Last week, a group of west-side residents organized as the Neighborhood Safety Alliance (NSA) met at a Magnolia church to address city officials about what they call a crime wave perpetrated by homeless people living in RVs in their neighborhood, and to demand an immediate “moratorium” on all RV parking on city streets. Although the city has not agreed to ban RVs (at least those owned by people who don’t have houses at which to park them) from city limits, city officials did tell me last week about plans to open three parking lots around the city for RV campers who agree to follow the law and abide by community guidelines. Those who break the law or fail to abide by the rules of conduct in the RV camps, which will be run much like the existing tent cities, will be asked to leave or, potentially, arrested.
In our conversation about the proposal, which will be announced this week, city council member Mike O’Brien (who has subjected himself repeatedly to audiences that have shouted him down, screamed insults, and refused to let him answer direct questions) expressed ambivalence about whether RV camps were the right temporary solution, given the growing problems of income inequality, addiction, and homelessness in Seattle and nationwide. And he expressed little patience for gatherings billed as “conversations” that turn out instead to be firing squads aimed at city officials who are looking for solutions. Here’s the rest of that conversation.
The C Is for Crank (ECB): Why do you keep showing up for meetings when people don’t seem to want to hear what you have to say, and outright yell insults at you when you try to speak? Are you getting anything out of this or learning anything from these conversations?
Mike O’Brien (MO): When the meetings are set up that way, they’re not particularly productive. I can’t always tell going into it how it’s going to be, and there’s always hope that it’s going to be a good, productive meeting.
The thing that was so unproductive about that meeting is that it was just framed on the extremes of, “Arrest everyone” vs. 100 percent compassion. And it’s not like there are no legitimate concerns that need to be addressed. We have some really good people at the city working on it, and it’s also not going as fast as it should and there’s folks that should be held accountable. But all those complexities get lost when someone stands up there and says, “Will you ban all RVs in five days?” It makes the conversation difficult.
ECB: Do you feel like you learned anything you didn’t know that you could take back to the city?
MO: There are some folks in the audience that yelled some things out loud that were just offensive and completely inappropriate. I don’t believe that those screams represented the majority of the people in the room, even, and I certainly don’t believe that they represent the majority of the people that live in Magnolia or Ballard or Queen Anne or whatever neighborhoods were represented, but unfortunately, those extreme points of view don’t allow much rational discussion.
Frankly, the folks running that meeting in Magnolia weren’t doing themselves any favors, either. They designed a system to encourage those voices shining through. as opposed to saying, “Hey, that’s not appropriate–I need you to sit down.” Instead, a woman [in the audience] said we should build some more affordable housing and [the speaker] said something like, “I need you to be quiet until I’m done, and when I’m done, you still don’t get to talk.” It’s like, really? That’s not right. That’s not fair.
But I’m happy to show up as a representative, assuming I don’t have time conflicts, to these meetings. Folks say, “Mike, you don’t get paid enough to do this stuff.” [Ed: Guilty.] The reason I can show up is because I don’t believe those voices in that audience represent the majority of that community or the city as a whole, and so I’m showing up being the guy that represents what I think is the majority of the community, saying, “This is not how we do business.” And if I’m the face of that, I’m okay with that.
ECB: My sense, based on the fact that people are complaining about things like “suspicious-looking” people, human feces in parks, and garbage, is that the police aren’t responding by sending cars out quickly because these are simply very minor complaints. Some of them aren’t even crimes. With the police force already spread thin, they obviously have to triage calls about needles in Magnolia alongside calls for major crimes in progress in high-crime neighborhoods. Do you think they’re overreacting?
MO: It’s hard for me to tell. [They complain that] a policeman didn’t come for an hour or two. The reality is that there’s a lot of things happening in the city at any one point and yours is a low priority. That’s going to have to happen. We need to have good data on that to understand and make sure we’re prioritizing police calls enough and making sure we have enough folks in the right place. And we need to set expectations.
There were also concerns about aggressive drug behavior. I think of addiction as an illness, and so arresting folks that are using drugs–to me, that is not an answer. Folks that have a mobile meth lab set up in a vehicle–that, to me, is a clear example where you shouldn’t be making meth and you definitely shouldn’t be doing it in a van on our city streets, and we should have police resources to be investigating this type of stuff.
ECB: I’ve heard that the police investigated neighbors’ claims that there was a mobile meth lab, or possibly more than one, and have so far found no evidence that that is true.
MO: I don’t know about mobile meth vans, but I have heard the police have found people that are dealing drugs and that are armed and things like that. I have also heard of a “mobile meth lab” that burnt down and when they actually investigated, it was a couple sleeping with candles and the candles fell over and burned it down.
