On April 1st, homeless advocates in Nashville hosted a “Rally for the Right to Exist” on Legislative Plaza with teach-ins, food, a mobile foot clinic, talking circles, a Palm Sunday service, a documentary (“More Than a Roof”), a floating tent (thanks to Occupy Vanderbilt!) and a sleep-in to protest the criminalization of homelessness. Approximately 150 people came out for the festivities and 45 people participated in civil-disobedience by sleeping on state property (which is now a Class A misdemeanor in the State of TN). There were no arrests, because apparently, the State doesn’t want to publicly arrest dozens of predominately white middle-class citizens, many of whom are college/graduate students. We will, however, keep challenging criminal justice systems that create criminals instead of upholding justice. We will continue to organize against unjust laws that disproportionately affect our friends on the streets. If you have ideas, contact us – let’s work together on this!
Here is the keynote address that I gave during the rally (or you can watch the video here – the speech begins at 6:40):
So why are we here on this beautiful April Fool’s day? Why are people gathering together today in New York, Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco, Tampa, New Orleans, and other so many other cities across the U.S. and Canada?
Well, my hero, Dorothy Day, who spent her life living among the poor in New York and working for justice once said, “We confess to being fools and wish we were more so.” Today, we echo that confession. We’re here because, according to our State, we are fools to believe that our brothers and sisters who are un-housed have the Right to Exist. We are fools to believe that sleeping on public property is not a crime when our State says it is. We are fools to risk arrest tonight in an attempt to challenge unjust laws and show solidarity with our un-housed neighbors.
But we’re here because we would rather look like a “fool” in the eyes of the powerful than to turn our backs on the beautiful, difficult, and messy life of working for justice in our community. Tonight, if we are arrested, we may look like fools to some, but we will stand in the company of holy fools like Dorothy Day, MLK, Jr., Gandhi, Oscar Romero, and so many others. And perhaps, one day, our legislators will realize that THEY would be fools to dismiss our message because we are not going away!
I have been asked by several of my friends why some of us are planning a sleep-in tonight where we will risk arrest. My answer is this: You see, criminalization is nothing new in Nashville, but the new anti-camping law that was passed on March 2nd brings an added sense of urgency to speak out against such injustice. So in the last few months, we have written and signed multiple letters and petitions asking our legislators and Governor Haslam not to pass laws that disproportionately affect those on the streets. We have had press conferences and rallied community leaders to speak out against these laws. We have published opinion pieces and letters to the editor in The Tennessean. We have spoken to media outlets, and we have met with our legislators and elected officials, but the State still isn’t listening! Our advocacy has fallen on deaf ears and has been swept under the rug.
Perhaps many of our elected officials and lawmakers have been so callous because they are so separated and insulated from the realities of the streets that they don’t know the names and stories of the human beings who are affected by their laws.
So let me share a few of those stories so we can let their memory inform our actions.
First there is “Antionio.” Antonio is black, gay, homeless, and suffers from mental health and addiction issues. One day, he was on his way to the library to charge his phone and look for jobs postings and he cut through a parking lot. Antonio walks over 10 miles a day and his feet and body show it, so when he can, he takes short-cuts. On this day, however, he was stopped by a police officer. He was told that since he didn’t have a car in the parking lot and since that parking lot had a trespass waiver, he was guilty of trespassing and was written a ticket for the “offense.”
Next there is “Erica.” Erica has schizophrenia and when she can’t get her meds, she “self-medicates” which alcohol. One Saturday night, she was sitting on her usual bench with her sleeping bag pulled over her. She was taking small sips from a bottle to keep the voices in her head at bay. Down the street on 5th Ave., dozens of 20 and 30-somethings carried cups of wine from art gallery to art gallery during the monthly Gallery Crawl. A few blocks away on 2nd Ave., countless college students and tourists stumbled from bar to bar. Who do you think got arrested for having an open container and being “publically intoxicated” that night?
Then there is John. John camps south of town and rides the bus into the city because has problems with his back and legs. While he was waiting for the bus on 8th Ave. South, he sat his back-pack down beside him on the sidewalk. Just a couple blocks away from him in the Gulch stood a business man on the sidewalk with his tie and his rolly suitcase, waiting to catch the bus for work. Who do you think was ticketed for “obstruction of the passageway” at the bus-stop?
You see, if you look like me, you can cut through parking lots, carry an open container, sit on the sidewalk, and lay a blanket down on state property for a picnic and even a nap. But if you look like my friends Antonio, Erica, and John, these simple, non-criminal acts can carry fines and jail time. THIS is what social profiling looks like and it will only be worse now with the new anti-camping law that was passed on March 2nd. THIS is why we are here – because now, our criminal justice system is not up-holding justice; it is creating criminals.
We are offended that social profiling is going on in Nashville. We are offended that it is a crime to be homeless. We are offended that there are nearly 4,000 people on our streets, but we only have about 1,500 shelter and transitional housing beds. We are offended that over 24,000 housing units sit vacant in Davidson County while so many live without homes. We are offended that since 1995, the United States has lost over 290,000 units of public housing and 360,000 Section 8 units while they have built over 830,000 new jail and prison cells. We will no longer stand by while this injustice is happening in our own back yard.
So what do we do when we have these grievances, but going through the “proper channels” doesn’t seem to be working?
We protest. We organize. We participate in civil disobedience. We “sleep-in.” We throw our bodies against the machines that perpetuate injustice and inequality in our society. We cultivate the “dangerous memory” of all of our friends who have been arrested because of the color of their skin, the way they dress, their sexual orientation, and their socio-economic status.
Tonight, as we engage in our sleep-in, our presence is our protest. For those who have been oppressed and criminalized, the very act of being visible is resistance. Yes, are bodies are our canvas and our sleeping bags are our signs that say “all is not well”—that we have grievances that we have come to redress.
So maybe it is foolish to think that we should stop ticketing and arresting members of our homeless community for petty quality of life citations. Maybe it is foolish for many of us to risk arrest alongside our friends who don’t have a choice. But if THIS is foolishness, it is a kind of holy foolishness that shames the wise, the strong, and the powerful and paves the way for a more just and equitable world.
As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”