackballed my house, I added a nonexistent “apartment three” to it. I wanted to come back as John Galt, naming myself after the hero of an Ayn Rand novel, but decided that would be too on the nose, so I made John Rand my handle.
Now this is when I pivot. Instead of jumping right back into NIMBY prodding, I thought maybe—before I get booted again—I should do that blanket drive I’d always wanted to do. I reflected back on the perfect zing I got on Robin then I took a deep breath and typed, “It’s getting cold. Let’s do a blanket drive.” Having no idea what to do next, I proposed collecting, blankets, coats, hats, gloves, and warm stuff for the homeless.
The thread exploded! Everybody had suggestions of where to take the clothes. Dialogues opened up about what the homeless really need and a woman who’d once been homeless with her child stressed socks and underwear were what was most important. The owner of the Mexican restaurant a couple blocks away offered his foyer as a place to set up a drop-off box for donations.
“I like to help out,” Nick, the owner told me. “I’ve raised money for a guy who was hit by a car in the neighborhood. And sometimes homeless people come in and ask for food. We don’t turn anybody away.”
We talked for a little while. I told him, sheepishly, that I wasn’t really John Rand and why I went under a pseudonym. He seemed to understand.
“I’ve worked with the homeless for thirty years,” a guy named John (really named John) posted. “I have first aid and toiletry kits I’d like to hand out with you.”
I told John that I still hadn’t come up with a vehicle and he said he’d gladly drive. Now we had a donations drop-off and a vehicle. Things were underway.
We had a good fifty replies on Nextdoor before the haters had their say. An indignant troll demanded to know who was going to clean up the blankets left behind by a bunch of people “who can’t even take care of themselves.”
I did my best to keep Johnny Was in check and told that guy to, “Be the change, bro.”
The box at the Mexican restaurant had only been there a week and it was overflowing with coats—coats so nice I thought about switching them out with my own. I sat up that night separating everything into individual piles: hats and gloves together, women’s and men’s and children’s coats went into their own piles. The huge bag of colorful children’s hats and gloves knitted by an old woman made me smile. I chuckled at the dry, nicotine smell that was beginning to permeate my living room and worried just a little bit about bedbugs.
John and I were to meet up from 10 AM to noon. Ironically, I had my own house to take care of. I had to make a run to the food stamp office. When I got back, I waited for John to show up. He arrived in a beat up ’80s pickup. John was a tiny, old hippie with an old tie dye and an airy lisp that wound its way around missing teeth.
“How old do you think I am?”
I lie and tell him fifty-five, but he looks about ten years older.
“I’m sixty-five, but I’m in great health. I work every day as a landscaper.”
As we load up the coats, he asks me, “Have you heard of the Diggers,” referring to the hippie group who fed and clothed the unwashed masses on Haight-Ashbury in the ’60s. “I had a group based on that model here in Seattle for twenty years.”
“Then you lead the way!” I said. He drove to different spots—encampments and day centers where the homeless gathered. In an hour, just about everything was gone.
“Well, they fit perfectly,” a middle-aged Latinx veteran said, looking down at the knitted children’s bright yellow and green mittens, its matching hat on his head. “I’m only five-three. I still served my country,” he said and showed me his Navy I.D.
I worked with a small group of radical leftist… resisting the top down nature of charities by not asking permission and just going out and helping where you can…. It wasn’t our place to decide what people needed.
Two years earlier, I’d gone to Florida to help out after Hurricane Michael. I worked with a small group of radical leftist types using the Mutual Aid model. To make it short, Mutual Aid’s mottoes are “solidarity not charity” and “the first responders are always your neighbors.” Mutual Aid’s goal is to undermine the “non-profit industrial complex.” That means resisting the top down nature of FEMA, Red Cross, and charities by not asking permission and just going out and helping where you can. For us, that meant sleeping on the floor of a church and getting up to hand out supplies in housing projects and trailer homes and hanging tarps over disabled and elderly people’s damaged homes.
One thing I learned from the Mutual Aid theory was that it wasn’t our place to decide what people needed. The ever-ineffectual Red Cross seemed to make it their sole duty to guard tarps from people who needed more than one. We made it our job to drive to every Red Cross location in town grabbing as many tarps as we could to distribute them to people who needed them. Trusting the survivors knew what they needed, we let people grab them out of the truck.
We used the same model here, but my heart kind of sunk when I saw a tweaker load five or six coats onto his two shopping carts with little consideration for others in the same situation.
“I’m uncomfortable with these feelings I’m having of wanting to control people taking too much,” I said to John. There were so many coats. So many blankets. Some folks took so much more than they could use. I had this urge to be a coat cop.
“That feeling is attachment. And it’s a need for control. You have to let that go. But it just shows that there’s great need.” John said as we drove back.
John then opened up a bit about himself. He talked about being on the streets, addicted to shooting cocaine. “I kept so busy it was years before I realized I was miserable. Then I got cleaned up,” he says.
It’s often the people who’ve had hardship who go out of their way to help others.
In the end, I felt a bit of shame at all the effort I’ve spent bitching about Amazon. I could’ve taken the smallest amount of that energy and put it towards helping people who are far worse off. For all the time I’ve feared being one disaster away from being homeless myself, I never took it upon myself to help those who’ve taken that big fall. It was reaffirming of humanity to see so many people take action, as well. I guess I’m saying I was humbled. So I’m here to tell you it’s easy to do and that a little help goes a long way.
Craven Rock is an anarchist who loves rock’n’roll, books and laughing at funny stuff. He’s the author of Juggalo Country: Inside the World of Insane Clown Posse and America’s Weirdest Music Scene, the producer of long-running zine, Eaves of Ass and the host Two Paychecks podcast. Twitter: @craven_rock