When they start throwing around, like, “the meth head next door,” I can’t really engage. I’m like, you know what, there was a heroin dealer right next to me in my house. The police raided it about a year ago. and pulled out I don’t know how many gun and thousands of dollars worth of heroin. And they didn’t come to me and say, “All those people who live on 45th Street need to go to jail because I’ve seen them doing heroin.”
You know, if you’re housed, there’s a certain expectation that you have a lot of leeway and when you’re not housed, you get lumped together, and that I don’t tolerate. We need to find housing for them and when we can’t find housing for everyone right now, we need to find interim housing solutions. And, you know, it’s hard. What do you do with someone who’s addicted to heroin and they need to raise money to treat their addiction, and so they resort to stealing bicycles. That is probably happening, and that’s probably where one of my [three stolen] bikes ended up, and that sucks.
But you can’t just go around arresting someone because they look disheveled. You can’t go up because they have a $1,000 dollar bike and tell them, “I’m going to arrest you.”
ECB: That gets to another question about 911 response: How often do you think people are calling 911 because they see something that people in other neighborhoods wouldn’t regard as suspicious, like a scruffy guy with a backpack?
MO: There’s always a question of what’s the gap between what folks are saying in a meeting or in testimony or posting on NextDoor or Facebook and what really happened. I want the police to respond, and if what they’re hearing is, “I just see someone walking in the neighborhood who looks suspicious,” that’s pretty low-priority. I’m not expecting the police department to race across town to investigate that When someone has someone that’s trying to break into a house, I would want to see police response on that. I think some folks are being very straightforward and I think some folks may be exaggerating because they have a different agenda, and it’s hard to discern the difference.
ECB: Do you think there is an element of racism or classism in the complaints you’re hearing from some neighbors?
MO: I think there are some people, and we’ve heard this kind of extreme view shouted out, that just don’t want to see poverty. And I get it. I don’t like poverty either. But the answer isn’t to give them a bus ticket to a different city. [Some people at the meeting shouted that Seattle should do what Shoreline supposedly did, and force RVs to go to another city.] It’s, we need to fundamentally change our economic system to address poverty. We are creating a ton of economic wealth in this city and we’re creating a ton of poverty. And it’s not just Seattle, it’s the whole country.
Part of the more extreme conservative viewpoint is that folks are in poverty because they didn’t try hard or they brought this on themselves, and I just don’t subscribe to that point of view. I’m not saying that there isn’t a single person out there living in poverty who made some bad decisions, but the system is designed in a way that we have a lot of people who are stuck in poverty and can’t get out.
Until we get to a place where I can tell everyone, “Hey, we’ve got a place for you to go,” it’s really hard for me to kick them out of where they are. We can kick them out, but that just means they’re going to become somebody else’s problem. We’re not solving anything, and we have a ways to go to create places for vehicles, for tents, for housing, for all those things.
ECB: What about complaints from neighbors who say there’s a double standard–they have to keep their tabs up to date and move their cars every 72 hours, so why aren’t they enforcing those same laws on the people in RVs?
MO: The police know that arresting somebody for an expired tab when they know they have absolutely no money to buy the tabs–that’s someone that’s in poverty. Arresting is not the solution. It’s a waste of our time. I hear folks who say, “I leave my car out there and I get a ticket–that’s not fair.” It’s like, we’re trying to use some discretion here. Or there’s the guy who was like, “My TV was stolen and I saw it down in the homeless encampment and the police said I can’t do anything about that.” Well, you said you were just going to donate your TV to Goodwill. Someone stole it? That saves you the work. Is it really worth it to call in the police? Come on, dude.
ECB: Can you respond directly to all the claims that City Hall has put a “stand-down order” on SPD directing them not to respond to calls from Queen Anne, Magnolia, and Ballard?
MO: Do the police come out and say, “I can’t do anything about this,” or do they say, “I’ve been told by City Hall that even if I know that that is your TV and can prove it with a serial number, I can’t do anything”? That’s bull. I think folks in the community have told themselves a narrative that City Hall doesn’t care about their problems, and there are police that intentionally or unintentionally might be playing into that narrative.
It’s easy for me to see a police officer show and say, “Here’s the deal. For me to arrest the person, I have to have constitutional evidence that he actually took it from you, and here are the other things that are going to have to happen,” and the guy says it’s not worth it. And then he comes to a meeting and says, “I told the police that that was my TV and he said he couldn’t do anything about it.” Is he lying or stretching the truth? You can see how those things happen.
Now, the police are under contract negotiations. There are some police that hate what the city’s doing about the Race and Social Justice Initiative. Some of the cops there, frankly, shouldn’t be Seattle police officers, and they might be saying things to intentionally [rile people up]. But all of the cops I’ve encountered, they get it. They say, “Hey, Mike, we’re doing our best. We’re doing public safety and human services, because we’ve got to do both.” So then I feel like sometimes the neighbors are telling certain sides of the story so they can raise anger among their neighbors and show up at these meetings and scream at elected officials.