Revolutionary Worker #1178, December 8, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org
At night the L.A. skyline looks like a cluster of shimmering castles. But there are hidden corners of the city that these lights never reach. Skid Row, within blocks of expensive loft buildings and office skyscrapers, is one of those spots. Here the only nighttime lights are the sputtering neon of SRO hotels and gutter campfires. The SROs are the Skid Row "condos," one cherished step above the streets where hundreds lie down under a newspaper blanket or on a cardboard mattress.
The streets here have nicknames like "the Nickel"(5th Street). And when the sun sets, these streets are lined with pop-up tents and hundreds of beat-up cardboard boxes strewn across the walk in front of metal-shuttered storefronts.
Imagine sleeping in a cardboard box on a sidewalk. Now imagine being woken up by screams and shouts in the middle of the night. Large men with guns and clubs shouting orders. Boots stomping on concrete. Then a flashlight hits your face. You're dragged out of your box and slammed against a wall while a cop shouts questions and demands answers. Dozens of cop cars blocking off the street. On your left and right the same thing happening to dozens of other people. Imagine the terror. This was Skid Row during the recent LAPD raids on the homeless.
On November 20 and 21, hundreds of police agents from the LAPD, the California Youth Authority, California Department of Corrections, the U.S. Marshals, and the FBI rampaged through Skid Row. They stormed into SROs and rousted people from tents and cardboard boxes. They arrested almost 200 homeless people--so many during the first raid that they ran out of jail space at police headquarters and had to set up temporary detention housing on buses. The police also issued over 100 traffic citations--more than half of them for jaywalking.
These raids were ordered by the new chief of LAPD, William Bratton, and the mayor, James Hahn. The police claim that they were searching for parole and probation violators. Skid Row has the highest concentration of parolees in California.
Bratton sneered a cold reptilian grin as he declared that he wasn't trying to run the homeless out of Skid Row, he was just looking to remove what he called lawbreakers and predators. But two days before the raids Bratton expressed his support for the demand by the Central City Association--a downtown business and citizens' group--that the police break up the Skid Row homeless encampments. Bratton declared that the concentration of homeless in Skid Row was worse than what he saw in New York City during his reign as police commissioner there. In New York Bratton was widely known for attacking and criminalizing the homeless as part of Mayor Giuliani's "Quality of Life" campaign. And now he's brought this same battle cry to L.A.
According to the 2000 Census, there are anywhere from 9,000 to 15,000 homeless living in the central part of Los Angeles. There are 3,000 to 5,000 homeless living in the 50-square-block area of central L.A. that makes up Skid Row.
Bratton has painted these folks as dangerous predators and criminals. I spent a couple of days walking around Skid Row talking to the people. These are some of their stories about their lives and the recent police raids.
Nobody really chooses to live on Skid Row. People end up there for all kinds of reasons, from drug addiction to being thrown out in the streets as the state shuts down mental health facilities. All it takes is an accident or missing one paycheck. Many of the people on the Row are vets. And some have just gotten caught up in the heartless grinding of government machinery. Many have been thrown off of welfare over the last decade.
But once people are here, they try to survive. And as Thomas explained to me, this is treated like a crime in L.A. today. "I've lived here for maybe 15 years on and off. Sometimes I live on the streets and sometimes I live in a hotel--when I can afford it. It's another version of hell. The police are constantly stopping us. We can't walk from corner to corner without being harassed by the police most of the time. If they don't have anything to stop you for, then sometimes they just create things. They say somebody just robbed somebody and they fit your description. And we know nothing about this. We haven't seen no robbery and we haven't been involved in no robbery but we still get harassed--slammed upside the wall and whatever else they want to do."
Wall Street in lower Manhattan is all skyscrapers, briefcases, stock markets, and money. In Los Angeles, Wall Street is a boulevard of people who have been discarded by the system.
Raymond sells used clothes and assorted "stuff" just off Wall Street. As Raymond and I talked, a three-foot-tall man with a huge gray Afro danced in the middle of the street to a beat provided by shaking a water bottle full of pebbles. The man was off in another world--this was his spot, every day, and his dance forced everyone driving by to acknowledge that he existed. Raymond kept his eye on the dancer, ready to shout out a warning if things seemed be getting dangerous.
"I been on this corner a year selling clothes," Raymond told me, "but all of a sudden the police started coming up and telling me that I can't stand here selling clothes. So I'm saying I can't get no job, I got a fourth grade education. Everywhere I try to get a job at, it's `How far you been in school?' `Are you an ex-convict?'... So I try to sell clothes."
Raymond spends his life on the streets. He sleeps where he can--not like some who claim a patch of sidewalk and begin to call it "home," sometimes for many years. Raymond considers himself lucky if he can get to a mission occasionally to take a bath. But the rules and orders in the mission and shelters remind him of prison, so he prefers the streets.
I asked Raymond if he ever thought about how to end homelessness--especially as he laid down at night and looked up at all those highrise offices and luxury condos nearby. He was intrigued by the idea of a revolutionary solution to homelessness. It was something he had never really considered, but he felt at home with the idea pretty quickly. "I'm homeless, I ain't got nothing to lose," he said.
Sandy has a smile that grabs your eyes. She knows the streets--every cut and every crack in the sidewalk. Like most women on the Nickel,she's developed nine extra senses to help her survive. She's not afraid of any of her people on Skid Row. It's the cops that scare the hell out of her. And she has a lot of personal experience with them.
When I caught up with Sandy, she was guarding the spot on the street where her friend sells clothes. She sat in front of washed and neatly folded shirts and jeans. Off to the side was a shopping cart that held three buckets--one for bleach, one for soapy water and one to rinse in. Recently washed clothes were hung up to dry along a wall behind us. As we spoke Sandy kept scanning the horizon for her friend. She was worried that he wouldn't get back in time for her to finish filling up her shopping cart with bottles and cans.
Sandy has been out here for 16 years--ever since she came out from Ohio to bury her father. She ran out of money and has been out on the sidewalks of the Nickel for these many years, surviving by sheer will power and street smarts.
"I survive by picking up bottles and cans. You got to have your own little area so nobody knows where you going to pick up yours. Everybody has their own little area--you got yours and they got theirs. If I fill my cart all the way up to the top I can make 8 bucks.... and that's enough for me for that day. Tomorrow's another day. I'm not a piggish person, I don't need that much."
Like Raymond, Sandy and her friend have trouble with the police when they try to sell clothes. The police have confiscated their goods many times. The cops also steal her personal belongings as part of some sadistic "torture-the-homeless" routine. Many times she's left her "house"-- her part of the sidewalk--and come back to find that the cops have thrown her blankets into a trash can. Sometimes she ends up having to scrounge for plastic garbage bags to sleep in.
Sandy's smile turned to a nervous and scared laugh as she talked about the recent police raids. She described how cops swooped down on a group of homeless people in tents. "They was grabbing the people out the tent, putting them against the wall and putting the handcuffs on them. I was scared to death. I ain't never seen this, the cops just came from nowhere. The people wasn't doing anything, but the police just grabbed them out the tents and handcuffed them. Then the big truck come around, and they just threw the people into it... Then the next night, I'm walking around the corner over there and about 15 cars come up. Man, they was here and here and they was across the street. They was everywhere--undercover and regular police cars."
Some of the people living on Skid Row work at paying jobs. Even some of the people living in tents on the sidewalk look for work day after day, and work hard whenever they find it.
It's common for homeless men to work a couple of days a week, unloading containers for the small Korean-owned shops in the toy district and other merchandise markets nearby. This gets them just enough to survive but not enough to rent a room. And sometimes, going to work means that they end up having to spend the hard-earned money to replace all of their belongings that the city cleaning crew picked up while they were at work.
Other folks work full time and still can only afford to live in the SRO hotels. Brian Smith is an activist with the October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation. His brother was killed by guards in the Twin Towers jail just a few blocks from where Brian lives today. He works a steady job and keeps a room in one of the better SRO hotels.
In the middle of all the madness of Skid Row, Brian manages to maintain a big heart and a broadness of vision. He's told me about the work he does unloading crates with products from Indonesia and Malaysia. He knows the conditions for the workers in these countries are really terrible, and he talks about how torn he is about working for corporations in the U.S. who are profiting off these workers. "I go to work thinking: what's happening to my brothers and sisters in Malaysia," he says.
I caught up with Brian outside his hotel late on a Sunday morning. The food trucks were just coming into the neighborhood, and we watched hundreds of people lining up at the usual feeding spots.
"I been staying down here for two years and every day something happens--but a lot of stuff is provocated by the police and the way the police use their tactics to push homeless people in certain parts of the community and not allow them to sleep around certain businesses because people are afraid that they might run the money away. But people are homeless--it's not a crime to be homeless, it's just people are in a bad predicament. It's not a crime to ask for a quarter. But then again it might be because they got this panhandler law now--so if you're a very aggressive panhandler you might get cited and taken to jail."
Brian talked of the daily police harassment. "The police down here frequent these streets constantly. And on the street where I stay at, they got it so you can't even park here and you can barely stand on the sidewalk."
Brian described what he saw during the recent police raids. "I seen at least 50 cars and people from different agencies--the CDC to the State Parole to the feds to the local enforcements and maybe a few sheriffs thrown in. It was massive, massive polices. Really, the polices outnumbered the citizens walking to and fro on this street...
"They was harassing man, woman, and child on the streets. They was trying to push the homeless people away from the mission, and they was trying to clear the street and make this a fucking sanctuary or something. But this is not a sanctuary, this is where people have to survive day in and day out. And with the police here for that day and a half or two days, they really put some fear into the people."
Brian saw six cops dragging a hollering man out of the mission and putting him into a police car. "I think the brother probably just had mental conditions and was probably asleep and they startled him when they woke him up. But when they brought him out, they brought him out like he was a fucking animal. It really hurted me to death, and I made some comments real loud so they could hear me. I wanted them to know that people are watching them."
Brian says that cops "don't scare me no more." He's made a vow to fight for justice, not just for his brother who was killed by law enforcement but for others as well.
"People just need to be unified and organized and educated about what this situation is. It's us against them. That's the bottom line, that's what it's boiled down to--it's the rich against the poor, it's us against them, it's the people against the cops."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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